One of the challenges of managing a search engine optimization (SEO) program effectively is convincing colleagues across your organization to understand, at the highest level, what the outcomes of a well-executed SEO campaign are. What defines success? And, just as important, how do you break it down effectively for those staring blankly at spreadsheets?
The answer is IRTA, which stands for indexation, ranking, traffic and actions.
IRTA is the most high-level view of your site’s progress in organic search – the “stratosphere” view, above even the 10,000-foot view. The particular genius of IRTA is that it applies to any website, in any industry, operating with any monetization structure, and is therefore a universally useful mental model for Web businesses. If your IRTA is good, your Web marketing channel is performing well, no matter if you’re selling industrial equipment or monetizing content via CPM advertising.
Once you dive beneath this stratosphere view, things become complex very quickly, and metrics that can seem obtuse or arcane to an executive-level audience start popping up, potentially putting a roadblock between you and your audience.
Focusing on IRTA avoids that complexity and helps your team come away from a meeting feeling that they learned something substantive about your site’s progress in organic search, rather than shutting down when confronted by a blinding spreadsheet full of metrics they don’t understand. If you can communicate the concepts behind IRTA to a C-suite audience, you’ve made a significant stride toward achieving a meaningful level of understanding of SEO in your organization. Let’s take a closer look:
Indexation is a metric that tells you how many of your site’s URLs have been indexed by a search engine. The goal is to get as many of your site’s valid, valuable URLs into the index as possible. For example, if your site can render 100,000 valid URLs, and you have 80,000 of them in Google’s index, that’s very good.
High indexation numbers are important because organic search is like fishing with a dragnet, where the size of your net is how many pages you have in the index. The bigger your net, the more fish you’re likely to haul in.
Low indexation numbers communicate critical information as well. Indexation levels are often closely tied to information architecture (IA). If you have a poor IA or technical issues that are preventing engines from finding your pages, low indexation numbers are a canary in the coalmine, telling you that your site requires technical SEO work.
Additionally, low indexation numbers can also occur if your site has insufficient link authority. Engines may be able to find your content but don’t consider it “important” enough to warrant the cost of keeping in their indexes. Again, this is a very useful indicator that points to a need for content marketing activity to increase your site’s authority.
Once you have your pages in the index, you have to get them in front of human visitors in order to rank. Ranking for a given query is a function of your page’s relevance for that query, in addition to how authoritative that page is. If your site gets traffic from a large number of keywords, that’s a positive sign. It shows that you’re producing valuable, on-topic content (relevance) seen as trustworthy and important (authority) across a broad range of topics. Ranking in the long tail is where the real opportunity in enterprise search is, and studies estimate that 70 percent of total search volume is in the long tail.
There are lots of different ways to measure ranking, and only a few of them are likely to help you make meaningful progress toward your business goals. In a subsequent post, I’ll provide specific recommendations for metrics that you can use to track ranking at an aggregate level, and avoid the trap of focusing too much energy on a tiny handful of keyword rankings, when many thousands of keywords are driving traffic to your site.
Once a URL is ranking for a visitor’s query, you need to entice the click. Solid on-page SEO provides good relevance signals to engines and also to potential visitors. You want to make sure that your title tags and meta descriptions contain important keywords, and are also readable and compelling. They’re marketing copy, and you need to use that space wisely.
In addition to thinking about the keyword targeting and marketing copy aspects of your semantic HTML, there are additional technologies that impact search display that you should be using if applicable to your business. Google now supports authorship markup that displays information about the author alongside the ranking result. In addition to great personal branding, the author photos by the listing draw the eye, impacting click-through rate (CTR).
Additionally, you can create rich snippets showing additional information like star ratings for user reviews, price ranges and other information through the use of microdata, microformats and RDFA. This gives you the opportunity to surface more valuable data to draw the eye and increase CTR for content relating to reviews, people, products, businesses and organizations, and events.
You need to ensure that you’re using every tool at your disposal to translate ranking URLs into traffic. You should expect to see organic search traffic increasing year over year. If it’s not, you’re leaving money on the table.
Increasing organic search traffic year over year is a great sign that you’re doing some things right in SEO, but traffic is not an end in and of itself. Actions are the name of the game. You want a visitor to download a white paper, sign up for a webinar, turn extra pages, share your blog post via social media or buy a product.
Focusing on actions makes you pay close attention not just to the amount of traffic that you’re getting, but to the quality of that traffic as well. And if you’re receiving highly relevant traffic, but still not seeing the business outcomes you expect, you need to start thinking critically about your site’s usability and conversion rate optimization testing. Once you have a steady flow of qualified organic search visits to your pages, conversion rate optimization can be the difference to revenue numbers that are flat year over year versus double-digit growth.
Once you understand the concepts behind IRTA, you can see the utility in thinking of organic search this way. IRTA describes a waterfall of prioritization, where any inefficiency at a level further up the waterfall prevents positive outcomes lower down. For example, if you aren’t able to get your pages in the search engine’s index, by definition, that URL cannot rank. If you get a URL in the index, but it doesn’t rank for anything, it cannot receive any organic search traffic and so on. Focusing on the full value chain described by IRTA gives everyone a common ground for understanding organic search.
By walking your team through these concepts, and explaining their importance, IRTA becomes shorthand for “what does that massive spreadsheet full of metrics tell us about our progress in organic search?” Every SEO analyst will remember the first time his or her CEO asks, “How’s our IRTA?” Finally, you’re all speaking the same language.
Ethan Hays is Search Director at gyro
Follow him @ethanhays