Pinpointing Search Performance with Analytics

By Paul J. Bruemmer

A major benefit of search marketing is its accountability through campaign performance tracking. The returns on precise measurement can be significant when it comes to campaign performance. For instance, you can track competitor search performance to understand how to leverage their strengths and weaknesses to your own advantage.

But first, let's describe Search and Analytics to bring new readers up to speed. Then we'll dive into the advanced aspects of intuitive analytics reporting by interviewing a leading Web analytics consultant to answer the complex questions about why traffic changed, rather than simply looking at what changes occurred.

Paid and Natural Search Synergy

Internet search engines like Google, Yahoo!, MSN and Ask provide advertisers with similar opportunities on the Web. Natural search, as it implies, occurs naturally as determined by search engine rules and mathematical formulas. Paid search, on the other hand, is advertising. It is generally displayed as groups of sponsored listings at the top and side bars, labeled as such and paid for by advertisers.

Too often, marketers are overly focused on paid search results. After all, when you're spending money you want to see a measurable return. But even from a quick glance at the above graphic, it is clear that implementing both natural and paid search campaigns will empower you to more successfully gain traffic, brand your website to users and accomplish your interactive business goals. Paid search advertising is effective for increasing immediate traffic volume to a website, while natural search is essential for your long-term presence in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Analytics Tools

Search, both natural and paid, has become a significant driver of traffic for most websites. But as organizations and people invest more money and resources in search marketing, there is a corresponding demand to prove the investment is working. That's where measurement becomes essential.

As groups of advertisers engage with search engines, analytics tools can perform a quick analysis of core keywords in your industry - revealing those terms important to your search strategy, while also enabling you to actively research competitor paid-search advertising trends and statistics in that industry. These tools can track and trend natural search results as well, modeling and predicting the benefits.

When you measure search performance, your Web reporting tools typically provide you with quite a bit of information right out of the box. You'll be able to see how much traffic your site received from each search engine. You'll even be able to see what search terms visitors used to view the paid or natural listing that led to your site.

Tracking Natural and Paid Search

To dig deeper into how this process works, I went to Semphonic President and Chief Technical Officer Gary Angel to ask a few questions.

Where is a good place to get started measuring search performance?

With just a little bit of extra setup work (adding some distinct campaign code to your PPC URLs) you can learn the all-important split between natural and paid traffic. If you don't do that work, you'll see all your traffic as natural - and you'll be unable to effectively compare the two. So that's an important first step.

What are repeat click-throughs and what does it say about your visitors?

Repeat click-throughs to your site can appear in two very different ways. Most click-throughs will trigger a new visit, also called a session. But sometimes visitors will click through to your site, go back to the search engine, and then click again on the same or even a different search query. You might be surprised how often that happens. Used correctly, your Web analytics tools can help you understand how many repeat visitors came to your site.

Not all traffic is created equal, and search traffic is likely to vary in quality by channel (natural or paid), search engine and keyword.

How diverse is the performance between natural and paid search?

Natural and paid visitors on identical search terms often perform differently because paid programs invest resources to create a custom landing page for top performance. Whereas with natural search, the page is "selected" by the search engine. So the difference is in controlling the landing environment. The entry page makes a big difference in performance and can be a reason for using PPC even when your natural positioning is excellent. Sometimes, your natural landing page works better, and that can be embarrassing on the paid side, but it's easily fixed.

I'm one who believes most search marketers are overly infatuated with paid Search and continue to underestimate the power behind natural search. Based on user response, I've consistently seen SEO outperform PPC for the simple reason that unpaid natural results satisfy user intent on a personal, non-advertorial level. This user characteristic, within various website categories has built loyalty, trust and repeat customers without controlling the landing environment. Would you agree another reason for the variability in performance is the fact that visitors who click on natural vs. paid listings can be from distinct populations?

That's right, some search users simply don't use paid listings - and this audience segment may perform differently than others. Visitors might also use natural or PPC listings depending on where they are in the buying cycle - information gathering, active shopping, buying, etc. At times, it may appear that natural search visitors perform less effectively than paid visitors or vice-versa, whereas it's really a case of visitors simply being in different phases of the buying cycle.

When this happens, many of your campaign tracking tools will attribute sales only to the most recent campaign (and often lose visibility after 30 days). One of the benefits of using a Web analytics tool to segment your search traffic is the ability to get a better understanding of how your natural traffic performs over longer periods of time.

Do automated solutions help in understanding the varied metrics?

Yes, automated reporting can help you solve this dilemma. To get quality automated reporting, it isn't enough to simply dump lots of data into a spreadsheet and distribute it to everyone in the organization. Not only will most people be unable to find the data they need to understand how search impacted traffic, they probably will misinterpret a good chunk of the data they find.

When this happens, it might be beneficial to hire a Web analytics consultant to provide easy answers to the questions posed by colleagues in different departments. Such firms have developed specific approaches to help you answer the difficult questions without taxing your time schedule.

Gary, what's your approach?

Semphonic starts with the construction of an analytic model of your traffic, incorporating that model into your reporting. Figure 1.2 is a sample of a report based on this method. This report is created by dumping all of the relevant sourcing and site performance data from three monthly periods into Excel. An Excel VBA script then processes the data and, using the analytic model, automatically identifies the key factors driving traffic impacts.

Open in New Window

As search programs grow ever larger and more sophisticated, what is the advantage of accurately understanding and reporting the impact of search campaigns on overall business performance?

As you can see from the example above, key factors are clearly identified for all decision-makers with analytics modeling. The model even tells the decision-makers how much change each factor is responsible for. This type of reporting answers many questions before they are even asked. And unlike traditional reporting, it helps protect the decision-maker from misusing the data or misreading the impact of irrelevant or non-causal factors.

The Benefits of Automated Reporting

The returns on precise measurement and analysis can be significant with analytics modeling. You can better understand how to allocate your resources, how to improve performance of individual programs and how to explain the impact of your marketing programs to everyone in your organization. Automated reporting is one way to help you and your colleagues understand the impact of search marketing programs on your overall site performance. For more information about Semphonic and their automated reporting solutions, visit