You Need To Steer To Survive In A SERP-Happy World

I was ready to write a completely different column today. Then, I saw the announcement that Raven is doing away with ranking reports and any other SEO data that might ruffle Google’s feathers.

Slam brakes. Get airbag in face. I'm just sayin'

I quickly went through denial/anger/bargaining/acceptance:

  1. I’m sure they’ll find another way to get this data; this won’t affect anyone else
  2. What the #$)(*!*) people?!!!
  3. Oh please, let SEOMOZ keep their ranking data, please please
  4. Well, crap

Then I revisited my old, familiar place:

I hate the SERPs.

Yep, it’s bizarre: I’m an SEO who hates the fact that we have to track rankings. I hate that I can triple someone’s revenue from organic search and still get a thumbs-down because they don’t rank #1 for [horse flies]. I resent the sheer brain-thumping hypocrisy of the SERP screen shots I put in my own proposals while saying, “Woo hoo! Look at the rankings we got for our other clients! because I know that’s what folks want to see.

I could just triple my meds and stumble along, but I decided to give all this a more practical look.

Don’t Stop; Steer…

For 15 years, we’ve been hurtling down the road at 125mph, chasing rankings. Deny if you like, but it’s the truth — as much as I hate rankings, I rarely tell a client to ignore them. Especially if they worked in my favor.

Stopping now would be like slamming on the brakes while still going that 125mph. You might survive (somehow), but you’ll definitely end up with an airbag in your face.

You can’t stop people from looking at rankings. Like I said, SERPs are totally addictive. And, they’re always there.

You can gently steer folks towards other metrics. Do it a little bit at a time, and you can change rankings from 95% of the discussion to 50% or less. Which is a nice start, if nothing else.

I’ve made this work more often than not with three talking points. I hit these points again and again, like a candidate at a debate (without the flag pin).

Talking Point 1: SERPs Are A Symptom, Not A KPI

I tell clients to watch the SERPs as one input in a larger picture: the SERPs on their own aren’t a performance indicator. But a sudden change in the SERPs can be a symptom of good or bad stuff happening in their larger marketing campaign.

In our weekly or monthly reports, instead of saying, you rank #2 for ‘rhubarb helper, I’ll say, we haven’t seen any changes in the rankings, or “your rankings are stable. If pressed, I’ll present the actual ranking data, but only if pressed.

The key to success here: you have to focus on changes and symptoms and avoid pointing out specific rankings, even when the news is good. It’s hard to resist crowing about all the new #1 positions you just grabbed, but you have to. Instead, point out the overall rise in traffic and conversions from organic search, and explain that a sharp rise in rankings explains some of it. Then, move on.

Again, clients will press you. And again, I say, steer, don’t stop. When a client presses you to present individual keyword rankings, go ahead, but stick to your talking points. Here’s the next one.

Talking Point 2: There’s More Data Than This

Never, ever present rankings on their own. Nor do I present detailed, keyword-by-keyword ranking data in the first two layers of a report.

Instead, I present aggregate ranking changes in subjective terms, like, you’ve seen a net improvement in your rankings in the last month. Then, the client can drill down to keyword groups and average rankings in those groups, and then to the detailed phrase-by-phrase data.

I’m not doing this to hide the data. Instead, I’m doing it to emphasize the more important information shown alongside the aggregate rankings information:

  • Number of unique key phrases driving traffic
  • Conversions from organic traffic
  • Organic vs. other channels for time on site, conversions, etc.
  • Site index health
  • Spend versus value

This approach has helped me emphasize the true KPIs while still making the rankings data available.

Talking Point 3: Remember Your Real Goals

I’m always pointing out that you didn’t go into business to rank #1 for ‘turnip slicer.’ Obvious? Yes. Corny? A little.

Worth repeating several thousand times? Absolutely.

I’ll also put the true goal of the campaign — increase sales X%, build share-of-voice Y%, etc. — front-and-center in all reports and correspondence.

I’m steering, a little bit at a time, away from SERPs and toward the goals that matter.

SERP Addiction Isn’t Going Away

We’ve all had the rankings aren’t a good metric conversation before; but the truth is, as long as there are rankings, our bosses and clients will care about our position in them.

At first glance, SERPs are pretty simple. They’re impossible to ignore. And, they bait the C-level ego like a choice parking spot or a corner office. They are 100% instantly addictive. I know whereof I speak.

So, try as we might to discuss visitor retention, conversion rates and sales, we won’t have happy clients until we grab that top spot. I don’t like it. You probably don’t, either. But after years of talking about rankings, we can’t just slam on the brakes.

Instead, start making little changes, and steer folks towards more meaningful metrics. You’re less likely to need airbags that way.

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Enterprise SEO


About The Author: is Chief Marketing Curmudgeon and President at Portent, Inc, a firm he started in 1995. Portent is a full-service internet marketing company whose services include SEO, SEM and strategic consulting.

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  • Matt Lambert

    I’m not sure I understand. Why would you bother about keywords that had never brought a conversion, and then why is the number of different keywords that brought traffic important, when most of them don’t work? Surely converting keywords are the only ones that really matter.

  • Iain Bartholomew

    I’m preparing a note to clients right now explaining that we will no longer be reporting on rankings and that we will be monitoring a set of terms internally and will report any noteworthy observations.

    Time will tell how they respond.

  • Scott Krager

    Great post Ian, totally agree with the “never present rankings on their own”. Rankings are a great data point when presenting along side other data (analytics) or when looked at historically over time (change vs. last month, yesterday, since you hired us, etc).

  • Ian Lurie

    Not if changes in rankings can help you diagnose a problem, or predict an improvement, before the proverbial poo hits the fan. Keyword diversity is a great diagnosis tool.

  • Ian Lurie

    You might point out other datapoints you’ll follow. It’ll help damp down that initial feeling of panic :)

  • Sydney Liang

    Rankings it is mostly about rankings and indeed inevitable.. my favorite “other data” is the Conversion.

  • Jamie White

    I don’t meant to sound disrespectful, but this is hardly a revelation. The ultimate aim of an SEO campaign is generally going to be to increase conversions, the cause being increased traffic, the cause of this being increased rankings. It doesn’t always follow that process but more often than not, it does. We should be reporting on conversions and traffic from Day One on every single SEO campaign, unless the overall objectives are something different.

    Even getting #1 in the rankings does not guarantee more conversions and sometimes it doesn’t even guarantee an increase in traffic – I worked on one campaign where the brand power of the #2 ranking was so strong that people were instinctively looking for that site despite typing in a generic term.

    You talk about Conversions being ‘Other Data’. Conversions should be the number one data in my opinion.

  • Iain Bartholomew

    Sure, It is going to be a detailed note explaining why we (I) made the decision and why certain other metrics are both more relevant and more instructive.

    It will challenge them, for sure, but hopefully they will get on board.

  • Chad Pollitt

    Nice Ian! I’ve been saying (and writing about) the above since Jan of ’11 and stopped tracking SERPs at the same time. Robust content marketing campaigns makes the value proposition of tracking SERPs nil. Add to that personalization and I see no value in tracking SERPs at all.

    I’m not a big link sharer in blog comments, but I think this post on content marketing’s impact on search is highly relevant for your readers. I hope you agree –


  • hyderali

    Again, a superior & thought provoking post! Just like we were addicted to use Google for doing any search, same way we are addicted with rankings.

    Clients do not know which keywords will bring them profit but they know that “Keyword Ranking in No.1 post will give them sales” which is sometimes not. How to change their perception? They know from the start that “Keyword Rankings is SEO” which again poured in their head via us SEO people only.

  • Matt Lambert

    Thanks for that, I do get the point. But is keyword diversity, or dilution, a good thing. If a political party split in two, would either of them ever get into power?


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