Search Analytics: Life After Ranking

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.

About the Author: 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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