Excuse Me While I Have A Ranking Report Rant

I had lunch today with a young, ambitious entrepreneur. He’s fresh out of a prestigious tech university, has a fledgling company and visions of shaking up a big industry. He wanted to talk about search.

Him:  “I’m pretty psyched, we just launched about 4 months ago and we’re already ranking number one for <insert obscure phrase>.”

Me:  “So, how much traffic is that generating?”

Him:  “Well, none.”

Me:  “So how useful is that ranking?”

Him:  “Well, if we can rank for that, I just need to get us ranking for terms that will get us traffic.”

Me: “errr. . .”

I hate ranking reports. They are used by agencies to validate retainers. They are cited by businesses to suggest success. In reality, they cloud the issue.

They convey progress while hiding failure. They distract from business goals and promote the misallocation of resources. Talk to me about traffic, but don’t show me another damn ranking report. Here’s why:


An increasing number of searches return personalized results; this can be based on things like previous user behavior (i.e. my search for “news” returns CNN, because I visit CNN so frequently) or geo specific searches (i.e. my search for “restaurant” returns Seattle restaurants) or searches based on a social graph.

Worst case, a ranking report can reflect atypically high results from an employee’s frequent visitations of her own site. How widespread is personalization and for what types of searches? No idea – so why report on it?

Local & Other Stuff

Search results are no longer a simple list of results with ads sprinkled around.

How do you report rankings for searches that include local results (accounting for some 30% of all searches)? What about when video shows up? News? Images? How do we count these? How do they impact user click behavior?  No idea – so why report on it?

Changing Results

It’s not like results are static – experience shows that as you go higher in results (20+), ranking results can fluctuate wildly.

Additionally, the engines switch up the format all the time as they optimize and test. For example, today’s local results may look totally different that tomorrow’s. How can you have a consistent metric? No idea – so why report on it?

Query Variations

Ranking reports only show a score for a specific term, they do nothing to demonstrate success or failure for multiple variations of a similar query that should drive traffic to a given page.

For example, how successful is our Seattle DUI Lawyer page at getting traffic for “seattle dui lawyer”, “drunk driving attorney seattle, wa” and multiple variations thereof. Does your page capture traffic for query variations or not? Can’t think of all the variations – so why report on it?

Ranking Reports & Agencies

Agencies that are evaluated (and compensated) on their ability to move those ranking reports can be very dangerous.

Moving specific terms can be most easily accomplished by seo optimized links, which opens the door for agencies to engage in short term spammy linkbuilding tactics that can have site-wide, long term consequences.

Remember The Long Tail?

Remember how excited we got about the long tail? A focus on ranking reports can easily channel your efforts to a finite set of terms way up on the tail.

Now consider your given resources, how many terms can you realistically impact? 20? 100? 200? Now how many pages does your site have? Why are you ignoring 99% of them with your silly ranking reports? Why aren’t you creating more long tail content instead?

Ranking reports aren’t completely useless – every site should have a finite set of what we call ubercompetitive terms – those terms that really define your business that you are competing aggressively for. And by finite, I mean a 1-2 non-branded terms max for most of you, 3-6 for some and more than 6 for a very select few sites.

Additionally, generating ranking reports for online reputation management is absolutely appropriate. But for the most part, stop reading ranking reports. Start reading traffic reports.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | In House Search Marketing


About The Author: is the founder of Atticus Marketing - a search agency dedicated exclusively to the legal profession. Prior to Atticus, Conrad ran marketing for Urbanspoon and the legal directory Avvo, which rose from concept to market leader under his watch.

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  • http://www.beacontechnologies.com Eric Westerman

    However, you will also see the opposite if you’re in this game long enough…

    Me: Organic Traffic has increased by x% in the past year. Revenue has increased by z%.

    Client: But we’re not ranking for xyz term!

    Me: Well, that’s a low volume term that isn’t searched by your customers and isn’t particularly relevant to your site to begin with.

    Client: I don’t care – when I type that phrase, I want to see us at the top!

  • http://tatermarketing.wordpress.com Ryan Tate

    “Can’t think of all the variations – so why report on it?”

    On a somewhat related note, check out Danny’s post defending the content farms…


    They are quantifying EVERY variation!

  • http://www.AtlantaAnalytics.com Evan LaPointe

    BIG thumbs up on this post!

  • http://www.haleymarketing.com bradsmith14

    Outstanding article! I have clients that only focus on ranking reports, ignoring actual targeted traffic. We still supply ranking reports for our clients on a limited number of phrases but couple that with a more in-depth look at overall keyword traffic. For some reason the keyword ranking reports are more “sexy” to clients but after a short 5 minute explanation they actually understand that ranking reports may not mean a thing.

  • http://www.exposureonline.com TimDineen

    This should be required as a cover sheet for any SEO who gives out ranking reports.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com Bryson Meunier

    Nice post. I make a similar point about toolbar PR being a meaningless metric in the goals and metrics section of my recent Two Sides of SEO post, and call for the same focus on the business value of natural search: http://searchengineland.com/the-two-sides-of-seo-61387.

    Please don’t blame all agencies for the focus on the wrong metrics to demonstrate progress, however. Being on the agency side I can tell you that some of us have similar concerns about rankings being taken too seriously, and sometimes get requests from clients to report on rankings even when we focus them on the business value of natural search through impressions, visits, revenue, leads, SOV, etc. And rankings are used to validate retainers because unfortunately some clients are impressed by that data by itself. Most credible agencies at this point should be presenting other metrics as well. At any rate, it’s good to see more in-house people like yourself asking for this data, as it can only help the success of the overall natural search program.

  • http://Online-Social-Networking.com Larry Brauner

    I agree with most of your points, but ranking reports aren’t entirely useless.

    They can identify low hanging fruit. For example, if there are terms for which you rank on the top of the second page, you know that a modest amount of effort can get you on to page one.

    They also provide diagnostics to let you know approximately how well you’re doing for terms that are too competitive for your site for now.

  • http://www.vertical-leap.co.uk Kerry Dye

    I think that Eric Westerman’s point is very valid. As an agency, you need to be aware of the metrics that clients are going to measure success by, and that means some sort of measurement of those metrics. The education process to wean them off the ranking reports (and Toolbar Page Rank for goodness sake!) is a long and wearisome one.

  • http://www.seolair.com Seo Lair

    I like this better:

    “BAD agencies report only on rankings and use them to justify their retainers.”

    Good agencies report on metrics that are actually making a business impact i.e revenue, leads, conversions, etc… Of course organic traffic is important as well. If you’re not getting traffic, there is no possibility for conversion.

    Rankings drive traffic which is why some sort of top list should be reported on. Especially high volume category killer type terms and their high volume derivatives. Without ranking for high volume terms, how would you possibly be driving large amounts of organic traffic that you can later convert? Yes long tail strategies work but are usually more successful on larger sites.

  • Matt McGee

    I made a decision 3-4 years ago to never again provide a ranking report to clients. I tell prospects this before they commit to working with me and invite them to find another consultant if they want to track rankings, or to do it themselves. Best SEO decision I ever made.

    @Kerry – I wouldn’t wean anyone off them. Cold turkey is the only way to go.

  • http://www.movers-edge.com Movers-Edge.com

    OK, this at least the fifth blog post I’ve read from SEO’s whining about clients looking at ranking reports.

    You work in Search Engine Optimization. Clients higher you to improve their rankings. (Exactly what else do you think you would be “optimizing” for natural search- grammar???) You can educate clients and come to an agreement on what source to measure rankings, but please, don’t trot out the timeworn arguments that you are only there “to help with traffic.” If you are only there to generically help with traffic, don’t call yourselves SEO’s. Call yourselves marketers and take down the references to SEO on your site.

    I wouldn’t offer SEO consulting for many reasons- but if I did put myself out there as an SEO professional, I would be willing to be measured my rankings.

    Pro football coaches get evaluated on wins, salespeople get evaluated on sales, and SEO’s get evaluated on rankings. Period. I’m sorry you find that distressing. But then do something else. I hate to be harsh, but my heavens this sounds like whining!


  • Matt McGee

    Actually, Movers-Edge, my clients hire me to help them make more money. The ones who seem more concerned with rankings than money get referred to other SEO consultants.

  • http://www.oneresult.co.uk Elizabeth Strawford

    This is a good controversial title to attract readers! Suggesting that ranking reports are the only thing that all agencies do is a bit naughty. And you don’t seriously think that a professional SEO would use personalized results, or be unaware of their impact on rankings, do you?

    Of course, SEO is a holistic process and the focus should be on traffic and conversions, but rankings play a role, even if they are just the tip of the ice berg.

  • http://www.epiphanysolutions.co.uk SteveBaker

    Hi Conrad,

    I understand where you’re coming from, but you could argue that a client hires a search engine optimisation agency to achieve improvements in their organic listings (typically for non-branded searches).

    I believe that ranking reports can demonstrate the value that an agency is delivering, as long as the search terms that they are looking to target are agreed with the client in advance.

    It can be very misleading to simply measure success or failure on the overall number of clicks or sales generated from organic search results – clearly, if the client doesn’t have very good non-brand visibility, then this will be influenced heavily by the number of people looking for them by name. This in turn can be influenced by other marketing that they are doing.

    Particularly where a company has very poor rankings on ‘major’ keywords, even if the agency does an excellent job at improving their rankings, it can take a long time to generate any significant uplift in traffic on these terms. At least in the early stages in the optimisation, it’s very useful to demonstrate that on the terms that they are particularly interested in, they are ‘moving in the right direction’.

    Regarding your concerns with variations of keywords not being included, this again comes back to selecting appropriate search terms initially. If “seattle dui lawyer” and “drunk driving attorney seattle, wa” both generate large volumes of searches, then ranking reports should be produced on both of them. If one of these searches has very low search volumes then, as you say, who cares where you rank?

    You are absolutely right that the long tail should be taken into account, and that ranking reports alone do not give a full picture of the impact of optimisation. Other reports, such as looking at the number of distinct terms driving traffic to the website, or the total non-brand traffic may also add value here.

    Again, I agree that unscrupulous agencies may utilise spammy link-building techniques to achieve short term results, but these techniques are becoming less effective in time, and most reputable agencies are looking for clients with which they can build a long-term relationship. After all, most agencies offer a number of services, and once a bond of trust has been built with a client, they may be interested in other services.

    Steve Baker
    Chief Analyst
    Epiphany Solutions


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