For some time now, there’s been a growing buzz in the SEO community regarding organic ranking reports.  The conversation focuses on a significant short list of controversial topics including: accuracy of data, use of tools that violate terms of service to scrape data, necessity for client reporting, and the foundational question: are ranking reports essential for performance monitoring.  There are strong — and relevant — opinions on both sides of the debate.

I would like to make the case that SEO experts’ time is better spent focusing on primary results metrics (such as organic traffic and conversions) and only analyzing organic rank/position as it relates to these business results.

The Value Of “Ranking”

A website can “rank” across search results for the same query, and that “rank” can change minute-to-minute, day-to-day, device-to-device.  Given the complexity of the factors considered before a search engine displays results, there is no definitive way to measure rank. Variables such as personalization, localization, search history, device in use, etc., — and their impact on search results — have been documented at great length.

We know that a webpage must rank somewhere in order to drive the associated organic traffic to a website.  The problem is pinpointing that somewhere and assigning a specific rank value.

I recently completed an (unscientific) experiment with a group of SEO experts, analyzing rank for a company’s high-priority phrases. During a 15-minute time period, we used Google to conduct the exact same search from various geographic locations within the U.S., on unique computers, using various browsers and Web proxies, some while logged into Google accounts and some not.

We found that the website ranked across the first page of the search results in dissimilar positions, or in some cases, did not rank on the first page at all.  So, what exactly is the website’s “rank” for that phrase? Who knows!

Rank Chasing

Chasing a specific rank is really a futile exercise. Focusing on measurable and actionable metrics is not. 

To “rank” in search results is to gain exposure and drive traffic to a website.  You will find — when reviewing a specific page of your site in analytics — the volume of keywords from organic search that drives traffic to your webpage is much larger than specific keywords for which you have optimized the page. Actual organic search queries are likely a combination of derivatives of your targeted phrases, direct variations of targeted phrases, brand phrases, and long tail phrases.

When optimizing a page for appropriate keywords and phrases, we forever chase the exposure that is measured by increased organic traffic to that page. While we don’t get a full picture of every single keyword due to the (not provided) privacy protection, there is plenty of actionable data at the landing page level for organic traffic (some query data, engagement data, conversion data, etc.).

Rather than focusing on ranking reports, I suggest that you prove the value of your SEO program by focusing on metrics that impact business results: first traffic, followed by conversions (sales, lead generation, engagement – whatever your goals are for the page or website).

In the end, it’s a quality game. Ensuring visitor quality is why we spend so much time researching potential keywords and phrases. We need to match the intent of the search with the content of the page to turn that traffic into qualified visits and conversions.

How will I know if something has gone wrong?

One case for the use of ranking reports is performance monitoring and internal assessment.  The ability to see a significant shift, specifically a decline, before it has time to do serious damage is a major concern. I think being proactive is an essential component of SEO success! I also believe there are effective ways to achieve this without the use of a ranking report.

3 Alternative Options For Analyzing Organic Search Results

Webmaster Tools

Google Webmaster Tools provides alerts for any major traffic changes (if you drop out of the search results – there will be a traffic impact, even if you catch it early).  Webmaster Tools also provides “average position” data that can be used to track trends with regard to “rank” if the keyword level data is a must. Webmaster tools traffic / search clicks warnings

Analytics

Most analytics programs allow for alerts to be set to monitor specific performance metrics.  In Google Analytics, you can utilize the Intelligence Events section to see both Automatic Alerts (alerts generated by Google when there is “a significant change in the traffic patterns on your site”) and Custom Alerts, which you can specify yourself. Read more from Google on this reporting:

Intelligence Events Overview in Google Analytics

Manual Spot Checks

While not as quick as a ranking report, I highly recommend performing manual spot checks to ensure not only the relative position is in line with expected results but also that the actual listing is desirable when compared to those around it.

Plus, There’s The Penalty Factor…

“Scraping” Google’s databases for rank data is against their terms of use. The enforcement of this policy seems to be a nearly impossible undertaking, but knowingly violating any policy of a major search engine in which you seek increased exposure, and from which you desire more traffic, is counter-intuitive.  I like to err on the side of caution and not “anger the beast,” so to speak.

See “Using our Services” section of Google’s Terms of Service:

Don’t misuse our Services. For example, don’t interfere with our Services or try to access them using a method other than the interface and the instructions that we provide… We may suspend or stop providing our Services to you if you do not comply with our terms or policies or if we are investigating suspected misconduct.”

Do You Really Need Ranking Reports?

If a client, boss or manager has ever asked why their site is listed in position “x” when your ranking report shows it is ranked in position “y,” then you have likely realized that reporting rank is a futile exercise. Eventually, a manual search will display something different — and you’ll have to explain (validate) your report.

Focus on the metrics that matter most, traffic and conversions, instead of chasing that moving target called “rank.” Performance data will always tell the tale that a mere ranking report cannot.

Final note: There are a lot of areas in the digital performance realm that must evolve, not just ranking reports.  In fact, the use of phrase “search engine optimization” in and of itself is very contradicting. Only the individuals at our favorite search engines can optimize them; so, at the very least, it is more accurately “website optimization.”

At present, most SEO’s wear several hats and focus more on site quality, technical performance, usability and good old-fashioned marketing… but that is an article for another day.

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

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO

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About The Author: is a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Specialist at SmartSearch Marketing with almost a decade of experience. Kristie manages all facets of organic SEO campaign development for SmartSearch Marketing.

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



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  • Guest

    40% of our queries are “not provided” and we can’t decipher what keywords are driving what traffic. Rankings are very important to us. We can show that performance improved at the page level, but we can’t tie it back to specific keywords (thank you Google). So yes, we need to monitor rankings. And Google Webmaster Tools can be way off for keyword tie back.

    Also, with other things like Panda and Penguin, monitoring rankings (along with performance) helps us keep an eye on trends. I would say performance (e.g., revenue) is the bottom line, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Not utilizing rankings reports is forsaking potentially valuable insights.

  • http://twitter.com/micovillasenor Mico Villaseñor

    Checking your website’s ranking I would say is not a waste of time as long as you don’t exert too much effort on it and as long as you don’t consider it as the sole metric of success of your SEO campaign. It’s a good way to know where your website currently stands against your competitors’ websites in terms your targeted keywords in Google and other SEs. It may not be considered as a ‘true’ benchmark of success but it can still somehow give you an idea if your SEO strategies are working according to plan or not since organic traffic is correlated with ranking.

    At the end of the day, SERP ranking is one of the things you and your client will look at. It’s up to you on how you would utilize the data from it. Thanks for sharing this wonderful pieace, Kristie!

  • http://www.buzzmaven.com/ Scott Clark

    Yes, ranking reports make no sense. And yes, clients still demand them because of their seductive simplicity. I’m always frustrated to see them persist in the pitches/proposals from SEOs. I even had one SEO firm last month say that “companies avoid rank reports to avoid accountability.”

    My answer is to create “ranking indication” reports which show how site KPIs react to improvements in rank across the web. In other words, by observing KPIs you indirectly observe rank.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fionn.downhill Fionn Downhill

    Yes but people trying to be controversial do no understand that. Sure do not give the ranking reports to the client insist they focus on the bottom line but any SEO not using ranking reports to inform SEO is probably not producing bottom line results.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fionn.downhill Fionn Downhill

    Maybe I am old school and used to getting traffic and conversions for clients using ranking reports as part of that process. However, I would like to see the case study of an SEO campaign with a very low baseline of trafffic and conversions where ranking reports were never used to help increase the KPI,s and ROI on the SEO effort. Until then I will continue to use ranking reports as part of the process it has worked so far.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fionn.downhill Fionn Downhill

    It has not been a benchmark of success for several years now but has been used as part of the process to create sucess for even longer if you understand organic SEO.

  • http://steveplunkett.com @steveplunkett

    the biggest problem is usage of auto query software specifically prohibited in Google Webmaster Guidelines..

  • http://pt-br.facebook.com/rmaeka Ricardo Nogueira Maekawa

    One great importance of the Rank Reports is that it gives you a way to gather data that have the power of enable you to design your own conclusions about correlation studies. The Rank Reports is awesome too when you need to show the results of your work on the website quality to any client.

  • http://www.farhanonline.com/ Farhan Fawzer

    In other words SEO is based on your website’s goal and not just where your keywords rank or how much traffic you get. I’d also like to add the fact that unless the organic traffic your website gets is related to the product or services that you offer, it not likely to covert, so keep an eye on the bounce rate as well.

  • http://twitter.com/earnonline_miss Earn Online | Miss`C

    First of all, we need to work on the keywords — the primary spine of our website. Then, content follows before anything else. The SEO Tools are just tools for checking, dwelling on them all day long wouldn’t blast off your website to the number one spot. However, your use of tools and the tool itself are the deciding factors of your website success. Mico is right. For me, I am comfortable and pleased checking my web analytics with Colibri Tool and I make sure that I don’t dwell on one activity for a long time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, totally appreciate this article.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    Yes, for the most part ranking “well” means you’re going to get more traffic in the end. After all, showing up on the first page is going to give you brand a lot more exposure than if it’s on page 6. But as you mentioned, exact rank is hard to pinpoint from day to day (or even hour to hour) because so many factors are at play. What happens if you tell your client “hey guys, we’re doing great for this keyword” and when they do a manual search their site is nowhere to be found? Now you look like you’re either trying to game them or don’t really understand what is going on.

  • http://www.noggindigital.com/ Zach Kasperski

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a while, Kristie! There are few individuals in the SEO space who will admit that ranking reports are (somewhat) bogus, and the accuracy and consistency of the data depends on the factors that you’ve laid out in this post.

    Ironic I read this post when I did because I was just about to run some ranking reports for a client I’m working with at the moment. I completely agree that SEOs and marketing directors should be more focused on traffic and conversions gained from a particular campaign.

    The use of Webmaster Tools’ impression data for search queries can be beneficial if you see any significant impression spikes worth talking about. Also, taking a look at month by month link metrics and the content keywords section could have you drawing conclusions of how much the SEO campaign has improved a particular website. All in all, thanks for writing such a great (and needed) post on the subject!

  • Jared Oldham

    Krisite, Great article
    Rankings are a trailing indicator. I feel they should be reported on as they are a byproduct of a good internet marketing campaign, however they are far from the most important thing to be showing clients. Focusing on conversions, referral traffic from quality content, and tracking goals within analytics gives a much better view of the work actually being done. Conversions and goals have monetary value that clients can understand and recognize.

    Reporting should focus on the benefits of real internet marketing, this is what we are doing: this is how it has increased conversions, traffic, visibility, user interaction, completed goals oh and the last page of this report shows how rankings have been benefited as well.

  • Brian Jensen

    Hi Kristy, great article here. I absolutely agree that it’s vital to keep the conversation with clients focused on the real value (conversions, engagement, traffic) for any online marketing campaign. I tend to view any lift in organic search as a successful byproduct of any well thought out and organised content marketing or link building initiative. Because both engines still rely heavily on the link graph to determine relevance and authority, I believe it’s still reasonable to expect that efforts surrounding any targeted query could influence a lift in organic search through an increase in both, leading to additional organic search traffic. I personally wouldn’t abandon a rankings report but do believe the conversation should always end, not start with rankings . Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christian-Noel/50205756 Christian Noel

    Ranking reports do have value within the context of the other KPI’s. Ignoring rank entirely is not advisable. What you want to do is create a baseline opportunity report. Take the nominal Google rank for your basket of KW’s and your CTR for it and try to project what you CTR would be (and all the following session KPI’s) would be if you ranked higher for a particular KW. Yes, personalization can make things harder, but it depends on your audience. The fact is you have to baseline the traffic opportunity with something and Rank is still a part of that. To say “rank” doesn’t matter at all is like saying sunlight doesn’t matter for photosynthesis.

  • http://twitter.com/FogelRivka Rivka Fogel

    On local variation in the SERPs: How much do the SERPs vary between searches/IPs from different locations (assuming the pages aren’t hyperlocalized)? When ranking platforms pull data, is that data the average of multiple organic ranking crawls from varying (and hopefully representative) locations? Or am I assuming it’s just one crawl per keyword?

  • http://www.LeadDiscovery.com/ Jerry Nordstrom

    I don’t believe Kristie was advocating for the dropping of KW ranking reports entirely.

    The fact is since the inception of search engines there have been SEO’s selling services based strictly on the back Ranking reports. 15 some odd years of tradition with people’s livelihood at stake will not allow change to happen very easily.

    I believe the larger point is that as marketers we needed to shift our thinking behind how we track success for all of our marketing channels, search rankings included. Certainly GA has given us so much more to evaluate with and we should be continuously updating the KPI’s we use.

    Its going to be a long slog to shift the client’s understanding of SEO and reporting in general. Only ONE day after we had access to a new client’s website the owner called and asked why he was not within the top 3 positions, for a one word, generic and highly competitive term – sort of like “Mortgage”.

  • or zilberman

    This is a real problem as currently the “Rankings” even on seoMOZ and such tools do not represent the true rankings as those change individually per user this days based on many metrics, making this obsolete.

    The problem is that many SEO companies i think are afraid of going in the direction of having a contract that will make them show traffic increace or conversions as those are harder to get by, and you must not forget that if you go up in rankings from non existant to page 3 it’s still a big rise in SERP position, though it may not result in an increace in traffic.

  • http://twitter.com/ChaseSEO Chase Anderson

    In my opinion, using only traffic reports for your clients is a disservice. You could do nothing, and have a search term trending upward in volume and they could think you’re producing results. Conversely, you could have moved loads of terms from page 2 to page 1 but search volumes are decreasing so your clients think you’re actually hurting them. There is no single metric, and no SEO report containing only analytics data will provide the real picture of your SEO campaign. The inclusion of rankings, search volumes, analytics data and in most cases conversions will provide a more accurate view but not one that can be read by just looking at one particular metric with more seriousness than another.

    The other point you make is also important. For many clients, who have no search visibility to begin with, movement from page 5 to page 2 is completely invisible in analytics but a ranking report would show that movement especially when a large keyword set is used to establish averages. A graph showing average ranking on 20+ terms can often reveal much more about a site’s overall performance than you might expect. Average rank graphs can often make penalties very easy to identify.

  • SEOGuy

    It’s about setting expectations. If you’re using the right tools, you can use average rank. Moment in time rank means nothing.

  • Jill Whalen

    Gee…where have I heard this before?

  • Jamie Press

    Fantastic article. We’ve been trying to stress the importance of traffic and conversions on the business bottom line as opposed to pure ranking results.

    We’ve had a client in the past who would obsess about two search terms and nothing else, constantly on our backs about these two phrases and why we weren’t ranking in a very tough market up against market leaders with undoubtedly much bigger budgets than our client. It didn’t matter how much we tell them they’re not even the best converting terms and even if they were ranking #1 for both the key phrases, it’s not going to make them millionaires!

  • http://twitter.com/ahmansoor SEO Specialist AHM

    “website optimization” might not be a perfect term either , because SEO is about optimizing all ‘digital assets’ – not just the website. So a better term can be ‘digital assets optimization” -(DAO)

  • http://www.seobooklab.com/ Ram Babu SEO

    thanks kristie, yes you are right , we need to focus on those related metrics as well to look this all about happening of our ranking!

  • http://twitter.com/InsuranceCopywr Inbound Insurance Mk

    I think ranking reports are valuable too. While I agree that it’s good to pursue a cumulative SEO result, I find there are often a couple of keyword phrases that stand out for traffic potential. Incidentally, those are the same phrases that have high competition, so you have to be purposeful to organically rank for them.

  • eDigitalAus

    Thanks Kristie for the great article. I believe ranking reports are a great tool and good indication on how any website content optimisation efforts are performing. It can not be the only indication or source of organic traffic performance – specially knowing rankings are changing so quickly ( Few hours ago Google’s Matt Cutts offered insights on rankings http://youtu.be/BzfK6isC7CA and why they change ) – They should compliment an overall traffic acquisition strategy. Sometimes dramatic variations in ranking reports might alert a business that other more steady traffic acquisition channels might need to be considered.

  • Krishna Lakkineni

    At ROI Media Works many of clients we work with look into new traffic and conversions on website. It depends on setting the expectations right. As long as the leads are generated from website and Return On Investment is good there is no reason to send a rankings report. Mind you, we do run these ranking reports to compare traffic trends and internal analysis.

  • Finn_Jake

    Very informative post. However, if you could analyze and gather SERP ranking results easily, then why not do it. I use ColibriTool (http://colibritool.com/google-position-checker) to conveniently do this so its not that of a hassle. Though Traffic and Conversion are the essential aspects, something feels amissed if I don’t checkout my site’s ranking.

  • http://twitter.com/interartsllc Interactive Arts LLC

    Rankings are very problematic… especially if you have a business with locations in hundreds or thousands of locations. There’s no way to generalize rankings across all those locations and then apply those to an overall SEO effort. We’ll take a peek at local rankings, but personalized search throws those numbers out the window. Our primary KPI are conversions, not rankings and we focus our energies on the traffic sources that produce the highest conversions.

  • Kristie Colby

    Thank you Zach and very valid follow up points as well!

  • Kristie Colby

    To be clear I am not suggesting rank doesn’t matter, I am saying that it is nearly impossible to measure accurately. I am in total agreement on the need to baseline performance in order to track success – we just differ on the metrics in use.

  • Kristie Colby

    Very interesting perspective! And I share your *facepalm* when it comes to justification for use as a true and valuable reporting metric for clients to see regularly.

  • Kristie Colby

    Exactly! Ranking reports that are not manually populated are against TOS – period. I can’t justify the time investment when weighed with accuracy of data and value to the bottom line.

  • Kristie Colby

    I think you have a thoughtful and realistic approach. Impact and report on the bottom line metrics.

  • Kristie Colby

    I actually agree when it comes to those few keywords that are essential. I’m not saying not to look into rankings (in fact I manually spot check important phrases as I mention in the post). But reporting on a large group of keywords (using a tool that likely breaks TOS) as a performance metric for clients makes no sense as the data cannot be universally accurate. Report on the value of the SEO program – how is it impacting the bottom line?

  • Kristie Colby

    I agree. We are stuck with a name (and mine is no better) that is not indicative of what we do or how we do it.

  • Kristie Colby

    And this struggle won’t change as long as there are people willing to provide services based on rank instead of key metrics.

  • Kristie Colby

    Jill – I loved your post on this same topic a few months ago (I’m an avid reader of your newsletter), especially the part about there being no such thing as ranking. Seems as though the point will need to be reiterated again and again…

  • Kristie Colby

    Exactly Jerry! Reporting ranking to clients is a rabbit hole from which there is no escape.

  • Kristie Colby

    Good questions! In the unscientific test I noted in the article there was a +/- swing in rankings of 15 positions. Each ranking report platform has its own method so you would have to look into each individually. In most cases it’s one crawl per keyword using a proxy.

  • Kristie Colby

    My thoughts exactly!

  • Kristie Colby

    Agreed – moment in time rankings mean nothing.

  • Kristie Colby

    I have that exact experience with several clients and I’m sure others such as Jill Whalen would as well. I have not found the need to rely on ranking reports as a means to the end. The data sources mentioned in my article have been enough to properly and effectively increase KPI’s.

  • http://twitter.com/rgujrati Ritesh Gujrati

    As day by day the “not provided” percentage is increasing in Google Analytics, it is getting harder to predict the keywords driving traffic to the websites. We have to depend on the query results (Shown in Google Webmaster), hence one should tell the clients to focus on Goals rather than the Keywords Ranking. Since, getting business through online promotion is the real SEO Success…

  • http://www.pimediaservices.com/ Henry Smith

    SEO is a vast arena where you have so many things to learn. There is always scope to do better than what you are doing now. The same logic is applicable when it comes to improve search engine ranking. But whatever you do, try to do it logically. And do not rely on overly promotional content. This will affect your website rank for sure.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=541143254 Scott Laughlin

    I’ve replaced rankings with a focus on entries from long-tail for a long time now (i.e. rather than worrying about rankings from “baby strollers”, look at entries from +baby +stroller). It is a much better metric. The problem is that with the increased masking, you have to do gymnastics with the numbers for them to make sense. A better way is to create URL groups for the terms you want to win and watch entries for those URL groups. This is harder to do and requires more set up, but will give better insight to shifts in entry traffic.

  • Biz Wisdom

    Great article. Smart SEO’s are now talking organic traffic generation, leads and sales. The days of rankings being an appropriate measure of success are long gone IMO.

  • Mark Lynn

    Thanks Kristie Colby for this nice post. Colibri Tool provides you complete SEO package with free of cost. Colibri Tool gives you large traffic in less time period. This is the right SEO tool for any business online.

 

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