Search Engine Metrics Are Horrible (And Why That’s Okay)
The condition of standard SEO metrics search engines provide the web community (if the term “metric” can even be used here) is pretty deplorable right now. Back in February, I wrote:
“…the convention of using indexed page counts and backlinks to benchmark and report on site performance is facing a similar demise [to ranking reports].”
Looks like those words are now ringing true. Matt McGee covered the indexing problems Google has been facing recently Is Google Broken? Sites Big & Small Seeing Indexing Problems. This is an issue we’re forced to confront every day in our work, as our clients are asking for insight and guidance as to why their indexation levels have been plummeting over the past two weeks. A screenshot of one such client, showing a sample of their weekly BrightEdge report, tells the story:
The domains have been blurred (apologies for that, but we need to keep client information confidential, even publicly available data like this). Listed is our client along with three of their primary competitors. Indexing levels in Google are down an average of 38% for every site being tracked, due to a bug in Google’s indices.
As for Yahoo! Site Explorer—a oldie (and until recently) a goodie—link data is abysmally erratic. Over the last few weeks, data has gone from sporadic to flatly unreliable. The report snapshot above shows an average decrease of 64% in back link counts for these domains. This isn’t really the case—our client has gained many new, quality back links over the last few weeks, as I’m sure their competitors have; it is simply YSE telling lies (actually, giving inaccurate data, but lies sounds so much more dramatic!). And these are the same trends that every site will see using today’s YSE.
I know you have a good excuse, Yahoo!, but what’s a SEO to do…?!
We Need Reliable Data!
There are a few problems with this.
- Obviously, SEO professionals cannot rely on data that is unreliable. (!)
- When SEO projects are on-boarded, gathering these metrics and establishing a baseline report is critical. What happens when your benchmark numbers are completely useless because the metrics become unreliable?
- When undergoing analyses that require accurate indexation, working with data that isn’t actually accurate can be a real pickle!
This is a problem for everyone working in the space. Google’s John Mu reported at Search Engine Roundtable that the indexing bug has been repaired. Google’s search quality and web spam teams are awesome; I am a big fan of their work and their contributions to the web. Certainly, this type of problem is a fact of life, and has happened before (and will continue to). But in a space that demands accountability and absolute data integrity, which search marketing does, data is not only necessary—it’s downright valuable. It costs companies a lot of money in time and effort when these problems occur. Remember, our clients fully expect everything to be tracked in search… even if that expectation is unrealistic.
As for YSE, Vanessa Fox discovered that Yahoo! is going to be maintaining and even improving the Site Explorer tool. They will keep it standalone and separated from Bing’s webmaster tools.
And Then There’s PageRank (Of The Toolbar Variety)
I promised myself I wouldn’t get started with toolbar PageRank. I failed.
We all know what toolbar PageRank is worth: very little. But much of the SEO community continues to neurotically obsess over “PR 5 links” and so forth. They didn’t seem to listen when Matt Cutts, at SMX Advanced this year, related that Google has intentionally modified toolbar PageRank scores just to mess with obsessive webmasters.
But that little green bar can still prove useful to SEO, especially on large sites, to see where “grey bar” instances occur and for spot-checking PageRank flow on a site (it does not reflect, necessarily, internal PageRank, but can be an indicator of its flow).
Recently Google updated toolbar PageRank scores, something that is not special or noteworthy in itself (they do it often). However, combined with the other problems we’re seeing with search engine data, it has finally made me begin to switch, at least philosophically, to other metrics. mozRank will likely become our replacement for techniques that rely on using PageRank scores, and it looks like we’re not the only ones.
So Where Does That Leave Us? In A Happy Place!
There hasn’t been a better time in the last five years for the growth of specialized SEO tools, and for that matter, for search engine upstarts such as Blekko (which launched with unprecedented transparency) to gain market share. But I’ll save that for another article.
To be fair, the tool sets search engines give us today (for free, no less) are flat-out awesome. Google Webmaster Tools is an amazing suite of tools and something every SEO should be using daily. Bing’s webmaster console needs work, but I have faith that the team will continue to improve and grow its value. The SEO IIS Toolkit Microsoft provided the community is a very valuable contribution (even if it does require Silverlight to function), and a robust SEO analysis tool. Yahoo! Site Explorer does much more than provide link data, too, and yes—Yahoo’s own Slurp is still crawling the web.
But even with these tools, it looks like we’ll need to put up with the fickleness of the search engines’ own data for a bit longer. We will always rely on the basic metrics of indexation and backlinks, and even if we don’t like it, we’ll always need to monitor rankings. I haven’t found a client yet who doesn’t care about rankings, although we continually reinforce the importance of traffic quality and bottom-line metrics. It’s almost an emotional trigger; rankings are important to people.
I’m excited about the future of upstarts like Blekko, and Bing—the latter not so much an upstart but a real and viable player in the game and Google’s primary competitor. In a lot of ways, Bing gets search right, and the interface is quite good. They just need to get away from that pesky Silverlight thing…
As for Google, they’re still the best in search, and we’ll still rely on them for much of what makes SEO possible today. I just hope they deliver reliable data. Reliable data makes me happy, and that is the most important metric of all.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.