SEO Reporting: It’s Time We Get Away From Minutia & Focus On What Matters

For SEOs, reporting hasn’t exactly been easy over the past few years. How we measure and how we strategize has had to evolve as Google has altered or retired the tools we use or the way search works. We’ve seen five main shifts that have truly changed how we originally measured SEO success, and I argue that we now need to face reality and dramatically shift our views on how to measure SEO effectiveness.

Issue 1: Personalized Search & Geotargeted Results

While Google has nearly always tried to personalize organic search results, a major shift occurred in 2009 as personalized search took on greater geotargeting capabilities. With that shift, every search became unique, depending on the location where a searcher is physically located.

What did it mean for reporting? Because each search query produced more personalized results, the rankings from searches in one geographic location would definitely be different than those in another. While there are some workarounds for this issue, it does often confuse clients when a rankings report with “normalized” rankings doesn’t match what the client sees when searching for the same search terms.

Issue 2: Removal Of The Keyword Tool

The Google Keyword Tool (external to AdWords) had been on its way out for some time. I was sitting next to Marty Weintraub at SMX East in 2010 when a representative from Google admitted that the tool was primarily focused on providing data from ad clicks versus organic searches.  While we sat there, a bit shocked, it was a sign of what was to come.


As SEOs, what we do is manipulate search results, plain and simple. Whether that manipulation of Google’s results is for a good cause or not, SEOs play with Google’s algorithmic factors to promote their websites. But if you’re Google, do you want to encourage this behavior? No. If you’re Google, you don’t want others to manipulate what you believe is a valid way to rank websites via the algorithm.

And so in August 2013, Google retired the Google Keyword Tool for users outside of AdWords, leaving SEOs who are not advertising via AdWords to choose between other keyword tools, often paid tools that do not have direct access to actual organic search data.

Issue 3: Google Goes Public

I’d be remiss not to mention what I feel is Google’s largest influence today: its shareholders. Google held its IPO in 2004, with Google AdWords encompassing more than 85% of Google’s quarterly revenue (pdf). Given that AdWords still makes up the majority of Google’s revenue, is it truly in Google’s best interest to boost the efforts of SEOs, or to boost the use of AdWords?

While I don’t like to play the conspiracy theorist, I am a businesswoman. As such, I’m always evaluating what lines of business are most profitable and which can boost my bottom line revenue. I can’t expect Google to act differently, especially when it is accountable to Wall Street’s expectations. SEO doesn’t boost revenue for Google.

Issue 4: (Not Provided)

Earlier this week, Google confirmed that it is going to encrypt all keywords from Google organic search, speeding up a timeline that had been slowly creeping toward a 100% (not provided) reality.


While we’ve all likely been prepping for this moment, I think we all likely assumed we’d have more time to prepare. The (not provided) Doomsday Clock on even estimated that we would reach 100% (not provided) in February 2017, but now shows that the complete blocking of keyword data will likely be seen by all sites by November 2013 (and possibly earlier).

OK, so Google’s made it more difficult to research and choose keywords, and now they’re taking away SEOs’ ability to track how their keywords are actually performing from Google organic search.

Even if Google were providing some of the keyword data, like some percentage, is it accurate? It would be incorrect to assume that if Google is hiding 50% of your queries in Google Analytics that the 50% was applied evenly, fairly, across all keywords. The hidden 50% could include a higher or lower percentage of brand keywords. You would have no way of knowing. So even if (not provided) were not being implemented at 100%, is the query data you have today accurate? Not likely.

Issue 5: Likely Inaccuracies of Google Webmaster Tools Keyword Data

But wait! We have Google Webmaster Tools to save us, right? Maybe not. Ian Lurie at Portent Interactive  wrote a blog post in June claiming that the query data in Google Webmaster Tools is highly inaccurate. It was a compelling post and should make you question whether the query data in Google Webmaster Tools can be trusted.

I would also question this: if the Google Webmaster Tools keyword query data is highly inaccurate, could it not also stand to reason that the rankings data provided by Google Webmaster Tools may also be highly inaccurate?

So Where Do We Go From Here?

While keywords certainly help SEOs to determine strategy, far too many marketing executives rely on keywords and rankings to determine SEO success when in reality this isn’t measuring the end goal of SEO and what most marketers care most about.

Keywords and rankings are merely providing clicks and impressions — they are not key indicators per se of purchase or reaching various conversion goals. In my estimation, keywords and rankings are getting into the minutia of SEO — while they can help an SEO strategize, they are not key to determining the impact of SEO on an organization.

Let’s make a pact, SEOs. Let’s stop reporting on minutia. Now is a great time to make a dramatic shift.

If you’re an SEO agency, it’s important to understand what your clients care about when it comes to measuring the success of SEO. In the past, this may have included keyword traffic and rankings reports. But today, those measurements may not be available or accurate going forward. So why report on something that isn’t an accurate measurement?

Ultimately, marketers have the same job they always have had — to prove the success of their campaigns. Their jobs depend on it. A recent study from Adobe shows that ROI is a clearly important metric to marketers:

So if ROI is important, why are rankings or keywords important? While they can be indicators for us as SEOs, guiding us in a direction, the ultimate measurement of the effectiveness of SEO is still how much revenue it can generate.

What are the next steps? John Doherty wrote a great piece the other day on about using Google Analytics to map your goals to your marketing funnel. Using Google Analytics attribution modeling and combining those efforts with established goals, you can more directly measure not just the inbound traffic from organic search, but also its overall impact on various conversions, even applying revenue projections or actuals to the model.

Ultimately, that’s what marketers care about — conversion and ROI. So let’s help the cause of SEO and definitively show the value of SEO rather than focusing on the minutia of keywords and rankings that can’t be accurately measured and don’t necessarily define ROI.

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

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Analytics | Google: SEO


About The Author: is the President and CEO of Marketing Mojo. She regularly blogs on a variety of search engine marketing topics, often focusing on technical solutions. You can find her on Twitter @janetdmiller.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn


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  • Russell Hayes

    Effective SEO for most small local businesses means more sales, more customers so the important aspect most often overlooked in my opinion is landing page and conversion optimization. Ranking high means nothing if you aren’t helping your clients convert visitor into real money.

  • Troy Curfman

    This is a great article. I have been telling companies some of this stuff for over a year now. it’s great to see your depth and vision as it is headed in certain directions and your knowledge on the path its taking was great to see. Thanks for a great write up.

  • Emily Hunter

    it was really just a matter of time before Google took its toys and went home, begging you to follow them. As a businesswoman, I can see it – they’re almost like those who offer you a free sample, get you hooked, and then take it away. The change that i was most affected by was the removal of the Adwords tool – that was the single most effective tool in my arsenal, and, quite honestly, the Ad planner has turned out to be.. shall we say, less than stellar from my perspective.

  • Molly Richardson

    I agree ROI is one of the most important factors. The problem I see here though, is that there are many steps along the “sales” chain that aren’t affected by how the search engines rank the page. Website design, customer service, store and product quality are all factors that attribute to the success or failure of a marketing campaign. Also a lot of times Social Media is included. the good thing about page ranking was that it was on its own. As an SEO manager, I could prove what I was doing was helping their site reach a higher target audience. Now, millions of people could be flocking to the site and nothing is purchased because the store is non efficient, not user friendly or even broken. I know other data from analytics will help, but it’s just not the same.

  • janetdriscollmiller

    Thanks, Troy!

  • Geoffrey Setiawan

    Great job on this Janet. This really sums up what has been happening in the world of SEO in the recent months. I have 1 question about your comment on SEO being tied to ROI. I do agree that ROI is really the bottom line for SEO, however, if you ask yourself how can I improve that ROI, you always go back to keyword rankings and performance as the primary means to do this.

    Am I missing something here?

  • Puneet Sharma

    Great Article!! According to you SEO is dead now??? What do you think??

  • Nick Stamoulis

    Does anyone have another analytics tool that they find to be pretty accurate and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg? I’ll event settle for good enough at this point, especially if Ian is right and the Webmaster Data is pretty much pointless.

  • Conor Treacy

    That’s one of the things that I’m struggling with here on my end. It could be any mix of things that are failing the conversion – the product, the price, the pictures, the position on the page.. but if my job is to drive the traffic, it’s someone elses to execute the sale. Figuring out what to include in the new reports has become a challenge for our team.

  • Paul Johnson

    Dead, no. Dying, of sorts. I think that SEO is emerging as a sort of chameleon field. By this I mean that as an SEO manager, we are forced to look at all the factors that influence the website we are trying to promote. With social media engagement now having a direct effect on rankings, we are forced to take the websites design, usability, content, audience, and many other factors into consideration when we plan and implement our SEO. With every update, the search engines are getting closer and closer to removing the spam sites from the rankings. Thanks to social media, it is now more important than ever to have a great website that people will share with their friends, or at least won’t be embarrassed to like on Facebook or another social media platform. I for one am very happy that this day has come because it should be people, not machines, that judge the relevance of a website. I think that SEO should be called Internet Marketing because the two are quickly becoming one and the same. If one piece of the puzzle fails, the whole thing does. As Janet states, what good is ranking high if you can’t convert the visitor into a lead or sale? I think that social media management, website design and SEO absolutely go hand in hand, and anyone who say’s differently is naive.

  • Dan Patrick

    I’m trying to change the expectations of our clients, but it seems that rankings are the SEO metric a lot of clients can immediately grasp. I’m trying to shift the metric from rankings to incoming calls as that metric is the true ROI. But even that’s a hard road when my clients aren’t seeing any additional sales and when they do, they may blame the sale on any of the other advertising channels. Besides, sales are hard to come by when you’re dealing with an item that’s $50K+.

    Rankings were simple to explain because it was kind of a game to a lot of our clients. They enjoyed beating their competitors whereas calls and real-world sales can depend on a number of other factors including seasonality, the quality of their sales staff, whether the item has a competitive price, etc. It’s a hard road, but I’ll keep fighting the good fight.


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