While much has been said recently (by myself and others) about the over-emphasis placed on search engine rankings, it is still important to keep track of how placement impacts things like branding, searcher impressions and even overall search usage. That's why a recent study put together by iProspect caught my eye. While many of the results support the importance of strong rankings, I think they also serve to support the idea that rankings aren't everything.

"The iProspect Search Engine User Behavior Study" is filled with interesting bits of information, including some data about the way search engine usage has changed over the past few years. Case in point? Just four years ago, in 2002, only 48% of users clicked on a result on the first page of the search listings. 81% of users clicked on a result within the first three pages of the search results. Today, those numbers have risen to 62% and 90%.

When it comes to actual search engine usage, the numbers are also shifting with time. Back in 2002, only 28% of users would run a new search if they didn't see the results they wanted on the first page of results for their original query. Today, that number has risen to 41%. It's also important to note that in 2002, just 68% of searchers would revise their query with the addition of more words. Today, that number has risen to 88%. This tells me that searchers are starting to have a better understanding of HOW to search. That's a good thing for site owners as it means more and more searchers are learning how to find what they're really looking for, which opens up the opportunity for more sites to gather search engine traffic.

Another area that iProspect examined was the way that search engine users' beliefs about a particular company were shaped by their search engine rankings. In 2002, the study found that 33% of searchers felt that the top rankings companies were "the top brands in their field." That number has risen to 36% in the most recent study. The thing that I find interesting about this particular number is that it's still far from being reflective of even half of all searchers. In other words, consider this number...64% of searchers DO NOT believe that the highest ranking companies are the "top brands in their field." That leaves an awful lot of customers being influenced by things other than search engine results, yet still demonstrates the importance of having a strong online presence.

The team at iProspect uses this data to explain the importance of strong search rankings. "There's no question about it," according to Robert Murray, President, iProspect. "This study clearly shows the increased importance of being found in the top search results. With 62% of users clicking on a result on the first page, and 90% doing so within the first three pages, the message to marketers should be clear, and the implications obvious. After all, 90% is a staggering percentage. If you're site is not found on the first page – or within the first three pages of search results – you might as well be putting up a billboard in the woods."

I'd argue that for many companies, even getting exposure to just 10% of searchers will be enough to keep them profitable. Sure, it's always good to move up the rankings over time and to gather more traffic, but the thinking here falls into the same trap that I've pointed out in articles before. It operates on the belief that there's only room for 10 companies to succeed in any line of business. The fallacy in that line of thinking is the failure to understand the many different ways that users search.

As I've explained time and time again to small business owners, there's something to be said for going after the long tail. I've given dozens of companies examples of what I call "alternative keyword targeting." The idea here is to skip over the super popular, super competitive phrases that apply to your market and to go after the highly specific, less competitive phrases instead.

Nine times out of ten, I can spend 15 minutes coming up with a list of these alternative phrases that add up to produce just as many searches as the "money" term does. Usually, these phrases have a tiny fraction of the competitors of the money terms and also convert at a higher rate. That means that these companies can usually do LESS work to pull in just as much traffic and just as many customers as their competitors that spend all their time focusing on those really big keyword phrases. It also means that over time, their site will gain strength and they will become more likely to be able to rank for the money terms as well.

With that in mind, I've decided to revise the line I've been pushing for the past year or so. I won't say that rankings don't matter...I'll say that the rankings for the phrases you THINK you want to rank for don't matter as much as you think they do. If you believe that rankings are essential to your company image and branding, that's fine! Just ask yourself if you really believe that you can only be successful if you're one of the top ten companies for the one phrase that happens to be the biggest search term for your industry. Chances are pretty high that you could achieve the same (or better) results by focusing your efforts on some phrases that you haven't previously looked at.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

April 27, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Just How Important Are Top Rankings?