The Fallacy of SEO Ranking Reports

Kristie Colby April 5, 2013

How To Better Spend Your Time & Effort

For some time now, there’s been a growing buzz in the SEO community regarding organic ranking reports.  The conversation focuses on a significant short list of controversial topics including: accuracy of data, use of tools that violate terms of service to scrape data, necessity for client reporting, and the foundational question: are ranking reports essential for performance monitoring.  There are strong — and relevant — opinions on both sides of the debate.

I would like to make the case that SEO (Search Engine Optimization) experts’ time is better spent focusing on primary results metrics (such as organic traffic and conversions) and only analyzing organic rank/position as it relates to these business results.

The Value Of “Ranking”

A website can “rank” across search results for the same query, and that “rank” can change minute-to-minute, day-to-day, device-to-device.  Given the complexity of the factors considered before a search engine displays results, there is no definitive way to measure rank. Variables such as personalization, localization, search history, device in use, etc., — and their impact on search results — have been documented at great length.

We know that a webpage must rank somewhere in order to drive the associated organic traffic to a website.  The problem is pinpointing that somewhere and assigning a specific rank value.

I recently completed an (unscientific) experiment with a group of SEO experts, analyzing rank for a company’s high-priority phrases. During a 15-minute time period, we used Google to conduct the exact same search from various geographic locations within the U.S., on unique computers, using various browsers and Web proxies, some while logged into Google accounts and some not.

We found that the website ranked across the first page of the search results in dissimilar positions, or in some cases, did not rank on the first page at all.  So, what exactly is the website’s “rank” for that phrase? Who knows!

Rank Chasing

Chasing a specific rank is really a futile exercise. Focusing on measurable and actionable metrics is not. 

To “rank” in search results is to gain exposure and drive traffic to a website.  You will find — when reviewing a specific page of your site in analytics — the volume of keywords from organic search that drives traffic to your webpage is much larger than specific keywords for which you have optimized the page. Actual organic search queries are likely a combination of derivatives of your targeted phrases, direct variations of targeted phrases, brand phrases, and long tail phrases.

When optimizing a page for appropriate keywords and phrases, we forever chase the exposure that is measured by increased organic traffic to that page. While we don’t get a full picture of every single keyword due to the (not provided) privacy protection, there is plenty of actionable data at the landing page level for organic traffic (some query data, engagement data, conversion data, etc.).

Rather than focusing on ranking reports, I suggest that you prove the value of your SEO program by focusing on metrics that impact business results: first traffic, followed by conversions (sales, lead generation, engagement – whatever your goals are for the page or website).

In the end, it’s a quality game. Ensuring visitor quality is why we spend so much time researching potential keywords and phrases. We need to match the intent of the search with the content of the page to turn that traffic into qualified visits and conversions.

How will I know if something has gone wrong?

One case for the use of ranking reports is performance monitoring and internal assessment.  The ability to see a significant shift, specifically a decline, before it has time to do serious damage is a major concern. I think being proactive is an essential component of SEO success! I also believe there are effective ways to achieve this without the use of a ranking report.

3 Alternative Options For Analyzing Organic Search Results

Webmaster Tools

Google Webmaster Tools provides alerts for any major traffic changes (if you drop out of the search results – there will be a traffic impact, even if you catch it early).  Webmaster Tools also provides “average position” data that can be used to track trends with regard to “rank” if the keyword level data is a must.


Most analytics programs allow for alerts to be set to monitor specific performance metrics.  In Google Analytics, you can utilize the Intelligence Events section to see both Automatic Alerts (alerts generated by Google when there is “a significant change in the traffic patterns on your site”) and Custom Alerts, which you can specify yourself. Read more from Google on this reporting:

Manual Spot Checks

While not as quick as a ranking report, I highly recommend performing manual spot checks to ensure not only the relative position is in line with expected results but also that the actual listing is desirable when compared to those around it.

Plus, There’s The Penalty Factor…

“Scraping” Google’s databases for rank data is against their terms of use. The enforcement of this policy seems to be a nearly impossible undertaking, but knowingly violating any policy of a major search engine in which you seek increased exposure, and from which you desire more traffic, is counter-intuitive.  I like to err on the side of caution and not “anger the beast,” so to speak.

See “Using our Services” section of Google’s Terms of Service:

Don’t misuse our Services. For example, don’t interfere with our Services or try to access them using a method other than the interface and the instructions that we provide… We may suspend or stop providing our Services to you if you do not comply with our terms or policies or if we are investigating suspected misconduct.”

Do You Really Need Ranking Reports?

If a client, boss or manager has ever asked why their site is listed in position “x” when your ranking report shows it is ranked in position “y,” then you have likely realized that reporting rank is a futile exercise. Eventually, a manual search will display something different — and you’ll have to explain (validate) your report.

Focus on the metrics that matter most, traffic and conversions, instead of chasing that moving target called “rank.” Performance data will always tell the tale that a mere ranking report cannot.

Final note: There are a lot of areas in the digital performance realm that must evolve, not just ranking reports.  In fact, the use of phrase “search engine optimization” in and of itself is very contradicting. Only the individuals at our favorite search engines can optimize them; so, at the very least, it is more accurately “website optimization.”

At present, most SEO’s wear several hats and focus more on site quality, technical performance, usability and good old-fashioned marketing… but that is an article for another day.

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