Rank is stupid: How to really measure your SEO campaign

One of my pet peeves is SEOs that attempt to measure the effectiveness of their work by “rank.” Not only is this an inaccurate way to judge your campaign, but it also leads to problems and missed opportunities. This is why evaluating an SEO campaign with rank is stupid.

Why is rank stupid?

I’m a firm believer in accurate measurement for online marketing campaigns. Our ability to measure our results makes online marketing far better than traditional marketing because, with good measurement, you can see what’s working and what’s not rather than guess (or, as they might say, “project”). Since we can measure our efforts, you can fix it or move on to a different marketing channel if something isn’t working. If it is helping- do more of it!

When people use rank to measure their SEO campaigns, they are not able to do this consistently. That only perpetuates the stereotype that SEO is a sham as people see rank fluctuate while their business isn’t growing. We need to get-over rank as a way to measure our SEO efforts.

Don’t over simply your SEO into “rank”

I find that people who want a summary of how an SEO campaign is running fall prey to easy metrics that don’t help them. The worst ones are vanity metrics that just stroke their ego that doesn’t grow their business. Of these vanity metrics, the worst is rank. Rank is one of these things that we think is going to be so wonderful, “Oh, if only my website, my company could rank number one for [insert your favorite phrase here] then finally we’ll have achieved SEO success.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way because there’s no such thing as an objective rank for your web pages in the search results.

Your” rank” depends on your location

Everybody is getting a different search result when they search for even the exact phrase. That’s because several factors affect their search.

For instance, where you search affects the results you see. Now, we all see this when you search for restaurants. That we want a restaurant, I’m in Charlotte, North Carolina, so if I Google, “I want an Italian restaurant,” it’s going to give me something nearby. It wouldn’t be helpful if Google told me there’s a great Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills. Google helps me by giving me relevant geographical results.

Even if geography does not limit your company, Google is still considering where the search occurs when it provides search results. So even though you and I might search for the exact phrase you use, you’re going to get different results unless you’re in my office and at my computer.

Your” rank” is personalized

Your search history also makes rank unobjective. Google likes to help its users. It wants to serve the user the most relevant result. One of the things it considers is your YouTube history, your Gmail account content, and other factors. There’s a reason why Gmail is free, after all. Google uses all this data to decide your search intent. From that, it provides a search result according to your history and interests. I have a very different search history than you because we’re just different people interested in different things. Therefore it’s tough to say objectively whether what I see rank is the same as what you see.

For example, I had a client who was so excited about their SEO campaign that they would wake up and type in their favorite keyword phrase into Google every morning. “Ooh, ooh, where do I rank today?” they would wonder. When they would see their result, they would click on their page and ask, “What did David do today?” The following day, they wake up and do a Google search and ask, “What it David do to make me rank today?” and they would click on their search results. And the next day, they search and click on their search results. The next day they click…. and so on.

Pretty soon, the client told me, “David, you’re amazing! I rank number one.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, look here. Here is a screenshot. I ranked number one.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes. Thank you so much.” They decided they wanted to stop their SEO campaign.

They only ranked number one because Google saw them clicking on this page. Google said, “Oh, they must really like this page. I’m just going to help them out and serve them up as number one.” So the client thought they had achieved SEO success. In reality, Google had just simply given them the result they wanted to see, even though not everybody else saw the same search result.

Along with this, you have to remember that Google is a mind reader of sorts. They want to determine your intent when they serve you search results.

Let’s say, for instance, we’re searching for “China.” Maybe you’re a traveler, and China is on your bucket list. When you search “China,” Google knows you intend to travel, so it’s going to talk to you about tours to China, how to see the Great Wall, and cities you can’t miss in China.

But let’s say I’m more interested in politics and economics. So when I type a search for “China,” Google will give me different search results. Maybe it’s going to provide me with more news-oriented information.

What ranks number one for “China”? It depends. Everybody’s getting different results based on their particular intent- let alone their history, let alone from where they search. There’s no such thing as objective ranking.

I had another client who desperately needed SEO to work for them. Every day, they’d Google themselves, and they would see that they weren’t number one. Distraught, they would click on all their competitors and ask, “Why are these people outranking me? What are they doing better than me?” Pretty soon, the client’s site wasn’t even showing up in Google for them. They called me, furious, and asked, “Why is this SEO not working?”

“It’s working. Here’s the data,” I offered.

“No, it’s not working. I never find myself number one.”

Google identified them as, apparently, not liking this one particular site- their website- so they didn’t serve it to them.

Rank doesn’t exist

Anyone who has been following Google has noticed fundamentally different things about how it works over the last couple of years. Between BERT, the upcoming MUM, and other changes, Google is getting better and better at judging the intent behind a query. If you run a PPC campaign, you probably notice another trend (since it’s a privacy violation to share search queries that generate organic search visits, but it’s okay to share them if you pay for the click): people are asking Google long questions rather than short, sentence fragments. Gone are the days of someone searching for a “New York lawyer.” Pretty soon, Google will know what you need and serve pages according to what its machine-learned algorithms think you want. Under this new reality, rank becomes useless as it is overwhelmed by the infinite combination of phrases for which your customers could find your business.

John Mueller has a very insightful monologue about ranking factors in an episode of Search Off the Record (somewhere around the 14:30 mark). He discusses that rank will always be inconsistent because there are several ways to “get there.” So, if he’s telling the truth (some might be cynical about anything straight from Google), an objective measurement of rank doesn’t exist.

This is what’s behind many of the click-bait “SEO is dead” articles. When rank is no longer able to be accurately measured, some SEOs throw up their hands and say, “you can’t do SEO anymore.” Baloney. You just measured SEO wrong. SEO is alive and well and can still help grow a business.

“Rank” makes you miss opportunities

The worst part about ranking as a metric for SEO is that people can miss something significant. There are many ways someone could search for what your company has to offer. And if we laser focus on 1 or 2 (or 100) different phrases, we could be missing out on things for which our customers are looking. Besides that, we experts in our field can search differently for our products and services than our customers use. For instance, clients will often use abbreviations or technical or jargon that’s industry-specific of which their customer isn’t necessarily aware. So, if you focus on rank as a metric, the biggest problem is that you can miss significant opportunities.

Is traffic a better measurement?

Many marketers understand that rank is not a particularly valuable metric when you’re talking about SEO. Instead, they try to shift to traffic. Traffic may be a better way to measure SEO because we could think about it as a way of averaging rank. There’s any number of phrases for which we could rank in search. As we start to rank better, we’re going to begin to see our traffic increase. Maybe traffic is a better way of measuring our SEO results.

Sometimes traffic can be a little misleading. For example, I had a client who made exhaust stacks for paper companies, oil refineries, and other plants. Their former SEO company started to help them focus on “exhaust stacks.” Pretty soon, their website was getting a ton of traffic for “exhaust stacks.”

Unfortunately, many of the people looking for exhaust stacks (in fact, the majority of people looking for exhaust stacks) were thinking about the things that go on the back of a pickup truck. They don’t need an industrial paper plant exhaust stack. So, even though this company was getting traffic for exhaust stacks, it wasn’t helping them. Traffic was a misleading metric.

When it comes to this traffic, we also have to remember that seasonal volume fluctuations significantly affect traffic. I love delivering a January report to my clients because I always look like a rock star. I must have worked hard every December because Januarys always have significant traffic. Or budgets return, customers get back from holidays, catch up, and have to catch up on all their obligations and start purchasing items. Januarys are just big months for most companies- even those who don’t do SEO. If we only look at traffic, we could be ignoring seasonal fluctuations that have nothing to do with SEO success. Be careful when measuring traffic to evaluate your SEO campaign.

For SEO success, measure customers

We’ve discussed what not to measure- rank and even traffic. Now, let’s talk about the most important metric for SEO: the metrics that help justify our efforts financially. Our SEO campaign should be doing one thing, generating new customers, new leads, or new sales. We should measure our SEO campaign to know how many customers, leads, and sales come from our SEO campaign.

This isn’t difficult. Want leads? Count the contact forms submitted by the marketing channel. Are you selling products? Make sure your checkout system reports data when someone checks out and what they paid for so we know how they found us in the first place. You can even use a phone call tracking system to make sure we can keep track of phone calls coming in by the source of their traffic, so we know that an SEO visitor generated a phone call.

Once we know our SEO efforts are generating income, we can say, “Great! We’re getting a ton of new customers from our SEO efforts. How do we get more?”

“Well, to get more customers, we need more traffic.”

“How do we get more traffic?”

“Great question. We need to rank better.”

If we focus on the customers and leads, metrics like traffic rank have a context that becomes valuable. Instead of focusing on rank as the end, we focus on the rank that leads to traffic. But we don’t end there. Rather than focusing on traffic, we look at the rank that leads to traffic leading to customers. This is how we should successfully and accurately measure our SEO campaigns.

The right metric leads to more success

Let’s face it: SEO is not free. We need to pay our SEO team or a consultant. We must pay our developers. We have to buy good web hosting to keep our sites up. We might have writers to help produce content. All these efforts all cost time and money. However, if we measure our SEO campaign based on customer acquisition and sales, we can show that our SEO initiatives generate revenue. Now, when we go to our boss, and we say, “Hey, we need to hire more developers,” we can justify the expense.

Let’s face it: no matter how big your company is, you have limitations. You only have so much budget to spend in this department. Even if you have unlimited money, you only have so much time in the day. Besides that, you’re fighting with other departments for developer resources. To win those battles, make sure you can justify the cost for these changes so that you can get more. You can do that if you measure the right thing.

The bottom line is that we need to measure our SEO efforts based on generating customers, revenue, and leads. Once we do that, we can stop reading these oversimplified reports that don’t tell us the whole story. And instead, get an accurate look at our SEO campaign so we can continue to improve it.


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