COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way digital marketers are running their websites and thinking about ROI from their SEO activities and wider digital marketing spend. The implementation of North Star Goals may be the key to move them closer to a performance marketing channel than ever before.
This article from our Head of SEO Kim Dewe outlines:
- What a North Star Goal is
- How digital marketers can use their existing business or department goals to establish SMART North Star Goal metrics
- How using SMART NSG metrics enables marketers to better measure the success and ROI of their SEO activities
Like any function within a business, SEOs will at some point be asked to define objectives or KPIs for the forthcoming period. Whether that period spans three months or three years, it’s incredibly important that everyone understands the inherent value of aligning SEO goals with the goals of the company or the department they work within. When SEO goals consider the bigger picture, it’s easier for people to understand why we’re doing SEO in the first place.
Using business goals for SEO
Understand your business goal
Whether you’re doing SEO for a cactus tree plantation or a multinational t-shirt store, when creating your SEO strategy it’s essential to remember the wider company goals that SEO can impact. Businesses have goals which exist to steer the company in the right direction. Within larger organisations, these goals might be published within a long-term plan spanning over quarters, months or even years. (Though for small businesses they might not even be formally documented). Regardless of how they exist, it’s important that you understand what these goals are. If you know what the business wants to achieve, you can be better informed when creating an SEO strategy.
Understand your departmental goal
Knowing the business goals alone isn’t enough to build an SEO strategy. In most companies, SEOs usually sit within the marketing team, (though sometimes SEOs may even be a part of the product, analytics or even the engineering team!) Irrespective of which team they might be in, it’s quite likely that the goals of one department are quite unique from another. You should think of each department’s goals as a puzzle-piece which is tightly aligned with the overarching business goals.
Using business and departmental goals for SEO
When you think about the targets you should set for SEO, you might be thinking of things like improving page speed or increasing click-through rate. While these goals may be completely valid to an SEO, their relevance doesn’t resonate beyond your department. Instead, think more generally about the growth targets these goals are trying to achieve and how they directly contribute to your departmental or business goals. If you do not define specific goals specifically for SEO, then it’s possible your business goals and SEO results will be totally independent from each other.
The North Star concept
The name North Star is derived from Polaris, also known as the Pole Star. Polaris is the brightest star in its constellation and holds nearly still in the sky while the entire northern sky moves around it. Why is it important to know this? Similarly to Polaris, an SEO-focused North Star acts as a focal point and that SEO strategy should revolve around. Ultimately, a North Star provides direction and should be considered as ‘the only metric that matters’.
A business-aligned North Star is critical for getting buy-in from stakeholders
A good SEO strategy can’t be done in a vacuum. Engaging critical stakeholders like the CEO, operations, customer services and development, relies on having them understand how SEO is contributing to the growth of the company.
The types of growth figures that stakeholders might care about, depends heavily on what stage your company is at. For example, a new website might initially be focused on brand visibility to validate the idea that the website can gain traction and compete within search engines. At another stage, your company might care about engagement goals and collecting feedback to validate your product or service. Though ultimately, most websites will settle on goals which focus on how SEO impacts bottom line figures ie. sales or revenue.
In practice, what does a North Star look like?
In our world as SEOs, a North Star is a single performance indicator which can be used to measure the impact of SEO activity. Often the outcome of good SEO performance will be thought of as an increase in organic traffic. Some of the more granular SEO goals, like improving page speed or increasing click-through rate may even contribute to this. While an increase in organic traffic is in most cases a good thing, often the stakeholders in a business will care more about how that increase in organic traffic has impacted the wider business goals. For example, if your website sells t-shirts, stakeholders are more likely to be focussed on the 23 sales that resulted rather than the increase in impressions which never realised any traffic.
It’s important that only one North Star exists at a single time because ultimately, the North Star should be your guide. The moment you create multiple North Stars, your attention is divided which can make it difficult to prioritise tasks in your SEO strategy. This doesn’t mean the metrics that contribute to the North Star aren’t important, but for now let’s focus on how to create a good North Star.
Types of North Stars
The key to setting achievable SEO goals is to spend time evaluating your current position but more importantly, a good North Star is a metric that SEO can directly influence over time.
At Blue Array, we primarily focus on two types of North Stars:
Traffic-focused North Star
For some websites this metric will be entrances (Google Analytics), clicks (Search Console) or unique users (Google Analytics). Depending on the website, we may also exclude the performance of branded queries or homepage / company pages, or we may only focus on certain dimensions such as specific countries or sections of a website.
In its strictest and more traditional sense (at least in the startup world) a North Star should communicate how the business is getting authentic value from the website. Some consider a purely traffic-focused North Star to be fruitless. But we’ve found this isn’t the case at all.
Many websites want a traffic-focused North Star for one of the following reasons:
- The SEO team collaborates with other functions like CRO and UX who have their own North Star which focuses on engagement metrics like conversions, leads and sales. The role of the SEOs in these scenarios is often to generate the traffic, while other functions take care of how to convert or engage that traffic.
- The website is in a phase of growth. As we mentioned earlier in this article, a new website might initially be focused on brand visibility to validate the idea that the website can gain traction and compete within search engines.
Conversion-focused North Star
Alternatively (and preferably), a North Star will be created to measure the impact of traffic on conversions or revenue. At the end of the day, SEO has the potential to be a major customer acquisition method for most businesses and most clients will be seeking a profitable return on their SEO activity. Examples of conversions include form fills and check-outs. Typically, clients should already be tracking these within Google Analytics.
While SEO can increase the traffic (which may produce a conversion), there are a greater number of variables which may affect whether or not a conversion will happen. Think of a product being out of stock or weak brand trust. Therefore, if you measure conversions or revenue, you should also be aware of how much traffic is required to reach the North Star.
Criteria for a good North Star
When it comes to SEO, there is a universal criteria you can apply when it comes to assessing whether you have a good North Star and fortunately, it’s not much different to setting a goal in any other industry. You might already be really familiar SMART goals – we apply this same framework at Blue Array.
SMART is an acronym which stands for:
- Time bound
Now, let’s look at how you can apply SMART to North Stars:
This means creating a North Star which is straightforward. It should always be extremely clear what you’re aiming for.
For example, you may want to produce ‘50% more conversions’.
What exactly qualifies as a conversion? Is it a user signing up to your newsletter, a user destination like the ‘contact us’ page or an event like a user adding an item to their shopping basket? Having clear goals which ultimately can be justified as being connected to business goals, helps everyone in the company understand what SEO success looks like.
Be sure to also avoid non-specific vanity metrics such as ‘ranking number 1 for cactus’. While ranking number 1 for ‘cactus’ could certainly bring you more traffic, ultimately what you (or the person requesting that metric wants ) is more visibility in search engines so you can have more conversions.
While it might sound obvious, don’t overlook the fact that your North Star should be measurable. It’s easy to confuse a North Star with what otherwise could form a mission statement.
For example, imagine if a Cactus Plantation created the following North Star: ‘Be the biggest cactus plantation in the whole of Aberdeen’.
You might instantly question, what does ‘biggest’ mean exactly? If they do end up the ‘biggest’ does this mean they’ve also helped the business reach their business goals? How will they know they’ve been successful? Your traffic-focused or conversion-focused North Star should have a metric associated with it, which is an absolute increase or percentage increase in a single metric.
In any company, it can be easy to get lost chasing lofty, unattainable metrics. While it’s important you aim high, you don’t want to set your goals so high that it’s simply unrealistic. While it’s not necessary, you may want to consider performing a SWOT analysis which will help you understand your website’s current SEO position.
What are the current strengths or resources within your company that will help the website perform well?
For example, do you have a strong content team? Are development requests usually turned around quickly?
What are the opportunities facing your website’s ability to challenge competitors going forward?
For example, do you have a popular product which consistently gets picked up by the press?
What are the current weaknesses or resources within your company which might hinder the performance of your website?
For example, is your marketing strategy heavily focused on creating viral content for social media, meaning SEO is a low priority?
What are the threats facing your website’s ability to challenge competitors going forward?
Maybe an audit has found your site to be technically poor, making it difficult for Google to index and crawl your content?
Performing a SWOT analysis can help you and others understand the competitive position of your website. Using this model can help build the foundation for an achievable North Star, but you may also want to review your responses after you’ve created one too. Ultimately, you want to know whether your goal is feasible given resourcing and current competitive position.
There’s no point in creating a goal which SEO cannot directly influence, so when you’re considering whether your goal is relevant, it’s critical that you check whether it’s relevant to your website’s SEO strategy. Taking the example used earlier, if your website sells t-shirts, stakeholders are more likely to find the 23 sales that resulted from SEO more relevant than the increase in impressions which never realised any traffic.
No matter what type of North Star you formulate for your website, it should be set over a long-period. For most websites this will be 12 months.
The time it takes to see results is very much dependent on the current position of your website. SEO often takes far longer than other forms of online marketing to achieve results. At Blue Array we use the metaphor of an airport runway, where there’s a period of no uplift before traffic ‘takes off’. As a general rule, we’d allow at least four months. We’ve seen uplift on some websites almost instantly after making some technical changes, but for more mature websites or for resource-heavy SEO strategies like creating a content hub, you’ll often need at least four months to see noticeable results.
In Google’s own guidelines for hiring an SEO, they state:
‘Remember that it will take time for you to see results: typically from four months to a year from the time you begin making changes until you start to see the benefits…While the time it will take for a client to see results is dependent on many factors such as the website maturity, technical issues and the vertical they operate in; generally we say to allow for a minimum of 4-months runway.’
Developing a SMART North Star is an iterative process. When the factors within your SWOT analysis change, you will want to reconsider whether your goal is still SMART considering your current position and resources available.
Once you’re confident that your SMART North Star aligns with the goals of the company or the department you work within, the next step is to accurately define the KPIs you will be tracking and reporting on. By following the steps outlined in the second part of this series, you’ll produce SEO reports that are clear, concise and actionable.