Why Running Ranking Reports Is a Fool’s Errand (Reprint)

Fool's Errand
Image Credit: davehamster

By now you’ve heard the news that a few of the major SEO tool companies will no longer be providing ranking reports as part of the website data they supply. While you are probably still in shock and scrambling to figure out what to do about it, if you’re serious about your online marketing, it’s actually the best thing that could happen to you.
Now you can start focusing on stuff that matters.
I’m pretty sure I just heard a collective:

“But I need to know my keyword rankings!”

No, you don’t!

I’m not going to lie to you. Obviously, there’s a correlation between having a high ranking for a high-volume keyword phrase and having that phrase bring you search engine traffic. But whether or not you know what that ranking is doesn’t stop you from receiving that traffic.

There’s no such thing as a ranking

The fact of the matter is that for many years there’s been no such thing as “a ranking.” Oh, sure, there’s the ranking that a keyword had when someone clicked to a page of your site, but just because that page showed up #1 or #2 or #10 for one person doesn’t mean that anyone else saw your page in the same position in the search results. Someone else may have not seen your page show up at all.

Ranking reports can only tell you what position your page was in for a keyword phrase at the exact moment that the bot checked the rankings — and still it was only the ranking for that particular bot. While you might think that at least whatever the bot shows you can give you some idea of where you rank for that phrase for most people, even that may or may not be true.

Search results are highly personalized

Nobody using Google these days has a clean browser with no cookies set and no historical searches. (Well, nobody but SEOs who are trying to check rankings!) So even if you think you’re getting a clean ranking, your target users (those you want to buy your stuff) aren’t. There’s a good chance they’re seeing very different results from the bot than someone with a cleaned-up browser.

Your target audience is going to see pages from websites that Google thinks they specifically want to see. There are many things that can affect this, such as:
Past search history
Social media circles / friends / followers
And who knows what else?

Think about this: If your target audience is usually logged into their Google accounts and use a lot of Google services, there’s no end to what Google knows about them. It certainly makes sense that Google would use this information to personalize their search results. These days Google often knows about the words contained in emails, voice messages, information related to purchases, and travel. For those with Android phones, Google likely knows even more than all that. They may know where you go every day (based on GPS) and how often you go to certain places. My Google phone thinks that my daily “commute” is at 7 p.m. when most nights I head to my local bar! (I know this because a Google Now card shows up each evening telling me what the traffic will be to get there.)

As scary as this all sounds from a privacy aspect, the point is that in addition to what they’ve been previously using to personalize results, Google is gathering more information on people every day. They will most certainly be using it to try to show each individual searcher the best search results for them. The more people who use Google products, and the better that Google’s personalized algorithms get, the more the search results will vary for everyone.

Every website contains an unlimited pool of keywords

If none of that persuades you to stop thinking that you need to run ranking reports, then think about this: Most websites get found and clicked on in Google and other search engines for thousands, if not tens or even hundreds of thousands of different keyword phrases. While you may have your list of a hundred phrases that you think are important to you, even if you could know where those particular ones rank for most people (which we’ve already established you can’t), it doesn’t tell you anything about the other hundred thousand keyword phrases that are or might be bringing you actual targeted visitors.

Today’s SEO isn’t about optimizing for a handful of keyword phrases (or even a hundred). It’s about having amazing content that fulfills some need of your target audience. It’s about figuring out what that searcher on the other side of Google is seeking. They may have a question they want answered, or a desire to purchase a specific product, or a need for information. If there are pages on your website that very specifically provide that information in a way that is different or better than other sites, Google will want to show those pages to that searcher.

But every searcher is different and every searcher uses different search queries to find what they’re looking for. While you can research keywords and pretty easily find those that get lots of searches, that only tells you a piece of the story. Those high-volume keyword phrases will also have thousands of variations that get searched upon — many of which don’t even show up in keyword research tools. Even if you could predict all the hundreds of thousands of keyword phrases that somehow relate to your website, what good would it do you to check where you rank for them? They may or may not bring you targeted visitors.

Rankings don’t equal traffic and sales

When high rankings — rather than satisfying the needs of your target audience — is your goal, you’re on a fool’s errand. Rankings give you a false sense of security that distracts your focus away from the things that do matter: gaining more targeted visitors and converting them into customers (or whatever your conversions might be). Rankings don’t tell you which keywords people actually came into your site for, and which ones really matter. And rankings don’t tell you what content on your site is satisfying your target market.

Automated rank checking could cause Google penalties

If all of the above doesn’t convince you that you really and truly don’t need to run ranking reports to do SEO and measure your success, then think about this: Scraping Google to check rankings is against Google’s terms of service. While they have been lax about penalizing for this in recent years, the fact that they’ve started putting real pressure on companies to stop doing it tells me that they’re serious about enforcing their TOS. Which means it’s possible that they may also penalize those websites that do a lot of automated rank checking for their websites.

Penalties of that nature are something that Google has definitely done in the past when they could be sure that the rank checking was being done by the site owner. Plus, lately I’ve been seeing a correlation between sites that have been hit by Panda or Penguin and the sites running ranking reports on a regular basis. Now, correlation is certainly not causation. And the types of people doing automated rankings checks are usually doing other SEO type things, so I wouldn’t say for sure that they’re related.

But it wouldn’t surprise me if it caused some sort of red flag to be raised with Google — one that may cause them to take an even closer look at a website. I’d personally be very nervous about setting up an account with any SEO tool provider who decides to blatantly disregard Google’s new warnings about scraping the search results. Google is obviously very serious about it now. They may even decide that the best way to get the message out is to start directly penalizing all the sites that continue to run automated ranking reports.

This post is reprinted with permission from High Rankings Advisor. Guest Author Jill Whalen has been an SEO Consultant and the CEO of High Rankings, a Boston area SEO Company since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen.

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