Pulling Rank

by Diane Aull March 17th, 2009 

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.

Photo by randysonofrobert

Photo by randysonofrobert

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?

Unfortunately, no.

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.

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11 Responses to “Pulling Rank”

  1. Derek Kean says:

    After just discussing with a close friend on this subject last night, I thank you for posing this to the world.

    I am a firm believer that ranking is 'cool', but not profitable. I won't go over it again, as you did a great job already, however I would like to point out that I believe every SEO should explain the importance of web site layout for conversions in the initial stages of optimizing. This way the client can grasp an understanding of how a site can work to complement the optimization in place.

    Good to have you posting here Diane! Great first post


  2. Tom Bradshaw says:

    Great first article Diane!

    I measure the success of my website optimisation by whether I have happy clients or not. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Google's growing personalisation of search results and what this means for the future in terms of SEO?

  3. Diane says:

    Thanks to both of you for taking the time to comment! It's great to be here.

    @Derek, I agree totally. The layout, site architecture and content of a site has an enormous impact on whether a site is successful. Optimization for rankings without optimization for conversions is all too often a waste of effort.

    @Tom, What personalization means for SEO? As I alluded to above, I think SEOs who today focus only on rankings are going to have to expand their horizons to also optimize sites for better conversions. There are already a lot of forward-thinking SEOs who do this today, and I think the trend in that direction is going to continue.

    Especially with the economy the way it is, businesses need to see positive ROI from their SEO campaign, not just vanity rankings.

  4. Jeet says:

    @Diane: Great article !! You didn't mention location based ranking. A site can rank #1 in US and not rank at all in UK. For small business geo-targeting is very important. I have seen discussions on forums where an SEO got the client's site to rank on first page in US but it was a local Denmark business site and didn't benefit from US traffic.

    Conversion is the key. Fully agreed, I would give example of stumbleupon, it can send a LOT of traffic your way. But these guys are just bored guys asking SU to show them some random site they might find interesting.

    According to me, SEOs can do a good keyword research and ensure they are generating better traffic than before. It should be website owner's responsibility to have good sales copy and products to be able to make a sale.

    • Diane Aull says:

      @ Jeet – good point on the geo-targeting. You're absolutely right; it doesn't do a local business much good to rank well in the search engines for locations where they don't do business.

  5. Steve says:

    One of the main reasons why there has been so much focus on rankings is that firstly they are easy to report on and secondly alot of the focus often comes from the brief from the client. eg. I want to be number one for this term.

    Real business success is measured by happy clients and money in the bank. Traffic+Conversion=Money in the Bank

  6. philip says:

    I will still work for a pagerank for my site even though it is just a by product or reward for our hard work. I believe it is still relevant as an indication of the value of the content of the site. I am more concern about the outdated information displayed on the front page of search engine. Search engine should display latest information on the front page instead of a two or three years old articles.

  7. Hi Dianne..

    It was a coincidence that I stumbled upon your entry again on different website, I also noticed a lot of clients aiming and insisting that they really need higher PR not realizing the fact that they really need to work a lot about their website content to drive traffic into sales or leads, its all about marketing tactics and not the ranking itself that takes us all through success.. this was just my two cents..

  8. @Derek – Shouldn't the site layout really be the task of web designers, rather than SEOs. I know that they often do a poor job of it, but unless you are a web designer and are implementing SEO at the design stage, it can be an almighty job to re-jig an entire website. More collaboration, I suppose, may be the answer.
    I measure success by how the cash register rings!

  9. I love you point about ranking for something nobody is searching for – it's often a first understanding we must provide our clients. For years I used the example that I could rank them #1 for Purple Widget but because nobody searched for Purple Widget it would do no good. Kind of like being Bob's Bicycles and ranking number #1 that term – just guessing the traffic there will be rather minimal. I started by Purple Widget blog dedicated to this point. And, as expected I rank #1 for Purple Widget and did so very quickly. But big deal, nobody visits because nobody is searching for Purple Widget on Google.

  10. I am with you Diane, PR is not the only parameter to measure the success of a SEO campaign. But people are so much optimistic about PR that they even don’t want to see a web page with low page rank. I can justify it by an example, if you send 100 request of link exchange for you PR 0 page you will hardly get a reply from other web masters, here I am talking about web masters who know every thing. People actually don’t want to deal with low PR.

    This is the reason why people are running behind the PR.