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 notprovidedcount.com 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 Moz.com 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.