My thinking for the last few years now is that static search engine ranking reports hold little value in and of themselves. These are reports typically run by a software program in which a list of keywords is added along with the main URL of the site(s) you wish to check and the software then queries pre-selected search engines, creating a report showing where your site ranked for each term. This may have been a suitable way of measuring the success of an SEO effort (although traffic should always be measured as well) a few years ago but nowadays with the personalization of the search engines, not to mention all the other sources of traffic that can be derived including social media sites, press releases, blogs, etc., static ranking reports no longer paint an accurate picture.

Lee Odden recently wrote about this in his Online Marketing Blog. He first points out how in the early years some SEO/SEM companies would include the word “rank” or “ranking” in their name. For example his own company – TopRank, Jill Whalen’s – High Rankings and even our own company was mentioned – SearchRank. These three companies have been around since the birth of search marketing but despite the “rank” or “ranking” in their name, have all evolved past static search ranking reports, looking at the entire picture which consists of not only search visibility (ranking) but traffic, conversions, and even web site usability.

Lee states, “In the past 3-4 years, most SEO consulting firms have been focusing on traffic and especially the past 2-3 years on conversions. Standard search engine rankings as a proxy to sales will become irrelevant, especially as other channels of search have emerged in popularity.” He goes on to say, “If you consider all the traffic opportunities from news search, blog search, social media as well as stand alone image, video and audio search, there’s a lot of accountability left on the table when not considering all the possible sources of web site visitors. “Ranking Reports” only document web page positions on standard search engines. This logically leads to the need for better metrics and reporting overall, but that will have to wait for another post.”

I couldn’t agree with him more. In response to Lee’s original post, Jennifer Laycock of Search Engine Guide writes, “Maybe we’re no longer search engine marketers or search engine optimizers. Maybe now we’re WVO’s…website visibility optimizers?” Its pretty obvious that old static ranking reports are no longer a viable form of measuring the success (or failure) of a search engine marketing campaign. What is then?

Today’s Web Analytics Offer Much More

Today’s web analytics can measure a variety of important factors that go far beyond a static ranking report. They can of course measure all sources of traffic but go far beyond that as well. ClickTracks for example can not only show you where all your traffic is derived from, but breaks it down into specific details per source. For search engines that will include the phrases that drove visitors to your site but also will show specifically where they searched from. For example, the searcher may have come from Google’s main search page or Google Local. They may have found your site via Google Reader or Google Images. For non search engine referrals you can see which specific pages are sending traffic. This kind of information may be useful in measuring the success of advertising on other sites, being able to see what is effective and what is not.

The sophistication of today’s web analytic programs does not stop there. You can measure not only unique visitors but learn what they do when they come to your site. What percentage immediately exit after arriving? What percentage stay? What paths do they take once they land on the site? What percentage converts compared to those who doesn’t. Are they using your navigation properly? The list goes on. This kind of information not only helps you to improve your online marketing efforts but often times enhance the user ability of your web site as well.

People Still Want To Know How They Are Ranked

While many search marketers themselves have come to the realization that ranking reports are dead, I am amazed at the amount of clients that are still interested in “where they are ranked in Google.” They want one of those top three spots in Google, Yahoo or MSN and fail to recognize that with today’s personalization, not everyone is going to see the same set of results. Add to that the fact that they may not even convert visitors to paying customers for the phrases they wish to rank well for. Despite this, we still have a variety of clients who are concerned over their positions.

Some do go beyond the static rankings and look for increases in traffic and ultimately, conversions. In fact I asked a client recently if they were measuring anything beyond their rankings for certain phrases and what role their ranking positions played in their overall search marketing strategy. My contact replied that ranking reports gave them a “feel good” for the week but that they were also looking for a significant increase in traffic each month and wanted to ensure that traffic was converting well. He went on to add that the static ranking reports gave the CEO a good feeling which I see more and more with CEOs all the time. It could be ego or it could be from a lack of understanding of how to truly measure and define success.

We have been in the process over the last few years of getting our clients switched over to ClickTracks which is the web analytics program we prefer. It has not been easy. First you have to gain access to their web server’s log files, a task that is either a breeze, extremely difficult or completely unobtainable, depending on the web host. Then you have to download the log files, a task that can be quite time consuming for larger sites. Finally you have to sift through all the data and make marketing and web site usability decisions based on what you find.

For those still interested in rankings, ClickTracks offers a Keyword Ranking tool within the Search Report module. So long as you have APIs to query Google and MSN, you can check rankings on these two engines plus Yahoo (no API needed) for search terms that are actually driving visitors to your site. This is much more useful data in my opinion than a list of terms by which I assume will drive traffic.

Search Marketers – Evolve and Educate

I could go on and on about the benefits of today’s analytics compared to the old static ranking reports. The bottom line is that if you are a search marketer that has not arrived to the thinking that static ranking reports are no longer a useful metric for measuring the success of a campaign, then you need to evolve. And if you have some clients such as I do that are stuck in a rut wanting to know where they rank, educate them.

In the end, everyone wants to see an increase in traffic, sales and ultimately growth in their business as a direct result of their online marketing efforts. Therefore it is really only a matter of time when the old ranking reports will become a thing of the past just as other elements that used to be important in SEM have fallen by the wayside.

David Wallace

David Wallace, co-founder and CEO of SearchRank, is a recognized expert in the industry of search and social media marketing. Since 1997, David has been involved in developing successful search engine and social media marketing campaigns for large and small businesses. Follow +David Wallace on Google + as well as Twitter.

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