The first thing I need to do is define a Search Engine and the Search Engine Results Page, or SERP as we call it. Next I’m going to define SEO and SEM, then cover the similarities and differences because it’s extremely important that SEO and SEM are not used interchangeably. Once you have a good understanding of what they are I’m going to cover a bit on how to do it. But to get there we’ll have to start off by defining and describing some of the tools you’ll need to actually implement. Once you’re comfortable with all of that I’ll talk a bit about some SEO and SEM strategies. So, by the time you get to the end, you’ll have a good solid understanding of the SEO and SEM worlds.
Before we get started I want to note that this may feel a bit Google centric. While I recognize there are other web search engines, per NetMarketShare.com, as of August of 2017 Google has 82% of the global desktop search engine market share with Bing as runner up having only 7%. On mobile Google’s market share jumps to 97% with Yahoo! as a distant second at 1%. So if you are going to learn about one thing in SEO and SEM, it’s going to be Google. If you choose to continue your education and content strategy in to personas and proper choice of search engine for your audience, you’ll be able to better target better. But absent that, it’s a good choice to start with Google.
I also want to note that, according to SearchEngineLand.com, a recent study by Borrell Associates estimated that companies spent $65 billion on SEO in 2016. What’s more, the company is predicting that the SEO industry will continue to grow to about $72 billion by 2018 and $79 billion by 2020. That’s not counting the SEM spend which is estimated to be another $32 billion in 2016, projected to balloon to $45 billion by 2019. These numbers still do not count the surrounding services such as SEM or SEO management organizations, agencies to design and write copy, technologists, editors, approvers, legal teams, etc. Suffice to say, this is a HUGE industry.
I tell you this to set your expectation – there is no simple or quick solution. Neither SEO or SEM is easy work. And it’s actively and quickly getting more difficult. On one side you have much more competition, and the competition is continuing to get smarter. On the other side search engines are not only getting smarter and better. So, even if you do manage to figure it out and become one of the top search results, search algorithms change very quickly. According to Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, via Wikipedia, in 2010 (seven years ago), Google made over 500 algorithm changes – which is almost 1.5 changes per day. SEO is a moving target that’s accelerating through advances in algorithms and machine learning. As such, both SEO and SEM need to be monitored and updated frequently.
What you’ll learn here, or in any blog, will help you get started, but your best bet is to either work with or become an expert, which takes time. There are lots of tools processes to learn, many of which I will cover here. A Google search for the term “SEO” returns 480 million results. There are about 12 on the first page, and the majority of the clicks, as we’ll discuss later, are in the top 3-5 links. Google’s job is to sort through those 480 million results to return the best ones to its users.
What this means for you is that the best strategy you can have is to make good content. The tools and strategies I’ll share with you now are really in place to help you do just that.
SEO vs. SEM: What’s the Difference?
In both SEO and SEM the “SE” stands for Search Engine. To be clear, the search engines I’m referring to are web search engines, not on-site search engines. On-site search engine technology and strategies are only for your own websites. On-site search engines and results only index and find your own content, having nothing to do with competitors or other websites. In contrast, web search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo!, index the entire Internet. A search on a web search engine indexes and return thousands of websites and webpages.
Given that the “SE” in both SEO and SEM relates to Search Engines, or more specifically search engine results pages (SERPs), it’s understandable that many people think they’re the same. But they’re not. To get you started on understanding the difference between SEO and SEM here’s a simple mnemonic device that I first heard from Buddy Scalera, my fellow podcaster. The “O” in SEO stands for “on your site”, and the “M” in SEM stands for “money”. Actually, the “O” stands for optimization and the “M” stands for marketing, but as a mnemonic device, “on your site” and “money” will get the job done.
Now a quick disclaimer for the SEO and SEM professionals reading this – SEO can technically be part of SEM. There, I said it. Now I’m going to move on to give a basic understanding before I confuse you with nuance.
No matter how you refer to it SEO, Search Engine Optimization, or SE-“on your site”, this is the practice of adjusting and re-writing your content and site architecture with the ultimate goal of having a higher ranking on web search engine results pages. Note that the definition only references “adjusting and re-writing of your content and site architecture”. To be clear, these are unpaid results, as in you are not paying for the top position on the SERP. This is often referred to as “natural”, “organic”, or “earned” results. The idea is that the higher you appear on the search results page the more customers will find and visit your website.
SEM, or Search Engine Marketing, per Wikipedia, is promoting a website by increasing visibility on SERPs through paid advertising. That last bit, “though paid advertising” is the major difference between SEO and SEM. This is done by creating advertisements that appear on the SERP when the user types in certain keywords. To get the banner to appear you on those keywords against other marketers based on how much you are willing to by Google every time someone types the keyword and then clicks on your ad. The more you are willing to pay-per-click, or PPC as it’s called, the more your ad appears in search results. Per Google’s own economic impact model, Google conservatively estimates that for every $1 a business spends on AdWords, the business receives $8 in profit. I think that’s an average which means, by definition, half the people are below that. So make sure you do it right.
If you are going to get into SEO or SEM you are going to need to a) know what is working and what is not, and b) leverage research to make your content better. Per Wikipedia, Web analytics is the collection, measurement, reporting, and analysis of web data to understand and optimize web usage. Web analytics is a tool for business and market research, used to assess and improve the effectiveness of a website or property (as we’ll refer to it later).
Make no mistake, effectiveness doesn’t mean within digital isolation, or even just the digital channels like web, social, or online advertising. For instance, web analytics can help companies measure the results of traditional print or broadcast advertising campaigns by estimating how traffic to a website changes after the launch of a new campaign. Additionally, web analytics can gauge page views and marketing funnels to help understand and optimize traffic patterns and popularity of your content and features.
So if web analytics is all about tracking, measuring, reporting and analyzing web data, Google Analytics is the tool that helps you do this.
Google Analytics is a service owned by, surprise, Google. Google Analytics (GA) is a freemium service for tracking and reporting on website traffic. There are other services like this I could discuss (Adobe, Webtrends, etc.) but Google Analytics is the most widely used. There is also a free and paid version of Google Analytics, but for the sake of this we’re only going to cover the free version since that’s where you’re going to start.
Google Analytics Accounts and Properties
Okay, I’m going to cover some of this quickly because there’s lots of other documentation on getting started, and Google makes it really easy. If you need more specifics for this section, I recommend you Google it.
The next thing you’ll want to set up is your properties. Again, at the top level you have your Google account, and within in that you can create and/or belong to several Google Analytics accounts. (For the sake of this we can assume you only need one analytics account). After that you have what’s called properties. Properties are the thing you want to track. It may be a mobile app, or most likely a web site. So you have Google Account, Google Analytics Account, then Properties. For the sake of this we can assume your property is your website. You may have several properties (or websites) you want to track, but for simplicity we’ll assume one.
Views, Filters, and Events
Within each property there can be several views. Per Google, a view is a subset of an Analytics account property that can have its own unique configuration settings. You can create multiple views for a single property and configure each view to show a different subset of data for the property. So the name “views” makes sense if you think of them as a view into your property, or website, data.
To customize the view to show only the data you want Google has given us filters. Filters are configurations within the view that allow us to add, remove, or modify data before it is displayed to in the reports. For example, you can use a filter to exclude traffic from certain IP addresses.
Before I go any further there is a VERY important feature of views and filters you’ll need to understand. Filters are destructive. Filtering your incoming data PERMANANTLY alters those data in that view. Therefore, you should ALWAYS maintain an unfiltered view of your data so you always have access to your full data set. The first thing you need to do is create a master view with no filters that you do not touch. After that, you can create additional views to add filters to. In my case I have one master view with no filtering, one that filters out traffic from our company’s internal IP address, and a third one that I can experiment with. I highly recommend setting yourself up like this as well.
The next thing you’ll need to know about is Events. Much like the Webster’s definition of an event, in Google Analytics this has to do with some kind of interaction on the website or mobile app that is tracked. It could be a download, a link click, playing a video, or stopping a video from playing. Certain information is tracked automatically when you use Google Analtyics, however custom events can take tracking, and thus reporting and analysis, much further. For the sake of this section what’s important is understanding that events exist, and having a good idea what they are.
Pageviews, Sessions, and Users
Once we get to the reports you will need to have at least a basic understanding of what you are looking at. Two terms that you will see come up quite often are Pageviews and Sessions.
Pageviews are pretty simple – it is an instance of a page being viewed. More technically, a pageview is an instance of a page being loaded or reloaded in a web browser window. This is important because in the world of browser tabs the page may not actually be “viewed” by anyone, just “loaded”. Even if it is viewed, you need to consider the scroll bar for certain content before you can claim it has actually been “viewed”. In general, be careful with the word “viewed” and stick to the word “pageview” because it has a specific and definable meaning. That, and you’ll be the hit of the party when you come out with awesome words.
Sessions are the full period of time a user is active on your website or app. So if I click around on your site for an hour, that’s one session, giving each page I visit one pageview. If I return to a page several times, each time I load the page adds another pageview but remains only one session. Per Google, by default, if a user is inactive for more than thirty minutes, any future activity is considered a new session. If the user returns within those thirty minutes, any activity is part of the original session.
The next thing you’ll need to know about are Users. Users are just as they sound, people who are using your property. Google attempts to isolate activity associated with the same “user” so you can track users over time, or sessions. So one user may have many sessions. One session may have many pageviews.
Within pageviews there is a subset called unique pageviews. A unique pageview is an aggregation of pageviews generated by the same user during the same session. To understand the difference, you have to think about a child playing with an iPad. If the toddler sits there and keeps reloading your web page fifty times, each load is a pageview, so you’ll have fifty pageviews in your report. But, this will only be counted as a single unique page view. If, however, the toddler leaves the iPad along for more than thirty minute, then returns to play with the iPad again these interactions would then be counted as a second unique pageview because it is now considered a new session.
Conversions, Goals, and Funnels
Now that you have a good idea what Google Analytics is tracking and how it buckets those data, it’s time to apply that to understanding the success or your property. Conversions and Goals are one way to do that.
A conversion is the completion of some activity that is important to the success of your business, and thus the success of your digital property. In digital marketing, a conversion could be someone who views a digital advertisement and then goes on to become a paying customer, register, sign-up for your newsletter, or some other act of value for your organization. The valued action itself is what’s referred to as a goal.
Within analytics, a goal represents a defined activity you wish your users to complete. The activity could be completing a purchase, adding an item to your cart, watching a video in whole or in part, or just staying on the site or page for a particular amount of time. Conversions and goals are linked in that when a goal is completed, this is called a conversion. Defining goals is fundamental to understanding the success of your property. Without goals there are no conversions, and without conversions there are no conversion rates.
Conversion rate is probably one of the most important stats you’ll come across in analytics. By definition it will help you understand the success and failure of your SEO, SEM, and property in general. The conversion rate is defined as the number of times a goal is achieved (or conversion) divided by the number of total visitors. In the case of e-commerce this may be a ratio of total number of people to buy a product over the total number of people who looked at it. To content creators this could be the number of newsletter subscribers to the number of website visitors.
Conversion rates are important because they are a specific measurement you can measure, baseline, and test against. If you want to know which search term is more effectively driving conversions, the conversion rate is how you compare. If you’d like to see which layout increases SEO, or natural traffic, conversion rate is your measurement. Having an offline campaign to educate your market, changing the button on your registration page from “submit” to try “register now” or “join us”, or any number of things can influence conversion rates.
Conversions can actually get quite specific and complex. A conversion, for instance, may want to limit the journey the user took before completing the goal. So, in one case, we would want to know if the user clicked on a specific banner ad, landed on a specific page on your web site, added a product to cart, registered with your site, and successfully completed checkout. Funnels are how we define these journeys.
Metaphorically speaking marketing and sales funnels are nothing new. The difference within analytics is that funnels become quite measurable, tangible, and can be quite specific. For those not familiar, the idea of a funnel is used to describe the way users are guided to a goal. With each step closer to the goal there are typically fewer and fewer people who take the step, thus the funnel shape as users move down the funnel toward the goal.
Having well-defined goals and conversions means you can have a well-defined funnel. Having a well-defined funnel means that you can optimize the user journey for those steps where users “fall out”, or don’t make the jump to the next step, of the funnel. By assigning virtual values or weights to each step you can being to focus your energy on areas that will have the most impact.
Dashboards, Reports, and Reporting
Now that you understand the basics of analytics, we can begin making our way back toward SEO and SEM. Analytics is tightly linked to both SEO and SEM for many reasons. The most powerful of those linkages is that successful SEO and SEM is a mix of both art and science. There is no 100% right answer. You’ll need to try things, test things, tweak things, and see the results. As soon as you get it right, the world will change around you. Google will update their algorithms, new players will enter the market, older players will change their strategies, you’ll evolve your content and properties. It’s an ongoing journey, with analytics as your guide.
Once you understand analytics and have your accounts, views, and filters all set its time to dive into the Reports. Reports are one of the primary tools used to optimize your campaigns but, like everything else, it’s not just that simple. As I discuss them, there are three types or reports. The first is the default reports that Google Analytics supplies. The second and third are types of customizations called dashboards and custom reports.
By default, Google Analytics supplies lots of reports to analyze your data in many, many ways. In fact, it’s almost overwhelming and entirely too much content for me to cover here, especially being focused on SEO and SEM. It will have to suffice to give you a very quick overview of each one and call out my favorites. From there it will be up to you to dive in and experiment with the ones that will serve you best:
- Real-Time reports can tell you the number of, location of, source, content, and events that are happening on your website right now. I find these helpful during active times, like when I have a conference or webinar and want to monitor the website or traffic sources in real time.
- Audience reports provide insight into many characteristics of your users. This is one of the core reports I tend to look at. Here you will find a lot of information on sessions, users, pageviews, and much more. If you decided to go deeper these reports allow for lifetime-value reporting, demographics, cohort analysis, geo, technical, behavioral, mobile, and much more. Audience reports are a great place to start.
- Acquisition reports are key to running your SEO and SEM campaigns. Where Audience reports will tell you the who’s and the what’s, Acquisition helps get to the why’s and what’s working or not. This will link to your AdWords account ad Search Console account that I’ll cover later.
- Behavior reports are also some of my favorite. Within behavior you’ll find the Behavior Flow report that will graphically outline the on-site journeys of your users. Combined with goals and conversions, this is very powerful stuff. Behavior also contains content, events, speed, and on-site search reports.
- The Conversions report basically sums up much of what I’ve been talking about. Here is where you’ll find consolidated reporting on your goals and funnels. This section also includes e-commerce, and a few other reports. Personally I like the goals report, and more specifically I like the funnel visualization and goal flow reports within.
Dashboards and custom reports are reports configured specifically to your needs and the needs of your organization. The small, but important, difference is that dashboards are intended to be a single page summary or your metrics, while custom reports go much deeper. If this were a car, your dashboard would tell you the speed, oil temp, and have a check engine light, while a custom report will tell you why the check engine light is on and show you the indicators that are causing your oil to overheat.
When you first open your Google Analytics account, these sections will be empty. It’s up to you to fill them, and there are a few ways:
- Import from Gallery: Google supplies a gallery of dashboard and custom reports for you to browse and use. Reports in the gallery are categorized, sorted, and even have ratings to help you get started. Once you have them in your own view you can modify them.
- Download a Custom Report: Many organizations offer their own dashboard and report templates for you to import into your own analytics view, and many of them are quite good. I’ve been very happy with some of the SEO, content marketing, and technical report templates I’ve found on line with just a little looking. Again, once you have them in your own view you can modify them.
- Build the Report: As you get better at navigating Google Analytics and your needs become more specific you’ll find that just building your own report, specific to your own needs is the way to go. I find this option specifically helpful for the weekly, monthly, and quarterly reporting I do for my team. Often times I’ll get a request for something specific, in which case I can just add it to the report.
Timing Your Reports
A quick note on reports to save you a lot of over-work. While analytics can come in real-time, most likely you will not be making decisions and executing in real-time. Of course there are cases where this is important, but try not to overdo it. I find weekly reports are great for status reports and special events, with 30-day rolling analytics to help track trends. Monthly and quarterly seem to be much more effective in trending out the effects of larger changes.
If you think about it, your website may stay the same, but your users are constantly changing. Traffic today may be because of an event, or lack thereof that’s taking place. Offline strongly effects online. Maybe 3rd quarter looks very different than 1st quarter. All these things, and more, begin to show the art and science that is in the analytics and reporting.
A special case may be considered for SEM, where bids and keywords may be automatically updated many times per day to maximize your strategy. But more on the later.
This the end of Part 1, be on the lookout for Part 2!