It's that time of the year for reflection. If nothing else, I can give a huge sigh of relief for the long overdue recognition of the ranking report's demise.
It's been more than four years since I did an indepth interview with Jon Glick, then Yahoo's senior manager, search.
When we touched on the subject of ranking reports, here's what he said: "The next phase will be where you're able to take into account information about the end user. And of course local, because local search is a subset of personalization. For local to really work, you need to know where the person is. So, the issue of: 'I'm number one for this keyword'... may not exist at all in a few years. You know, you'll be number one for that keyword depending on who types it in...And from where and on what day...It is going to get more complex than something that can simply be summed up in a ranking algorithm."
Some very educated guesswork going on there. And I've been talking about and researching the subject of end user behavior in the ranking and re-ranking mix ever since. Of course, with so many SEO (define) shops having nothing more to offer than a ranking report, few wanted to hear that.
My argument about ranking reports has remained pretty consistent for the past 10 years: What's the point of having a rank at a search engine for a specific keyword or phrase if it doesn't send relevant traffic? Or worse, what's the point of having a rank at a search engine for a keyword or phrase that sends no traffic at all?
I have just wanted to cry when I think back about the number of times over the years I've encountered a potential new client who told me its existing SEO firm has it ranked in the top 10 at Google for 200 keywords or phrases. I've then had to inform the potential client that it's not hard to secure a number-one result for your own name spelled backwards. The whole point of being visible at a search engine is to drive quality, targeted traffic that converts!
And now, as the 10 blue links at search engines become nothing more than a reminder of how search looked in the past, ranking reports couldn't be more redundant.
I've written before about relevance feedback and the vital role it plays in information retrieval on the Web. Just because a ranking algorithm based on linkage data and text puts a series of documents in a certain order, that doesn't necessarily mean they are the best quality documents. Relevance and quality are two different things. The best way to discover which documents relevant to query are the best quality, you must fold in end user evaluation. So even if you ranked in the top 10 for a certain query, a few thousand clicks on the browser back button seconds after the initial click through sends a mighty strong signal to a search engine regarding a page's quality.
But now there's going to be a much stronger signal than just hitting the back button, or following user trails. Google's introduction of SearchWiki is likely to become an even bigger game changer. In a TechCrunch interview, Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president, search products and user experience, talked about the use of end user data created by SearchWiki. She said that data, for now, isn't being used to change overall search results. But in the future it's likely Google will use the data to make obvious changes. An example is if "thousands of people" were to knock a search result off a search page, they'd be likely to make a change.
Once again, relevance feedback from the end user is a primary factor for deciding which content to connect users with.
I work with a crack team of data-driven analysts. We're focused on providing meaningful information to our clients based on an advanced approach to analytics. Slowly, but surely, we're weaning our clients off the SEO crack cocaine that has been a ranking report and on to more meaningful key performance indicators and deliverables.
An addendum: Here's a fascinating read for the new year: "Googlization Of Libraries, due in stores soon. The book includes a variety of articles that look critically and judiciously at Google and its products, with a focus on Google Scholar and Google Book Search.
Interesting stuff if you're at all interested in library science and the impact of Google.
I wish you all a happy, peaceful, and prosperous new year.
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Mike Grehan is Publisher of Search Engine Watch and ClickZ and Producer of the SES international conference series. He is the current president of global trade association SEMPO, having been elected to the board of directors in 2010.
Formerly, Mike worked as a search marketing consultant with a number of international agencies, handling such global clients as SAP and Motorola. Recognized as a leading search marketing expert, Mike came online in 1995 and is author of numerous books and white papers on the subject. He is currently in the process of writing his new book "From Search To Social: Marketing To The Connected Consumer" to be published by Wiley in 2013.
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