Keep your eyes OFF the search engine rankings

by Hamlet Batista | August 08, 2008 | 24 Comments

There’s been an interesting debate on WebmasterWorld, Search Engine Roundtable, Sphinn, SitePoint and Search Engine Watch about Google’s recent block of popular rank-checking tools like WebPosition Gold and WebCEO. It appears that clients are very used to tracking their SEO consultants’ efforts and gauging their success by looking at the regular rankings report. But querying search engines is not the only way you can use to check rankings. Let me tell you a better way…
A better way to check search rankings
I definitely feel the pain of those that need to rely on tools that are constantly getting blocked by Google. But there is no need to get Google mad at you and block your IP. I learned early in life that there are always many different ways to achieve the same goals. You can get far more information about your rankings, for instance, directly from your traffic log files. You can determine all the keywords that you are ranking for, their relative positions, the number of visits each keyword is sending, and, with the IP address, you can also determine the physical locations where searchers are coming from. We’ve had this functionality built in to RankSense since we started developing it four years ago! Plus, you don’t need to query Google to get this information. (BTW, the new 2.0 version of RankSense is coming out, and the Discover Rankings tool can now detect conversions as well. That way, you’ll be ranking first for the keywords that actually bring in the money!)
The problem with fixation on ranking reports

But even if you can still check your rankings, this belies a notion that SEO is all about moving a site to the #1 spot in the search results. There is a camp that thinks ranking reports like this are important because customers are asking for them; the other camp argues that it is a waste of time because different people get different search results, and that the success of an SEO campaign must be measured in another way, like traffic and conversions.
There certainly are some fundamental problems with letting your customers get fixated on moving up in the rankings. Let me explain a few of them:
1.       A #1 ranking for a keyword means nothing if the traffic that derives from it does not give you the desired results: leads, sales, downloads, sign-ups, etc. Is the customer clear on his or her specific goals for the SEO campaign? How does he or she know a ranking for “blue widgets” will help achieve those goals? Has the keyword phrase been tested with PPC? Those are more important questions.
2.       Rankings can move up and down for a multitude of reasons, and fixation on those fluctuations can make any normal human being crazy. 🙂 For example, Google delivers different results based on the physical location of the searcher, the language setting, the search history, and so on. That makes perfect sense because people living in different places and having different interests would consider relevant things that other people in other places do not.
3.       There are more important metrics of success for an SEO campaign. We should not let the client forget the main purpose of SEO, and ranking for “blue widgets” should not be the end goal in and of itself. As consultants, we need to be the ones telling clients which keywords are going to produce the best results, not rankings.
Does this means that trying to rank #1 is impossible or a bad idea?
I personally don’t think so. Fighting for #1 is like trying to be the best at what you do, and it is well known that #1 rankings bring with them a huge amount of benefits. They receive more than twice as many clicks as the second result (provided it doesn’t have a crappy snippet) and being #1 is a sign of trust to searchers. Users trust that if Google recommends the site as #1, it has to be good.
Also, while it is true that for many keywords the location in the search results might shift for different users, for a great many searches this is not the case. Consider navigational or brand searches. People doing brand searches are expecting the same thing and it doesn’t matter where in the world they are, their language or their search habits. A search for RankSense anywhere in the world should hopefully bring you to my RankSense software! 😉 For many searches, trying to be #1 (or on the first page) for queries that bring in money and don’t necessarily vary much from searcher to searcher is a very good idea, IMO.
My SEO Key Performance Indicators

As I said, rankings are not a measure of success unless they result in tangible goals such as traffic and conversions. That is why my favorite KPIs for measuring/tracking the success of my search campaigns are:
1.       Search traffic growth and corresponding conversions. I want to know week-to-week and month-to-month how my organic traffic is growing and, more importantly, how many conversions I’m getting from the overall search traffic.
2.       How many rankings I have on the first page vs the rest of the SERPs. As I said, I can derive this information from the traffic logs. Getting more visitors from the first page of results than from page two downwards means that I will be getting more traffic, so this indicator supports the first. In addition, I want to make sure my most profitable keywords are on the first page. That needs to be a priority because that will drastically improve my results.
3.       How many new incoming links I am getting every week/month etc. If I were the obsessive type, instead of fixating on rankings I’d fixate on how many new links I was getting. Getting links and increasing the visibility of the site will result in deeper index penetration (because the site is considered more important) and the ability to rank for more competitive terms that can potentially result in a lot more traffic. It could also help me adapt my content development strategy to focus on more competitive terms.
4.       How many pages I have in the search engine index vs. the total crawlable pages of the site. Last but not least, the easiest way to start getting search traffic from long-tail queries is to create lots of quality content and promote that content. Every page we manage to get into the search engine index is another source of search referrals, so making sure all or most of the pages are getting indexed is a winning strategy.
There are several other metrics I use to measure success, but for me the most critical/important ones are these four. Do you use any KPIs to measure the success of your SEO efforts? If you do, please share them in the comments.

Hamlet Batista

Chief Executive Officer

Hamlet Batista is CEO and founder of RankSense, an agile SEO platform for online retailers and manufacturers. He holds US patents on innovative SEO technologies, started doing SEO as a successful affiliate marketer back in 2002, and believes great SEO results should not take 6 months



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