You don’t need to visit many companies to find a competent IT team who have invested in a ‘state of the art’ tracking package, but haven’t got a clue where to begin with the mountains of data it produces. Web analytics packages jostle for commercial advantage by delivering ever more statistics, and the results can be utterly overwhelming.

Analysis paralysis is a common condition among web marketers, but fortunately optimisers are afforded some immunity as they are only exposed to a fraction of the available data.

Essential advice before you begin tracking

As unconventional as it may sound the first step is to ‘read the instructions’. Most analytics packages are customizable and it’s worth spending time adjusting the settings to make sure that you’re collating the most useful data for your business, rather than simply relying on the default program.

Once you’ve established which activities you want to track, you may have to ‘tweak’ their definitions. You’ll need to answer a series of questions, such as whether or not you want a ‘page refresh’ recorded as a separate ‘page view’ and so on. It’s fairly straightforward and most tracking packages walk you step-by-step through the entire process.

When everything is set up correctly the next step is to compile some baseline statistics, so that you can later gauge the success of your SEO campaign. For a solid baseline aim to leave the analysis package running for at least a month before implementing any optimisation work.

So you’ve read the instructions, tailored your settings and have the statistics to illustrate your website’s current performance, but what does it all mean? Optimisers should focus on the following figures:

Show to track search volume

Knowing how many visitors find your site through ‘search’ is a key metric in measuring the success of your SEO campaign. But be warned that ‘search volume’ as a statistic can have a sting in its tail:

As an optimiser your goal is to build traffic to your website. But you don’t want ‘any old’ traffic; you want the right ‘type’ of traffic. Any increase in visitor numbers is great for amplifying brand noise, but you should really be chasing web traffic that converts. So while ‘search volume’ may act as a useful pointer to show that you are going in the right direction, be wary that increased traffic doesn’t always mean increased sales.

However, there’s another way in which using ‘search volume’ as a performance yardstick can backfire. When setting targets most business owners overlook the fact that their online marketplace will become increasingly more competitive. New websites will appear and existing websites will be better optimised. And if you don’t do a good SEO job on your site; it will simply disappear from the search results.

Of course you want more traffic, but you also need to make sure that existing traffic isn’t hijacked by your competitors. Even so, you’ll have a tough time convincing your colleagues and superiors that ‘standing still’ is actually ‘moving forward’.

How to identify traffic sources

Without data on where your web traffic is coming from; you might as well give-up on SEO altogether. ‘Traffic sources’ is a well of information for optimisers, detailing which keywords drive traffic to your site and which search engines deliver the traffic.

If you know which keywords are pulling-in visitors and which ones aren’t, you can sketch a rough outline of your website’s overall performance. But to complete the picture, you need to broaden your palette to include page rankings. Because each page focus on a different keyword, by balancing ranking data with keyword data you can really move your SEO campaign forward:

  • If a page is ranking well and delivering traffic: you can consider easing your foot off the optimisation gas
  • If a page is ranking well but not delivering traffic: you’ve either made a poor keyword choice, or there’s something being displayed in the results which searchers don’t like clicking on (probably a poorly written title tag or meta description)
  • If a page isn’t ranking for a keyword: you need to analyse the strength of its competition and decide whether it’s worth pushing it harder with additional links, or spending your resources elsewhere
  • If a page is ranking for useful keyword you haven’t purposefully targeted: you can strengthen the page with a little extra link-love

You’ll also find data on which search engines supply your traffic, which proves more ‘interesting’ than ‘useful’. With Google holding the market share, you can naturally expect most of your traffic to come from Google. And because our approach to SEO has a proven track-record of delivering solid results in MSN, you’re left looking at Yahoo!

Yahoo! is a very different search animal to Google, and to rank well you’ll need to shift focus to ‘on page’ optimisation. However, juggling keyword density and placement isn’t always possible, nor is it a good idea from a user perspective. If you are struggling with Yahoo! rankings try submitting your website to the Yahoo! Directory for a quick foot up.

The importance of tracking page visits

If you have taken the one keyword per page route, you should already have a clear idea of which are pages are most popular from analysing the ‘traffic sources’ data. Nevertheless ‘page visits’ provides a useful way of confirming or denying your suspicions.

‘Page visit’ figures are often coupled with additional tracking statistics which inject real SEO value:

Look for an analytics package which tracks where visitors click away from your page, and if they are leaving your page to leave your website; you had better work out why. Aim to make content that is rich enough and sticky enough for visitors to want to stay, and most importantly make sure that they respond positively to your calls to action.

Most tracking software also records ‘bounce rate’, which is a measure of how long visitors stay on each page. Encouraging traffic to stay a little longer might be easier than you think. For example: there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that something as simple as changing a product image or rewriting a product description can make visitors feel immediately more welcome. The trick is to experiment by changing one element on the page at a time and track the results.

And remember that Google is monitoring exactly this type of user behaviour, and will reward sites which leave surfers satisfied.