How to tell if your SEO strategy is working: 3-year case study
You want to drive qualified traffic to your website. I know I do.
Perhaps you’ve tried a bit of SEO yourself. You’ve read our blog on how SEO has changed , and you understand that creating high-value content is the best way to increase your SEO. You’ve created your buyer persona and you are ready to start blogging. And after blogging for a while, you have started to wonder whether what you are doing is generating more traffic to your site.
Or perhaps instead, you hired an agency. They “SEO” your site and write some articles, and every month, they give you a bunch of pretty reports that show you how you rank on keywords, various search engines, ranking history, social sharing and so on. Maybe it looks something like this:
But these colorful reports don’t really tell you whether their SEO efforts are making a difference in your website traffic.
Fortunately, there is a way for you to tell whether your blogging efforts are paying off. The best news is that you can get this data from your own Google Analytics account. No fancy graphs, charts or colorful icons here. Just a simple report and data that tells you whether your SEO efforts are moving your organic traffic needle in the right direction.
The report you need to look at is called the Landing Page report. Here is how you find it: Log into Google Analytics and navigate down to the Behaviour > Site Content > Landing Page. The panel on the left-hand side looks like this:
The reason you need to look at the Landing Page report is that it shows you not only the number of sessions, but also which pages visitors landed on when they visited your site. The landing page report tells you which pages are generating the most SEO traffic.
In this article, I am going to show you how to read and interpret this report by sharing our own SEO journey, which started in 2016.
I decided to share our story for three reasons
- It’s the easiest way to show how to use the landing page report in Google Analytics
- It’s a realistic example of what it takes to run a successful SEO campaign today
- And yes, it’s a plug for us, because what we are able to do for ourselves as an agency, we know we can help others achieve.
For those who want the key takeaways, they are at the end of this article. BUT it’s not just the conclusions that are important; it’s also understanding the journey and what it takes to run a successful SEO campaign. So if you jump to the end, make sure to come back and learn how SEO is done right.
Grab a cup of coffee and get comfortable. This isn’t a quick read, and if you spend the time thinking about what is discussed, I am sure you will gain valuable insight into your own SEO campaign results. Let’s get started!
2016: Getting a baseline
It doesn’t matter whether your goal is to lose weight, make your car go faster or increase the number of visitors to your site—you need to have a starting point. So here was our baseline when we decided to begin our SEO campaign in 2016.
Technically, we started our blogging using Hubspot in the 4th quarter of 2016, and by the end of the year, we had created a total of three articles. Two of them made it to the top 10 landing pages for our site.
Landing Pages: 2016 (Jan-Dec)
- We knew from our Google Console that most of the visitors that landed on our home page were organic and branded searches, meaning that they already knew the name of our company, but didn’t know our exact web address.
- Back in 2016, our blog consisted of 3 articles, so most of the organic hits were from the content on our website and included search terms like ‘Web Design Irvine” or “Orange County Web Design.”
- Pay close attention to the fact that 90% of the traffic was landing on our home page. This is common for companies that do not have a strong SEO campaign or are just starting out.
2017: Getting Started
In 2017, we really didn’t commit to a content calendar or a consistent blog schedule of creating 6-7 high-value articles per month until May. It’s important to note that we didn't just write content at random. We carefully identified our target audience, considered what kind of challenges they were looking to solve and then created articles.
We fully committed to creating high-value content and invested a lot of time and effort into our SEO campaigns. By the end of the year, we had created 80 articles. (Yeah, it was a lot of work for myself and Amy, our inbound marketing consultant.) But our hard work paid off, as you can see from our 2017 report.
Landing Pages: 2017 (Jan-Dec)
- The number of visitors landing on our home page had declined from 90% to 55%, which is exactly what we were looking for because this means that more of our traffic originated from our blog posts.
- The number of sessions doubled from 2k to 4k visitors per year.
- Several of our blog pages that we had promoted from our email campaigns were showing up (e.g. “ignore the millennials” or “5 mistakes to avoid”).
- Some of the landing pages were also offers from our email campaigns (e.g. Free website assessment and contact).
2018: Organizing into Topic Clusters
Towards the end of 2017, we started to hear about the concept of topic clusters and the importance of organizing the blogs in a mindful manner.
So in 2018, we spent a good amount of time of optimizing our blogs in Hubspot and using their Topic Cluster/SEO tool to reorganize our growing library of content.
We came up with 16 topic clusters, wrote pillar pages and created internal links for all of our blog content.
During this time, we kept on creating content, and by the end of the year, we had 30 new articles.
One of the topic clusters we created was specifically for manufacturing companies. We knew that they often attended trade shows, and we also knew from our discussions with our current clients that they often did not see any meaningful results from trade shows. So we decided to create content specifically to help companies get more from their trade shows.
In particular, one of the articles we wrote in Feb 2018 was “five emails to send to lead after a trade show.” Here is how this specific blog performed in 2018.
This blog just missed being our top landing page for 2018.
Landing Pages: 2018 (Jan-Dec)
- The number of visitors landing on our home page was only 26% of all traffic. Our blogs were generating more traffic, and we continued to see an increase in the number of sessions compared to the previous year.
- Writing a blog based on current events can generate a spike in traffic. For example, the “will the Facebook algorithm” blog saw the most activity while the topic was relevant from Jan to Mar 2018. But since since April 2018, there has been zero traffic generated from this article.
- More “evergreen” articles such as the “five emails to send after a trade show” produce most consistent traffic. In fact, this blog article was our top landing page in August 2018.
2019: Continuous Improvement
Here is our complete 2019 landing page report.
Note that the number of visitors landing on our home page is now only 13% of all traffic and the “five emails after a trade show” blog has generated almost 82% of the total traffic our website received in 2018.
For 2020, we are continuing to write blogs, but at a much slower pace. Now that we have built up a good library of topics, we can spend more time analyzing which topics get the most traffic and create additional content around those specific topics. We are also looking at which specific articles are getting traffic and optimizing those specific blog articles for conversion.
I will be updating the 2020 stats later this year.
- Approach your SEO campaign with a strategy in mind. You can’t expect results if you write articles that you want to write. In other words, your content should be all about creating value for your customers/prospects. And knowing what topics to write takes time and planning.
- SEO is a marathon. It’s a multi-year effort that takes time, effort and dedication. If you want to get into shape, going to the gym every once in a while won’t do the trick. And writing content every now and then won’t help your SEO traffic, either. You need to commit, allocating the time, resources and attention to your SEO campaign in order to see results.
- Using Google Analytics, take a look at the Landing Page report over different time periods. If you are doing the right activities, creating compelling content, and answering your target audience’s questions, you should see your homepage gradually moving down as the top landing page. In other words, your blogs, not your home page, will be generating more and more of the traffic to your website.
- Look at your own data using Google Analytics. Those SEO reports that are generated by agencies or SEO crawlers such as SpyFu or SEM Rush, while insightful, cannot replace the hard data your own website is generating.
- How fast you can get results depends on a few factors:
- You vs. the competition - One of our topic clusters revolves around inbound marketing. I have no illusions that we will ever rank high for those articles. Hubspot and other bigger agencies own that space. But we have our opinion on inbound marketing, and our blogs serve to demonstrate our position and angle on that topic.
- Focus on the topic, not the keywords. If you take a look at our 2018 and 2019 results, you will see that one of the up and coming articles is “How to use lead status to manage your Hubspot contact list.” Now, if I were focused on keywords, I know that Hubspot is very competitive and that Hubspot owns that keyword. But our blog is getting traction. Why? It’s because we are focusing on a very specific challenge that companies encounter when they use Hubspot.
- Do the research to understand your target audience (buyer persona). As I mentioned, we have a very specific target in mind: manufacturing companies who attend trade shows and are not getting the ROI they are looking for. The more focused your target audience and the problem they are facing, the faster you will get results.
- SEO is still a numbers game. It takes experimentation to see which topics gain traction. The more you write about the topics your clients are interested in, the more chances you will have to start generating traffic. We have over 120 blog articles across 16 topic clusters, and we are not even close to calling our SEO campaign a success. We plan to continue to write dozens of high-quality articles every year.
How is your SEO campaign performing?
Hopefully this article shows how you can quickly determine whether you and your agency are moving the needle.
Written by David Lee
As the founder of i5 Web Design, my goal is to take the best practices and lessons I learned from working with Fortune 500 companies and bring them to the mid-size market and help our clients grow their business.