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By Joe Friedlein, is founder and MD of Browser Media, an SEO and digital marketing agency.

History teaches us that it’s possible to first decide on your narrative and then use data to back it up. The same is true of SEO reports. There is so much data available that it can sometimes be manipulated to support a predetermined angle, including certain information (or perhaps more crucially, omitting it) to paint a slightly misrepresentative picture.

Add to this, the lingering reputation of SEO as a “smoke and mirrors” service and we begin to see why reports in our industry have become a contentious topic. Often not read, and even less frequently used at a board level, we need to rethink the way we’re reporting on SEO.

It’s our job to make sure these reports are accurate and representative, but more importantly understood and used.

The problem with SEO reports  

As an industry, we need to distance ourselves from meaningless stats like how many keywords your site is ranking for, or collectively how many positions you’ve moved up for. A list of exhaustive search terms from tools such as SEMrush will include all sorts of irrelevant phrases that aren’t going to win you any business. Similarly, a figure which aggregates all of your keyword position changes into one number means very little in terms of traffic if you’re moving several keywords from page 8 to page 5, rather than shifting one or two valuable terms from page 2 to page 1.

It’s equating this data to real-world gains that means something to the board, and that’s how to ensure your SEO reports are actually read. Instead of rankings, focus on traffic, on how much of your traffic comes from organic search, and how much of this organic traffic converts. What products or services are performing well in search and where are people bouncing? It has to relate to overall business performance to make them care.

It also needs to be digestible. It’s important when compiling your report to consider whether this is being read by other SEOs or by people in different departments. Using jargon and complicated industry terminology without explanations instantly make your report less accessible. And when someone is time-poor and something is put in front of them that they aren’t comfortable or familiar with, it’s easy to push it aside.

This is also what makes context so crucial. Those outside marketing aren’t as bothered with the numbers themselves so much as what you plan to do about them. It comes down to the ‘so what’ factor – why was there a spike or dip this month, what caused it and what do you plan to do next as a result? This is where the real value of your report lies.

This is the first step to overcoming perhaps the biggest challenge of all – making sure your SEO report is actually used. All too often, reports are simply an end of the month autopilot exercise that gets forgotten about for another four weeks, but really they should be used to dictate what you do next. Not just from a marketing perspective but a business one too. Your report can reveal anything from what products or service pages people are engaging with, to what barriers to conversions there are, and this information is relevant to everything your business does.

Of course, to be able to offer this kind of insight, you need to be including the right stats in your report in the first place.

Looking beyond search positions

While the method of SEO is about pushing your site up the search engines, the motive for doing so is to increase your traffic, your engagement and your conversions, so remember to report on this too.

  •   Traffic – setting your parameters to year-on-year gives a more accurate representation of your site’s growth or decline, especially if you have a particularly seasonal business. Regardless, it’s still important to consider anything that might have happened this time last year to account for any peaks and troughs. This could be anything from market trends shifting, to a new product you released, or changes in your terms of service. Diving into segments such as organic traffic can be useful to see how this compares to other channels, as can examining traffic for key products and pages to see whether spikes and dips here might be manipulating overall trends. Remember to check you’ve filtered out spam and internal IP addresses too.
  •   Click-through rate – if you’ve gone to the trouble of pushing your pages up the listings, it seems crazy not to go the extra step and check they’re clicking through to your site. Identifying pages with a low click-through rate can give you an opportunity to tweak page titles and meta descriptions, or even experiment with Schema markup
  •   Session duration and pages per visit – engagement stats are where your SEO report starts to overlap with business-level decisions. The problem with some of this data however is that they can be misinterpreted. There’s a tendency to panic if average session duration dips for example, but it’s not a simple case of the longer the dwell time, the better. Instead, you need to weigh up how much content there is on the page, what stage of the funnel they’re at, and what you’re asking them to do. An increase in session duration might seem positive, but it could also be an indication that people aren’t converting. It’s all about context; a Contact Us page with a short session duration for example is no cause for concern – it’s likely this page has just a few lines of text and some contact details so you wouldn’t expect people to hang around for too long. If in doubt, use segments to view these stats from organic traffic compared to overall traffic to see if these users behave differently.
  •   Conversions – again, it’s worth looking at how your organic traffic performs in terms of conversions compared to overall traffic, whether you’re tracking sales, or other forms of conversions, such as newsletter sign ups, or contact form submissions.
  •   Bounce ratebounce rate is another stat that can cause unnecessary alarm. Using the Contact Us page as an example again, a high bounce rate might not be as negative as you think, as visitors may have been able to get the information they need and leave quickly. It does make sense to investigate any sudden changes in your bounce rate however, as this could be a sign of usability issues. Looking up average bounce rates for your own industry can act as a useful benchmark for those reading your report outside the SEO department.
  •   Positions – Google Search Console is ideal when it comes to reporting on SERPs. Because it uses aggregated positions over time, it provides a more useful view than a spot check ranking tool, and helps you draw conclusions between patterns and activity, which in turn can be used to shape future plans.

SEO reports are in danger of becoming a box ticking exercise, but there’s a real opportunity to use them as a tool to bridge the gap between departments as well as put theory into practice.

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