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Are Rankings Still Relevant?

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Are we heading toward an age where site ranking doesn't matter? While a site appearing on page 20 of the search results will never receive the same attention as a site on page one, Google is collecting more information on search habits and patterns in an attempt to personalize results.

The recent release of the voting arrows in the search results of logged in users suggests that standard rankings are getting the heave-ho in favor of better user experience. Let's examine how Google's been getting to know you, and what this means to search marketers.

You Personalize Your Results

With the release of the voting arrows feature in search results, Google is looking to rank results in a fashion that is most beneficial to you, the individual. While Google isn't collecting this information on an individual level (at least they better not be!), the aggregation of this information can yield the data needed to develop different searcher personas.

Though information besides voting upticks and downticks is also needed to create accurate personas, Google has a wealth of tools and features in place to mine the data necessary for persona development.

Every fun, timesaving Google feature you use in your daily activities is feeding Google information about you. And if they continue to "not be evil," your searching experience will likely be more in tune with your lifestyle.

Your Toolbar Knows You Better Than You Do

Are you a Google toolbar user? If so, you're feeding Google another vital piece of their persona puzzle. Once installed, you've agreed to let Google track and record your searching and Web surfing habits -- again not at the individual level, but as a part of the whole.

This is valuable information that creates context to what you have already told Google through your voting arrows. You may have moved a site up in your personal rankings, but if you clicked through and only spent a few seconds there, then it may not be as valuable as you perceive it.

Google may view a lower-ranked site that you spent several minutes on as more important than the site you voted up. Maybe sometimes Google really does know best!

We Know Where You Are

As local search gains a greater share of overall searches (see my 2009 predictions for why that's happening), location-specific results will gain prominence. If you provided the information in your account profile and are logged in, Google knows where you are. Google even serves up different results by IP address, so they'll provide helpful local results whether you're at home or in Albuquerque.

Geographic information can truly personalize results. Add this bit of information to the development of search personas, and you can start to see how a profile of searchers comes together.

Organic and Paid can Really Work Together

With voting, toolbar, and location data providing a strong picture of searchers' habits, these findings can be used to make Google's offerings even more efficient. Marry the data mined above to known CTRs for specific keywords (attained through paid search campaigns), and Google can really start making paid and organic results work together.

If Google matches up the CTRs of paid search to their algorithmic results, they could use this information to serve up highly trafficked sites from paid search as important in the organic results. If this were the case, there would be a real story to be told regarding the need to do both paid and organic in concert, and not treat them as separate programs. A real synergy can be attained through the application of search profiles, benefitting user experience, paid search, and organic marketing.

The Unknown

Now what about Chrome, Google's new browser? What happens when you're using Chrome, logged into your Google account, and searching on Google? Are you some sort of super-searcher, feeding intense amount of information to Google?

I'm not quite sure what kind of information the boys in Mountain View are collecting with Chrome, but I would guess that whatever they're pulling is being used to impact your search results. We may not really see the real effects of this unless Chrome cuts out a significant swath of the browser market. In any case, you can be sure that Google is looking at its Chrome user data pretty intently.

What's SEO Without Rankings?

Let's assume that everything I've stated is actually happening. There's enough information here to develop searcher personas in order to deliver personalized results to users fitting specific profiles.

My results will look different from yours, your neighbors, and anybody else who may fit a different persona type. Rankings as a whole, therefore, don't mean as much as they used to; they'll be different for everyone.

This, of course, could wreak havoc on organic search markers' plans. How do you report the success of SEO without rankings data?

Search marketers will need to reprioritize the importance of specific metrics. Sure, rankings are the "sexy" number to report to clients, but traffic and ROI clearly matter far more.

Search is one of the only fields of marketing that relies on an artificial number (ranking positions) to measure success. Maybe we've been relying on rankings as a crutch when we should have been looking at the bottom lines.

Maybe personalized rankings will be good for the industry, creating more of a focus on campaign results, not search results. Maybe it's time search marketers removed the training wheels from their campaigns.


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