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Search Engine Rankings and SEO – A Complete Guide


Search engine rankings are a questionable metric. A few years ago, search engines provided everyone with the same information. Each time a each user searched for a query, the SERPs looked particularly the same for each keyword. Everyone knew the best performing keywords and to be honest, the space in the rankings wasn’t so crowded. Anyway, for the constant search results the measurement of such was a bit easier, as it was particularly the same.

Like any other solution, there is no such thing like one-size-fits-all, as every person is different. Search engines evolved to their present shape, where the results connected to the typed query are personalized. Of course the similarities between the listings are still visible, but are not the same each time.

Personalization factors which affect rankings as a metric

1. Country

The first factor would be the “Country”. People around the world search for topics they are interested in the given moment, but the results which are generated are relevant to the country they live in.

For example, let’s assume that you look for quite a broad phrase like, “petrol station”. The results shown for the query would be relevant, but only if you would be in the UK or any other country where “petrol station” is commonly used. In the USA probably the term “gas station” would be proper. Not mention in Canada where “fueling station”, or “filling station” is used too. It’s English.

The point is that if your site is relevant to some characteristic keywords in one country, in another it could be simply visible in the SERPs.

2. Locality

Search engines are a clever piece of software and as you probably could imagine, the localization factor is a little more precise than the example above. The generated results are not limited only to the country level.

Based on your physical location or the keyword that could highlight the local character of the information you are looking for, you’ll get city-specific results. For example, when you’re hanging around the city and you want to plan evening with your fiancé and go somewhere nice, it will be more likely that you would be interested in the restaurants or bars nearby, rather than the best restaurant in the country, right? Thanks to localization, the search engines are able to deliver more relevant search results.

3. Personal Search History

Basing on what keywords you have typed, sites you visited, and content that you have both liked and shared, search engines take all this into consideration when generating search results for your query. Besides nation-wide results and local results, personal search history is another factor that is affecting the way rankings look.

The way the rankings are determined in terms of personal search history is slightly different. Let’s assume that you’re keen on sports cars. If you search, click and visit the sites on that topic, guess what – you’re giving Google or Bing a clear signal as to what types of information might be relevant to you.

4. Social Factors

The Social Media revolution is far behind us, as we’re used to using Facebook, Twitter or even Google’s relatively young child – Google Plus, on a daily basis. Social signals, as a ranking factor determining the construction of SERP displayed to you, are factors that are something new in comparison to backlinks in terms of highlighting a particular website’s popularity.

Your likes, tweets, +1’s and similar online activities of your friends are a new and enormously important factor. They highlight connections and create something like your “web of trust”. The idea is quite simple. When you’re asking for advice in the real world, the first person you ask are your closest friends or relatives.

Lets get back to the example of the evening with your fiancé. If your evening in the restaurant of your choice with your fiancé was a hit, there is a high chance that you will mostly like the place you’ve visited and with a clear conscience, you would definitely recommend it to your friends. Translating this to search engine’s language – if you’ll give this place a like or +1, it would make this particular restaurant’s website appear higher in the search engine rankings for you and your friends as well.

Google and Rankings

Google is not helping the folks in the SEO industry and is making it harder and more demanding to do the right job. On one hand, it is understandable that Google wants to make a greater product and wipe out things they don’t like, but  along with ongoing algorithm changes, they literally give scraps of information about what’s important in terms of ranking high. The lack of transparency is not only the main concern of people dealing with SEO everyday, but it’s also visible in the tools Google provides.

The “Not provided” keywords issue in Google Analytics

Google Analytics is the number one free web analytic tool that works great, if you want to make a comprehensive website and analyze it’s traffic…with one little exception. The most important factor when determining the SEO analysis process, is choosing the right keywords to rank for. You want to check for what keywords your site was found on and boom – welcome to the ‘not provided’ reality.

Not provided keywords from organic traffic section of Google Analytics

You can observe the organic traffic increments and occasionally you’ll observe some conversions, but with no keyword data, the optimization process is simply shooting with bullets aiming to hit a mosquito. The only thing that Google hasn’t impacted are landing pages which scored some organic traffic.

Google Webmaster Tools Data

The second Google tool you can gear yourself up with are the Google Webmaster Tools. Search queries could look fancy, but it’s difficult to rely on the information provided from it, as Webmaster Tools gives hardly any data to work with in terms of search engine optimization. It doesn’t highlight the traffic change and it doesn’t show the data correlated to it either. The tools give data non-comparable to any other source too. Link

Search Engine Rankings Data from Google Webmaster Tools

Search Engine Rankings data from Positionly

Search Engine Rankings as a Reporting Metric

The better your website’s position is in search engine rankings, the higher the traffic volume will be. SEO Experts agree that not rankings, but rather the number of sales, conversion and traffic volume should be the KPI of any SEM campaign aiming to drive new prospects to the website.

Rankings should be considered more like a reporting metric, not a goal itself. Even better, I like to think about them as a prize for your efforts. Despite the fact that search engine updates for the last few years gave this reporting metric a hard time, they still can provide a very important insight about SEO performance.

How Were Rankings Used?

Analyzing SEO is dressing it with numbers. In comparison to PPC, where all of the data is available and it’s a lot easier to make quick data-driven decisions, SEO is more complex and the basic analysis is more like putting scraps of information together and making logically justified guesses.

Rankings, as a pieces of information used to examine SEO performance, were popular because they were a good reflection of how the SERPs looked like. They validated other data available and simplified the perception if SEO is working or not.

SEO Analysis

SEO Analysis with Key Performance Indicators

Let’s try to analyze an example set of data that experts would choose – traffic, ctr’s and conversions.

Organic traffic that a particular web page receives from search engines is the actual number of people visiting your site. The overall traffic received is simple to analyze, and with no problem you can say if you are getting more or less traffic in a specified period of time.

Let’s assume that we know the keywords we want to analyze basing it on the landing page data from Google Analytics, as the keywords were put in it’s title.

Search Engine Optimization without Ranking Metric

Keeping in mind the numbers above, would you be able to:
Explain why you observe a significant increase of organic traffic? No
Tell where you are in your optimization process? No
Tell exactly what keywords bring you the most traffic? No
Estimate if you can get more traffic for a typical phrase? No
Connect the data and tell why the number of conversions rise? No

Rankings for keywords are important pieces of information that makes analyzing SEO more educated. They show the circumstances that affect SEO and give a point of reference if there’s still room for improvement.

SEO Analysis with Keyword Ranking as a Metric

Rankings for keywords give an additional dimension you can refer to when analyzing the data. The example below is really simplified. The total number of searches is provided, as we all depend on the data from Google AdWords Keyword Planner. The rest of the data are estimations, including the decrease of conversion rate value, due to getting more irrelevant traffic caused by higher traffic volume.

Search Engine Optimization for Google with Ranking Metric

Rank Index Methodology

Rankings are constantly changing. Probably as an SEO Expert wannabe, you’re not only depending on a single phrase to drive traffic to your or your clients’ websites. Even if you’d use an average rank for keywords for a specified period of time, too much noise sneaks into your calculations due to factors stated in the beginning of this article.

Rank index methodology is interesting and could be the cure to the vast amounts of data you have to deal with every day. Instead of tracking individual keywords, you can create a group of similar keywords and observe their performance. You can use individual rankings for keywords within the group to evaluate its effectiveness, or use an average ranking to overcome the problem of analyzing the large amount of data.

What I really like about this idea is that it let’s you arrange your keywords in neat and tidy topic orientated groups.

Keywords targeting for SEO Diagram

Final Words About Rankings

Let’s get back again to the PPC campaign in search engines and compare it with SEO.

Do you think it would be easy to optimize and get better results if no keywords would be available? Could you improve if you wouldn’t be able to say what your ad’s position is in rankings and the only thing Google would say is, “Just create better ads?” I think not.

Delocalized and depersonalized rankings add value to the other data. Although the search engines are changing, their algorithms improve and the way organic traffic is gained stays the same. Maybe in the near future we will see other metrics explaining the organic traffic fluctuations better than now, as I don’t assume that Google would be fully transparent with webmasters worldwide and reveal ranking factors that matter. Until then, search engine rankings, even if they still are not as precise as in the past, are still more reliable than scraps of data given by Google. They aren’t going anywhere, as they are irreplaceable in the SEO analysis process.

What’s your opinion about rankings? Do you still use them or try to educate your clients and use different metrics to state SEO progress?