With this in mind, here are a few considerations for measuring natural search marketing in the coming year, as well as a few values you may or may not be measuring right now.
Rankings as a metric have hit the tipping point -- focus more on traffic and revenue. While ranking measurements have directional value in terms of visibility, and show overall progress of natural campaigns, they have become too chaotic to use as a primary measurement of success. Google personalization, geo-targeting by IP, search customization, and now SearchWiki have moved us from a world to where everyone sees the same result for #1, to a world where everyone theoretically sees a different #1. This doesn't mean that rankings measurement and optimization do not have value; only that they must be viewed in a different way. Using analytics is a common sense way to measure natural performance, as it always has been. In 2009, move away from viewing of ranking metrics as the primary indicator of performance, and focus on deeper analysis of traffic and revenue from the natural search channel.
Creating natural search events makes it easier to measure lift on specific implementations. The benefits of natural search grow holistically in many ways, and positive ROI for a large-scale enterprise is often the sum of many factors of optimization. But this will fall on deaf ears to many marketers as they look to tie specific optimization actions directly to ROI performance. While this is not always easy to do, separating out some implementations can make it easier to see lift, and reflect a spike on the analytics end. Apply the market price of a paid search click to newfound natural search traffic. Beyond looking at the revenue driven from natural search traffic, there is another commonly overlooked value of a lift in natural traffic, and it is the relative amount you would have paid in search advertising channels. You don't have to map a CPC to every individual term in order to show value. Providing that your natural search traffic is qualified based on the content provided, apply an average CPC of what you are spending in paid search, and multiply it times the amount of traffic over a monthly and yearly basis. If you are a smart search marketer paying a price in paid search based on informed analytics and defined business rules, then it is a valid to apply it to natural search, especially when that traffic is held to similar performance standards.
Apply value to deeper site actions. Marketers should apply a wider range of values on their internal site actions. This might include placing a value of a contact form lead, or search traffic leading to a job hire. Also overcoming internal barriers to determine the lifetime value of a customer, as well as other latent revenue effects of natural search campaigns, can provide methods of measuring the contribution of natural search traffic. Be aware of the synergy between site and natural search. Don't place all of the focus on the search traffic itself. A poor site experience decreases the performance and return on natural search traffic, so making site tweaks can not only increase the value of qualified search traffic, it can also improve the return on site traffic as a whole. Think of a poor site experience as not having any particular call-to-action, or a cumbersome 10-page conversion process with a high drop-off rate.
Take out a natural search insurance policy, and "do no harm." For starters, think of an investment in natural search as a protection for what you are currently getting from natural search engines across the board. Good natural search advice costs are a drop in the bucket compared to returns from natural search, and the risk of doing harm only once can far exceed your costs, and even do irreparable damage. I see clients with returns coming from natural search at over one half-billion to one billion dollars a year or more, and one simple slip could cost millions. Unfortunately this is not a convincing argument until a major mistake is made, and most marketers tend to be reactive rather than proactive in this type of climate. The measurement itself is in maintaining what you have -- even in a bad economic climate.
Break out the historical trending data. Though overall search trends may vary from vertical to vertical, compare your data against the same period in previous years, rather than the previous month or quarters. Comparing over previous months as a basis for measurement can create an inaccurate picture of performance, due to the seasonal aspects of search. Comparing your data against the same time over the previous year (or years) is a nice balance, and can help show lift from current search efforts.
I think that's enough search marketing for this year. Have a happy new year.