Beginners guide to benchmarking your Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) performance
Nazma Noor, Digital Strategist at Cog, outlines four different ways to benchmark your SEO performance.
SEO, or search engine optimisation is all about making your website more likely to appear in the search engines. There are many ways to do this and a whole industry of people, tools and resources dedicated to this area of digital marketing.
It can be highly competitive and it’s an ever-changing landscape with search engines changing their priorities regularly and with it often taking months to see results. At times it can also feel a bit like it’s completely down to chance, you might find a page you’ve not put any particular effort into optimising may suddenly start to pick up search engine traffic.
If you’re investing time and effort into optimising your web pages for search engines, just how do you measure if your SEO efforts are working? Benchmarking helps by tracking and measuring key performance indicators over time to gauge the effectiveness of your efforts.
I recently helped one of Cog’s long-standing clients answer this very question as part of an SEO audit we ran for them (you can read all the details here: West One Music Group SEO Audit) and now I’ve put together a list of metrics and measurements that can help you get started too.
Here’s four different ways you can benchmark your SEO performance, allowing you to monitor going forwards, get insights into what’s working and be able to report back to stakeholders.
1. Number of “Organic Search” Users and Sessions
Let’s start with perhaps the most obvious measurement of SEO, the total number of visits to your website from the search engines. If you’re using Google Analytics 4 (GA4), this should appear in your Acquisition report under the label of “Organic Search*”.
As a starting point for measurement this is a good indicator that your website is appearing in the search engines and people are clicking through, but as it’s such a top level figure, there isn’t much you can learn from this other than monitoring monthly trends.
*Organic search refers to unpaid search engine results as opposed to paid search ads. When people enter a query into a search engine like Google, the main results they see are organic, ranked by algorithms based on relevance and authority.
Tip: To dig deeper into your SEO pages and terms, segment organic users and sessions by keyword in Google Analytics. Apply a secondary dimension like ’Keyword’ to your organic search reports to see metrics for individual search queries. This can reveal high-performing keywords to optimise and create content around.
2. Google Search Console Monthly Performance Reports
To dive a little deeper in your SEO performance Google has a platform dedicated to helping website owners monitor and manage their appearance in Google Search. It’s called Google Search Console and once it’s set up it provides lots of data which you could spend hours analysing. Realistically though, unless you’re working on a specific SEO project you probably don’t have the luxury of hours to spend doing this type of analysis.
Thankfully Google Search Console produces a snapshot report at the end of each month showing:
- Clicks - the number of clicks your site received from Google Search
- Impressions - the number of times your website appears in a Google Search result
- Pages with first impressions (estimated) - the number of new pages on your site that have started to appear in Google Search
This monthly performance report also contains “top 3” information on the following which can help you benchmark your SEO performance:
- Top growing pages - the pages on your site which have seen the highest increase in Google search visits compared to the previous month
- Top performing pages - the most popular pages overall for Google Search
- Top growing search queries - the search queries on your site which have seen the highest increase in Google search visits compared to the previous month
- Top performing search queries - the most popular search queries overall for Google Search
All this information is usually emailed to the Google account set up on Search Console and also appears as a “notification” when you log into Search Console.
3. The number of pages the search engines have indexed
Search engines use tiny programs (often referred to as crawlers) to regularly go through your website looking for new pages. They take notice of any pages which have been removed or updated and use their top secret formula (often referred to as their algorithm) to decide what to include in their search results.
When a page has been “crawled” and deemed worthy of being included in the search results, this page is referred to as “being indexed”.
Monitoring the number of pages indexed is a good way to measure that the search engines are taking notice of new pages and to ensure any older pages on your site are still included. If pages drop off it may indicate a technical issue preventing indexing.
Google Search Console has a tool which shows you how many of your website pages are indexed. Look for the “Indexing” section on the left and select “Pages” to view this report.
If you don’t have access to Google Search Console you can also get a rough idea of the number of pages indexed from Google by doing a manual search. Open a Private/Incognito web browser and type in the following into the Google search box:
Site:[your website address]
This very specific search will give you only search results that appear on your site and if you look closely you will also see a number at the top showing roughly how many results there are - which indicates how many pages are indexed.
This is a useful metric to monitor if you’re regularly adding new pages to your website and you should expect to see this figure increase over time. If you have past show/event pages which get deleted after an event has finished then you can expect to see this figure decrease as the search engines drop the old pages from their index.
4. Metrics from non-Google SEO monitoring tools
The benchmarking metrics I’ve mentioned so far have been focused on using Google’s measurement tools. There are other options out there and a wide range of paid-for SEO monitoring tools. Each tool has their own system for measuring SEO performance and many of them offer limited usage for free.
One of the tools offering limited free usage of their tools is called Moz and their main SEO measurement metric is called “Domain Authority”. Domaine Authority is a metric calculated by Moz that predicts how likely a website is to rank well in search engines. It's scored on a 100-pont scale, with higher scores indicating greater authority and ranking a capability.
The score itself should be considered in context, for a example a score of 41 for the Arts Marketing Association website is fair in the context of the niche audience that this website serves, compared to the BBC website which has a score of 95 fitting for the global scale and reach of their content. When using this metric it can be most useful to benchmark against other sites similar to yours to get an idea of your performance in comparison.
Here’s a link to Moz’s Free Domain Authority Checker.
You’ll see after you’ve completed the Domain Authority Check that Moz has a full suite of other metrics which may be useful when you’re actively working on SEO including URL rating, backlinks, rank tracking and more.
Other SEO tools to look into if you’re considering non-Google options and doing a more detailed SEO analysis are:
Semrush - unlike Moz which allows you to use some of their tools without signing up, for Semrush you’ll need to sign up for a free account first. They’ve published an article showing all that’s available with a free account: How to use a free Semrush account.
Ahrefs - this one doesn’t require an initial signup and you can access their free tools here: Ahrefs free SEO tools.
How regularly should you be reporting on SEO metrics?
Once you’ve chosen which benchmarking metrics are most suited to your needs and collected your initial metrics I’d recommend monitoring these on a monthly basis, even if you’re not actively working on SEO. Remember this consistent approach makes your benchmarking more reliable and the insight from it more useful.
When you are actively working on SEO improvements it can take months to start to see your changes having an impact, so monthly reporting works in this instance too.
You can find some further SEO guidance in the collection of resources I put together for the 2023 AMA Digital Day.
Nazma Noor, Digital Strategist, Cog Design