Updated: This post was originally written in 2014, but we updated on 5/25/2016 with some modern thinking. Enjoy.
Ah, the SEO report. Embraced by some agencies and despised by others, an agencies’ level of interest typically dictating if the monthly report becomes a detailed monstrosity or just a quick export from whatever reporting tool being used. Note that neither of these scenarios address whether anyone has taken the time to do insights. Smart companies look for ways to use APIs and programming to speed up data pulling; gathering the necessary data in a timely manner. At Greenlane, we took this approach as well; Keith, my partner and incurable data nerd, created our reports to rely on APIs and programmatic data population, pulling a combination of traditional SEO metrics like rankings (yes – we still believe in the value), organic traffic (at the month over month and year over year level), organic conversions (same range), and every necessary target landing page metric we could think of. This kept the SEO report format we wanted and the data we needed with little effort; the majority of our time now available for analyzing the data and writing insights. The reports have evolved into a standard template with some customizations depending on a client’s KPIs.
But pulling data is only a means to an end. These are SEO analysis reports after all. Sure, data exports – especially the scheduled kind – are huge time savers. However, the downside to these automatic data pulls is the lack of urgency to go into the analytics platforms to “poke around” and analyze the data. The data is in the dashboard and makes sense. What’s there to investigate? Simply put, you need to look for trends, explore the whys and how-so to see how data correlates with each other. It’s not enough to say that a metric increased or decreased. What does that increase mean to the business? How does it relate to a KPI? Do yourself a favor and answer these questions before a client is asking them of you. It will make you seem really smart and strategic, and I have yet to find a client that would complain about someone being proactive with their data. Let the data inspire questions and direct you to answers. This data is what should be driving your optimizations.
What Is An SEO Report?
I’m guilty. In a past life, I was part of a company that spent so much time – by hand – downloading Omniture reports (yes, it was that long ago), copying and pasting cells, customizing charts, running formulas, and beautifying spreadsheets (those titles don’t italicize themselves). I can make a spreadsheet look like a work of art (remember beauty is in the eye of the beholder…). It took 10+ hours a month and was usually not delivered until the middle of the month and on some occasions, the end of the month. Looking back, this was a total waste of clients’ money. They needed actionable insights, data-driven strategies, and to understand performance. Granted, I do believe the aesthetics of an attractive report can at least semi-consciously suggest to the recipients your agency has talent and the money to invest in quality output (whereas this “money” may indicate success), but that’s only going to help you for so long. It’s like seeing a beautiful deck at a conference presentation – like it or not, it does give the perception of capability. This is the marketing industry after all.
But when you’re spending so much time pulling, shaping, tweaking, and formatting, you’re not spending much time being a gold-digger (in one of the few times it is good to be one). It’s like giving someone a treasure map and saying, “Good luck.”
I’m the guy in the company who squawks about fonts, consistency, and aesthetics, etc… all for the reasons above. We feel that the reports not only have a value to the client but a value to our team as well. Good reports ultimately make our jobs easier. In our opinion, a client’s report should be documentation in a way that is easy to understand and travels well in an organization. It should ultimately help:
- Marketers optimize their marketing mix and campaign within each channel
- Identify strategies and tactics for where attention should be given (either to continue doing or stop something negative from happening further)
- Improve your ability to anticipate what is coming
- Give the ability to tie your work to ROI and validate you efforts
- Highlight wins, and losses
I don’t see much value in a daily SEO report because that simply seems like an unnecessary use of time. Free SEO report generators can be used to compile top line data, but still require user input. I’m more favorable to automated SEO reports as long as they can dig deep and provide value (I’ve been really impressed with tools like SearchMetrics, CognitiveSEO, RankRanger, and SEMrush). I think as an agency you need to continually work to balance quality and speed – both are ultimately for the benefit of the client as well as your workflow.
So how do you make an SEO report? Where do you start? It’s fairly simple – 1) take note of the prime metrics and KPIs, 2) pull in some contextual data (after all, SEO doesn’t operate solely in its own sphere), then 3) design a template with speed and efficiency in mind. The latter is where you may even want to lean on a coder who can implement APIs from your analytics. But never forget, your report should be an eternal “work in progress.” That’s the only way you’ll ever create the best SEO report for your clients.
Building Client SEO Reports
(Or, What The Clients Really Want To See)
I’ve worked agency-side most my professional life. I did, however, have a brief stint as a client. It was very useful, as it helped me understand the daily challenges of an in-house marketer; especially the many directions they are often pulled in. When I first got reports from our PPC vendor or social marketing vendor, I wanted to tear into them. Talk strategy. Get the learnings. But, I was busy as hell. Eventually, I just wanted the most impactful highlights.
An executive summary or a quick blurb of succinct natural language explanation can go a long way, especially in companies where these reports get passed around. You know the frustration you feel when you see a slide deck on Slideshare, but can’t make any sense of the slides? You missed the accompanying presentation which sometimes leaves you more confused than ever as you click through the slides. It doesn’t mean the slides were bad or valueless – it just meant the context wasn’t there. A good executive summary provides the context and turns your client SEO report into a story. Always consider how your report will travel and who may eventually look at it.
Let’s look at a sample. Here’s an example SEO report snapshot we use, with something a client might find valuable at the bottom of one of our spreadsheet reports (click for larger image):
Whether you have a client who uses the executive summary to dig into your brain, or one who just accepts as it, you owe it to them to provide the information they really need, not just what they want. Don’t let their lack of questions lead you into creating valueless executive summaries.
Clearly I think natural language is extremely important in telling a marketing (and data) story. Another option we recently discovered (and strongly recommend you check out for yourself) is Wordsmith For Marketing, a SEO report generator that can actually write textual reports based on data, saving your team time. While we clearly think they are awesome, even a tool like this only gets you so far since it can’t tell you how some of these changes effect the client’s ROI, or demonstrates the success of a particular strategy or tactic. Sample of the output without any additional commentary:
Since Wordsmith easily allows you to add bullets and more context, we ask our team to fill in any gaps needed by affixing more observations and recommendations right into the report. These are great examples of traffic and conversion metrics quickly telling a story, but what about rankings? For our rank reports we use Rank Ranger, a fantastic daily rank tracker that offers a white label option with a really attractive slice-and-dice. Here’s a whitelable report for this post, representing something we would encourage our clients to review and bookmark.
Imagine a client running eCommerce product pages on a modern JS framework. It’s responsive and sexy but it’s not drawing search traffic. Data could suggest an evaluation of the code where you might find AngularJS, something you can drive to fix with proxies. Alternatively, imagine a client has tons of duplicate product pages – immediately your instinct is to pull the pages, put in robots/noindex solutions, and canonical tags. Yet, the data could suggest that Google already figured out the duplication issue and is still driving good traffic to the dupe pages regardless. Finally, imagine a client got a little too aggressive with a former link campaign and suddenly got stuck with an algorithmic penalty on their a deeper landing page only. Digging in deeper to a site’s analytics can quickly help you pinpoint the problem and give you a course of correction, plus help develop the priority.
These are examples you don’t get from just topical exports. The data can help you develop, prioritize, and execute all day long. Sure, it’s a pain losing the natural search keyword data with [not provided], but while that adds complexity to the keyword work in SEO, there’s still plenty of other SEO initiatives and experiments you can easily create just by making deeper data dives an important part of your day-to-day, or providing reports that you and your clients truly find valuable.
Embrace and optimize (see what I did there?) your reports, but make sure you’re keeping the goals of these reports in mind all along. If your goals aren’t to empower your clients and empower yourselves, while holding your own feet to the fire to achieve results, you’re probably doing it wrong. Creating the right reports should be for educating both you and your clients, thus helping you really learn your chops as a marketer, while allowing the client to see the benefits of your great work.