Should Your Traffic Always Be Up Year On Year

SEO Traffic Analysis

It’s the usual story in January.

Start of the year can mean one thing for in-house SEOs – having to prepare organic traffic report for the year gone past. And if you are working on one, I suspect that in a few days you will submit it for review, along with your traffic predictions for 2014.

The management will look at both, to assess your performance and deciding if what you are aiming to achieve this year is in line with their company’s growth plans.

I know, I am going to start the process myself. And each year, when I set off to the task, I ask myself: should my traffic always be up?

From a performance point of view, the answer is simple – of course it should. After all, this is what most of the time our performance is measured by. Depending on your industry or type of business you work in, there might be other signs of your progress.

In SEO however, traffic is one of the key performance indicators.

But, there are external factors, things you have no or little control over that can affect traffic. These can be anything from SEO related issues like Google updates for example, technical problems with the site, errors in Analytics tracking, lost data to different macro events happening throughout the year (i.e. Olympics etc.) and affecting audiences behavior.

Not to mention that you can run into internal problems too, from budgeting constraints, flawed decision making processes to a lack of buy in from other departments, all greatly halting your actions.

All this means that in spite of your dearest efforts, you might not be able to guarantee traffic growth year on year.

Yet, most of the time, this is what you are expected to do.

This is what I have a problem with. Because, what if none of the additional people you brought in to the site compared to the year before converted in ay way? What if they didn’t buy, sign up for your company’s newsletter or downloaded some guide? What’s the value of this extra traffic for the company?

On the other hand, what if the majority of the traffic you brought in compared to last year had actually converted, greatly exceeding last years conversion rate?

So, should your traffic really be up, year on year then? I don’t think so, at least as long as your other, company’s goals related KPIs are.

The quality of your traffic is in direct correlation to how you help the company to achieve its goals, be it sales or any other marketing related task. And your overall traffic objectives should be aimed at improving those, not bringing visitors for the sake of filling in numbers on a report.

But, how do you communicate this to people who don’t want to look beyond simple numbers?

And, how do you assess whether you got close to achieving company’s goals? How can you plan for the year ahead?

Quality vs. Quantity – What to Look At When Assessing Last Years Traffic

It’s hard to plan if you don’t know where you are now. I guess such knowledge is one of the positive outcomes of the “January guesswork exercise” (as I tend to call it). It is an opportunity to look at the entire year, going beyond sheer traffic numbers, to establish what impact your actions made on the company’s bottom line.

1. Bounce Rate

The percentage of people who have left your site after visiting only a single page can indicate how relevant or interesting your landing pages are to your audience.

Figuring out is simple – if your overall year on year traffic is up but bounce rate has gone up too, it can be a sign that your audience isn’t interested in the content you are showing to them.

Perhaps wrong pages rank for wrong keywords, your landing pages need a new coat of paint or you need to become more relevant with topics you write on.

So, in spite of growing the traffic, there might be an indication that this traffic isn’t of value for the company. It is also a signal that instead of focusing on getting even more of it, now might be the time to try and align content with what the audience is looking for.

2. Average Visit Duration

A sudden year on year drop in average visit duration (and especially in conjunction with increased traffic) may also be a sign that the site is irrelevant to customers (or that your customer target has changed yet you are still bringing the old group in).

On the other hand, a greatly increased time spent on site may also suggest problems, although this time perhaps not with your traffic but the site itself. It might be too confusing for your customers. They might not be finding what they are looking for.

Once again, in spite of a growth in traffic, things don’t look so great. Perhaps then, instead of focusing on more traffic, you should communicate a need to:

  • improve customer targeting
  • improve landing pages
  • update or refresh of content
  • develop better or more accurate customer personas
  • analyse changes you made last year to see if anything hasn’t triggered the (negative) change.

3. Pages per Visit

This is often a debatable indicator of traffic relevancy. Naturally, on sites requiring a number of steps to complete a conversion, the number of pages per visit could naturally be higher. Seemingly, if pages per visit are down, it could suggest that navigation or sales funnel on the site got improved and it is now easier to access information. So, overall this metrics works in conjunction with other things. Nonetheless, it is a good indicator of the relevancy of your website to your users. And once again, unnatural shifts in this metric coupled with increased traffic might suggest that there is a more pressing issue to work on than just getting more people to the site.

4. Branded vs. Non-Branded Traffic

2013 is probably the last year during which we can assess traffic from the branded vs. non-branded perspective, given the rise of (not provided) in Google Analytics.

There is a massive difference between visitors who already know about your site and come through a branded keyword to those who were looking for solutions for a particular problem and entered your site through a related keyword. The former are more likely to convert, yet they are also much easier to bring in as a traffic. The latter are still in a research stage of the buying cycle and might require few more subsequent visits (often through branded keywords) to make up their mind about buying from you.

Branded vs. Non Branded traffic is a great indication of a growth of your brand strength but also, a real indication of your SEO efforts. After all, if all your traffic growth comes from branded keywords, there is definitely something wrong with what you do.

5. Calls to Action

Lastly, a metric I personally track at in relation to content marketing – the performance of calls to action.

The number of clicks calls to action receive from pages and blog posts can serve as an indication of the relevancy of my pages to users. If, in spite of bringing a far greater traffic to the site than on year prior, only a small (or even decreasing) percentage of your traffic click on your CTAs, there is a chance that they are not relevant visitors (I am assuming here that your CTAs are in line with what your organisation offers by the way).

Such metric, once again can be a clear indication that perhaps you should look at improving the quality of traffic, rather than just focus on quantity.

Growing, Improving or Maintaining Traffic

Of course, you could go much deeper into your data to figure out what you really need to do. After all, all these are quite basic. Not to mention that you most likely know what you should be focusing on in the year ahead – increasing your traffic, maintaining it or improving.

Making the case to management, on the other hand, especially if they are obsessed with growth in numbers is another story. And for that you will most likely need data, lots of it, simple and complex alike.

Your Turn

How about you? Do you feel that you are reporting (and thus focusing) on wrong metrics? That you chase improvement in numbers that not necessarily translate to performance? Let us know in the comments.

Creative commons image by Horia Varlan / Flickr

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