Rank is Dead – How to Measure SEO Success in a Personalized World
The top positions in SERPs (search engine results pages) have long been hailed as the holy grail of organic visibility – and no doubt, everyone wants to be there. Countless SEO providers still promote promises of ranking websites in the top search engine positions (these promises are perhaps innocently misguided... perhaps not), and countless others chase those top positions as if they are the be-all, end-all of SEO success. Rank tracking software is a multi-mullion dollar industry with dozens of applications automating and reporting keyword rank and tracking the changes over time. Digital marketing forums are flooded with grievances about the struggle to obtain a top position for that unicorn of a keyword.
As the ultimate measure of SEO success, rank as we know it is dead.
Here lies rank - victim to personalized search.
Personalized search means that search results are tailored to the user and are no longer one big static aggregate of listings. Google and others take individual attributes about users into account before deciding what to display on search results pages, including their location, browsing history, and demographic data – filtering out results that it believes will not be relevant to the user.
The history of personalized search goes back to 2004, when Google first introduced it as a beta test through its' Google Labs project. In 2005, Google brought the feature out of Labs and made it part of ordinary search for users who selected a “search history” option. In 2007, personal search began running even for users who did not have the “search history” option enabled when they were signed in to their Google account. And in 2009, personalized search became all encompassing – providing tailored results to searchers who weren't even signed in to a Google account.
Another notable update to the overall personalization of search results came in late 2015 with RankBrain. Google's machine-learning artificial intelligence part of its' algorithm is used to refine search queries and provide better results to users. It is currently in the top 3 of hundreds of signals in the search algorithm that determine the ranking of websites.
The overall purpose of personalized search is the same as it always has been - which is to make it easier for users to find the things that they want. Consider a scenario where a user initiates a search for the keyword “bleach”. This could be interpreted a number of ways – from the cleaning solution, to the popular Japanese anime TV show by the same name. If Google knows that I have binge-watched Bleach anime episodes recently, it will probably show me results related to the television series.
Think of personalized search as a very capable and highly intelligent virtual assistant whose only purpose is to learn all they can about you in order deliver the best results – whether it be an answer to a question, a restaurant recommendation, or a list of websites it thinks you may find useful.
The point is this: the ranking of results when conducting a search is highly unique to the searcher. Thus, relying on an observed keyword ranking is no longer a reliable method for measuring whether or not your SEO efforts have successfully increased your organic visibility for those keywords. Relying on ranking alone will only mislead you, since observing a top ranking position on your own doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be found by your customers.
Success only truly happens when your customers find you, and yes, this is more likely to happen when your website is listed at the top of the search page results. However, due to the highly personalized nature of search results, the SERP is a dynamic landscape and changes for each searcher.
Measuring SEO Success in a Personalized World
You may now be wondering how one can begin to measure the success of SEO efforts, if not with keyword ranking.
Both Google and Bing offer a wealth of information about organic queries for which your website is gaining impressions and clicks from.
Bing Webmaster Tools
Google Search Console
When it comes to rank, the most accurate measure is the “average position” report, which shows changes in average ranking over time.
In conjunction with these tools, the fundamental criteria for measuring the success of your SEO campaigns is analyzing the behavior of users who come to your website from search engines.
At the highest level, measuring search engine optimization should not be based on ranking, but on the following metrics:
1. Total traffic from organic search
This is pretty self-explanatory. As you do SEO work, the total amount of traffic to your website from organic search versus other channels should be steadily increasing.
2. The number of unique keywords referring traffic
As your organic visibility steadily increases, the number of unique keywords that you are receiving impressions and clicks from should also be steadily increasing. If you have linked Search Console to Google Analytics, you can view this data within the GA interface under Search Console > Queries. It is important to cross-reference these keywords with user behavior (explained in the number 6).
3. Organic traffic from branded versus non-branded keywords
If all your organic traffic is coming from branded keywords, it indicates that you may be missing a potentially huge opportunity to reach other searchers. If all your organic traffic is coming from non-branded keywords, this is just as worrisome because it indicates that you may have low visibility for your brand name (and it's extremely important to be found by users if they are specifically searching for your brand). If you're just starting out, gaining a foothold in organic search for branded keywords is a great place to begin. Once that has been locked down, you should begin to optimize for non-branded terms, and ultimately, successful SEO efforts result in a healthy ratio of both.
4. Organic traffic from head keywords vs. long-tail keywords
Head keywords (also sometimes referred to as “fat head”) are popular keywords that generally have high search volume and are more competitive in search results than long-tail keywords. Long-tail keywords have greater specificity and thus greater intent by the searcher. For example, a search for the head keyword “shoes” says much less about the intent of the searcher than a search for the long-tail keyword “men's blue suede shoes size 12”. Having a healthy ratio between head keywords and long-tail keywords indicates successful SEO efforts, while unbalanced ratios can indicate a problem or missed opportunities for optimization.
5. Organic traffic landing on the homepage versus inner pages
Think of the homepage like a freeway packed with drivers, with each of those drivers intending to go to a specific destination. The purpose of the home page is much like the freeway - to funnel users to their end-destination. For that reason, a website's homepage is rarely the ideal landing page, particularly for non-branded and long-tail keywords. A good SEO strategy will lead more traffic to deeper pages within the website.
6. Behavior of organic traffic
Your customer is not an algorithm or arbitrary number. Your customer has specific needs that led them to your website, therefore simply counting their visit is not enough. The quality of their session should be measured by looking at other metrics, such as the following:
Bounce rate: When bounce rate is high for organic traffic, it often signals that the website is not providing the desired content that the user is searching for despite being shown in the SERP.
Conversion rate: A website may have substantial organic traffic, but if those users from search engines are not completing conversion actions, then SEO efforts may ultimately be failing to improve the business's bottom line.
Other important things to keep in mind.
Ensuring that that data collection is accurate is paramount to any SEO campaign. Sponsored and organic traffic can easily become muddled together within Google Analytics reports since sponsored traffic will always be attributed to organic unless you have the proper tagging methods in place to identify it as sponsored. In AdWords campaigns, it's as easy as enabling auto tagging. For other campaigns, you'll need to add the necessary tracking parameters to campaign URLs. When traffic from sponsored sources becomes attributed as traffic from the organic medium, your data aggregate becomes inaccurate and it will be impossible to truly determine the success of SEO efforts.
More info on URL parameters:
How To Use UTM Parameters In Google Analytics by Kissmetrics
Google's Campaign URL Builder
Your business does not grow because of an observed ranking in search results. Ultimately, your business success grows though fostering loyalty with your existing customers and giving new ones a reason to do business with you, so, measuring factors based around user behavior is what matters most.
About the Author: Alison Stoughton is owner of Stratagem Digital LLC. She works closely with clients in central Kansas to implement SEO strategies that bolster organic visibility.
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