It wasn’t too long ago that search engine optimization was the online publishing world’s one true king.
Shortly after I graduated college in 2011—the very height of the Bleacher Report-erization of web media—I briefly held a part-time, freelance job at SB Nation’s fledgling regional news desk. There, I helped drum up traffic by writing stories that told people what time and TV channel a hockey game would be on, as well as by finding a way to put Tom Brady’s name in headlines and URLs whenever possible.
But by the time I landed a real reporting job at Business Insider two years later, social media had replaced search as the driving force in online traffic, and I was taught to spend much more time focusing on whether readers would share my headline with their friends than on whether my headline would turn up in their search results.
Nonetheless, search is far from dead, and recent changes to Google Search Analytics have made it much easier for content marketers to understand the search traffic that leads to their properties. I spoke with John Ward, COO of digital marketing firm iQuanti, to learn a little bit more about the updates and how marketers can benefit from them.
Here are three things you should know:
1. You can now analyze page performance and search queries in the same place.
Back in May, Google released a tool called Search Analytics to allow webmasters to get more granular insights into how people used search to arrive at their websites. The feature is part of Google Search Console, a suite of options that was, until recently, known as Google Webmaster Tools.
Google’s previous search reporting feature, called Search Queries, allowed people to see which search keywords were most likely to lead people to their site and which pages ranked highest in users’ results. However, Google did not offer a way for marketers to combine these two forms of analysis in a manner that would allow them to see which search terms were leading to which pages. Instead, companies needed to spend time and money creating mathematical models to approximate their results.
Search Analytics fixes this problem. Now, Ward said, a financial services brand could use the Google data reports to determine how well each one of their pages would rank for terms like “best credit card” or “credit card rate.”
Long story short, marketers now have a better way of learning which content pieces are accomplishing the SEO goals they had set out for them.
“Linking keyword query to page performance and providing that reporting capability across clicks, impressions, click-through rate and average position was a big improvement,” Ward said. “Those data points had been missing for years.”
2. You can also get more detailed breakdowns of where search clicks are coming from.
Another big advantage of Search Analytics is that it allows marketers to filter their results by device and country of origin, as well as by media format (e.g., text vs. image).
This lets marketers know, for instance, when the mobile experience they’ve offered on a given page is not performing as well in Google’s search algorithm as its desktop counterpart, allowing them to try to correct for the discrepancy. It also lets publishers without mobile friendly sites know just how badly they are being hurt as a result of Google’s recent decision to give increased weight to mobile in its search rankings (also known as “mobilegeddon”).
Ward says that by giving content marketers more filters to distill their results into detailed insights, the company has made a big step forward.
“Putting all of these things in one filter analysis is really a huge advancement,” Ward said. “It’s not for huge novices—you do need to have a reasonably detailed understanding of SEO or a technical background to do this correctly—but it is a big improvement.”
3. Third-party search optimization programs are about to get a lot smarter.
In early August, Google released an API that allows third-party vendors to pull its newly expansive Search Analytics data sets and integrate them into their software programs.
This means that companies like iQuanti and Moz, which attempt to reverse-engineer Google’s search algorithm in order to help their customers improve their results, will have more information to work with. As a result, Ward says companies like his will be able to be smarter and more accurate in predicting which strategies will most benefit their clients.
For instance, the data will help iQuanti get a better sense of whether a client will be able to improve its search rankings more quickly by creating new content than it would by devoting the same resources to link-building.
“Knowing which of those things are going to have the biggest bang for your buck is hugely critical because you can waste a lot of time and money chasing things that aren’t going to matter,” Ward explained. “This helps us to be able to be more accurate at predicting which of those activities are really going to drive business results.”
While the three bullet points outlined above are certainly steps in the right direction, Ward says Google’s analytics offerings could still be better. As of now, the Search Analytics dashboard only gives people data for the past 90 days, and unless they regularly pull, warehouse, and analyze their data, made easier by contracting with an outside company, they won’t have a way of keeping tabs on their historical data.
This presents an especially big problem for companies with seasonal business patterns, like those in the e-commerce sector, as it’s harder for them to get a feel for the cyclical rhythms of their business.
Alas, nothing’s perfect.
“They’re not being completely, completely transparent because Google makes money on lots of things, one of the big things being paid search,” Ward said. “While they want you to do well, they aren’t going to tell you everything.”