Everyone is talking about "SEO" - search engine optimization - these days. Our agent website systems are definitely built on a search engine friendly platform. But should we be using search engine rankings to gage performance? And can any company guarantee top ranking?

The answer to both questions is yes... and no.

You see, traditionally rankings are pretty straight forward. The search engine would evaluate each web page (via their algorithm) for both on-page and off-page factors. Then, you would be ranked where they deemed appropriate. Now, there are many factors involved that prohibit us from truly tracking rankings objectively. Factors such as personalized and behavioral-influenced search results for nearly everyone who performs a search. What one person sees as the top 10 results in Google, for example, may not match the same results as the person sitting next to them.

Which begs the question: Just how are you, or to whom are you guaranteeing a No. 1 rank to?

This doesn't mean we should NOT monitor search engine rankings. They should be used as one factor for measuring success. They should also be used to identify any issues that may arise. For example, if keyword "A" constantly ranks well in Google and then suddenly disappears from the results we know we need to investigate.

Here are some "weaknesses" to search as told by a prominent SEO, Richard Bedford, written September 21, 2011.

http://www.bruceclay.com/newsletter/volume95/measuringperformance.htm

  • "You can only monitor a finite set of keywords: It is possible to retrieve ranking data from Google using their custom search API, however it is not possible to monitor every single keyword used to find your website. Google published a statistic claiming that 20 percent to 25 percent of search queries have never been seen before.
  • Rankings are constantly in flux: Excluding algorithmic changes, index updates, client website updates and competitor website changes, different users can see different search engine results pages (SERPs). In other words, it is not an absolute truth to say that a keyword ever ranked at any position without specifying when the ranking was taken, who recorded the ranking, with what browser, tool or device used and from which location the search was made.
  • Universal Search: Do you include rankings from image, video, local results or not? Do you report on these separately?
  • Indented listings: Google may group some results together from the same website to help users. The second listing may not actually rank in that position but would otherwise be ranked somewhere lower down in the SERP. Does the ranking tool that you use report the actual position of the indented result or does it return the visual position? Which one should you report on?
  • Sitelinks: Should you report on Sitelinks?
  • Number of search results per page: With Universal Search, Sitelinks, local search, etc., how many possible search results are there on the page anyway!? An eighth place listing could be "great" one day and "bad" the next.
  • Personalization: Even if you are not signed in, Google may personalize the search results based on the last 180 days of search activity. Combine this with +1 recommendations from your social network if you are signed in, and the search results between different users can start to look really different.
  • Localization: Location influenced search results are going to become more important, especially with continued increase in smart phone uptake.
  • When the rankings was taken: Algorithm updates (450+ a year), a constantly changing index (more than 1 trillion unique URLs) and trending searches mean that the rankings may change without any changes made to you or your competitors' websites."

So what other factors do I use when determining performance?

  • Traffic levels
    • Do we see a general increase in traffic levels organically
    • Do we see an increase in organic traffic levels for our target search phrases and their derivatives (tail terms, etc.)
  • Comparing traffic sources with one another
    • Organic versus direct
    • Which referral traffic is coming from which sites
  • Ranking trends
    • Are we increasing in rank according to my ranking tool.
    • You see, if I notice an overall upward trend in ranks then I know the client can see this trend as well.
  • Search phrases typed in by users
    • Are we capturing a wide range of relevant search phrases
  • Bounce rate
    • How many users come in to the website organically and leave without visiting another page
  • Time on site
    • Can we increase the time a user spends on a site/page
  • New visits
    • Are we able to capture new visitors to the site

You see, it takes more than just rankings to measure success.

Here is an example that I came across the other day. I had a client say her traffic levels were down. Of course this concerns her. I dove into her analytics and immediately noticed they were in fact down by approximately 22%. Over this past 30-60 days I’m noticing most client’s traffic is dipping (seasonal perhaps?), but 22% is enough of a drop that I wanted to look further. I decided to sort by the traffic source and could immediately see her direct traffic was down considerably. When I looked at her organic traffic it was only down slightly. In fact, even though her traffic was down overall, of the traffic that was going to her site we were able to capture a bigger portion of it organically.

So I mention this to her and asked to think back if she had done anything different. Come to find out she wasn’t sending newsletters out as regularly. She was went on vacation and didn’t make time for much promoting in other areas (social, etc.) that would help deliver traffic.

In any case, search engine rankings are still a part of SEO success, but we must also educate our clients that there are other—just as important—factors that we use to determine SEO success.

Dennis Greenfield

SEO | Professional Services
Real Pro Systems