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One aspect of SEO reporting that’s relatively difficult for SEO professionals to explain to their clients is search engine rankings. Since rankings differ depending on myriad factors, a common question every SEO professional has heard countless times is “why do I see different rankings than what you’re reporting?” However, while top rankings have long been the goal and metric around which reports are presented, it’s time to reconsider what role they should have. How much influence and importance do search rankings really have? Are they truly a viable Key Performance Indicator (KPI)?
The Role of Rankings
While no SEO single metric should be the only consideration when it comes to gauging the success or failure of an SEO campaign, rankings can be a viable KPI when presented as part of an overall analysis of several key metrics within analytics data and reports. Rankings offer more information than immediately meets the eye.
The original goal of rankings was their correlation to higher traffic. Higher rankings usually mean higher traffic, though there are a number of factors that affect this as well, including the roll-out of Google’s knowledge graph as well as search volume associated with each keyword for which you rank.
But rankings go beyond this simple correlation as well; they increase conversion rate by suggesting that Google has higher confidence in higher-ranked websites. If I’m shopping for a new computer monitor online, and I find a small company that has it listed cheaper than elsewhere, it’s unlikely I’m going to purchase the monitor from that dealer if it’s ranked deep in Google’s search results (granted, it’s unlikely I would have found it in the first place with poor rankings). I’d be more likely to opt for a slightly more expensive option that’s ranked higher in search results (on page one or two), because of the fact that more trust is conveyed by Google’s high-ranking of the website.
However, because of the fact that rankings differ according to factors such as location, browsing history, and whether a user is logged in, measuring rankings on an absolute scale is nearly impossible. Let’s take a look at how rankings differ across users, in order to understand how to properly use them as a KPI.
How Rankings Differ Depending on Location
The location of a user influences search rankings significantly, especially when searching for a specific product or service. For instance, a person searching in Palo Alto, California is going to expect her search for “dentist” to bring up results close to her based on her IP address, not dentists in Las Vegas. While businesses with a local presence benefit the most from optimizing for local search, companies who service multiple markets around the United States (or even globally) also often benefit from having separate content pages targeting their local markets.
For example, a marketing agency with offices in California and Texas should have blog posts and great content targeted toward both locations. This can better ensure that the search results will display the agency’s website whether a user searches from California or Texas.
Users also have the power to change the location default for their search as well. This comes in handy for traveling and research, but also influences individual user search results.
Because of personalized search, Google’s many different data centers, and the fact that they aren’t always 100% synchronized, when creating a rankings report, SEO professionals will never be able to display the exact results each search engine visitor at any given time is able to see.
How Rankings Differ Depending on Personalized Search
Search engines’ focus on providing better results through personalized search also affects other areas besides a user’s location. For example, a user’s social network influences results. Bing tells users if others in their social networks have visited or recommended a page, and Google alerts users when they are connected to someone via Google+ that is tied to a certain piece of content or website. Google states that these personalized results are ones only that specific individual can see.
With those kinds of results, it’s difficult for SEOs to track how a user’s social circle made them choose a specific search result over another one, though some data can be gleaned from Google Analytics. Additionally, a user’s past search history may influence search results. Google tells users when they have visited a page (and usually the date) when they are performing similar searches again:
Users may be more likely to trust results that they’ve clicked before (or vice versa, if they are still looking for a specific piece of information and haven’t found it yet).
These can influence rankings and website traffic, as a user may deliberately choose or ignore search results, depending on their social circle and past search history.
How Rankings Differ Depending on Search Queries
While Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools gives some specifics as to the keywords users queried to find a website, highly specific searches often display a website differently in the search results. Because not every exact search engine query is made public, SEOs must often make generalizations about rankings for high-priority keyword phrases.
As users get smarter when it comes to search, more specific searches will produce more fine-tuned results. Two different users may search for the exact same keyword, but the rankings of a website could be completely different across both users.
It’s also impossible to know the exact user intent behind each search. A search for “salem, MA train” could mean many things: searching for a news piece about a new train in Salem, train tickets to Salem, or even a train hobbyist store in Salem. And if the only data search engines provide is those three words, without being able to also see a user’s entire search and browsing history, SEOs may never know whether or not the user found what they were looking for on a website. Being unable to focus content for each user’s search can lead to less time spent on a site, which could influence rank.
So, are Rankings the Right Metric to Report to SEO Clients?
Yes, but only when presented in company with other metrics, like overall organic search traffic, bounce rate, CTR (especially as a result of successful Google Authorship implementation), and, most importantly, revenue from organic search. Rankings matter beyond just traffic implications, because they increase conversion rate and trust. For many users, a higher-ranked website means that it is more reputable, increasing the likelihood that user will convert on the site.
But, because of many factors like location and personalized search, rankings should never be the final word when determining the success or failure of an SEO campaign.