Seeing is believing: measuring SEO and visualizing results with Wordle Word Clouds

SEO Chart with GraphsThese charts may make more sense to you than they do to your client or content team.

At some point in the past you revamped your site for search engine optimization (SEO). Now it's time to measure your results, and share them with your client or development team. These people come from a variety of backgrounds. Some of the marketers will be perfectly happy to look at your Google Analytics page or stare at your graphs and spreadsheets. Others will quietly gaze at your numbers and wonder (to themselves) what any of this means—and they might not ask you for clarification.

This provides us with a teaching moment that we can use to enhance our SEO in the future. Rather than sending out a dry report or giving a presentation that falls on deaf ears, use this as an opportunity to remind people of what it is you are trying to achieve.

What are we trying to accomplish with SEO?

All we're trying to do with SEO is to make our sites more findable through search engines. The point is to optimize our site content and code in a manner that allows people with some interest in our organization, product, content or services to easily find our site, and the information they seek, when using search engines such as Google or Yahoo.

It's important to remind your team that SEO is not an end goal. It will not get students to apply to your program, buy your widgets or drink your Kool-Aid. But it will bring more traffic—from those with an interest in your stuff—to your site so that your content can encourage them to do those things.

How do we measure SEO?

If our SEO strategy is working we should see an increase in

  • traffic from search engines
  • time spent on site by search engine visitors
  • conversions (search engine visitors attending your events, signing up for your classes, buying your rhinestone studded earmuffs, etc.)

These are the core things to review. To learn more, visit the sites listed at the bottom of this entry.

What's working and what's not

Sea turtle - Galapagos, Ecuador
Swim with Sea Turtles while studying marine biology

You've looked at those numbers and everything's gone up. Yay! Or perhaps it hasn't. Boo! How can you tell what's performing well and what needs to be improved? This is where your keywords come into play. If our point is to bring in qualified traffic—people more likely to enroll in our marine ecology program or donate to our new cosmology research center—then that traffic will come from people who have searched on words and phrases related to marine ecology or cosmology.

If what they find on our site matches what they were seeking they are more likely to enroll, donate, etc.

Google analytics, and other such programs provide quantifiable data on key words and phrases used, the number of visits per word or phrase, average time spent on site by those visitors, average number of pages visited, etc. The top 10 phrases for my blog for the past month were:

  • tone in writing
  • writing tone
  • browser testing
  • web development blog
  • logo
  • tone of writing
  • social media networking
  • add caption to photo in css
  • writers tone
  • converting word doc to html

I can learn a lot from this (and the rest of the report listing 3,007 words or phrases.) In reviewing this data I'll consider:

Does my site offer the content described in these phrases?
Yes, although my entries about a logo are outdated, the other topics continue to be relevant and I know from past experience that my articles on tone and writing are my most popular pages.
Does my content provide the information users seek?
Yes, they are spending enough time on the pages to read them. If visitors came for 10 seconds and left I would know that they were looking for something different, and that I should reword some things to draw in more relevant traffic and to not waste the time of visitors who clearly want something else.
Are expected terms missing from the list?
No. But if I'd written the definitive post on the eating habits of owls and didn't find any listings for bird, eating, diet, owl, etc. then I'd know I have to edit that article and do some research to determine the most effective key words to include.
Using Wordle word clouds to visualize the results.

I'm the kind of nerd that is perfectly content to spend time poking about in spreadsheets. But 3,007 phrases are still a lot to swallow, and those are just for my little blog. If you have a large university or corporate site your list could be exponentially larger.

Also, people don't all search the same way. They use variations on the same terms. In my list we have 4 variations on writing and tone. If I want to quantify those properly it means merging terms together adding up the combined results etc. How much data you need to quantify depends on your needs, but in many cases you just need to get a sense of which terms are prominent and which are not. This will help your content producers so they can edit their copy to enhance the results in the future.

To get a quicker sense of what's working, I like to copy my results into which let's me create a word cloud of the terms, as shown in the two examples below. Terms showing up more frequently are larger while infrequent terms are smaller. Word clouds can be especially helpful in presentations and reports because they make it easy for readers with varying skill sets to get the point.

In this first example, I copied all phrases that generated 20 or more visits to the site so I could focus on the most frequently used phrases. (This narrowed the list to just a bit over 100). I also removed terms like "of" or "and" so that I could focus on keywords only.

Web Development Blog Wordle

As you can see, "tone" and "writing" show up prominently, as we'd expect from our list. The other words that are easily read are also things I've written about, and it would be easy to notice if a topic I was trying to promote was missing.

Watch for irrelevant results

While it's most important to make sure that our topics show up, it's also important to watch for words we're not trying to promote. If, for example, I saw "Beluga whales" in large letters, and I'd only mentioned them casually in passing it would mean that I was bringing in a lot of people who wanted to learn more about whales. While traffic is good, misguided traffic is not. The people who want to know about whales could care less about my thoughts on Web development so there is no reason for me to waste their time. If that term showed up here I would want to rewrite my article to reduce the number of times I mention Beluga whales.

Fine tuning your word cloud

While this first Wordle word cloud is helpful, it's not overly precise. Some terms, such as "development," are smaller than I might expect. That's because my content wasn't weighted. My analytics report gave me both a list of phrases and the number of times they were used. I pasted in the phrases but not proportionally to their frequency of use. The words that are larger are showing up that way only because they were used in a variety of search phrases. Huh?

"Tone in writing" generated 949 visits in a given time period. "Flash embed script" generated 20. For my Wordle to more accurately reflect the frequency in which these terms were used, I'd need to paste the phrases in as many times as they were used, or in a smaller, but proportional, amount.

To determine how many times to paste in each phrase, I put all the phrases and their frequencies in a spreadsheet similar to the following table. I was only using phrases that brought 20 or more visits so my lowest frequency is 20. If I divide each of my frequencies by a factor of 20, then round the results to a whole number, I come up with a manageable number of phrases to paste.

Phrase Frequency Table
Phrase Frequency Freq/20 Rounded
tone writing 949 47.45 47
writing tone 421 21.05 21
convert word document html 84 4.2 4
web development 84 4.2 4
dreamweaver upload files 40 2 2
flash embed script 20 1 1

To make my improved Wordle, I pasted "tone writing" in 47 times, "writing tone" 21 times, etc. as indicated by the chart. This rendered an accurate cloud, but "writing" and "tone" were so enormous that you could barely read anything else. To improve readability, I deleted several copies of those phrases so they were still dominant but not so much that you'd need a magnifying glass to read the other words.

Web Development Blog Weighted Wordle

This word cloud provides a more accurate representation of the frequency in which these words and phrases bring traffic to the site. When reporting to your client or team you can use such a word cloud to easily show which words are pulling in traffic and which are missing. This visual representation makes it easy for everyone to see what's going on, even those not fond of graphs and spreadsheets.

If you find that it takes too much time to generate the second version of the cloud, the first version is still helpful. You just have to remember that it's not as precise.

An educated Web team is an effective Web team

SEO can be confusing to both clients and other members of your team. A client may have overly optimistic expectations. A writer may not fully understand why you keep pushing them to use key words and phrases. But if you can teach them about SEO basics and give examples of what you are trying to accomplish, you can set realistic goals and ensure that all members of the team contribute to the success of the project.

More articles on measuring SEO

Looking for more educational resources? Check out Learning for fun and adventure: online education comes in many flavors for sites that will entertain your brain.

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  1. Hi Heidi, nice post as usual!

    Comment by Tashfeen — March 15, 2009 @12:59 am

  2. Twitter Comment... RT @JDEbberly RT @hacool: @SarahFowler @DionnaSanchez I've also used word clouds to visualize my SEO results - [link to post] #blo ... - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by RandomReTweet (Random Re-Tweet) — March 29, 2009 @10:18 pm

  3. Good article, especially the visualization with Wordle. However things like sidebars etc. can give an unrealistic image of the keyword targeting. This concept is enhanced in this Firefox plugin, which I recommend: Ps. thanks for linking to my article about measuring SEO, appreciated!

    Comment by Eduard Blacquière — August 30, 2009 @10:26 am

  4. Eduard,
    Thanks for the feedback and for writing your article about rankings! Your mention of sidebars is a good point to remember. Many of our sites will have certain words or phrases that repeat across multiple pages. These could be common elements in headers and navigation bars as well as the sidebars. I think this is particularly true in many WordPress installations where it is common to include archives or category lists in the sidebars.

    This is a good reminder that any tools we use to automate or simplify our analysis still require our own human interpretation to produce accurate and useful findings. Great tip about the KGEN plug-in too. I have that installed as well. It's a good way to get a quick picture of the words that are being used on a page.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — August 30, 2009 @1:46 pm

  5. Great tip on the Wordle front: I'd never even heard of that before! SEO really is a complicated beast and it's always great to hear new useful information (as opposed to the vast amount of copy-and-paste sh*t [if you'll excuse my language] that is spammed across the 'net!). Thanks! I'll be bookmarking your site :)

    Comment by Will White — August 5, 2010 @6:05 am

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