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The Challenges of Measuring SEO Success, Part 2

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In part one of this series, we talked about how to measure search engine optimization (SEO) success. But those measurements are predicated on understanding our organic rankings in search engines for the search terms that drive revenue or leads to our site.

However, some recent changes to the data that Google now offers dramatically changes the way we think of "search rankings" and really underscore the notion that search engines continue to focus on user experience as they improve their ranking formulas. This article summarizes what these changes mean to an SEO campaign.

How Personalization and Localization Changed the SEO Game

Much of what the data tells us is what we have guessed for some time now, but this is the first time that there's hard data to support some of the assumptions. In previous years, search rankings across the engines were more or less static for the same phrase. However, localization and personalization have been affecting the Google ranking algorithm for some time now.

As we look at the changes of the recent update and those in other recent updates, we find that where you search for something and who you are makes a profound difference in what you see in Google for any given search query. Additionally, Google's new infrastructure allows for the engine to make ranking changes much more frequently. And so, Google's new data set available in Google Webmaster Tools, and specifically, the "Average Rank," is now the most accurate metric that illustrates organic ranking performance.

Why 'Average Rank' is an Important New KPI

SEO professionals have historically relied on automated software like WebPosition or WebCEO for "rankings reports," which detail where a particular site ranks on a given keyword in a particular search engine. However, with Google's current environment, these reports end up being a snapshot in time of how a local data set looks for a particular keyword. They may or may not be indicative of the general trend in rankings for this query for most users.

This type of reporting isn't really reliable for judging performance and is no longer suitable data to make business decisions with. Google's average rank is a much better metric because it accounts for all of the variances listed above, namely, personalization, localization, and changes over time.

How to Get the New Webmaster Tools Ranking Data

In order to access this data set, log in to your Google Webmaster Tools account and select the Your Site on the Web link on the left navigation, then select Search Queries. Google will now display all of the search queries where your domain received some kind of impression activity during the selected time frame (which is a month by default).

Note that data currently dies after roughly a month, so it must be downloaded or copied on an ongoing basis (around the third of the month usually gives you the previous month's full data set) for later comparisons of performance.

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Better Understand SEO Performance

In addition to the average rank for each keyword phrase where an impression was recorded, Google also provides the number of impressions the keyword got, how many total clicks the keyword generated, what the organic click-through rate (CTR) is, and finally the average rank. This data set is the only one that can be exported. However, if you click on the plus symbol next to each search term, it will expand to show you where you were ranked when you actually got a click (it will specify #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6 - #10, page 2, or page 3) and which pages received clicks.

While there is some delta between what Google Analytics is showing for the same period, the data is accurate enough to give us the best idea of ranking performance for the site and therefore allows us to have better insight into how to drive the ongoing SEO campaign.

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User Experience Continues to Grow in Importance

This new data from Google gives us a better understanding of our SEO performance, and also illustrates two important concepts that are crucial to success:

  1. Average rank shows us that sites are ranked differently for different users. Creating a user experience that is tailored toward your audience's needs is more likely than ever to drive qualified organic traffic to your site. This is especially true from a localized content standpoint.

  2. Different pages rank higher for the same keyword depending on the searcher. Therefore, optimize each page of your site for whatever keywords that page is relevant to, even if you have multiple pages on your site which target the same keyword phrase. You never know which page Google might prefer for a given user.

Google Webmaster Tools Sets the New Standard for Search Rankings

The new Google Webmaster Tools data set is a great step forward for SEO professionals. It gives us a more complete view of performance, which is especially valuable from a year-over-year perspective as it relates to judging the success of an SEO campaign focused on growth.

Additionally, it allows us to see organic CTRs for the first time, which promises to be the subject of more scrutiny going forward. But it also illustrates that there is no such thing as ranking number one for something anymore, and that the concept of "share of voice" begins to have a seat at the SEO table.

This data set shows that, in order to have the highest propensity to get as much share of voice for any particular keyword phrase, a holistic approach to SEO that is tailored to user experience (preferably based on persona development) is critical.

Next time: the implications of these changes from three different business levels, plus some tactics that will be useful to each of these groups.

Join us for SES San Francisco August 16-20, 2010 during ClickZ's Connected Marketing Week. The festival is packed with sessions covering PPC management, keyword research, search engine optimization (SEO), social media, ad networks and exchanges, e-mail marketing, the real time web, local search, mobile, duplicate content, multiple site issues, video optimization, site optimization and usability, while offering high-level strategy, keynotes, an expo floor with 100+ companies, networking events, parties and more!


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