Are Keyword Ranking Reports Already Meaningless?

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Industry-specific conferences, immersing you in a flood of information from very smart people at the top of their game, may result in “ah ha” moments that force you to re-think your own business practices. While attending SMX East in New York, I went “ah ha!” during a session on Google personalized and customized search.

Of course, we all know search engines serve up different results to different users – reporting more relevant search listings improves the experience and strengthens brand loyalty. The “ah ha” moment for me was just how far personalization and customized search has come. The industry is fast approaching the point where search ranking reports will become meaningless. Indeed, some already argue that they are worthless.

SEO firms generally pitch ranking reports front and center, even as lead generation tools. For example, a recent proposal I saw suggested monthly ranking reports as the key measure of their success, an intent that has validity. Quantitative and qualitative benefits certainly exist from a top-three ranking for a keyword listing, as compared to a second-page ranking. However, those using such reports may make assumptions about their relevance that vastly exaggerates reality.

One major misconception is that if a ranking report shows one keyword in position three, then every searcher typing in that particular keyword will also find it in position three. Wrong! Aside from data center inconsistencies, the rapid deployment of personalized and customized search alters the reality further – one person’s top three ranked listing for a keyword may be another’s fifth, sixth, or seventh listing. Does it matter? Absolutely. For example, an April 2008 white paper reported that, “39% of search engine users believe that the companies whose websites are returned among the top search results are the leaders in their field.” (iProspect Blended Search Results Study, page 6)

At the SMX session, few details were provided on the specific variables used to customize search, except that web history and preference play into it, and searchers must be logged into their Google accounts. How many Google accounts are there? All the SMX Googler would say was, “it’s a lot.”

SEO ramifications were not entirely flushed out, even as moderator Danny Sullivan and the eager audience asked penetrating questions to delve deeper, but just consider a simple brand preference scenario. If a logged-in search user tends toward selecting a specific brand (Amazon) for a specific keyword query (books), Google will skew future searches on “books,” giving Amazon a first position. This could increase difficulty for small businesses struggling to build brand.

Dealing with this trend requires an approach to measurement that goes far beyond keyword ranking reports. The primary goal of any SEO initiative is to generate visits (or unique visitors) to a website and ultimately motivate those visitors to convert. The end result – more or less visitors – indirectly captures keyword rank, as well as other important factors (including the relevance of the listing description).

What about branding? A top keyword listing in Google for industry or product keywords does add brand value. However, the position alone does nothing, unless the user’s experience created from clicking the listing to visiting the site and satisfying their intent is realized from the brand.

Keyword ranking reports do offer value as a trend analysis, but only as a small part of the overall picture. If keyword positions are increasing, then visits should also be increasing and generating more economic value. Placing too much emphasis on keyword rank assumes you know what lies deep beneath the surface simply from the surface.

With the continued movement toward personalized and customized search, marketers and business owners must give less emphasis to position and more to the economic value gained from their SEO investment. As with many things in life, at the end of the day, it is not how good you look, but how well you perform.

About the Author

Kevin Gold is Director of Internet Marketing at iNET Interactive, a social media company operating prominent online communities for technology professionals and technology enthusiasts. Kevin is a frequent contributing author to multiple publications including Search Marketing Standard, Practical eCommerce, DIRECT, Entrepreneur.com, ConversionChronicles.com, About.com, and On Target (Yahoo! Search Marketing newsletter).

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