PSA: Using rankings to track SEO success is dumb

It is amazing to me that in 2019 anyone would use still use rankings as a success metric for an SEO campaign. Rankings are a vanity metric and do not directly or even directly contribute to the success of a business.

Using a rankings report to as the only way to measure SEO progress is as asinine as using a paid marketing budget total as a metric of success. All a big budget shows is that someone can spend money, it says nothing about whether it is profitable. Rankings just exhibit the ability to be ON Google and not whether anyone even clicks or buys.

Rankings in the past

When I first started my career in search engine optimization the critical metric of success was ranking in search results, and most importantly it was how many number one positions one occupied. It did not matter whether those were useful positions or even if anyone clicked, just having them was a bragging right. As an added bonus, Google wasn’t the only search engine that anyone cared about, so having a top result on MSN.com or Yahoo also generated some SEO applause.

Keywords to rank in a top position were chosen using keyword research tools with preference given to exact match words that had high average monthly search volume with no heed paid to intent. Those keywords were then plugged in on-page meta, spun into content at a high keyword density and most significantly used in anchor text for deliberately built external links.

To keep track of these positions, SEO’s had to use a slew of tool’s whose primary function was to scrape search engines on a weekly, daily or even hourly basis for the latest rankings. Executives asked to see these reports and hence having a huge list of prominent top positions was a key component of an SEO role. This whole process worked and then it didn’t because things changed.

It wasn’t just one change, EVERYTHING changed.

For starters, Google became the dominant search engine if not the only search engine anyone cares about. Google earned this role by rapidly improving the search user’s experience which was a direct result of rooting out the kinds of practices that made pages rank undeservingly.

The list of changes on the search side over the last ten years are endless, but some of the key highlights are:

  • Panda – This Google update from 2010 deprioritizes thin content that is targeted at just generating search clicks. It used to be a separate algorithm that ran alongside the core algorithm, but now it just a part of the ranking algorithm.
  • Penguin –  This algorithm update from 2012 negates the impact of illegitimate links and penalizes sites that engage in these practices intentionally.
  • Local –  A national/global result is irrelevant if Google determines that there’s a local intent behind a query.
  • Google suggest – Google’s query suggestions continually to become richer as they use real time data and trends to direct people into a search funnel.
  • Intent matching – Results for synonyms, misspells, and pluralization are nearly identical provided that the intent behind the phrasing is the same. Choosing word order and pluralization is not a necessary SEO task as they will usually be similar if the intent is the same.
  • Entity matching – Google can parse the entity a user is seeking and will show relevant results. Additionally, the amount of entities that can be highlighted in search continues to grow.
  • Mobile – The rise of mobile search changes everything with regards to how people search with touch-only keyboards or voice search. Users with Android phones can already conduct searches with their cameras through Google Lens but expect the way that searches will be conducted to continue to grow as device technology improves.
  • Artificial Intelligence – Google is not just reliant on words that are in the query or even on the page. They can parse meaning and intent without any apparent match between content and query.
  • Artificial Intelligence and deep learning – Whether Google uses engagement metrics in rankings is up for debate, Google certainly has a significant amount of machine learning to know how content should perform in search results without even needing it to gather real engagement metrics.
  • Ranking signals – in years prior it was thought that content + metadata + links were the key components to ranking. They are still important, but Google claims to use hundreds of others so even with the most optimized content and links, its impossible to force a result.
  • Zero click results – To minimize on information arbitrage results and to provide an even better user experience Google will put answers directly into search results. This negates the value of a top ranking result, as many users will choose not to click any results at all.
  • Size of the web – for anything that is of high value there are now hundreds to thousands of sites chasing the same traffic. Generating search traffic requires being far more creative than just picking keywords off a list from a keyword research tool.

With all of this in mind, manipulating a particular ranking can be virtually impossible and even if one were successful all that effort might be for naught.

SEO success metrics

The primary success metric for SEO is and should always have been the same for every marketing channel: the amount of revenue, leads, visitors etc that the business needs to be successful. If every other marketing channel is contributing to the bottom line or at least the top line, and organic traffic is not, there is an issue that needs to be addressed. Patting oneself on the back for great rankings in this situation will be little solace if the business goes under for a lack of cash.

Some businesses, especially those with long sales pipelines,  may have attribution challenges in tracking channel performance back to organic traffic as typically search traffic will be mostly top of funnel. In this case, the fallback should be clicks from search engines, but effort should still be made to determine that the clicks are of value.

Even if it’s impossible to determine the business outcomes, the business should still be looking at the engagement rate – bounce rate, pages per visit, and time on site – from this source of traffic. If the engagement rates are too low to ever lead to a conversion event, there is an issue and the rankings leading to the clicks are of no value.  

Summary

Rankings alone as a KPI for SEO is vanity metric and it should never be used in budgeting, financial modeling or any other important business conversation. SEO should be judged in the same vein as every other marketing channel and if it can’t be then appropriate proxies that correlate to business KPI’s should be used. It is 2019, and Google has robotaxis on the road, we should stop pretending that they are the same search engine of 2009.