Long Live Ranking Reports

I could spend all day digging up articles proclaiming that ranking reports are dead. While I certainly haven’t read all of them, of those that I have, the arguments were logical enough that a casual reader might actually think ranking reports are about to become curious artifacts of SEO history. I’m not so convinced.

Before I dive in, let me clarify that I’m considering whether rankings reports will actually go away and not whether ranking reports should go away. I leave it up to you and whoever pays your salary to decide on the should.

It’s All Google’s Fault

For at least the last few years many of us have been moving toward dumping ranking reports in favor of arguably more meaningful data like traffic (and conversions) to a site. Then last year, Google decided that, under the premise of protecting the privacy of its users, it was going to switch logged-in users to the SSL protocol (i.e. force https connections) such that referral data (where analytics programs pick up the keyword data) would no longer be accessible.

Since then, site owners have reported that the percentage of keyword data lost for visitors from Google’s organic search results is in the double digits. Losing 10 to 20 percent of your keyword data may not be a showstopper, but it’s naïve to expect that percentage to not increase in the future. Why? Because Google continues to look for ways to encourage people to be logged in when they use Google Search. For example, if Google+ continues to increase in popularity, it follows that more and more people will be logged in when searching, which in turn means less and less keyword data.

Some of you may be thinking that the Searcher Queries data that Google provides in its Webmaster Tools is a good alternative. At first blush you might even think this is a perfect solution considering it provides impression data, which isn’t available anywhere else. I’d agree except that I’ve yet to be able to reconcile the data Google gives me with the data I’m able to grab from within web analytics packages. And at the last Webmaster Think session hosted by Google, many in the audience indicated they had similar issues. Even when I’m using Google Analytics the data doesn’t match which one might expect given both products are created by the same company. I can’t even get directional information since Google reports some keyword volumes higher than what I see and others lower.

So what should we do in preparation for someday not having any keyword data from our web analytics packages? Believe it or not, I think getting more ranking data might be the way to go. By more I mean making keyword lists longer so there’s more data about the comprehensiveness of a site’s content. I also think getting ranking data more frequently will prove to be useful. Monthly and weekly used to be the norm, but now daily is making more sense to me. Daily data makes it possible to smooth out fluctuations, which I’ve seen can vary 5, 10, and even 20 positions from one day to the next. I sure hope Google’s got some extra servers ready to handle the extra load.

Personalization Makes Rankings Irrelevant, Right?

Yes, what you see in the search engine results pages (SERPs) and what I see in the SERPs is likely to be different. However, a cookie-less and largely personalization-free rank checking tool is arguably a good way to establish a foundation for how relevant and authoritative your content is. After all, if your site doesn’t show up anywhere in the top 100 when checking rankings, how likely is it to show up even in personalized results for a large enough number of people that the traffic would be significant?

Besides, the Boss Still Wants the Data

In the real world (as opposed to the sensationalized blog world), we have to answer to someone who signs our pay checks. For example, I’m now working on one site where the phase one goal, as provided to me, is to achieve first page rankings for a particular keyword. You can probably guess what the phase two goal is. Yes, part of what I plan to do is demonstrate value and show positive ROI by taking a broader look at the site’s performance, but in the end I can’t be sure that if I don’t achieve the phase one or phase two goals that site owner will consider the effort a success. And while one keyword makes for the simplest of ranking reports, it is a ranking report nonetheless.

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