Since I started to present at board meetings a few years ago, it’s been interesting to understand how board members/investors think about a business/industry. As Marketing, you’re just a tiny piece of the whole puzzle (which was my first humble learning). It is even more important to use your time with them wisely.
As marketers (and SEOs specifically), we talk a lot about the measurement of success and the way we report to our manager > manager > CEO > board. After seeing Aleyda Solis present this deck at Friends of Search and participating in the SEO MBA, I digested a lot more information about optimizing reporting up the chain. But… what we forget to talk about is the level above your bosses, bosses boss: the board & investors.
Regular Reporting Frameworks
Domain Authority, External Links, Referring Domains, # of Optimized Pages – All standard metrics for the average SEO, I bet. I’ve also reported on many of those types of metrics. They’re good metrics, but do they create a comprehensive reporting framework that can be used to strategize your SEO? I wouldn’t say so. In my blog post about Input Metrics for SEO, I wrote about some metrics mentioned previously that can add value but on the other side of the spectrum. To influence the output.
What to improve? Business-Focused Metrics!
The metrics that you report on need to be focused on the business or industry. What does that mean? They need to have an angle that can support understanding the context of the business/industry and the trajectory it’s going at.
Examples of SEO Metrics for Boards & Investors
Let’s look at a few examples of metrics that might make sense to show to a board or investors. Remember, a lot of what they care about is understanding your category and its opportunity for growth (of your business) there.
Search Volume: Some of these metrics could, for example, be very simple. Certain keywords and your average position could sometimes be enough. If you’re in the red shoe space. Just overall search volume for that keyword might be enough to give you an insight into how the industry is performing. Because investors often want to know if a certain category is growing, and the top volume keyword (short head) is often enough to give a proper indication of industry size (close to it being TAM, which we’ll address right now).
Keyword Categorization: Extend this initial one and try to take all keywords in a category. If you’re a shoe e-commerce shop, just gather all your Search Console data with the word shoe. This will likely show the volume on a monthly basis and see what the direction is. Combine this SEO data with your PPC data from Google or Microsoft, and you likely get an even more accurate insight into how search impressions are trending.
CTR Position Analysis: You can be gaining tons of impressions, but with additional search features (local pack, more ads, featured snippets), you’ll, over time, lose click-through rate. With the pandemic, we also saw a shift in more people going back to desktop usage, impacting overall CTR trends a bit. The analysis of CTR & by position is something you can do yourself, powered by Google Search Console data. Showing this insight will help indicate where growth is coming from. Did CTRs increase per position, or did you actively improve positions.
Keyword Gap Analysis: In the past, I have already blogged about how to approach this. You can find it here. Keyword Gap analysis can tell you if competitor X that you’re competing against in niche Y is delivering many more clicks & impressions on keywords that you’re not ranking for yet: opportunity. Knowing what this opportunity is and being able to go after it is in my opinion, just as important as already ranking well for stuff.
Competitive Metrics: A no-brainer, but how are you stacking up against your competition. Sometimes this means that metrics like Domain Authority could be useful or knowing the number of referring domains, but don’t mistake them for leading metrics. They’re not. In itself, they’re useful for benchmarking at best.
Brand Traffic %: It does need to be clear how much you’ve invested in brand-related efforts during this time period! If you don’t, it skews the view, and people want to know what has moved the needle as it creates a playbook that can determine where to invest more.
What are your thoughts on this topic? How would you extend reporting to make it relevant for the board and investors? Feel free to ping me @MartijnSch
Sessions, transactions, and revenue are not metrics that an SEO shift overnight. It’s a matter of often waiting for Google. They’re considered output metrics, the work that you’ve put in results in those.
I just put down the book: Working Backwards by Bill Carr and Colin Bryar. It’s about their many learnings working for years at Amazon. It documents the process and policies that were put in place to make it the true giant it is today (including the theory behind pizza teams, the bar-raising process, etc.). One of the chapters talks about the concept of Input Metrics. Something that we often forget about in the context of SEO (or driving traffic via other channels).
Input metrics are considered metrics that can help define progress towards an output metric.
How many products do you have (today versus a week/month ago)? Metric: # of SKUs.
How many pages do have a custom/unique title or META description? Metric: # of optimized pages.
Analysis Decision Tree
They can be influenced by the work that you do on a daily basis. Let’s say that your (output metric) revenue is down. You would likely follow a decision tree like this:
Did the number of transactions decrease or did the average order value decrease last week?
If transactions decreased, did our conversation rate change?
If the conversion rate didn’t change, did sessions change?
If sessions were down, what channels caused this? Let’s say for a minute that all channels were flat except for Social Media.
If Social Media was down on the metric of sessions. What caused it?
A very simple explanation often follows: We just posted less on social media channels on Tuesday because of X. Aka, you defined the input metric that is in your hands to change: the # number of posts. My take often is that any metric that you report on should be able to either trigger an action, report an outcome, or show industry-level trends/benchmarking. Knowing certain metrics is useless without context via either benchmarking or historical data.
Example: # of Posts > More Social Posts > More Traffic > Larger Community
While I led Marketing at The Next Web, we looked at our variability in traffic to figure out how to grow our audience more sustainably over time (instead of relying on content going viral). Besides the apparent focus on SEO, we realized that the # of published posts was obviously a big input. It was not too surprising in itself, but it was an input metric that could significantly impact sessions. For example, it led to us republishing or reposting old content more on Social Media and having more writer support on weekends to create a steady stream of content. Without knowing what impacts traffic on a channel, you’ll have difficulty figuring out how to change your approach.
Reporting Input Metrics versus Output Metrics
What metrics should you be reporting on to your boss or upper-level? The ones that show the impact, which is most often output metrics in my opinion. You want to show business results as that shows your contribution to the bottom line of the business (at the end of the day we’re all getting paid based on that).
However, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have reporting for input metrics. If you know the % of pages that aren’t indexed, you have an input metric that needs to change to grow the output metric: sessions over time. If you run an e-commerce store, the number of products has an impact on their availability. In RVshare’s case, we can have thousands of RVs, but if they’re not available at the highest peak of the year, it’s still not going to help us (or the owner) grow.
Example Input Metrics for SEO
Input to Output can often be visualized as a funnel, as in SEO there are many steps that eventually lead to an outcome:
Crawl to Indexation: Each combination of steps will provide you with a way to input the next outcome. Increasing the number of pages should increase how many are crawled.
Number of pages (input)
Number of pages that are crawled
Number of pages that are submitted (via XML sitemaps)
Number of pages that are indexed
Number of pages receiving traffic
Number of pages driving revenue (output)
What do I need to get started?
Getting this insight goes back to having access to the right data. Most of what I just talked about is available through free tools: Google Search Console and Google Analytics is your best friend. The next best source is your internal data or CMS, which can provide insights into the quality of content/products/etc.
Sometimes, you want to assign specific user interactions to a different user.
There are many cases where you want to send an event for user X while user Y performs the action. But it’s important that you can save this information to the right user.
In our case, we ran into the use case where an RV owner needs to accept a booking. Only after the approval takes place do we consider this an actual purchase (transaction in GA). According to regular logic, the RV owner would get the purchase attributed to its session in Google Analytics. In the end, that user goes through the steps in the interface and confirms the transaction.
Marketing <> Google Analytics Logic
This doesn’t work for Marketing, though. We did our best to acquire the renter, and they’re the ones purchasing. According to Google Analytics, we’d fire an e-commerce purchase on behalf of the owner. What this messes up is channel attribution & performance measurement of our campaigns. In this case, the owner’s path is likely not touching any paid or true marketing channels but either direct or email.
In summary, the wrong user would get credit for the conversion, which could cause issues with our ROAS measurement of marketing channels.
Switching Client IDs & Leveraging User IDs
When Google Analytics is loaded, it will set the client ID value in the _ga cookies in your browser. This value (the client id) will be used to tie events → pageviews → sessions together and be seen as one user (in combination with the userId value, obviously).
So what we’re doing is pretty simple to change this behavior:
Whenever a user goes through the checkout funnel and creates a user account, we save their Google Analytics Client IDs (for GA4 and UA) to their profile.
When user X confirms the purchase, we’re sending an event to Tag Manager with the purchase context, including the impacted data from user Y.
Instead of directly firing the hit to Google Analytics, we swap out the client ID and userID from user X to user Y so that the actual purchase will get attributed to that hit. You need to mimic a session ID.
Google Analytics will now stitch this purchase to user Y instead of user X. You can choose for yourself what you want to fire for user Y.
In my 1st job in Marketing, I ‘managed’ a marketing budget of less than €5.000 a month (mainly paid acquisition spend), eventually growing it to about €20.000 a month. A few jobs later, my budget responsibility has grown significantly, while now responsible for a yearly eight-digit figure ($)💸. This creates a need for more accuracy, accountability, and diligence into what you’re spending resources on and the return on investments.
Operating Expenses versus Compensation versus Other
Often you’ll roll into a role or organization that already has a set strategy and aligned budget plan. The same applied to my role at RVshare, which I joined almost four years ago. It’s rarely the case that you get to build a budget out from $0/scratch. Instead, I joined on a budget plan that already had some essential buckets (that we remain to invest in). This often also predetermines the organization’s path and how a budget will be divided in the short term.
Operating Expenses/OpEx: All expenses tied to regular marketing activities, campaigns, and the operations of the business. I can’t describe it better than Investopedia does here.
Capital Expenses/CapEx: For most businesses or functions, there is a more strong capital element for investments that they’re making. As we’re a very asset-light business, we don’t own any inventory and don’t have any actual physical marketing assets (at least not to make a dent in a budget plan). This is not a thing for us. And probably with us many other marketing organizations.
Compensation: Salary, Bonuses, etc. Basically what you get paid every two weeks.
Direct Return versus Non-Direct versus Supporting
There is no one right way to set up a budget plan, as it can be divided in many ways. Our Marketing one contains three big buckets:
Direct Return: Channels that directly can drive a return on investment and can be measured on this basis. Examples of that are Paid Acquisition, SEO, and Marketing Partnerships. It doesn’t have to be a scientific method, but you can predict your spend > revenue pretty well often.
Non-Direct Return: Other channels, for example, more focused on driving awareness or reach like PR, Social Media (Organic) and Brand Marketing.
Supporting: Marketing Analytics, Technology, Education, Consultants, etc.
Categories like travel, meals/entertainment, and education are not directly coming out of our marketing budget. But it is realistically also a tiny allocation of a total multi-million dollar budget (considering we have a relatively small team, we do invest in them, don’t worry). Which doesn’t mean that it’s low in itself as you always want to make business travel possible, as well as training & education.
Internal versus External
On ‘who’ do you spend your resources, and how is the decision made. In most cases, this is not a finance/budget-driven decision, in my opinion. As it’s mainly tied to what functional/strategic expertise you need to make an impact in a specific area. Before a year’s start (financial years exist for a reason), we plan out our expected spend on internal versus external resources. At that point, we often already have an idea of what we’d like to add headcount for and what might be better to hire external support for.
The narrative around this is often that you always need to scale. It applies to most startups, and overall I’m a fan of it. But it’s not realistic later on. A business with 90% of its marketing expenses is not healthy at scale. Scaling an unlimited budget might work well for you, but at some point, Finance will start knocking on your door as you’re ruining their cash flow positions.
“A good leader can plan for any type of cost well ahead” – Nobody said ever. New ideas and costs always come up; I’m a firm believer in making sure that you keep a flexible mind and can adjust plans. For example, when we hit the pandemic in 2020, all our (preplanned budget) plans were useless as it would have ruined RVshare if we had continued on that spending level. Two months later, it turned out that we needed to spend way more aggressively than we ever expected and we ended up ‘overspending’ according to budget plans by many millions.
Brand versus Performance
“You should always invest in the long-term by building a brand” versus “Performance Marketing is key, Advertising can’t be measured”. If you’ve heard both, welcome to the club! If you lean one way, you might be able to learn a bit more about the other side. It’s a misconception that you can’t measure a brand. The comparison that I keep bringing up to people is the one of Booking.com versus Airbnb, one very well known for its performance marketing and the other one for its amazing brand building. However, that doesn’t mean that Airbnb spends over $400+ million on efforts that I would mainly categorize as performance marketing. Initiatives don’t always belong in a bucket, although I just described as they do. Both sides are just as important and not your budget but your overall marketing strategy should guide you on what to spend money on. Ours has guided us in multiple ways but we’ll remain to invest heavily in both buckets, in the future.
Working with Finance
Understanding Finance & Their Concerns
As part of the misconceptions, I touched on unlimited resources, and money isn’t unlimited for a company. If you’d spent all of your marketing budgets in the first month of the year, you likely would go bankrupt because your Finance team wasn’t aware of you doing this and ran out of cash flow. They also have a lot of their worries around financing and accounting, which makes it so that you need to be aware of what they care about and help.
Actually Understanding Finance & Accounting
Pick up a couple of books that can give you a high level of what finance and accounting terms mean so that you know how to speak the language of your finance team/CFO.
Invest in (marketing) analytics so that you can more accurately predict the return on your investments. We have spent the past two years getting good at this to ensure that we can ensure that our investments are returning value for the business. This is not just important for budgeting, but also a direct way to give Marketing a seat at the table as we can provide good answers to questions about how much money every additional 1M of (direct) marketing spend could be.
A data warehouse (& data lake) stores and structures data (through data pipelines) and then makes it possible to visualize it. That means it can also be used to help create and power your SEO reporting infrastructure, especially when you’re dealing with lots of different data sources that you’re looking to combine. Or, if you have just a ton of data, you’re likely looking to implement a (quick) solution like this as it can power way more than your actual laptop can handle.
Some quick arguments for having a warehouse:
You need to combine multiple data sources with lots of data.
You want to enable the rest of the organization to access the same data.
You want to provide a deeper analysis into the inner workings of a vendor or search engine.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Setting up a warehouse can be quick and easy, but maintaining is where the real work comes in. Especially when dealing with data formats and sources that change over time, it can create overhead. Be aware of that.
What can I do with a warehouse?
Imagine you’re a marketing team with a strong performance-marketing setup, you advertise in Google Ads and meanwhile in SEO try to compete for the same keywords to achieve great click share. It would be even more useful if your reporting could show an insight into the total number of clicks in search (not either paid or organic). By joining two datasets at scale you would be able to achieve this and meanwhile visualize progress. Excel/Google Sheets will give you the ability to do this (or repeat the process if you’re a true spreadsheet junkie) but not to have daily dashboards and share it with your colleagues easily. With a warehouse, you’d be able to store data from both ends (Google Ads and Google Search Console), mingle the data, and visualize it later on.
Are you a small team, solo SEO, or work on a small site? Make this a hobby project in your time off. You likely, at your scale, don’t need this warehouse and can accomplish most things by connecting some of your data sources in a product like Google DataStudio. Smaller teams often have less (enterprise, duh!) SEO tools in their chest, so there is less data overall. A warehouse can easily be avoided at a smaller scale and be replaced by Google Sheets/Excel or a good visualization tool.
Why Google BigQuery?
Google BigQuery is RVshare’s choice for our marketing warehouse. Alternatives to Google BigQuery are Snowflake, Microsoft Azure, and Amazon’s Redshift. As we had a huge need for Google Ads data and it provided a full export into BigQuery for free, it was a no-brainer for us to start there and leverage their platform. If you don’t have that need, you can replicate most of this with the other services out there. For the sake of this article, as I have experience dealing with BQ, we’ll use that.
What are the costs?
It depends, but let me give you an insight into the actual costs of the warehouse for us. Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools are free. Botify, Nozzle (SaaS pricing here), and Similar.ai are paid products, and you’ll require a contract agreement with them.
Google Search Console & Bing Webmaster Tools: Free.
Nozzle, Similar.ai, Botify: Requires contract agreements, reach out to me for some insight if you’re truly curious and seriously considering purchasing them.
StitchData: Starting at $1000/yearly, depending on volume. Although you’re likely fine with the minimum plan for just 1 data source.
SuperMetrics: $2280/yearly, this is for their Google BigQuery license that helps export Google Search Console. There are cheaper alternatives, but based on legacy it’s not worth for us to switch providers.
Google Cloud Platform – Google BigQuery: Storage in BigQuery is affordable, especially if you’re just importing a handful data sources. It gets expensive with larger data sets. So having the data itself is cheap. If you’re optimizing the way you process and visualize the data afterwards you can also save a lot of costs. Average costs for querying/analysis are $5 per TB to do that, and especially on small date ranges and selecting a few columns it’s hard to reach that quickly.
Loading Vendors into Google BigQuery
A few years ago, you needed to develop your data pipelines to stream data into Google BigQuery (BQ) and maintain the pipeline from the vendor to BQ yourself. This was causing a lot of overhead and required the need for having your own (data) engineers. Those days are clearly over as plenty of SaaS vendors provide the ability to facilitate this process for you for reasonable prices, as we just learned.
Bing Webmaster Tools & Google Search Console
Search Analytics reports from both Google and Bing are extremely useful as they provide an insight into volume, clicks, and CTR %. This helps you directly optimize your site for the right keywords. Both platforms have their own APIs that enable you to pull search analytics data from them. While Google’s is widely used available through most data connectors the Bing Webmaster Tools API is a different story. Find the resource link below to get more context on how to load this data into your warehouse as more steps are involved (and still nobody knows what type of data that API actually returns).
Nozzle is our solution at the moment for rank tracking, at a relatively small scale. We chose them a few months ago, after having our data primarily in SEMrush, as they had the ability to make all our SERP data available to us via their BigQuery integration.
Technical SEO: Botify
Both at Postmates and RVshare I brought Botify in as it’s a great (enterprise) platform that combines log files, their crawl data, and visitor data with an insight into your technical performance.
Lesser known is Similar.ai, which provides keyword data and entity extraction. Useful when you’re dealing with a massive scale of keywords of which you want to understand the different categories. Especially when they’re to create topical clusters it’s coming in very useful. With their Google Cloud Storage > Google BigQuery import we’re able to also show this next to our keyword data (from Google Search Console).
Bonus: Google Ads
If you’re advertising in paid search with Google Ads it can be useful to combine organic keyword data with paid data. It’s the reason why I like quickly setting up the Data Transfer Service with Google Ads so all reports are automatically synced. This is a free service between Google Ads and Google BigQuery. More information can be found here.
How to get started?
Figure out what tools that you currently use provide a way to export their data?
Create a new account for StitchData and where needed create an account (paid) for Supermetrics.
Connect the right data sources to Google BigQuery or your preferred warehouse solution.
Good luck with the setup and let me know if I can help in any way. I’m curious how you’re getting value from your SEO warehouse or what use cases you’d like to solve with it. Leave a comment or find me on Twitter: @MartijnSch