Stop with the ranking reports already

“We can take you from position 10 to 1 in 4 weeks”. If I had a penny for every time I’ve read or heard that claim in a pitch for SEO business, I’d no longer need to work in Search.

Ranking reports are keyword reports that are used aggressively by the sales team and leaned on heavily by brand managers as a measure of SEO performance. The package is neat, since reports contain metrics, and metrics are tangible… aren’t they?

Keyword rankings are an example of what I called a fallacious metric. Whilst it’s great to pat yourself on the back when your report tells you that you’ve moved up two positions this week for the keyword little black dress Manchester, it’s equally as painful (if not more so) to see that you’ve toppled a few positions the following week.

The reason why keyword rankings are not a successful indicator of SEO performance is that they attempt to pinpoint an arbitrary list of words and are based on a medium of flux—a search engine and its related results pages (SERPs).

Furthermore, search results vary from IP to IP and from personalised browser to personalised browser—so a ranking report cannot accurately reflect what the totality of your users see.

With keyword data now long retired from Google Analytics, search engine marketers need to pull ranking reports from third party suppliers such as Moz and Majestic SEO, which necessitates the initial keyword focus list coming from our own judgement.

It’s here where the focus of SEO keyword strategy can be taken off course, with the wrong search queries being pinpointed and obsessed over as measures of success.

Are keywords dead?

Keywords aren’t dead as such, but users have evolved in their search behaviour to ask search engines questions, search for the long tale and form entire questions.

Search engine algorithms, accordingly, have updated how they read (“spider) websites. They now look for copy and meta data that incorporates a rich and natural language, rather than stilted, keyword-stuffed copy and data.

This almost renders the traditional ranking tool model dead, since it would be nonsensical to create lists of potential long-tail queries and all their permutations.

So… how should I measure the success of SEO?

SEO, perhaps more so than any other channel, must be measured in a multi-faceted way. You need to look at a combination of:

Domain authority: how relevant and visible your overall website is in the eyes of a major search engine provider, such as Google.

Backlink profile: are you acquiring new and quality backlinks at a steady rate? These, in turn, contribute to increased domain authority.

Dwell time: are your visitors staying a decent length of time on the page they enter from an organic listing? This is an indication of relevance.

Bounce rate: do your visitors leave their entry page quickly?

ROI: can you attribute any revenue to a visit from an organic listing (whether it’s first, mid or last click)?

Is there any place for ranking reports?

There is of course some place for SEO keyword ranking reports, as part of a balanced view. I certainly wouldn’t encourage you to stare obsessively at daily or even weekly ranking reports.

Instead, you should seek to use ranking reports as an indication of progress and search trends over a protracted period of time. If things drop suddenly, assess your technical SEO and then look to see if search trends have shifted.

Are things different for PPC?

Yes, in a nutshell. Since you’re bidding on terms in a real-time, cost-per-click arena, you do want to know what position you’re in and if the extra money for a higher position generates commensurate return.

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