As SEOs, we tend to generalize goals because there is so much outside our control. “We can’t promise results.”
The problem is that without a clear vision of what a win is, we’re unlikely to achieve results at all.
The same is true if we set vague and arbitrary goals.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to set the right SEO goals using the SEO goal pyramid.
SEO goals are specific and measurable objectives that you aim to achieve over a period of time. Each goal should contribute to the purpose of SEO: reach more prospective users through organic search and turn them into customers.
SEO goals are important because they bring focus and clarity to your strategy by providing a clear target. If you don’t have SEO goals, you’re shooting in the dark. That’s never a good idea because you’re unlikely to achieve something unless you aim for it.
Marketers often make the mistake of setting arbitrary SEO goals like “get more traffic.”
The main issue with this type of goal is that it completely disregards the what and the how. What are you going to do to make it happen? How are you going to get there?
To help solve this problem, we created the SEO goal pyramid:
Here’s how to use it:
- Create an outcome goal. This is the thing you want to achieve and the timeframe you want to achieve it in. Think of it as the tournament you’re trying to win.
- Break the outcome goal down into performance goals. These are smaller goals that each contribute towards the outcome. Think of these as the individual matches in the tournament.
- Break performance goals into process goals. These are even smaller goals that are 100% within your control. Continuing with the soccer analogy, this is who you’re going to play and where you’re going to play them.
The idea is to break things down into stepping stones to make your overall goal more achievable. As you complete process goals, you’re well-positioned to meet your performance goals. As you complete your performance goals, you’re likely to achieve your outcome goal.
Let’s take a closer look at what each step entails and create our first framework.
1. Create an outcome goal
Your outcome goal should directly align your SEO efforts with company goals, so ask yourself:
What SEO outcome contributes towards the company’s broader goals?
Looking at mission statements, frequently asked questions in meetings, etc., can help answer this. If you get stuck, ask your boss or client.
Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of saying “get more traffic.” While getting more traffic may help the company achieve its goals, it’s far too broad. Your outcome goal needs to be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based.
So, a better goal than “get more traffic” would be to “rank in the top 3 for [high-value keyword] in 6 months.”
This goal is specific and relevant because ranking for [high value keyword] will increase revenue. It’s measurable because you can track keyword rankings with any good rank tracking tool, such as Ahrefs’ Rank Tracker. It’s achievable because you already assessed keyword difficulty. And it’s time-based because you specified the timeframe.
Here is a visualization of our SEO goal pyramid so far:
2. Set performance goal(s)
Performance goals are the goalposts you set for yourself, so start by answering the question:
What short-term wins will most likely get us to our outcome goal?
You can have one or multiple performance goals. What they are will depend on your outcome goal and bandwidth. Just be careful not to fall into that same trap of setting arbitrary goals like “increase backlinks.” This may help you achieve your outcome, but it isn’t SMART. There’s no way of knowing when or if you’ve achieved the goal.
Continuing with our example outcome goal of “rank in the top 3 for [high-value keyword] in 6 months,” a SMART performance goal might be to “get 40 high-quality backlinks to the page within six months.”
It’s specific because we’re aiming for a certain number of backlinks.
It’s measurable using the referring domains graph in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer:
It’s achievable because it’s realistic. There are tasks within our control that will get us one step closer to achieving the goal.
It’s relevant because we know backlinks are a ranking factor, and there’s evidence that our target page is underperforming in terms of backlinks.
It’s time-based because it has a set ending point of six months.
Most importantly, achieving this performance goal will help position us well for achieving our outcome goal.
Here is a visualization of the SEO goal pyramid so far:
If you have to set 4+ performance goals for your desired outcome, that’s a sign your outcome goal is too broad and unrealistic. Revisit step one and set a more realistic goal.
3. Set process goal(s)
Process goals are measurable actions that are 100% under your control. It’s where you answer the question:
What will I need to do to achieve our performance goal(s)?
Continuing our example, we have an outcome goal to rank in the top 3 for keyword “x” within six months. And we have a performance goal to get 40 high-quality backlinks to the page.
What will we need to do to get 40 high-quality backlinks to the page within six months?
Let’s say that we plan to run a ‘skyscraper’ campaign. If we get a 5% conversion rate on average from our outreach emails, we can work backwards to create a process goal that will put us in an excellent position to achieve our performance goal.
Let’s do the math:
40 backlinks / 5% average conversion rate = 800 emails
800 emails / 6 months = ~133 emails/month
So our process goal is to send 133 ‘skyscraper’ outreach emails per month for six months.>
Here is a visualization of our SEO goal pyramid so far:
Like with performance goals, you can create multiple process goals. For instance, you may struggle to find enough skyscraper prospects to send 800 emails. In that case, you could add another link building tactic into the mix, like resource page link building, and set that as another process goal.
Because your SEO goals should align with company goals, I can’t say precisely what SEO goals to set. Your industry, how established your brand is, and the competitiveness of your niche all factor into the equation—among other things.
But what I can do is walk through a few more examples to get you comfortable using the SEO goal framework.
- Increase organic share of voice by 20% in 12 months
- Increase organic engagement rate by 10% in 6 months
- Achieve $10,000 in sales from organic traffic in month 6
Example SEO goal #1: Increase organic share of voice by 20% in 12 months
Search engine optimization is a highly competitive form of marketing. Essentially we are all vying for a spot (and attention) within a limited field of space.
You may hear your boss or clients saying, “just crush the competition.”
What does this mean? How will this be achieved? What determines whether or not we are successful?
“Crush the competition” is far too broad.
Using the SEO goal framework, you can turn “crush the competition” into a specific, measurable goal.
The first step is to align SEO efforts with company goals. What outcome contributes towards the company’s broader goal of “crushing the competition? In this case, something like “increase organic share of voice by 20% in 12 months” would be a SMART outcome goal.
It’s specific because we’re specifying a percentage in a timeframe—not an open-ended goal.
It’s measurable using the Competitors Overview report in Ahrefs’ Rank Tracker.
It’s achievable because 20% in 12 months is far from a ‘pie in the sky’ proposal.
It’s relevant to company goals because it’s essentially our site’s organic search visibility compared to competitors.
And it’s time-based because we specified a timeframe.
Now for the second step: setting performance goals.
Remember, this should also be a SMART goal. To keep things simple, we’ll set just one: “win 50 featured snippets for high-volume tracked keywords in 12 months.”
Featured snippets are pieces of information that generally display at the top of search results for a search query. Getting more featured snippets is a simple way to get more SERP visibility and clicks.
Here’s how to find the best featured snippet opportunities:
- Go to Ahrefs’ Rank Tracker
- Select your project
- Choose the Overview report
- Filter for keywords with featured snippets that you don’t rank for
- Filter keywords where you rank in positions 2–5
- Sort the keywords by traffic volume from highest to lowest
You’re in the home stretch now. The third and final step is to break out performance goal(s) into process goals by outlining the how.
Because it’s often possible to win featured snippets with a simple on-page change, a process goal would be to “make on-page changes to 50 pages to increase our chances of winning the snippet.” We can measure progress by tracking the number of owned featured snippets in Ahrefs’ Rank Tracker:
Here’s our completed SEO goal pyramid:
Example SEO goal #2: Increase organic engagement rate by 10% in 6 months
You may be thinking user engagement is a CRO metric. But remember, Google’s own SEO Starter guide says, “any optimization should be geared toward making the user experience better.”
Historically, SEOs measured engagement using bounce rate and time on page. These are poor metrics to use because they often don’t align with user behavior.
For example, let’s say that you sit down to read a ~2K word blog post. This website says that even a slow reader would get through that in 20 minutes. If you close the browser as soon as you’re done, that session would technically count as a bounce.
Luckily, Google Analytics 4 has a more robust metric we can use to measure UX: Engagement rate.
Engagement rate more accurately measures whether a user interacted with your website or left, so a good outcome goal would be to “increase organic engagement rate by 10% in 6 months.”
It’s specific because it specifies a percentage and timeframe.
It’s measurable using the User Acquisition report in GA4:
It’s achievable because there are things within our control we can change to impact this metric.
It’s relevant because we want to improve UX, and engagement rate measures this more accurately than bounce rate or time on page.
It’s time-based because we specified a timeframe (6 months).
Now for the performance goal(s).
Let’s keep things simple again and just set one: “increase the number of unique user scrolls by 30% on low scroll pages that have high-value to our company.”
To find the pages where we need to improve UX, we can check the Engagement Pages and screens report in GA4, filter to organic users, and view the table by unique user scrolls.
Given our performance goal, our process goal may be rewriting introductory paragraphs on low scroll pages so that more people are sold on the article and stick around to read it. Again, this can be measured manually.
Example SEO goal #3: Achieve $10,000 in sales from organic traffic in month 6
Making more money is the ultimate goal of SEO. To stand the best chance of this happening, we need to convert the vague goal of “make more money” into a SMART outcome goal like “achieve $10,000 in sales from organic traffic in month 6.”
This goal is specific because we’ve specified the amount and timeframe.
It’s easily measurable with Google Analytics.
It’s achievable because our hypothetical site isn’t particularly seasonal and is already doing ~$9K/month in sales from organic—so this is only an increase of ~11%.
A good outcome goal has to be both motivating and realistic. When setting a sales-based goal, consider the organic channel’s previous sales history and upcoming seasonal trends.
It’s relevant because, again, making more money is the ultimate goal of SEO.
It’s time-based because we specified a timeframe.
Now for the game plan: performance goal(s):
Keeping things simple and setting just one performance goal again, we’ll go for “increase organic traffic to high-value pages by 20% in 6 months.”
Setting a timeframe and percentage here can get a little complicated. You essentially need to work backward from the “top sellers” you choose and work out how many more you’d have to sell to hit your sales goal, what the buy-to-detail rate is, and the proposed traffic lift to hit the sales goal.
The simplest way to find “high-value pages” is to ask which products are the most profitable for the company. Consider the cost of production, cost of shipping, rate of returns, etc.
Measuring whether we meet our performance goal is easy enough in Google Analytics. Just head to Behaviour > All Pages, compare periods, segment by organic traffic, and look at the entrances metric:
Finally, the process goal(s)…
I can’t outline exactly what the process goals will be as these will vary depending on what type of product or service, search intent, business resources, etc.
Here are just a few examples of actionable process goals that may help increase organic traffic:
Because process goals are tasks that you or your team carries out, completing the goal is measured manually using your personal project management style.
For example, if the process goal is to optimize all images on every high-value page, we would manually check that each image has an optimized file name, descriptive alt text, and meets file size requirements.
Here’s our completed SEO goal framework for this example:
Setting SEO goals may seem like an impossible task, but a strong framework is all you need to get started.
If you stay on track and complete your process tasks, you have a good chance at meeting your performance goals. When you meet your performance goals, you are very well positioned to hit your outcome goal.
Success is in the details.
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