Updated: June 1, 2023.
Tips on how to check if SEO is working and how NOT to check if it’s working.
There are countless tutorials online that claim to teach you how to determine if your SEO is working.
However, many of them focus on vanity metrics that may not provide you with a true understanding of your SEO performance.
In this guide, I aim to share my practical, hands-on SEO experience and offer genuine, no-nonsense insights into how to accurately assess your SEO efforts and what pitfalls to avoid.
Are you ready? Let’s dive in!
SEO disclaimer of an SEO explorer
Please note that while I might use sarcasm in certain parts of this guide, it doesn’t imply that I believe I have all the answers or that everyone else is incorrect. As an SEO explorer, I’m merely sharing my insights and perspectives. I fully acknowledge that I may make mistakes or arrive at incorrect conclusions, and despite being immersed in the SEO world since 2012, I recognize that there’s still much for me to learn.
JetOctopus is a great SEO tool!
Before we get started, I want you to know that JetOctopus is one of the best if not the best SEO crawling tool.
If you are working with a huge site (like e-commerce), then JetOctopus – the fastest crawler on the market – will be absolutely essential.
JetOctopus is also invaluable when it comes to detecting and fixing keyword cannibalization & content duplication at scale.
TL;DR: Is your SEO working?
In the early days of my SEO career, when I was just a junior SEO with little recognition in the industry, I attended a significant SEO workshop hosted by one of the largest SEO agencies in Poland.
During the presentation, one of the agency’s presidents posed a question: “How do we measure and present the success of our SEO to clients?”
Without giving it much thought, I responded, “Why don’t we connect it to the revenue our clients are generating?”
There was a prolonged silence, after which one of the presidents replied, “No, that would be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Feeling embarrassed, I refrained from publicly discussing SEO for the next seven years, until I established my own SEOSLY website dedicated to SEO in 2020.
But isn’t driving revenue the primary purpose of SEO? After spending a decade in the SEO industry, I am confident in saying that it is.
How NOT to check if SEO is working
I feel I should begin by discussing vanity metrics, which are often employed by less experienced SEOs or disingenuous SEO agencies to deceive themselves and their clients into believing that their SEO efforts are effective when, in reality, they are not.
I must confess that during my time working in the SEO agency sector, I also tracked and measured these metrics for quite some time.
This was particularly true during the early stages of my SEO agency career, around 7-8 years ago.
Month after month, I found myself mechanically generating reports from rank-tracking tools and calculating an arbitrary SEO score without performing any real SEO analysis.
Now, I’d like to share real-life examples of the most common SEO metrics and indicators that can easily transform into vanity metrics if not viewed from the right perspective.
I changed the exact details to maintain the privacy of my past SEO projects or clients.
Search engine rankings can be misleading
Here are some instances where your website’s keyword ranking positions can become vanity metrics if they are measured incorrectly or considered in isolation from other relevant indicators:
- The website ranks for 50 keywords on position 1 and for 100 keywords on positions 2-5.
The SEO company reports on this success to the client. However, no one notices that all of these keywords are branded keywords that they would be ranking for regardless of whether SEO is or is not done.
- A website ranks in top positions, such as 1 and 2, for highly competitive keywords like “personal injury lawyer Chicago” or “Chicago personal injury lawyer” in Google search results.
The SEO agency proudly shares this with the client. However, the website receives no traffic from these specific keywords because the entire search engine results page is filled with ads and local map packs.
- The website ranks for 2000 keywords and the SEO agency proudly reports this to the client.
However, it goes unnoticed that 95% of those organic keywords are from a single article about a totally unrelated topic.
For instance, I once came across a lawyer website that ranked well for “April Fool’s pranks” but not for any lawyer-related terms. This is when ranking for the right keywords becomes crucial.
As you can see, higher rankings may not always lead to increased traffic or could drive visitors interested in irrelevant topics, such as April Fool’s pranks, rather than hiring a lawyer… 🤣
Organic search traffic quality
Unless your goal is to earn money from ads, organic traffic can also become a vanity metric.
Consider the example of a lawyer website ranking for “April Fool’s pranks”.
This website was receiving a decent amount of traffic from those keywords (around 300 daily visits), and the chart in Google Search Console looked OK.
However, this traffic didn’t result in any phone calls or leads.
The ultimate goal is for organic traffic to attract targeted visitors who will convert into actual customers for your SEO client, isn’t it?
Merely receiving organic traffic doesn’t necessarily indicate successful SEO.
Indexed pages are not necessarily proof of your SEO success
Some companies report on the number of indexed pages. While getting indexed is crucial for SEO success, it doesn’t guarantee a successful SEO campaign or strategy on its own.
Remember that search engines don’t owe you anything:
- Getting crawled doesn’t guarantee getting indexed
- Getting indexed doesn’t guarantee ranking
- Ranking doesn’t guarantee search traffic
- Search traffic doesn’t guarantee leads
The only situation where indexation could be considered an SEO success worth reporting is if you were specifically hired to address significant indexation issues for a large e-commerce website, for example.
Conversions and goal completions may not always be a sign that SEO is working
I recall a case where I was hired to audit a site and analyze its SEO performance.
The previous SEO company reported high conversion rates and goal completions in Google Analytics. At first glance, the report looked impressive.
However, the client was unsatisfied since the website wasn’t generating any business.
It turned out that nearly everything was classified as a conversion or goal completion within the website’s Google Analytics account.
In reality, 99% of the tracked actions had no bearing on the actual success of the business.
The only meaningful metric being tracked was contact form submissions.
However, here’s the catch: a significant number of spammy submissions were slipping through, making the 100 daily form submission goal completions far less impressive, as 99% of them were spam… 😂
No matter if you do link building or not, pretty much every website gets new backlinks as time goes by.
Thinking that a growing number of backlinks shows SEO success is a big SEO mistake.
Just because a site had 3,500 backlinks last month and now has 4,050 backlinks doesn’t mean its SEO strategy is working well.
I saw an SEO agency that would buy cheap, low-quality links from Fiverr and brag every month about their success in increasing the total number of backlinks shown on Semrush and Ahrefs.
Even though I’m not an expert in link building, I could tell these links weren’t helping their SEO at all. They were either ignored or just not effective.
All they did was make the numbers in SEO tools like Ahrefs or Semrush look better. What a joke!
The truth about page speed and Core Web Vitals
Google has mentioned that website speed and Core Web Vitals could give a slight ranking boost and act as a tie-breaker. However, my experience suggests that they don’t impact site rankings unless the site is painfully slow to use.
So far, I haven’t seen a study that proves passing Core Web Vitals leads to higher rankings.
Here’s what I think:
- If a company spends months or weeks trying to get perfect scores in the PageSpeed Insights tool or pass Core Web Vitals, their efforts are mostly pointless.
- A 100/100 score in Google PageSpeed Insights doesn’t mean your website has top-notch SEO or is a big success. Don’t be deceived!
- Page load times and website performance should be considered a small, nice-to-have aspect of measuring the success of your SEO project.
User/page experience metrics
Google has lately stopped placing so much emphasis on user and page experience, and you should also stop using it to measure your website’s SEO progress.
- Google is soon going to sunset its Page Experience and Mobile Usability reports in Google Search Console, as well as the Mobile-Friendly Test.
- Just because your website now has 100% good URLs in the Page Experience report in GSC doesn’t mean it’s well-optimized for SEO. Similarly, having 0% good URLs doesn’t make your website bad in terms of SEO.
- Google has also recently admitted that page experience was a concept to describe a set of key page experience aspects website owners should focus on.
- Soon Chrome will be getting rid of the green lock icon indicating if a site uses HTTPS.
My common SEO sense tells me that you’ll get much more ROI from improving existing content or creating new content rather than chasing vaguely defined page experience metrics.
I saw this one with my own eyes.
An SEO agency claimed that their SEO campaign led to an increase in the DR score and the number of referring domains. Huge success!
The SEO campaign involved posting stock (seriously!) images with a link back to the site on the client’s fairly inactive Pinterest account.
Yes, it earned the website several no-follow links from Pinterest. But the company concluded that this was the reason for the site’s increased DR and the number of referring domains.
There are three things to unpack here:
- The DR and referring domains increased naturally over time, as it happens with most sites.
- Even if the DR and referring domains increased as a result of that “campaign,” it still had no impact on the website’s bottom line.
- DR, DA, page authority, and the like are nothing more than vanity metrics, and chasing them is, in my opinion, one of the most foolish things an SEO can do.
Competitor analysis & benchmarking
There’s certainly nothing wrong with assessing how your site performs compared to your competitors.
However, it doesn’t make sense if you’re comparing the wrong metrics and indicators or comparing things that shouldn’t be compared.
For instance, I once observed an SEO “artist” reporting that their client’s growth in organic traffic was twice as fast as a direct competitor’s.
That sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Well, it depends…
In that specific case, it was a total vanity metric because this SEO artist:
- was reporting on Google Analytics traffic that included various traffic sources (without isolating organic traffic)
- was comparing this traffic to the ESTIMATED organic traffic of the competitor in Ahrefs.
It would be amazing if Ahrefs or Semrush displayed accurate traffic numbers, but all they offer are estimates to provide a ROUGH idea.
(Automated) SEO audit results
Ahrefs Site Audit‘s Health Score of your website is 100. You’re awesome. No, you’re not.
This one also comes from one of the SEO artists spreading misinformation and simply (incorrectly) repeating what everyone else is saying.
Just because your site or your client’s website scores 100 in the Health Score in Ahrefs doesn’t guarantee your SEO strategy’s success. Nor does it make you an excellent SEO.
All it means is that the site scores well in that one specific Ahrefs report, which has nothing to do with how the site ranks in search results.
I often see people boasting about their SEO score calculated by a WordPress plugin like Rank Math (which I adore) and assume that their page is 100% optimized for SEO. No, it’s optimized for that particular plugin.
Presenting this report to your client can be a nice addition to the actual SEO success you’re achieving.
How to actually check if SEO is working
I think you’ve seen enough examples of how not to check if SEO is working. So, how do you actually determine if it is working?
I believe the only real measure of SEO success is whether it provides a good RO
- If your SEO results in more business and more revenue for the company, you are doing a good job.
- If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t matter how high your website’s rankings are or how green your SEO reports app
However, search engine optimization is a long-term game, and you may not see a good ROI in the first 6-12, or even 18 months.
So how do you know if you are heading in the right direction?
You look at some of the above-mentioned SEO metrics but look at them from the right angle.
Here is how you may want to do it.
How to look at keyword rankings
Rankings fluctuate daily, so there’s no need to panic every time you get an email from Semrush saying that a keyword moved one position down. Similarly, you shouldn’t immediately celebrate if you get an email saying you’re one position up.
Here are the questions you may ask yourself to check if your search engine optimization is working:
- Do you target the right keywords?
- Is the website ranking for relevant keywords? Are these relevant keywords actually bringing clicks? What’s on the search engine results pages of those keywords? What SERP features are there?
- Do the featured snippets the site has actually bring clicks? What is the click-through rate of your featured snippets?
- What is the click-through rate (CTR) of the keywords your site ranks on top positions like 2-5? What do search engine result pages (SERPs) look like for your top keywords?
- You’re not only tracking high search volume keywords, are you?
- Are you analyzing your site’s keyword positions to spot SEO opportunities like pages ranking on position 11 or 5-6 for highly relevant and competitive keywords?
- Is Google constantly rewriting your title tags and meta descriptions? Is your average click-through rate way lower than expected?
- Do rankings on mobile devices and desktop differ? Is your site performing better on one device type?
- Have the keywords you are tracking been selected based on in-depth keyword research or purely based on search volumes?
- What SERP features are you targeting with your site?
- Do organic results for your target keywords differ much depending on the user location?
How to look at organic traffic
Unless the goal of your website is to solely generate revenue from ads, your analysis should extend well beyond merely measuring organic SEO traffic.
Some of the questions to ask yourself regarding organic traffic numbers:
- Your lawyer SEO client’s website isn’t getting 95% of its traffic from the phrase “April’s Fool pranks,” is it?
- Is the traffic your website receives high-quality traffic? Does this traffic convert and turn into actual leads? Are these leads high-quality leads?
- Does a significant portion of traffic go to one particular page or a few specific landing pages? Or is it distributed evenly?
- What is the conversion rate of your organic traffic? On days when your site has decreased traffic (like over the weekends or for another reason), does it also have a decreased conversion rate?
- Does more traffic translate into more business?
- Are you confident about the traffic quality your site receives? Do you measure and analyze organic traffic both in Google Search Console and Google Analytics?
- Is there room or a need to implement paid search? For instance, if your competitors are constantly bidding on your brand name and stealing your branded traffic.
- Are you obsessing over the bounce rate of organic traffic? Are you aware that the bounce rate is going away with the introduction of GA4? Do you know that bounce rate is a vanity metric?
Use Google Search Console to check if your SEO is working
Google Search Console is the top technical SEO tool to to help you measure and assess the SEO well-being of your website or your client’s website.
In terms of Google Search Console, I recommend focusing on the following:
- Does the website receive traffic from Google Discover? If it does, how can you create more similar content that also gets into Google Discover? Does the traffic from Google Discover convert? Is the Google Discover traffic coming from your target country?
- What can you do if your site isn’t receiving traffic from Google Discover?
- What are the top keyword phrases for your site? Are these branded queries? If not, are they relevant searches or “April Fool’s pranks”?
- Is there a significant spike in Indexed or Not Indexed pages? Both can be very good or very bad news.
- Is the search results performance trend upward? Are organic impressions increasing?
Don’t forget about Bing Webmaster Tools, which offers insights just as valuable as GSC
How to look at conversion rates and goal completions
Conversions and/or GA goal completions can be excellent indicators of SEO results if used correctly.
I’m not a GA/conversion expert by any means, but I believe the following advice is generally common sense:
- Ensure that the conversion is the most wanted response for a given page that either directly or indirectly contributes to the website’s ROI:
- Directly – the sale of a product/service on a website, the sale of a product/service through an affiliate link on the site
- Indirectly – a lead, newsletter sign-up, new followers
- With “indirect” conversions, you need to ensure that they are genuinely high-quality conversions, such as leads being people from the target audience, newsletter subscribers not being spammers, or new YouTube or Twitter followers not being bots, etc.
- If you don’t have direct access to your client’s revenue/sales, you can simply ask your client about their revenue growth month over month. Does it correlate with the conversions you’re tracking? Does it correlate with the organic traffic the site is getting?
Final words of (hopefully) SEO wisdom
I hope this SEO discourse has taught you something new and will not only help you become a better SEO professional but also accelerate your progress in the field.
Please share your thoughts in the comments. Thank you, and best of luck with your rankings!
P.S. While I wrote the entire article myself, I used ChatGPT to enhance its readability.