It's my first post here at SEO Scoop (hi, y'all!) so I suppose I should take a moment to introduce myself to those who don't know me yet. My name is Diane; online I've been known as Torka since the early 1990's (and I'll answer to either). I've been doing this “website thing” in one capacity or another for around 15 years.
I tend to approach the topic of site optimization from a businessperson's point of view. I know a lot of people who equate “search engine optimization” with “getting better rankings.” But to my mind, SEO can (and should) be a lot more.
Rankings? Which rankings?
On one of the forums I frequent we recently had a pretty lively discussion over how to measure success of a web optimization campaign. While we all agreed that rankings were not the only way to measure results, there was some disagreement over whether they're worth measuring at all.
Count me among those who don't see much use in measuring rankings. The way I see it, there's a problem with using rankings as a measure of performance. And that problem is: which rankings do you use?
Let's get personal
What do I mean by “which rankings”? Well, to start with, search engines are increasingly trying to personalize results. This means they try to customize their search results for each individual, depending on that person's historical search patterns, in an effort to show each person more of the kind of pages they find useful and less of the pages they don't.
In this brave new world of personalization, the pages you see when you search may or may not be what any others see.
Google has taken personalization a big step further with their SearchWiki feature. This allows people to actually rearrange the search results to suit themselves, post notes about pages (which can be read by others) and even to block some pages or sites from displaying at all in their personal search results.
Beyond that, in order to handle the huge volume of search queries they receive, Google runs many data centers scattered around the globe. While updates eventually make their way around to them all, they don't show up at each data center simultaneously — and by the time an update makes it to the last data center, several new ones may already be traveling at various points along the pipeline.
Bottom line, rarely are two data centers in complete sync with each other. When you search, your query could be routed to any data center at any time. A lot of times, when webmasters see their rankings apparently “jumping all around,” the issue is really that they're simply hitting different data centers — with different versions of the database — with each query.
All this plays havoc with the concept of using rankings to measure the success of an optimization campaign. If your SEO reports one ranking for your page, and you see another (and your next-door neighbor sees yet a third), who's right? Which ranking “counts”?
Or as I sometimes put it, if a page ranks number one and nobody sees it but you, does it make a sound?
And I should care because… ?
An even more important question, though, is this: what difference does it make? Does getting higher rankings necessarily mean your business will be successful?
Rankings cheerleaders will tell you that higher rankings equal more traffic for your website.
The truth is, high rankings are no guarantee of traffic. If nobody is searching for the phrases where you rank highly — or if your number one rankings are all on obscure search engines no one uses — those rankings will generate very little, if any, additional traffic. (As many website owners have discovered to their chagrin after paying big bucks to an SEO company that guaranteed them number one rankings without specifying on which search engines or for which search terms.)
Then they'll tell you increased traffic inevitably means your business will be more successful. Also not quite true.
In order to be successful, your site must do a good job of converting traffic into sales or leads. Even multiple number one rankings that generate tons of traffic won't result in many more sales if the site itself is of extremely poor quality. Without conversions, traffic alone is just a waste of bandwidth.
And unless your creditors are a lot more generous than mine, you can't pay your bills with rankings or traffic.
So what's going on?
So why do so many SEOs continue to tout their monthly (or even weekly) rankings reports as a big selling feature of their service? And why do so many clients continue to look for these kinds of things?
I've participated in rankings discussions before in several venues, and almost every time at least one SEO will declare they don't really want to focus on rankings, but their clients keep insisting on ranking reports.
Honestly, I think both SEOs and we as their clients need to share the responsibility.
From the SEO's perspective, ranking reports are easy. They can be automated, or assigned to low-paid staffers or interns. They don't take a lot of thought to crank out, and (assuming they show rankings moving up) they give the impression of progress being made. In some cases, that impression might even be true.
But, of course, it's not all the SEO's fault. There are almost certainly clients out there who blindly insist on getting number one rankings for some “vanity term” just because they noticed their competitor ranking well for that phrase. There are some of us who refuse to consider other (more meaningful) metrics we might be tracking instead. It can take a lot of time and effort on the SEO's part — maybe more than what's justified by the fees we're paying — to try to migrate some of us away from our rankings obsession.
So what are more meaningful metrics? And what makes them better than rankings for tracking the success of an optimization campaign? Stay with me for next time, my friends, and we'll talk about a few possibilities.
Diane is the website manager for a manufacturing & distribution company in Raleigh, NC. You can read more of her thoughts on site optimization and marketing at BootstrapSEO.