click-tracks-3Site owners all do it. It’s impossible to resist typing keywords into Google, searching to see where pages show up. Many seem to have no clue whatsoever that this classic self-test provides minimal insight as to actual rankings for keywords queried. The exercise barely matters.

Organic traffic from keywords is what does matter. Conversion from the traffic matters more. It’s the “average” Google ranking that is most important, a metric which unfortunately is impossible to measure directly. Organic traffic and conversion from keywords are the only true indicators, both of which are metrics-dependent on on expert use of analytics.

In light of personalized search it’s essential that everyone learn to measure natural search success properly, lest we get caught up in irrelevant vanity metrics. Reciprocally SEO professionals need to teach clients to judge organic progress properly by modern standards. Here’s some history and how-to behind the personalized search success-measurement conundrum and a blueprint for educating site owners.

At SES New York 2007, Danny Sullivan interviewed Marissa Mayer, Vice President, Search Products & User Experience at Google. They discussed the recent rollout and scaling of universal and personalized search. It was nothing short of total SEO upheaval. Even back then Mayer indicated that there were “tens of millions of personalized search users” already and called it “new science.” That morning I grit my teeth and stopped measuring organic prominence by rank-checking software forever. The results had been questionable for several months already.

Though we all knew changes were coming, the session laid out stark and exciting realities surrounding the irrevocable personalized search SEO shift. Attendees in the gilded New York Hilton ballroom understood the deep ramifications. The SEO color-by-numbers party was over. No longer would we be able to run absolute reports to test rankings. WebPosition, a classic rank checking tool-of-the-day, was already dead. Bummer…

The Good Ol’ Days
It was so easy in those days to paste a keyword list into a box, designate the search engines to test and run reports which clearly illustrated exactly where any page ranked. Site owners understood the concept and goals were easy to set: Site owners would say “I want to be number one for this or in the top 10 for that.” The measurements were bulletproof. Life as an SEO was pretty darn easy. Little did we know that all hell was about to break loose.

(Classic WebPosition Report)


Then the Sh*t Hit the Fan
Wounded site owners with tanked or missing organic rankings began showing up on our doorstep mid-summer 2007. Google had undertaken the most radical change to search results ever, introducing “Universal Search” which blends listings from its news, video, images, local and book search engines with traditional web page results. The organic SERPs as we knew them went away. That September we started using words like “digital assets,” “analytic segmentation” and discussing the new natural search reporting reality in earnest.

“The best search marketing firms measure organic prominence success by traffic and conversion resulting from organic search for keywords that matter.”

A year after the storied personalized search rollout, there is STILL a huge amount of misunderstanding regarding proper measurement of organic prominence. Many businesses simply can not seem to comprehend that an individual’s personal Google results, while pretty to look at, don’t really matter.

Teach Clients & Debunk Myths
Really, most site owners were just beginning to understand the old ways when things changed. Most of the world still has rankings on the brain disease and it’s critical that we SEOs educate the confused masses. It is in this light we share presentation bullet-points we use with clients to teach the concept of personalized search and offer new definitions for organic “prominence.”

When accepting any natural search engagement we now sit our clients down with this outline before the work begins to discuss until they understand. We hope you find it of benefit.

Measuring Organic Success in the Age of Personalized Search (Please feel free to share any additions to the outline)

  • Everybody’s Google Results are different now
    • When you search and click, Google learns what you like & personalizes results to please you and return more “relevant” results.
    • Your “vanity” searches & clicks (for your own site) are rewarded, resulting in higher ranking in your own personalized results.
    • This means YOUR results for your own site are probably candy-coated, since you visit your site all the time.
    • Real-world average results are NOT necessarily as good. Bummer…
    • Your searches & clicks for competitors affect your personalized results too, further skewing your perception.
  • Last-generation reports like WebPosition don’t work any more.
    • There is no way to absolutely associate a URL with a keyword ranking in Google
    • The same applies, to varying degrees, to all mainstream search engines.
    • Anyone who tells you otherwise is either incompetent, a liar, or both.
  • The only true way to measure organic prominence is by traffic from keywords as revealed by analytics.
    1. Undertake classic keyword research.
    2. Install great analytics (Google Analytics, ClickTracks, etc…)
    3. Report which keywords are currently driving traffic & to a page and/or site-or not.
    4. Optimize the page
    5. Build links to the page
    6. Repeat from step 3
  • Professional search marketers also measure conversion from organic traffic.
    • A conversion can be a lead, a sale or whatever goals we set together.
    • Quantity of organic traffic matters but not as much as quality. Good quality traffic converts.
    • Set goals for organic traffic
    • Tweak usability to nurture conversion

    “Rankings on the brain” means refusal to accept this new reality. Symptoms include:

    • Feeling bad because your site does not show up #1 in your own searches
    • Feeling great because your site shows up #1 in your own searches
    • Forgetting that organic traffic and conversion are all that matters

Clients all do it! They check Google franticly for some indication of how their sites rank for crucial keywords. We SEOs need to teach our clients that the method of Googling yourself and basing perceptions of success on personalized results is nearly useless in the bigger scheme. Analytics, conversion tracking and reporting are the new rank-checkers..

  • Scott Clark

    What a great job, Marty.

    Global rank and the myth of #1 is a seductive illusion for entrepreneurs craving less risk and more concrete data. It’s fun to think that SEOs can spin straw into gold for a clients’ “favorite” keywords. Daily ranking reports are like the lab-rat’s paddle, administering the narcotic of a number or chart. It seemed easy… just write checks to the SEO mad scientist, with his dynomatic rankings boosterstat could move the needle a bit each month. Hey, I picked that keyword – and we’re number 1! Click goes the paddle.

    It’s no wonder businesses aren’t quite keen on letting that go. It’s like a diet, exercise, or planning for retirement. One must usually get into a serious pinch before priorities change enough to make the changes.

    The low point of 2007 for me was when I lost a contract for a client I secretly adored. I was an enthusiast for their product and had many ideas of how to improve everything from their organic rank, to their paid search effectiveness, to post-click performance, to lifetime value. With a reduced set of 10 interwoven steps to success for their site, I lost when I told them each of the steps depended on the other, and we’d have to make course corrections as data came in. It sounded like a lot of damn work to work with me. So they went with someone else and surely receive web position reports for four-word phrases unconnected to their conversion funnel.

    Putting conversion and engagement metrics in place of ranking reports is a tall order. It’s swimming upstream in a world of laziness, limited budgets, and widespread confusion of web marketing.

    Your outline is outstanding. If I were to add anything it might be a mythbuster section where I ask the client to watch out for certain things they might be pitched by others. I’d ask them to think hard about engagement and their sales process. I’d ask them to consider scarcity, value, and the long tail.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Scott Clark: Thank you for the thoughtful comment. If you create the “Myth-buster” bullet points, I’d love to add them. Even if not, your insight has added a lot of value to this post. BTW, “lab-rat’s paddle” he he. 🙂

  • MikeMarshall

    You’ve got such a great grasp on the big picture, I love it when you write articles like this – you’ve got my mind racing to start off the day.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @MikeMarshall: Thank you Mike. glad to get ya’ thinking. Reciprocally, now you have made MY day.

  • Todd Mintz

    Smart folks like Marty talk to clients in the language of business instead of the language of search. Sales / Leads is all that matters, not rankings. This shows a maturation in our industry. Personalized search is forcing SEO’s to do what they should have done along all along.

  • Derek

    I can’t disagree with a single point in this post but would offer this thought (perhaps best drafted in a separate blog post to be honest): I feel that clients need some element of keyword ranking as a component for benchmarking a search marketer’s success in the long run.

    You are absolutely right that expectations, understanding and training have to come first and the keyword rank check to appease the ego is the worst – but if you target a select group of keywords to rank (maybe not #1 but at least first page SERP), because you know historical traffic and conversion rates are solid, doesn’t that make sense a bit?

    I may be one of the few who would state this, but I just think it makes sense. Of course, I’m probably inferring a fairly mature SEM campaign, with analytics, PPC, and SEO keyword strategy in place and some history to go with.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Derek: Well said friend. We have a solution we’re working on which I believe you’ll find handles the appeasement of ego. It’s not really ego…it’s delivering the new metrics in an analogy that our clients can understand. I think it’s easy actually.

    @Todd Mintz: Thank you Todd. I’ll take this moment to soft-launch that Todd will be blogging SES San Jose 2008 for aimClear. Welcome to our conference coverage team TM.

  • Jordan Kasteler

    Marty, at the end of the day the CEO is still obsessed with his vanity rankings. Just like his fancy Range Rover, he wants to show it off to his adversaries and rub it in their faces.

    Then there are wise business owners who don’t give a crap where they rank as long as they’re getting lead flow but surprisingly those type of business owners are a bit more scarce IMO.

  • Anup Batra

    We need to tailormake the deliverables based on the client requirements.
    Analytics are crucial but for small businesses, rankings are important. Specially when you are rising from not in 200 results to the top of page 1. I think, having done that analytics, conversions and goals become more important

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Jordan Kasteler: I like #2.

  • Andy Beard

    There are too many conversion metrics I can’t yet measure, but I am working on it 😉

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Andy Beard: You know who to call for beta testing pal! It’s nice to see you in these threads.