Recently Google started blocking several of the big-name rank checking software used by many in the SEO industry. This, of course, sparked the debate on whether SEO firms should be bothering with providing ranking reports to their clients. I have to say, I'm conflicted on that issue.

On the one hand I know all the arguments that rankings don't matter. Rather than make them again, I'll point you to these posts:

If you're short on time, read the two articles I've bolded above. But the long and short of it all is that no two people see the same rankings. So while you're fighting for one of the top three positions, someone else is seeing you in positions #1, or #8, or #6, or not at all.

This makes ranking reports suspect at best.

But there is another logical side of the argument, which I also know too well. Rankings still do have meaning. Allow me for a second to play devil's advocate. I know this position too well, because it's the argument my clients use whenever I try to convince them that rankings are meaningless (usually when being questioned about the drop from the #2 spot to the #4 spot!)

In all things there is a primary base of reference. Before search engines begin implementing any sort of personalization or localization of the search results, they have to start with something to personalize. This is the base set of results. Take out all localized and personalized aspects of whatever results anyone sees and that's what you're left with. This baes is very, very important.

Why? Because this is what many people still see. And how do we know this? Simply because not everybody is "logged in" when they perform a search, which is when most personalization of search results occurs. Unless the search engines are keeping an eye on your same session search patterns, but that's another post for another day.

We know that rankings in these base results deliver traffic for certain key phrases. I've had clients tell me they can immediately tell when they lose a few spots in the search rankings. The orders slow, the phone calls drop off, and their traffic numbers decline. Now, who cares about traffic numbers, but you can't argue with a client that tells you that they are losing sales.

Some will look at this as an argument against ranking reports. Afterall, it's the sales that matter, not the rankings. I fully concur! But when you're investigating the reason why there was a drop in sales, one would be remiss not to look to see if there is a change in position for certain keywords. Of course, you can only know if something has changed if you knew what it was beforehand.

I'm not advocating using rankings as a measure of success. Quite the opposite. But sometimes there is no amount of "education" in the world that's going to convince people to stop looking at the level of exposure they are getting. Better rankings equals more exposure, and we all know that for good websites, more exposure equals more sales.

If you're able to ignore rankings, God bless you. But you can't make much of an argument for ignoring the level of exposure you're getting. Just be careful that rankings are not seen as the goal, any more than traffic is the goal. Sales and conversions matter most. Rankings and traffic are just a means to an end. But to not know where you're ranking for your keywords leaves you without an important tool for assessing how, when, where, and why your sales figures may have suddenly changed.


August 11, 2008





Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.

If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.

Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.

Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.





Comments(26)

Great post Stoney. I especially like the subtly with which you say "good websites".

If your website is a usability nightmare, good exposure probably won't mean squat.

Stoney - loved the post! Timely for me, as you will see if you follow the URL associated with my name above - I mention how I was just about to write "your" post (beat me by about 35 minutes - well a couple of hours in the end).

@Chris G. - couldn't agree more. Could we dare hope that crappy sites built for SEO will fade away?

It's not just the folks who are logged in and seeing "personalized results" who will potentially see different rankings. I don't track rankings much myself, but I understand there's also the potential for apparent different rankings arising from queries being directed to different data centers.

good point Dianne. I just didn't want to run through the laundry list of all the things that makes rankings different. But duly noted.

Thanks Chris, I needed to make the point, but didn't want to jump on a soap box again. :)

Andy, good post yourself!

Ranking for me is a method of assessing how relevant my sites are. Yes it varies with what servers the search is made on, but all the rankings show the same general trend. i.e if your site is ranking in position 1 on one pc and position 4 on another, they are both telling me that my site is doing okay from the search engine point of view

Is this not an important piece of feedback to have on my SEO efforts?

Brief laundry list of what goes into rankings:

http://www.jaankanellis.com/google-rankings-change-from-day-to-day-hour-to-hour-why/

After a client saw their traffic double they were still upset that their ranking had dropped. Had sales decreased? No... in fact they couldn't keep up with the demand. Not sure why exactly the traffic/conversions increased so dramatically with a drop from one to 3. Could be that the other sites were so poor that by the time they hit the 3rd it was simple enough and direct. We try not to make the visitor think.

@Ami I've done the same search 4 or 5 times to have 4 or 5 different results returned. This on the same machine and same browser. Seems that our good friend Google is mixing up their results, on the fly?

Hi

That makes sense we thought it might be WebCEO blocking us when we start not to be able to search without a gotcha on monday.

What do you think the answer is? less checking or more tracking on the search engines or a return to the API key we could use?

Apart from WebPosition, which are the "several" checkers that are being blocked?

[Recently Google started blocking several of the big-name rank checking software used by many in the SEO industry]

I didn't realize Google was doing that. I've been trying discourage clients from being position-freaks, but it's hard to supress someone's joy when they see themselves in position 1 for some perceived 'very important keyword'.

Rather than run reports, I manually track their top 20 keywords every few months because it gives us all a 'keyword kick' and doesn't really take long - but I prefer to look at their web analytics and focus on which keywords actually converted and why.

I think my clients get a lot more out of me analysing their stats than checking their positions.

In the end, you're right, rankings are but one wee aspect of a great Web site- but there's a certain satisfaction that comes with seeing top positions in a page of revelant SERPS!

Thanks Jaan,

@ Robert, see now that's where it just doesn't make any sense at all. And overall, that's the frustration in trying to educate clients into understanding the big picture. But these types often refuse to be educated.

@tristan, sorry, I don't have an answer for you. You'll have to take this up with your ranking check software programmers of choice.

@ Rod, I don't know all of them, but I've heard mentions of WPG and Web CEO.

@ carolyn "I think my clients get a lot more out of me analysing their stats than checking their positions." And that should be the truth of the matter. That's what's most important, anyway.

@ Stoney: No matter how hard you try with some clients, they've heard somewhere from someone... and that is that!

Very good Stoney! Since I have weighed in elsewhere, thought I might here as well.

I thought your playing the other side was very good. You wrote this:

"We know that rankings in these base results deliver traffic for certain key phrases. I've had clients tell me they can immediately tell when they lose a few spots in the search rankings. The orders slow, the phone calls drop off, and their traffic numbers decline. Now, who cares about traffic numbers, but you can't argue with a client that tells you that they are losing sales.

Some will look at this as an argument against ranking reports. Afterall, it's the sales that matter, not the rankings. I fully concur! But when you're investigating the reason why there was a drop in sales, one would be remiss not to look to see if there is a change in position for certain keywords. Of course, you can only know if something has changed if you knew what it was beforehand."

Unless we actually see for ourselves, we really don't know if that client is saying sales have dropped only because they saw a rank on a phrase drop recently, or because their sales really did in fact drop. Sometimes client's get excited either way... a drop or a rise in positions. The thing is, you can see what is happening with an overall approach by viewing the stats and/or logs for that client. We have to learn how to educate the client using a looking down at things from high above approach instead of focusing on specific phrases the client thinks means success for them. If your stats are telling you that overall the client is getting referrals from a larger number of quality phrases, then you know things are good. It makes no difference what the exact page the phrase shows up in Google or what the rank number is. It really does not. Because of all the things that go into a rank that one may see, there is no way to know what a rank is anyway. It should be the entire picture of things.

I think the biggest culprit to this rank mentality is our industry as a whole. SEO has been traditionally viewed as "gaining good positions". It's our job as an industry to teach others exactly what SEO is right now. We know it's not about a rank, but how do you tell your client that fact? That's where many out there miss the boat in a big way.

Good stuff Stoney.

"Recently Google started blocking several of the big-name rank checking software used by many in the SEO industry. This, of course, sparked the debate on whether SEO firms should be bothering with providing ranking reports to their clients. I have to say, I'm conflicted on that issue."


This hasn't changed since day one.. Google, webcrawler, lycos, excite, yahoo! (infoseek), etc,

have always asked people not to do these.

http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=66357


ranking reports should be done based on user frequency, bounce rate and an actual referring visit.

@ paisley, there is a difference between asking people not to use them and actually blocking them. The former has always been true. The latter now is.

@ doug, you're absolutely right about not taking the client's word for it. SEOs need to see for ourselves it it pans out to be true. But if it is, then that goes right back to how important rankings are for them. I've got one client that complained they dropped from #3 to #6 for two keyword phrases. From all our efforts, business had grown 80% in two years, but those two phrases were the only thing that mattered. Frustrating. A few crappy links ;-) pushed them into the #1 spot and, of course they are so happy. They can't sell anymore batteries, mind you, as their stock gets depleted each year, regardless of the position, but none of that matters to them!

If anyone is having problems with WebCEO, please let us know here in the comments. I'm running a competitive search engine ranking report on WebCEO while writing this comment and it seems to be working fine. If anyone has had problems with WebCEO in the last few days, please let us know what the problems were and whether they seemed temporary or not. In the meantime, whether or not there's any value to these reports, clients do seem to like them because they are easy to understand and give them a way to compare to the competition for the same keyphrases.

Stoney,
I can't be the only one that actually follows google's rules.

I don't suppose you are, but then it's still irrelevant. Google was never blocking them before.

I really think that what Google has done is effectively make the job of the SEO much more difficult. Not from the actual SEO side of it, but from a customer relationship management side of it.

Web CEO was not 'blocked'. Google just updated how they were 'constructing' their results format. This meant that the software could not work out the results on the pages it downloaded to the local cache. A day later there was an updated from WebCEO (like the ones it releases around every other day inside the software) and Google was once again fine. Has been since. No problemo. :)

I can't speak for any other items of software, but AFAIK they all get the serps while showing themselves as a "browser"... as such I am unsure how Google could even detect said software unless it doesn't randomise the request times enough?

Either way, a fantastic post you have here, well written, nice balance, and I agree with it. :) Well done!

David

@ Adaid Internet Marketing
Really? I think it's easier since their recent tools additions, the expansion of webmaster tools, analytics (v2) Google alerts etc etc etc. If by 'more difficult' you mean trying to give the users searching better results then I can't say I agree. We just have to be a little more dynamic and explore more data to get averages. A bit more work on behalf of our clients... etc.

Not such a bad thing.

Ahh, thank g-d WPG is back online... Gosh...

I agree, that web rankings isn't everything. But if it's not, you have to track historical rankings, along with integrated analytics traffic reports giving an indication of how the website is doing... Ohh, and don't forget, conversion rates by keyword, and change due to ranking.

There's so much that has yet to be done in analytics, that I don't think I could sell a client on "rankings don't count"...

Then why can many of us "sell a client" on rankings don't mean much? If many of us can, many of you should. After all; one reason should be it IS against the Google TOS, right?

What "rankings" would you be referring to anyway? The rank your client sees while logged in to Google. The rank your client sees while not logged in? The rank your client sees with geography in the mix? The rank your client sees with universal search thrown in? The rank your client sees when G shows him a different database when he refreshes the results? The rank your client sees when one or all of the items above are put into the serps? Or is a rank what you see on your end with all the same things involved?

Tell me exactly what rank you and your client are talking about. Then please tell me exactly what it is you cannot do using your stats and/or log files given all the nuances of all the above?

@ David, you bring up a good point. This was somethign I was wondering but never explored... How Google was able to block these specific programs. In order to do so there would have to be some kind of footprint that allows Google to identify these programs. It bothered me that they would be so easy to fall prey to that.

More likely, Google will ban the IP addresses of anyone using these tools, provided they use it enough and don't use roaming IPs!

To my mind, rankings are NEVER irrelevant. SEO is *often* a case of advertising a site's existence fro relevant phrases, and you have to have an indication as to how well that advert is performing/likelihood (when combined with demand) of being seen.

As SEO companies we can't also blindly optimise sites without knowing if our work is effective. I had a client conversation on precisely the matter of sales/conversions being MOST important, but rankings and then traffic are a means to that end. Take away the means and its hardder to reach the final objective.

Ranking reports are indeed extremely important. The first thing that's going to change is not the traffic that hits your site, but the rank within search results. Getting this feedback quickly is utterly important for whether you're making the right changes or not.

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