Until last year, I was part of an in-house SEO team for a huge ecommerce site, charged specifically with managing SEO data and insights.
This included owning and developing internal SEO reporting, and I made every mistake in the book as I got to grips with not just the impact and effectiveness of the reports, but everything down to the accuracy and reliability of the data.
Over time, I saw first-hand the benefits of continually improving the reporting process:
- Establishing consistent, accurate data earned trust within the business.
- The less labor-intensive I could make the process, the more time we could spend diving deeper into the data and uncovering root causes and emerging opportunities.
- Improving our understanding of factors within and beyond our sphere of influence allowed us to highlight the real impact of our activities.
- Proving the value of SEO earned buy-in that enabled us to execute our strategy with fewer obstacles and raised the profile of the team.
Every misstep and victory helped pinpoint what was important, what made the biggest differences, and most importantly – what to never do again.
What We Mean By ‘Impactful Reporting’
Depending on your organization, you will have different reporting requirements. Some search marketers report on performance monthly, others weekly.
Some teams have no regular reporting cadence at all.
You may have a heavily templated or high-level reporting process that feels a lot like going through the motions to tick a box, or it could be a highly involved and manual task that takes up a lot of your time.
Reporting is likely to be the most consistent opportunity you have to interact with the leaders in your department, and therefore represents your biggest opportunity to influence upwards in your organization.
Senior buy-in is one of the most important elements of successfully executing and evolving your SEO strategy. It can help to unlock budget, get approval for increased head-count, enforce cross-team processes, and get you a seat at the table for conversations about initiatives that could impact your site’s SEO.
With that in mind, you should make it a priority to ensure your reporting is optimized to make the most of this opportunity, and establish a reporting cadence if none currently exists.
Below are the five most important things you can work towards to improve your reporting. These are lessons learned from the mistakes I made so that you don’t have to!
1. Audit Your Data Sources
Reporting for SEO is endlessly complex, and in order to develop the fullest and most comprehensive understanding possible, we need to use data from multiple sources covering different perspectives.
Unfortunately, none of these fully agree with each other, but each one provides valuable insight into what’s happening and why.
There are three main data sources that I believe are necessary for SEO reporting:
- A third-party rank tracking tool to tell you what position you rank in for keywords you’re tracking.
- Google Search Console, which can tell you how often users are seeing your site in search results and how frequently they click on links to your pages.
- Your organization’s onsite analytics, which can tell you about users who came to your site from organic results and what they did on your site.
When configured correctly, these three data sources can give a fairly clear picture of cause and effect when it comes to SEO, picking up on changes in your presence in search engines, search volume, click-through rate, bounce rate, and conversion rate to isolate the factors causing changes in performance.
However, each one of them has its own limitations to be aware of and pitfalls to avoid.
Third-party Rank Tracking Tools
Understanding where you rank for your most important keywords is arguably the most important data for any SEO team.
It allows you to monitor changes, identify risks and opportunities, allocate time and resources and evaluate the direct impact of optimization projects.
Some rank tracking tools will enrich this data by allowing you to nominate competitors and collect their ranking position for your tracked terms as well, and monitoring rich results and reporting on who is present.
Enterprise tools may also give some visibility of rankings for untracked keywords.
On the whole, however, the data you get from rank tracking tools will only be as good as the keywords you track, so regularly auditing your terms and categorization is vital to ensuring you aren’t missing anything.
It’s also worth noting that objective ranking position is increasingly ‘not a thing’, as personalization and localization of results mean that your result could appear in different positions person-to-person and place-to-place.
If it is important to your business to understand how you fare in different cities, make sure you choose a tool with comprehensive local rank tracking.
Google Search Console
Some of the most valuable SEO data available is completely free and comes from Google’s own Search Console tool.
Here, you’ll find daily data on how people are interacting with your results on the Google search results pages, with impressions and keywords for each keyword as well as which page from your site the clicks landed on.
Using this data, you’ll be able to understand which search terms drive the most traffic to your website, as well as draw a dotted line between changes in position observed in your rank tracking data, and the number of clicks from searches for that search term in Google.
If you consistently rank in the top results for a term (for example, a branded search), you’ll also be able to use the impressions metric as an indicator of search interest.
One of the things to look out for in Search Console is the ‘Position’ metric, which ostensibly shows you where you rank.
With rich results, however, and multiple columns of results on desktop SERPs, the numbering of results becomes complicated, and the meaning of those numbers is difficult to interpret.
Google’s official guidance on the metric only underlines the difficulty and ambiguity of using ‘Position’ data in any meaningful way, and most SEOs track rank separately for this reason.
Search Console data can also vary from other data sources for several reasons. Data can be incomplete (Google cites privacy reasons), with very low volume searches being filtered out.
Also, while data is provided ‘daily’, it can take 2-3 days after a date for that data to be complete, and ‘days’ are defined by the time in California. For those of us well outside of the United States, this can make a big difference!
Tip: When you export data directly from Google Search Console, you can only group data by one dimension at a time: query, page, country, device, search appearance, or date. I recommend using the Google Sheets add-on ‘Search Analytics for Sheets’ as a workaround that allows you to use multiple dimensions in the same export.
Your organization’s onsite analytics suite (Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics, etc.) is likely to be the most complex and most customizable data source you use in SEO reporting.
This data is able to tell you everything users do once they land on your site, and you will be able to set up a segment to filter to only the users who arrived on your site from an organic search result.
This will enable you to build a reporting view that is aligned with the way the rest of your organization reports on performance.
It will also – crucially – help you to demonstrate the value of your work by showing how visits from search lead to conversions, however, that’s defined for your site.
Customization and complexity create their own challenges and it is really important to spend time ensuring you are happy with the setup of the reports you receive, and that you fully understand what they are telling you.
A cautionary tale might describe the plight of an entirely hypothetical young SEO who pulled at a thread only to discover that what was reported as ‘page-level SEO visits’ actually counted page views of any and all pages visited during a session that originated from organic search, rather than the actual landing page of that visit.
Make friends with your analytics team – you will need them.
2. Choose Your KPIs Carefully
So you’ve got all your data sources set up properly. What next?
With all this data at your disposal, it’s time to decide which metrics to highlight.
There are two main criteria that should drive which KPIs you use:
1. Metrics That Are Important To Your Organization
These metrics will almost certainly include ‘Organic Visits,’ as well as a metric that reflects the purpose of your site.
For ecommerce, this will be ‘Orders’ and/or ‘Revenue’ from organic visits, but for other types of sites, there will be equivalent conversion metrics.
While these metrics are important to understanding the contribution of organic traffic to your site’s overall performance, they are usually subject to influence by other factors.
For example, marketing campaigns can increase search traffic for branded terms. Changes in paid search strategy can impact which results people click on in the SERPs, and changes in weather conditions, public holidays and even news events can completely change user behavior.
All of this means that it can be difficult to separate the impact of SEO initiatives from environmental influences.
This is why these ‘topline’ metrics should be supplemented by KPIs that are more directly tied to your team’s targets.
2. Metrics That Reflect The Impact Of Your Work
One mistake I definitely made over the course of improving my team’s weekly reporting was over-reliance on KPIs that were subject to outside influence.
One of the vital roles SEO reporting can and should play is demonstrating the success of the optimization work being done.
The absolute best way to do this is to tie your KPIs directly to the objectives of your SEO strategy and to define the keywords within scope.
This may simply be all the keywords you’re tracking, or you might want to filter out branded terms or create a category that reflects the terms you’re actively optimizing for.
A few examples:
A. If your main objective is simply to rank in the top 10 positions for your target keywords, the best KPI would be “number of top 10 target keyword rankings” or “percentage of target keywords in the top 10.” Another way of looking at this could be to track the “share of the top 10 results” for your target keywords (also known as ‘share of voice’ or ‘market share.’) Some platforms allow this to be controlled in order to measure yourself against only your direct competitors, or you can include all domains that appear in the top 10
B. If your priorities include targeting specific result types (for example, Answer Boxes or Local Packs), your KPI might be the “percentage of available results [of that type] that you own” across your target keywords.
C. If you have committed to briefing a number of new pieces of content, you might want to use “content briefs delivered” as a KPI, as well as potentially breaking out traffic numbers and keyword performance metrics specific to the new pages.
Choosing your KPIs this way allows you to prove the success of your approach regardless of factors outside of your control impacting overall traffic.
Possibly more important, however, is that monitoring the metrics your team directly influences will also alert you quickly to any actions you can take to address any drops or highlight where an approach is not having the desired results so that you can change up your tactics.
3. Turn Data Into Insights
If we didn’t all already understand how complex SEO reporting can be, the number of words it’s taken to get to this point should have made that very clear!
When reporting internally, we’re typically communicating performance to a manager who oversees several teams – a Head of Digital Marketing, for example.
All the other teams in their remit will also be reporting to them separately, and this will often need to be condensed into one report for their department.
This means that although we’ve armed ourselves with a wealth of data, we need to distill this down to the most important takeaways to make their life as easy as possible.
This does not mean that the reporting process and commentary should be superficial; the best SEO reporting involves deep and thorough analysis, followed by a rigorous and ruthless edit.
This is not easy, and there are very few for whom both parts of that process come naturally. But practice and seeking out feedback can help to hone these skills.
A good starting point is to recognize that your chosen KPIs will quickly show what happened and for each significant change, you should ask and explain why.
To make this investigation process as quick and efficient as possible, ensure that you have set up your data in a way that enables you to narrow down your view in stages.
For example, creating page segments by page type and/or category will usually help you to very quickly narrow down traffic changes to a handful of individual URLs, and an organized hierarchy of keyword categories will lead you to the keywords with the biggest rank changes.
4. Turn Insights Into Actions
In my past life as a teacher, I was introduced to a concept that has stayed with me through my sharp-left career change and continues to be a valuable way of looking at reporting.
When teaching and testing children, we talked about two kinds of assessment:
- Summative assessment, which summarises and measures attainment.
- Formative assessment, which aims to define the next steps.
Reporting on SEO is similar in many ways. So far we’ve mostly focused on summative reporting: measuring performance and understanding why things are where they are.
In order for reporting to be truly valuable, however, we need to include ‘formative’ reporting and those insights that indicate the actions we need to take. Without this part, our reporting loses most of its value, especially to the SEO team itself.
Once the data has been distilled down to insights, there may be some clear actions to take, particularly if overall KPIs are down.
If a few high-priority keywords have dropped in rank, identifying opportunities to re-optimize for them should be a natural next step.
Other ‘formative’ insights not driven by fluctuations in overall performance could include keywords no longer in the top 10, keywords just outside the top 10, keywords a particular competitor has begun ranking for, etc.
It’s very likely that during the course of whatever investigation you’ve done, you’ve found a whole load of things that need to be done – but if not, these are great places to start looking.
These actions should definitely be discussed and delegated within your team, but I’ve also found it very valuable to include these in reporting commentary where conciseness allows.
For example: “The decline in traffic was caused by a drop in rankings for these keywords, and this is what we’re going to do about it,” is a great way to summarise the results of your investigation in a way that builds trust.
5. Polish Your Communication Skills
Let’s be honest: The qualities that tend to make someone a great SEO often don’t lend themselves to communicating in a way that instills confidence in senior managers.
On the whole, we relish details – the more information the better – and thrive in grey areas and ambiguity.
It’s a well-known stereotype that asking an SEO a question frequently prompts an answer that begins, “That depends…”
We love finding the outliers and exceptions to the rules, pulling on threads until we gain more knowledge and understanding. But we also end up with a big, messy pile of threads that nobody else wants to look at.
Senior managers are a different breed. On the whole, they want straightforward information, delivered quickly, clearly, and succinctly. They can often be frustrated by conversations with SEOs who are reluctant to overgeneralize or jump to conclusions (ask me how I know).
This means it’s important to put time and effort into understanding the communication styles and preferences of the individuals we report to.
Everyone is different, and you’ll need to get to know what works for your stakeholders, but as a starting point, here are some approaches that I have had success with:
- Summarize. Write a detailed report if that’s what comes naturally to you, but create a summary section (at the top, not the bottom!) with around 4-8 bullet points of key takeaways. This satisfies the need for quick answers and a clear viewpoint while providing them with more context and detail to refer to if needed.
- Use graphs. Rather than describing a trend, show it. As long as you choose the graphs you use carefully (a pie chart to show market share, a line graph for traffic/rank over time, etc.), they are a valuable way to communicate a lot of information very quickly and effectively.
- Communicate clearly and honestly. There will be times when you are asked a question that you weren’t anticipating, and you need to grapple with your level of certainty (never 100% in SEO, right?) and measure your reply accordingly. Here are some responses that have worked for me:
- If you pretty much know the answer but there are some factors you can’t account for: “The biggest driver is [x] but there are likely to be other influences, including…”
- If you have some idea but don’t want to bet on it: “My best guess without looking into it in more detail is […]. Do you want me to confirm that and get back to you?”
- If you really don’t know: “Great question: let me do some digging and I’ll get back to you. When do you need the answer?”
- Important: If you say you’ll get back to them, make sure you do it – leaving them hanging will do you no favors. So even if you can only get from “I don’t know” to “I’m leaning toward [x] – I’ve ruled out [y] and [z]”, follow up. Do not guess, bluff, or bullshit – being found out will erode trust much more than not knowing an answer off the top of your head.
A Few More Tips for Impactful SEO Reporting
Keep an archive of your reports.
This is particularly important if your organization reports year-over-year.
Being able to refer back to what was happening a year ago can make the difference between spending a lot of time fruitlessly looking for what has gone wrong, and pinpointing an unusual spike in the previous year’s data, accounting for the discrepancy, and moving on.
Become proficient in Excel.
A lot of the manual work involved in reporting can be eliminated by creating some templates and using a handful of formulae (my most-used are VLOOKUP, SUMIFS, COUNTIFS, IF(S), AND, OR, INDEX, MATCH).
Add a sprinkling of conditional formatting and graphing and you can create some impressive dashboards that look great, streamline and simplify processes, enable you to delegate to other team members, and free up time for reactive investigation.
(Hint: all my Excel reporting workbooks have a Dashboard tab with KPIs and graphs, at least one Data Sheet with archived data from previous weeks or months, and a dump tab for each data export, with the data formatted exactly as it comes.)
If you use an enterprise SEO platform, look into the Workspace/Dashboard function.
A short amount of time setting these up with the tables and graphs you look at every time you report can save a ton of time in the long run.
Get comfortable asking for feedback.
Make sure you’re receptive to the response you get. Remember that feedback does not necessarily mean your work was bad; it means it could be better optimized for its specific purpose.
Different scenarios require different approaches, and we need to learn the requirements in order to give people what they need. Requesting feedback doesn’t need to be uncomfortable or formal.
A quick “Is there anything else you’d like to hear about next time?” or “Are there any questions that haven’t been answered here?” works great.
You can also ask more generally during a reporting overhaul, “I’m looking at improving our reporting – is there anything from the current format that you want to keep or get rid of? Anything I should add?”
Use your data sources to validate each other.
Do your analytics visits look weird? How do they compare with GSC clicks?
The numbers will never completely match, but a difference in the trends could indicate a data issue rather than a performance issue.
Give credit where it’s due.
If you lead a team, it’s great to give credit for particularly valuable insights to the person who uncovered them.
This shouldn’t be done excessively, but it can be hard for junior team members to raise their profile, particularly in a large organization, and dropping their name occasionally will lay a foundation for them to build a reputation for good work.
If you have any questions, use any of this advice, or just want to talk nerdy about SEO reporting, I’d love to hear from you!
Featured image: Shutterstock/fizkes