Evolve your content strategy using Google Analytics RankTracker

What if Google Analytics could tell you every keyword for which your website was in striking distance of a first page or above-the-fold organic placementEven for keywords you’ve never considered targeting.  You could probably find a good use for that info, couldn’t you?  I certainly did.

Earlier this year, two very smart fellows in Internet marketing industry, A.J. Kohn and Justin Cutroni, described a great way to track organic keyword rankings using events in Google Analytics.  It’s a very clever approach, one that I strongly recommend you look into (especially in light of Google cracking down on scraper-based rank trackers for violating their terms of service).

While A.J. and Justin focused predominantly on the application of their Google Analytics RankTracker snippet to track keyword ranking “indexes”, I chose to explore its potential contribution to content optimization.  The fruit of that exploration is outlined in this post, in which I’ve outlined my methodology for using the Google Analytics keyword ranking data to maximize the traffic potential of your existing website content, and to mine for content expansion opportunities.  Here’s how it works:

Step 1: install the Google Analytics RankTracker

Justin’s post does a nice job outlining the installation method, so I won’t belabor that here.  And make sure to read the comments, as there are some handy “enhancements” offered by others to capture ranking data from all of Google’s international domains, not just Google.com.  The website I’ll be using for my examples (a sweet little organic tea company called Arbor Teas) uses such an enhancement.

Step 2: collect some data

Once you’ve got the rank tracking script in place, give Google Analytics a little time to gather a generous helping of this juicy keyword ranking data! To give you something to shoot for, try to gather around 20 organic visits per organic landing page.  So, if your site’s got 500 landing pages driving organic traffic, try to gather at least 10,000 organic visits worth of data. Waiting to use this nifty data may be the hardest part of the process – at least it was for me!

Step 3: configure your report

With a reasonable amount of data collected, you’re ready to build something!

  • Within the “Events” report in Google Analytics, go to the “Top Events” report, and select the event category labeled “RankTracker”.
  • Add a secondary dimension of “Event Label”, which represents the landing page URL.
  • (OPTIONAL) Use an advanced filter to exclude your brand terms and (not provided).
  • Sort the data in ascending order by Event Label (aka landing page URL).  This groups all of the keywords driving traffic to your site by landing page.
  • Export to a Microsoft Excel workbook.  Unless you utilize the Google Analytics API in some fashion, you may need to perform multiple exports and stitch them together (setting the number of data rows displayed in the GA interface to 500 will make this at least a little easier).
  • Once exported/assembled in Excel, delete the “Event Value” column, and relabel the remaining columns as follows: “Keyword”, “Landing Page”, “Total Visits”, “Unique Visits”, and “Avg. KW Rank”.

Step 4: import keyword search volumes

Paste the keywords contained in your export into the Google Adwords Keyword Tool, and download their exact match search volumes. Again, depending on the number of keywords you’re dealing with, you may need to perform several look-ups/downloads to gather a complete dataset (another good place to use an API, IMHO).  Once you do, use the all-powerful vlookup function to pull this data into your Excel worksheet, in a new column labeled something clever like, “Traffic” or “Awesomeness Potential”.  Once you’re done, the spreadsheet should look something like this:

Step 5: filter and sort your data

Filter your data for keyword-landing page pairs with an average KW ranking of >4 and <15 – this gives you all of the KWs that are within “striking distance” of either first page or above-the-fold visibility.  Then, sort in descending order of search traffic volume – this surfaces keyword optimization opportunities with the greatest potential. You can delete any rows with zero search traffic.

Step 6: start strategizing!

For each row of your filtered/sorted spreadsheet, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Is this keyword valuable to my business?  In other words, is the term relevant and possess reasonable traffic that traffic likely to convert?  You could, of course, pull in some historic conversion rate data for your website, but since many of the keyword opportunities you turn up may be new, I suggest you keep it simple and trust your gut and past experience when judging the business value of a keyword.
  2. Should this keyword be targeted to this page?  In other words, is the term consistent with the general topic of the landing page and reflect the right level of specificity?  Landing pages rank for a surprising variety of keywords, so you need to use your judgment about whether each keyword is appropriate for the page that currently ranks for it.

If your answer to both questions above is “yes,” then you should probably add the keyword in question to the list of terms that that particular landing page is optimized for.  Of course, you can only target so many keywords to any given landing page.  But what if you turned up a gem of a keyword that generated four times the traffic of your original target?  Might be worth making room, and swapping out some keywords with less potential.

Using Arbor Teas as an example, we see that the “/organic-lapsang-souchong-black-tea.html” page saw traffic from a keyword we hadn’t previously optimized for: simply “lapsang souchong”.  Although our primary targets for this page are “organic lapsang souchong”, “lapsang souchong tea” and “lapsang souchong black tea” (each offering 260 searches per month or less), we see that there’s a lot more potential traffic optimizing for “lapsang souchong” (2400 searches per month).  And given that this page is consistently ranking on the second page for the broader term, there’s a strong change we can land a first page placement.  Probably time to shift or expand the target keyword list for this page!

If your answer to the first question above is “yes,” but you answered “no” to the second, then this keyword represents an opportunity to develop a new page more suited to that keyword.  Remember to link the original landing page to each new piece of supporting/related content identified this way (and vice versa).  Depending on a number of factors (like PageRank flow, external links, etc.), this approach should either increase the position of the original landing page for the target keyword, or cause the new page to rank for the keyword in question.

Going back to the Arbor Teas example, we see that the “arbor-teas-storate-tin-regular.html” page is ranking for the relatively general term, “tea storage” (590 searches per month), even though that’s not the explicit subject of that page.  Regardless of whether that term is the right keyword target for the page, visibility on that term definitely has business value for a loose leaf tea company.  This looks like a great opportunity for a new piece of content, focused more broadly on the subject of “tea storage”.

Step 7: let the optimization and content creation begin!

For the new keyword targets you’ve identified for existing pages, get on with your typical on-page optimization tactics, and maybe update an internal link here and there using the new keyword targets as anchor text.  For the new content ideas you’ve surfaced, get your pen out!

Step 8: rinse and repeat

Once configured, Google Analytics will continue gathering ranking data for the organic keywords driving traffic to your website’s pages.  Since we all know keyword usage changes over time (and new keywords are entered into Google every day), this approach represents an ongoing opportunity to update/hone/tune-up your pages and the keywords they target.  Personally, I plan to revisit this approach every 3-4 months, especially for my client’s higher-trafficked, revenue-driving landing pages.

Some caveats/reminders

Before you race off and put this methodology to use, make sure to keep a few things in mind, lest you run off the rails or are sorely disappointed:

  • This approach only highlights keyword optimization opportunities for terms you’re already receiving visits for.  For this reason, you shouldn’t expect this method to replace traditional keyword research to explore the full universe of opportunities available to your content.
  • As with any SEO analysis that relies on keyword data these days, (not provided) muddies the water a bit.  Depending on your vertical, (not provided) could amount to 30% to 80% of your query data.  Knowing the ratio for your website at the outset will help you keep perspective.
  • The RankTracker code snippet created by AJ and Justin determines your position for each keyword across ALL non-paid results, not just the traditional organic ones.  This means that if four image results follow the first three organic results on the SERP, the fourth organic result immediately following the images would be considered position 8, not 4.  Just do some spot-checking to make sure you understand the opportunity that exists.
  • The RankTracker code snippet only captures organic keyword ranking for Google – if anyone out there knows (or can figure out) a way to capture this same data for Bing, I’m all ears.
  • This approach hinges on the continued availability of the “cd” parameter in the Google referrer data.  The minute Google decides to take this handy piece of data away (fingers crossed that they won’t), we’re all dead in the water.

Of course, this approach can’t replace all aspects of traditional keyword research, but I think it offers a nice, streamlined process for iterative content optimization and expansion (and somewhat of an “inside out” view of your keywords and pages).  I hope it proves to be a helpful addition to your SEO workflow.  Ideas for improvement are welcome!