Web Positioning Metrics and SEO

  |  October 24, 2005   |  Comments

Why Web position is not a valuable metric for SEO campaigns.

I’m one of the few SEO (define) professionals who doesn’t measure "organic" search engine positions for my clients. I get plenty of flack for it, too. Some people feel obtaining top search engine positions is the cornerstone of a successful SEO campaign.

I don’t share that opinion. That’s why I consider Web positioning software to be a waste of money.

Here’s why I don’t consider Web position a valuable metric for an SEO campaign.

Search Engine Behavior vs. User Behavior

As an SEO professional, I must understand the different types of search engines and how they work. However, I’m more interested in how my target audience (and my clients’ target audience) searches than how search engines work. In other words, my goal is to understand how a specific target audience searches and browses for information.

Web positioning software doesn’t provide information about my target audience’s search behavior. Web analytics software and usability test results offer the most valuable information.

Web Position Addiction

People who obsess over positioning don’t give a hoot about a customer’s or prospect’s search experience.

When Web site owners modify content purely to obtain higher search engine positions, the resulting content is frequently difficult to read and to understand. Cross-linking between pages usually makes content appear unfocused. It doesn’t make much sense to site visitors and search engine spiders alike.

The goal becomes gaming the search engines rather than providing site visitors with useful, easy-to-find information.

Top Positions Are Deceiving

A very large client site sells computers, peripherals, and software. Our data show most site visitors discover this site through Google with general query words ("refurbished computers") and with more specific keyword phrases ("Sony notebook computer battery PCG-800").

The content groups we analyzed:

  • New visitors who found the site via Google search queries

  • New visitors who found the site via Yahoo search queries

  • Repeat visitors who found the site via Google search queries

  • Repeat visitors who found the site via Yahoo search queries

Due to Google’s popularity, one might think specific Google queries would generate the best ROI (define) for this site. Through our analysis of log files from 1997 to present, we determined a 69 percent ROI was generated from repeat visitors who found products through Yahoo queries. The strings averaged four to five words per query.

Had we only looked at Web positioning data for this site we would never have known the key target audience for this client used Yahoo, not Google.

Limited SEO Experience

Many Web site owners and SEO professionals are addicted to Web positioning software due to their limited experience. My perspective is often different from people who haven’t been in SEO as long as I have.

A site owner new to SEO probably has little or no experience with a site receiving high-quality search engine traffic. With all the search engine mythology circulating on the Web, site owners often have preconceived and inaccurate notions about the entire optimization process. They’re easy prey for SEO email that claims, "We submit your sites to millions of search engines" or "Get thousands of links to your Web site for only pennies a day!"

Many people with limited SEO experience don’t understand top search engine positioning doesn’t automatically mean increased sales. I know this is the SEO sales pitch, but it’s not always true.

Since 1995, I’ve been an online marketing manager for Web hosting companies, Web development firms, ad agencies, and my own company. Although I didn’t design every site I optimized, I did have access to site statistics for a wide variety of Web sites. I still do. I’ve seen plenty of ugly sites rank well (temporarily) but not generate any revenue.

I’ve also seen many client sites receive little sales from an optimization campaign, even though the sites had over 800 top-10 positions for very targeted keyword phrases. Likewise, I’ve seen client sites generate millions of dollars in revenue with only a handful of top search engine positions, not necessarily in the top 10.

I recall one healthcare client whose site had over 1,000 top search engine positions from white-hat optimization techniques. The site periodically had number one positions in all the major search engines simultaneously. However, this particular client had a small computer monitor with a screen resolution of only 640 x 480. Although browsers, HTML, and CSS (define) have evolved, this client didn’t purchase an updated monitor. As a result, he wouldn’t allow me (or anyone else) to update his site.

As a result, those top positions didn’t generate sales. I’d like to say this is an isolated incident, but it’s not. I’ve witnessed thousands of sites with top positions generate little or no revenue.

Of course, I started from the beginning just like any other SEO professional. I didn’t always have access to Web analytics data for thousands of sites. Now that I do, I incorporated this knowledge into SEO campaigns.

If I need information about a specific search engine and how it deals with the Web sites I develop and promote, I obtain it from Web analytics data, not positioning data.


I don’t use Web positioning software because it doesn’t provide valuable information about site visitors’ searching and browsing behavior.

How do I know my SEO campaigns are effective? Quite simply, from the resulting traffic changes and keyword phrases that appear (or appear more frequently) in site statistics software.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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Shari Thurow

Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.

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