Search Analytics: Life After Ranking

by Dr. Peter J. Meyers December 15th, 2008 

Hi, everyone " its your friendly, neighborhood Dr. Pete, and Im pleased and humbled to announce my first post as contributor with Search Engine People. If you dont know me, Im a usability specialist, cognitive psychologist, lifelong coder, and President of User Effect. I hang out with SEOs because, frankly, youre better looking and more fun.

It's been a rough year for high-strung search marketers. Talk at Pubcon last month only reminded me of what I've been hearing all year: the traditional SERPs are dying, rankings are dead, and everything is changing (and I'm not talking about that warm, fuzzy, Barack Obama kind of change).

As usual, there's some truth in the hype. Search results are diversifying like never before, and measuring our success by rankings is only going to get harder. Is that really so bad, though? Lets jump to the end of this story and take a look at some data:

Figure 1. Keyword Rankings

Figure 1 is 3 months worth of weekly, observed keyword rankings for a client. Their top 3 keywords/phrases were pretty stable, with only the most important keyword fluctuating, and that between the #1 and #2 spot.

Figure 2. Search Traffic

Figure 2 is overall search traffic (weekly) for the exact same period. As you can see, Google queries nearly tripled during the 3 months. So, which one of these graphs tells the more interesting story?

Whats Killing Rankings?

Lets jump back to the beginning of the story. The death of rankings is a slow one, and its being caused a by a lot of small cuts. In no particular order, they are:

Search results are being personalized, customized, and socialized (SearchWiki being the most recent example), and all of this means that the results you see may not be the results that your client sees on any given day.

Local search results, including the Google OneBox and alternative browsing such as Mozilla Ubiquity, are bypassing the traditional SERPs altogether. On top of that, geo-location is becoming more and more of a factor in personalization, tying search results to the engines' best guess at where youre located.

Mobile Search
The latest generation of mobile devices is integrating search in ways that also bypass standard SERPs, such as GPS-enabled Google maps. Once again, the users search experience is tied to their location, application, and preferences.

The Long Tail
The client example above is actually a long-tail phenomenon. As we targeted a large number of infrequent keyphrases, search traffic grew significantly, but this wasnt reflected at all in our top rankings. By tracking only a handful of keywords, you risk missing out on the big picture.

What Comes After Rankings?

So, if rankings are becoming less reliable, what should we be measuring? In a word: results. We should treat search analytics like the rest of web analytics, and we should be doing it regardless of whats happening to the SERPs. Here are a few things to look out for:

Search Traffic
This is the simplest alternative, as used in the example above. Rankings dont mean anything if they arent driving traffic to your site.

Traffic Quality
Regardless of ranking, we should treat search engines like any other traffic source. Understand the whole picture of your search traffic quality, by exploring bounce rate, time on site, pages/visitor, etc. Focus on engines and keywords that produce results.

Search Conversion
Most modern analytics make source conversion easy to track, and its important to know if your search traffic is converting. You may have #1 rankings and be driving traffic, but if its on the wrong keywords (and those visitors dont buy), who cares? Many analytics packages even allow you to track conversion by keywords/phrases.

So, to sum it up, search analytics are just like any other analytics " quality should matter more than quantity, and results more than arbitrary numbers. Whether or not you believe that rankings are dying a slow death, its important to start treating search traffic like any traffic and move towards deeper search analytics.

Dr. Peter J. Meyers

Dr. Peter J. Meyers ("Dr. Pete") is the President of User Effect, a cognitive psychologist, and an accidental entrepreneur. In his spare time, he raises a daughter and writes about procrastination at 30GO30.

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30 Responses to “Search Analytics: Life After Ranking”

  1. Utah SEO says:

    Hopefully we'll see social conversation reports in the future to see brand lifts online.

  2. Leo Dimilo says:

    I have to agree here. I am looking forward to seeing what new algorithms are going to be added and how they are going to affect SE results

  3. Judit says:

    Welcome aboard and congrats for the first post :-).

    As competition widens our strategies and tactics to mare results and improve them also have to be much more widen and done with proper research.

  4. Metaspring says:

    This is a very imformative post and I found the part about what is killing rankings to be especially informative.It becomes clear that the factors mentioned such as localization personalization and mobile search can be really important determinants.

  5. Steven Fox says:

    Unfortunately most people want quick and dirty websites, well mini sites. I see 80% of the people either want to park their domains or develop small mini sites.
    I am trying to build long term quality for my one site, and hopefully over time it will grow.
    I am new to SEO, but from my research very few people take the time to understand the fine details and hard work it takes.

  6. @UtahSEO – It'll definitely be interesting to see what direction social media metrics take. We're pouring so much resource into it (especially time), with so little sense of the ROI. Personally, I think social media can have a lot of value, but measuring branding has always been elusive.

  7. Pavlicko says:

    Peter, good post. This should be required reading for any new SEO client.

    There's good reason to focus more on results than rankings anyway. It's virtually impossible to know the true value of a 1st page ranking for any particular keyword/phrase until you've analyzed that visitor data for a while, so how the heck do you know how to bill for that other than based on the est. time and resources it takes to achieve that rank position? I certainly don't know.

    However, if you know that client A makes an average of $20k per new client (figuring in recurring revenue), and that out of every 1,000 visits to their site, they receive 10 form submissions well "BINGO!" you have a great CPA to gauge your campaign success, as well as a great baseline for what you should charge that client

  8. This makes plenty of sense, and I do see it going that way. But "search" traffic is only a partial measurement. What comes after rankings is traffic from search and from all those links we create to build rankings. Let's face it, most of SEO these days is finding and building links to client websites. Some of those links are strictly for the search engines – no human being will ever be able to find them nor care to follow them. But the really good links are ones that humans follow, and sometimes the traffic they create is bigger and/or better than what comes from the search engines. Looking for the analytics for one site, a new one admittedly, and Google traffic is #4 on the list. If we can keep building all the amazing links we are, Google might move up the list…or we might just get a whole lot more traffic from all those other sources.

  9. Thanks, everyone. I really appreciate the comments and positive feedback on my first post here.

    @Judit – I think your implication is absolutely true: SEO is a very young field and it's naturally going to change. To stay competitive, we have to change with it (as with any technology-dependent business).

    @Pavlicko – Absolutely: It's funny to me that we've become so ROI-focused on PPC but treat organic SEO completely differently and obsess over nearly meaningless metrics. Organic SEO costs time and money, too, and it needs to produce results.

  10. Marcus Jones says:

    Personally I think the entire social marketing is short life phenomenon. Do we really have the time to keep up with all the social sites? I know that I don't.

    Geo targeting search is becoming more and more important. Good point about geo mobile search – I didn't think of that – but makes perfect sense. And we all know that more and more searches are done by mobile devices.

  11. It has become the rat race that all non web businesses are and things will only get worse for SEO as the engines get more and more powerful and effective.

  12. This is a concept that should be internalized sooner, more than later, so that it does not cause anguish for site-owners, as they figure out that certain items are not as relevant as they would have assumed. I think it is valid that you pointed out that organic SEO should be focused on with the time and effort that other methods of similar interest are invested in with.

  13. newshoemedia says:

    This is all-to-commonly overlooked, especially by businesses who pull the plug on SEO once they rank #1. They neglect that there are still steps to be taken in optimizing their site for higher conversions.

  14. It's not just about a measure of success. Ranking reports are not actionable. All that data and beyond bragging rights you don't got shite. Give me real numbers that identify exit pages, 404's etc and I'll show you a report you can use to directly improve conversion and traffic.

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  17. Very apt post. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The diversification we're witnessing at present is only the tip of the iceberg, I feel. How to cater for such a wide range should prove to be interesting to search marketing professsionals.

  18. Atniz says:

    Google is the key for webmaster tool. I always use the trend checker and keyword adword tool to find proper keyword with less competition.

  19. david says:

    great article, i like the fact that you talk about life after rankings, and that just becaue you have traffic doesnt mean conversions and you also must consider traffic quality.

  20. Mohammed k says:

    Well, just like techniques that worked 5 years ago are not effective today, techniques that are effective today will surely not be effective in 5 years time (not all per say, but in general). Therefor, SEO experts and internet marketers need to evolve along with the net. One thing about internet type work is that it is not a learn once approach, you must constantly be reading and changing your techniques as time goes on.

  21. Thanks for the post. My company have just embarked on a push for rankings etc… but we're now turning more towards conversions. We are putting a new feed up on the site, but are being careful to tailor it to converting traffic rather than just to drag in traffic.

  22. Thumbs up. Your explanation is really good and very catchy. I now have my answer to my "boss'"' query. He was so puzzled why his ranking was fluctuating. You help me answer the puzzlement. thanks.

  23. Funny Things says:

    The long tail really helps a lot with traffic. I feel like most of the traffic I'm getting aren't from the keywords I'm tracking but from keywords I don't really know about.

  24. All this tells you is that you are probably not measuring the keywords that are driving your traffic higher. I am betting that most of the traffic that long tail or brand new keywords that you have not though of yet that you pages may be ranking for.

  25. Dr. Pete says:

    @Mohammed – I think that's a great general point. Our industry is still really in it's infancy, and we have to accept that it's going to change radically over our careers.

    @Jaan – I think it goes a lot deeper than that: It's not just about tracking the "right" or "wrong" keywords. Solid long-tail traffic could mean hundreds or thousands of different keyphrases, and with Google suggesting that 20-25% of all the queries they see are completely new, how do you track what's being created every day? Of course, if you're going to track rankings, there's a right and wrong way to do it, and I know some people do it well, but it's still only a part of the big picture.

  26. Dr. Pete I am not the one saying the that rankings are staying the same and traffic is going up. You are :)

    Sure it is impossible to track rankings for all keywords that is why this type of experiment doesn't make much sense to me.

  27. Dr. Pete says:

    @Jaan – Sorry, this wasn't really an experiment, just a post-hoc observation. My point was just that, by focusing narrowly on a few keywords, we might have missed the bigger picture of traffic growth. Of course, we dug deeper to see that, and I know many people track beyond just a handful of keywords, but even if you're tracking 100+ keyphrases, there's a lot that could slip through the cracks.

    I don't mean to villify people who track rankings. Tracking keyword rankings is still a valid part of the SEO toolbox – this is just a warning that, especially as rankings change, we need to think more broadly about and dig more deeply into our data.

  28. Completely agree Dr. Pete!

  29. Mark says:

    I compeletely agree with you, Searchwiki is going to affect SERPs a lot. Everybody can see his own set of results, according to his taste, mood and likelyness. But lots of people don't know much about it. Localization is another important factor from SEO point of view. Good old tactics like directory submission and article submission has little value now. And I think their value is going to decrease more in near future. One needs to relay mostly on good and unique content to attact visitors.

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