This post is a follow-up to my presentation at WordCamp Toronto 2012.
My goal for this presentation is to give you a high-level introduction to improving and measuring your sites performance on the web. Im by no means a guru when it comes to SEO or web analytics, so if you were expecting me to blow your mind, Im sorry to disappoint. What Im providing here is a collection of resources that should come in handy for whatever web projects youre tackling.
Building a Toolkit
Im a big fan of templates and systems. I think that consistent structure is more liberating than restricting. By defining routines and using the same tools regularly, youll spend less time on fussing over processes and more time on getting things done.
Im also a fan of ripping other people off. Not maliciously, mind you, but in a constructive way. As the saying goes, why re-invent the wheel? You should take whats already available, use it for your own purposes, and refine it over time to suit your needs.
To get things started, lets look at search engine optimization, and the tools available to help you pull rank and do better in search.
SEO: A Common Goal
I dont see SEO as a black art, and I dont believe in gaming the system.
In my opinion, the objectives of search engines and SEO practitioners are one and the same: we want relevant traffic brought to the right pieces of content.
For search engines, this means providing the best set of results possible. For site owners, this means providing the best content possible.
Building It Doesn’t Mean They’ll Come
Yes, content is at the core of what youre doing, but good content alone isnt enough. You need to provide the right signals to search engines so they know that your content is the best match for what their users are looking for.
In other words, content being king doesnt matter if nobody recognizes the kingdom.
You could also think of your site as a brick n mortar retail store. It doesnt matter how nice your interior is, or how great your products are. If nobody knows that your store exists, youll go out of business.
Providing The Right Signals
In the past, the signals were relatively simple keywords and title tags.
As time went on, those signals became more complex. We were thinking more about referrals, and who was linking to who. The term link juice started to get thrown around as a metaphor for the reputation that pages pass to one another through links.
Today, those signals are even more complex. Googles search algorithm considers thousands of factors when generating their search listings. Its their equivalent to KFCs recipe of eleven secret herbs and spices, except Google is changing their secret recipe on a regular basis.
Where do we start?
Needless to say, I dont think its worth spending time chasing a moving target like Googles search algorithm. Even if youre a brilliant engineer who loves a challenge, there are other, more valuable things that you could be doing with your life. Make use of the resources that are available to you online, follow the best practices put out by Google, and stop obsessing over SEO.
That said, here are some resources that should be in your toolkit:
Beginners Guide to SEO
First up is the Beginners Guide to SEO from SEOmoz.
Much of what I know about search optimization comes from the team at SEOmoz. Originally founded as an SEO services company in Seattle, theyve since pivoted to focus on their excellent suite of SEO tools.
Their Beginners Guide to SEO is a crash course in site optimization, covering everything you need to know to make your site rank well. You should also make a habit of checking out their blogs.
Google Webmaster Series on YouTube
The Webmasters Help series is a collection of videos from Googles Webmaster team. Of particular note is Matt Cutts, software engineer and head of Googles anti-spam team. Hes an ambassador of sorts for Google in the SEO community. In these videos, Cutts and his colleagues answers user questions about best practices and how Google handles certain issues.
SEO News & Community Discussion
News & Blogs
Conducting a Technical SEO Audit
This is an amazing guide to performing a technical SEO audit on any kind of website. Its also an example of why you should take time to hit community sites on a regular basis. In between the generic write great content and youll make BILLIONS! blog posts, youll find gems like this.
WordPress SEO Plugin from Yoast
Youll hear about this plugin a lot this weekend. Created by developer Joost de Valk, the WordPress SEO plugin keeps you from having to dive into your WordPress theme code. Some key features include:
- Meta Data: Set post titles, descriptions, canonical URLs, and search engine indexing rules. If youre not familiar with canonical URLs, they are very important for preventing duplicate content; in essence, they tell search engines where the definitive version of a page can be found. Useful for ecommerce sites, especially.
- Breadcrumbs: These on-site navigation elements are useful for users and search engines. For users, it gives them a visual cue to your sites content structure. For search engines, it helps with site links, the indented page listings that appear on search results.
- XML sitemaps: These files provide search engines with a comprehensive list of your sites entire page structure. It aides with page indexing, as search engines will know exactly what pages they need to crawl.
Scribe Plugin for WordPress
Xenu’s Link Sleuth & Screaming Frog
Xenu’s Link Sleuth and Screaming Frog are two applications that will crawl a website, checking for broken links and fetching simple meta information (page titles & descriptions). Very, very useful for performing site audits. SEOmoz ran a comparison of the two programs last year.
Webmaster Tools from Microsoft and Google
Microsoft and Google both provide a suite of tools for webmasters to monitor their websites performance in search results. If youre wondering whether or not Microsofts Bing search engine actually matters, the answer is yes Microsoft has been strategic with their partnerships to make Bing the default search engine for consumer devices, and their market share is growing.
This is also a good segue into the next half of my presentation web analytics.
You can think of web analytics as a giant iceberg. At the tip of the iceberg are the metrics that we are most familiar with visits, visitors, popular pages, and so on. These are the kinds of metrics that youll see presented by super-simple products like WordPress.com Stats.
Further down the iceberg are the rich chunks of data that actually give you some insight. Which 3rd party sites are referring visitors to you? What search keywords are driving the most purchases?
Below the surface, we get to the meaty stuff: Campaign tracking. A/B testing. Goals. This is where the true value of web analytics lies correlating user behaviour to business data. Well dive into goals a bit more in a minute.
Before that, though
Web Analytics Aren’t Perfect
There is one point that Id like to stress above all others: analytics arent perfect.
If you compare reports from one product to another, you will see discrepancy. This could be from a page tag not loading; it could be from cookie settings on the clients system; it could be an IP address getting filtered. The list goes on and on.
That said, use web analytics for trending. Dont sweat the small stuff. This advice isnt mine, actually it comes from Brian Clifton, the author of Advanced Web Metrics. If youre interested in learning a lot more about this subject, especially Google Analytics, I highly recommend picking up his book.
Two Kinds of Web Metrics
There are two kinds of web metrics: off-site metrics and on-site metrics.
Off-site metrics measure data external to your website. Examples include Alexa Web Rankings, which measures your sites relative popularity on the Internet, and Klout, which measures your influence on Twitter. Other popular vendors that provide a deeper dive into data include Nielsen, Compete, Hitwise, and ComScore.
Off-site metrics are useful for comparing your site against others in your industry, but getting access to high-quality information can be very pricy.
On-site metrics are what we usually think of when we talk about web analytics. On-site metrics measure what happens on your website. And I want to be really, really clear on this: you need on-site analytics. No excuses. Without on-site analytics of some kind, youre flying completely blind.
Source: Brian Clifton
Getting Started with Analytics
- Sign up with Google Analytics.
- Set up your accounts on Bing & Google Webmaster Tools. (Use the same Google account for Webmaster Tools & Analytics!)
Once you have Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools set up, you can import Webmaster Tools data into your Google Analytics reports. This will supplement your GA reports with more useful information.
The Importance of Goals
Metrics are useless if you dont know what youre measuring. By default, Google Analytics provides you with some generic performance reports, but their relevance to your organization or business is mediocre at best.
Luckily, Avinash Kaushik a brilliant leader in the space of data analytics has put together an amazing blog post diving into goals and KPIs.
In a nutshell, you need to determine your business objectives first what are you trying to achieve with your web presence? Once youve figured that out, you must define the goals, and the KPIs that indicate progress towards goals.
In Avinashs example, we see a business objective of lead generation; the website goal is to capture leads, and the KPI is subscriptions to an e-newsletter.
Avinash has a few pre-made custom reports available for Google Analytics to help you jump start your work in building plans like the one in this example.
Beyond Google Analytics
Google Analytics is great for many things, but it can also be very overwhelming.
For more straightforward or specialized reports, here are some other services worth looking at:
- UserTesting.com – A relatively inexpensive way to get usability feedback from users. If you want to see how a real person goes about completing a task on your website, UserTesting is a good start.
- Chart Beat - Real-time analytics for your site. Google is starting to do more with real-time data reporting, but its still in beta and not entirely reliable.
- Optimizely - Simplified A/B testing with an extensive list of satisfied customers. Some names you may have heard of: Starbucks, Lending Tree, TechCrunch, Shopify, CBS, and Disney.
- Crazy Egg - Intuitive, visual overlays that show how your site is actually being used by visitors.
Note that, unlike Google Analytics, these are premium services. However, when you get to the point where you need to look at site performance and usability in this much detail, the potential ROI is huge. It’s worth the price.
TL;DR – In Review
- Build a toolkit by making use of the resources available to you on the web.
- Use other peoples work as a starting point. Customize their stuff to fit your needs.
- Your site content is worth nothing if people dont know that it exists.
- Dont obsess over SEO. Not worth it. Learn the basics, play to Googles rules.
- Skim headlines/forums to learn from the successes (and mistakes) of others.
- Make your life easier by using plugins like WordPress SEO and Scribe.
- If you dont have on-site analytics set up, youre flying blind.
- On-site analytics are pointless if you dont have goals.
- Define your goals.
- Googles free products are great for many things, but sometimes its worth spending money on specialized premium tools.