A recent discussion on Sphinn got me thinking about the value of keyword rankings in the overall scheme of measuring SEO performance. Do rankings matter? If so, should ranking reports be a part of the success metrics SEO’s provide their clients?
There are a lot of ways to measure the success of an SEO campaign and rankings can be a relevant factor, but that should not be the only factor. Heck, I’m not even sure it’s one of the top 5 most important measures of success! But instead of just yelling, “ranking reports suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck” at the top of my lungs, let’s look at how we can accurately measure the value of any particular keyword ranking. I think you’ll find a lot more here than meets the eye.
The Value of the Search Engine
Assessing the value from one search engine to the next isn’t always as easy as just looking at the popularity of any particular engine. Each engine has a different audience with varying degrees of interaction and conversion.
If you spend any amount of time looking at your site analytics, you’ll find that what gets huge click-throughs on Bing may not work so well over at Google. Similarly, what converts well on Yahoo may not convert at all on Bing.
Each engine has varying degrees of searcher interaction, search quality and searcher intensity. This ensures that the value of a top ranking on Google is very different from one on Bing or Yahoo, and not always for the reasons you think.
Google is the clear leader in search engine market share department, currently getting more than 3x the search traffic over Yahoo and double that of Yahoo and Bing combined. This generally makes Google the primary search engine most people care about. If someone wants top search engine rankings, what they generally mean is they want top Google rankings.
But one would be wise not to ignore the “lesser” the bottom rungs of the big 3 engines. Collectively, they bring in over 95% of all search traffic. After that, it’s all small-time stuff, with Ask and AOl usually fighting it out for 1-3 percent.
A significant number of Google’s searchers are business owners, executives, employees and SEOs performing vanity searches and ranking reports. These are people that just want to see where they rank or where a competitor ranks for their keyword phrases. This skews the market share data. While many SEOs perform the same vanity searches on Bing and Yahoo as they do Google, it’s not to the same degree.
This means that Google may actually have a lower search quality than the other engines, as a larger percentage of searches on Bing and Yahoo are from people looking for actual information. But, Google still delivers more traffic for similarly ranked keywords on Bing and Yahoo. It may be a smaller percentage than the market share data suggests, but it’s still a significant piece of the pie.
Each engine has different users with different levels of searcher intensity. Demographics can play a role in this, as do the type of searches peformed. Some searchers use different search engines depending on what they are looking for. Other engines attract users that are shoppers more than researchers, or are favored in one industry over another. This intensity can make the difference between a quality hit to your site or someone just doing some window shopping.
If you’re an e-tailer, you want ready-to-buy traffic. If you are an informational site, you want info seekers. Both of these can be intense searchers, but the intensity is focused in a different area. Look at the conversion rates from each engine and see where you prosper the most. That might help you determine where to focus more of your efforts.
The value of the keyword
Not every keyword is equal to the next, even if they are close in similarity. Keyword research and selection is no small task, nor is it unimportant. Taking the time to thoroughly research and understand the value of each of your keywords can be paramount to your SEO success and determining the value of that success.
There is a tendency for business owners to want to go after keywords based on search volume alone. If Keyword A gets searched 10x more often than Keyword B, Keyword A is seen as a “must get ranked” phrase. SEOs, on the other hand, often want to go after the “low hanging fruit” first. These are the lesser-searched-but-easier-to-rank phrases.
Neither of these are bad keywords, as long as there are expectations as to what value each top ranked keyword will provide. Sometimes it’s best to start with the lower-volume phrases as you build a foundation for the more difficult high-volume phrases that take more time.
What many find is the low-volume phrases can collectively outperform the high-volume, both in terms of traffic and conversions. Basing the value on a keyword on search volume alone can cause you to miss out on this important traffic.
Relevance and Conversions
If the keyword you’re ranking for doesn’t give the visitors the information they want, or the conversions you want, it doesn’t matter how much traffic it’s generating; it’s a poor keyword choice.
This can be difficult for many people to truly grasp. They just see how much traffic they are getting. But more traffic doesn’t mean more sales. Look for the keywords that are most relevant to what you have to offer and then check the conversion rates. If conversion rates are low, you may not want to place such a high value on this keyword.
The Value of Your Industry
Some industries are more popular than others. It’s easy to see some phrases for a particular industry get thousands of searches a day, where other phrases in another industry may only get a few dozen. When looking at keyword popularity, you can only compare the keywords within your particular field.
It doesn’t matter if thousands of people are searching for products or services that you don’t offer. What does matter is that there is enough searcher interest in what you do offer, and that you are able to build a successful business in that niche.
Unfortunately, there are some niche industries that simply do not have enough searcher interest to build a sustainable business model. They can get rankings for all their keywords, but the ROI isn’t there.
But don’t let low search volume scare you out of a successful model. Many niche industries thrive by ranking for hundreds of lower volume phrases that produce enough conversions to keep them profitable.
The Value of Your Profit Margin
Profit margins are a significant factor in the value of your search engine rankings. Low search but high profit keywords can be a goldmine by allowing you to get more money for less marketing investment. Many keywords – even those with very little traffic – can often be worth a premium if the profit that keyword brings in is significant enough.
In any industry, and with any marketing efforts, you need to be aware of what your profit margins are for each keyword related to any given product or service. Some products undoubtedly have a higher profit margin than others, which makes rankings for these keywords more valuable to you regardless of search volume.
The Value of a Keyword Ranking
The ranking your site or page gets for any given keywords does factor in to the amount of traffic you’re able to bring to your site. Statistically very few people click past the third page of search results, and no small number of people don’t scroll down to the end of the page. This means you have a greater chance of getting noticed the higher rankings you have.
That’s why everyone wants to be #1!
Unfortunately, as Highlander taught us long before there was SEO, there can only be one. Only one person can be #1 out of the dozens, hundreds or perhaps even thousands of others competing for that keyword. The chances of you obtaining that position is pretty slim, even with the best SEOs working for you.
Simply put, your commercial site may never overcome the highly popular informational site which is considered the de facto authority on the topic. It can happen, but its a long hard road!
But it helps to keep in mind that a well optimized site can actually do better in lower positions than the sites in higher positions. Carefully crafted title and description tags can make your site much more compelling to the searcher, especially when searcher intent is vague.
A #1 ranking isn’t always necessary, but it sure helps the ego!
The Value of Localization and Personalization
Search engines are working hard to personalize results for every searcher based on history, preferences and locality. As localized and personalized results become more prominent, search results can vary from searcher to searcher. That site you see in the top spot is not what someone else sees.
What you think is a valuable top ranking may only be showing up for you. Or what you see at the bottom of the SERPs may be much higher for the next person. This means there really is no reliable search engine ranking report.
So what is the value of measuring keyword rankings? Not a whole lot. Should you stop obsessing over search engine rankings? I recommend it.
But whether you look at rankings or not, it’s important realize that rankings are merely a single measure of your SEO success. It is not the measure of success. You can gain a lot more advantage by focusing on other more traditional marketing aspects of your site such as usability and conversion improvement than by focusing on top search engine rankings alone.