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Why Running Ranking Reports Is a Fool's Errand

December 19, 2012


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.

Image Credit: davehamsterI'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:
  • Geography
  • 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.

On a separate note, before someone else says it, I'll tell you that yes, I do see the irony in someone whose company name is "High Rankings" writing this article. There was certainly a time in the 1990s when I religiously ran ranking reports for clients. But I haven't run any in at least 5 years, probably longer. I just haven't bothered to change the name of my company in response. Maybe someday!

Update March 2013: I have found a great way to see where the keywords that have brought my site traffic rank, through some special Google Analytics code. I've discussed it in my article about Content Marketing Metrics.


Jill Whalen has been an SEO Consultant and the CEO of Jill Whalen High Rankings, a Boston area SEO Company since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen

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Post Comment

 CNXTim said:
Jill, you say you haven't run a ranking report for 5 years? Is this true or you just trying to impress the readers you were "that far ahead of the curve" perhaps you would like to explain what galvanised you into that action way back then?
 Jill Whalen said:
CNXTim, I'm pretty sure it's been many more than 5 years. I was just being conservative because I honestly can't remember.

As to what's galvanized me into that action, it's been so long that I don't even remember. I've written on the topic over the years, however. I'm sure you can find some of my old articles on the subject with a little Google digging. Basically, however, it became very apparent a long time ago that rankings didn't equal traffic and sales.
 CNXTim said:
if you can't remember such a milestone let's leave it at that and congrats on your insight.
Nice article by the way, succinct and topical.
Despite what Matt Cutts has been telling everyone for quite some time, albeit in a less than a detailed manner, I wonder what the general perception is for website owners or managers on the importance of reporting SERP?

I suspect it is still quite high,
 Jill Whalen said:
CNXTim, unfortunately it is. Sadly, really. SEOs are partially to blame for continuing to use the useless rankings measurement rather than educating their clients and website owners.

Most site owners are easily persuaded into looking at the data that truly matters once they understand what that is and why it's important. Rankings are just easy and many SEOs are just lazy.
 Pauline Jakober said:
@CNXTim - I worked with Jill from Nov 2005 - May 2010 - I remember Jill had really started to realize that there were more important and valuable metrics to report to clients during the first year I worked with her. "At least 5 years" was being conservative!
 uri lederman said:
Here Here; Jill..

We stopped producing ranking reports over four years ago, when we moved out model from seo to performance base digital marketing... no more ranking reports... no more talks about SEO.. just traffic & conversions.. :-)
 jimbeetle said:
As I tweeted last week and to the #hqw hash yesterday:

'If you use "keywords" and "ranking" in the same sentence your SEO strategy is about 5 years out of date.'

I actually haven't run a rankings report since about 2001 or so since they're basically worthless to the site owners. The only thing they care about -- the only thing they *should* care about -- is conversions. Playing the ranking report game where there is no actual impact to the bottom line is just an SEO making excuses for non-performance.

(Exceptions abound.)
 Anonymous said:
I still use them from time to time with distributed proxy servers and other anonymizing details... but only as a benchmark. Sometimes the ranking drop is the first clue to a bigger problem that we might not see as readily if we were only looking at traffic and conversion. If we had the money for expensive analytics and monitoring tools, maybe we wouldn't use them at all, but with basic tools and limited resources, it's a useful element in our toolset.
 Jill Whalen said:
Thanks Pauline, Uri and Jimbeetle!

Anonymous, you don't need expensive analytics tools, you just need Google Analytics. You can easily set up alerts to let you know when, for instance, any phrase that uses a particular keyword loses X % of its traffic in any given day/week/month. Easy to set up, and that gives you the information that actually matters.
 Laura said:
This makes perfect sense as Google tries to refine results based on the factors mentioned (search history, geographic location, etc). Plus it's the essence of the "long tail" principle that's been known for years.

Although I have to admit I've seen lots of correlation between ranking, traffic and sales, I'm always still quite nervous even when highly ranked for certain terms because I know it can all go away at any time.

I hope someday you'll address how you optimize pages and on and off-site content in an "unlimited keyword" world. Do you still try to use phrases that are likely search queries, or is it all about content quality, purpose and placement?
 Jill Whalen said:
Laura, I sort of addressed that in one of the articles referenced within this one. It's one I wrote called Using Keyword Research to Find Long-Tail Keyword Phrases
 John Mitchell said:
Hi Jill,

A thought provoking article as ever, the only thing I would query is if you did run ranking reports (and some clients may still insist on knowing the positions for a limited number of phrases despite all the evidence that they should be concentrating on conversion figures) how do the search engines know which site is being checked.

For example if I were to check blue widgets and the site I was interested in was how do the engines know that they should be "penalising" and not ?
 Jill Whalen said:
John, that always is and has been a problem and why Google typically doesn't penalize most sites for the ranking reports. That said, for many years there were desktop software that you could run for those reports. When one company with a static IP starts doing it that way, then there's an obvious ID.

Still knowing Google, they may have ways to figure out the proper website to penalize even with out that confirmation. Or if Google really cares, they simply start penalizing all URLs that run reports from certain tools. That will put those tool providers out of business and Google won't have to worry about the scraping anymore.
 John Mitchell said:

Sorry to be a devils advocate I can see that Google would possibly block the IP address of people/firms that run automated reports of some kind (or even an excess of manual searches - and I know that this does happen if you run too many manual searches). I still don't see that Google would know which one of the 10 sites being returned on the 1st page is the one that is being checked - if indeed the 1st page does actually contain that site.

That's not to say that I don't agree with the sentiment of your article and it covers much of what I've been saying to clients for several years - sadly, several of them don't even bother to track the source of enquiries to the office (the vertical market [ accountants ] I work in doesn't get people sign up for services direct from the website) so as I am sure you know it's an uphill battle at times to wean people of of rankings.
 Larry Kim said:
i support raven's decision to dump serp rank checking. SERP rank checking is so dumb.
 Anthony said:
I find this article a little pretentious.

No matter how you look at it, rankings are important to most clients. Sometimes this might just be an ego boost, but often with large nationals it is more about visibility where they may be the primary supplier of 'keyword x' so would like to rank above their competition in that instance.

It is also just one more way to report your activity to your clients. Why not report EVERYTHING? -> traffic, sales, keyword rankings, enquiries and any other metrics your client may want? It is an added level of transparency in an industry which people often do not trust.

If you do your job properly, clients are never concerned more with rankings than traffic or sales, this does not mean you shouldn't report rankings to them.

The statement that rankings cannot be tracked accurately is rubbish, there are ways to do this safely and accurately.

A final note - there is almost ALWAYS a correlation between rankings and sales/traffic. If there is not, then you are chasing a market that is not relevant to your client.
 JD said:
I wouldn't just disregard rankings altogether, they're a useful measurement to have around.

I don't think you should rely solely on rankings to judge your success in SEO, far from it, but there is always a balance to be had with this sort of thing. Some say don't use them at all, and others say use them as your main indicator. Their best use is somewhere in between these two.
 Jonathan said:
Spot on Anthony.

Rankings are important and always will be. To say they're not and you shouldn't report them is ridiculous. I'd go as far as saying if you're not tracking at least some keywords, you're not doing your job properly as an SEO.

We're losing more and more data with not provided every day so I'd say they are more important than ever.
 Jill Whalen said:
Anthony and JD all of that would be fine if there really was "a ranking" to track. But there isn't anymore. By claiming there is and presenting it to your client as such you are providing them with somewhat meaningless information.
 Anon said:
I'll agree that rankings are not the important metric, but I agree with JD and Anthony. Knowing ranking is just another piece of the puzzle. To put it in paid search terms with traffic and sales you know your clicks and conversions, but not your impressions.

I think that rankings are great when creating a to do list. If you're looking at where you are on high traffic keywords/keyword groups you can get an idea of what to optimize for next. You may not be getting much traffic at all from many keywords you know are relevant and have high volume, but rankings can help you decide which are the low hanging fruit.

Also, I think we all know that search results are personalized, but this doesn't mean checking a a clean ranking tells you nothing. A ranking should still give you some idea of where you are across the board and whether or not Google thinks your site is relevant to that keyword. Asserting that there is no ranking to track would assume that if we all searched the same keyword there would be no similarity in what is on the first page, because our results are personalized
 JD said:
As long as your site is in the search results there's a ranking to track. They're not as consistent as they used to be, but they still exist!

Try telling a local business you won't be telling where they rank in their local search results as part of your reporting.

Like i say it's not the be all and end all of SEO measurements, and due to the fluctuations and increased variables in search it's now more difficult to track accurately. But i think disregarding it altogether isn't the right thing to do.

I don't see why it has to be all or nothing.
 Mary Kay Lofurno said:
Of course I agree that ranking is not important. Funny that you mention SEO/SEM tool providers like SEOMOZ and Raven not being able to scrape data.

I was just in a demo with one my product teams because they were looking at HubSpot. HubSpot provides ranking data [pretty sure]. Now HubSpot just accepted an investment from Google, so there may be some do as I say but its okay if we have invested in you.

All I can say in interesting...Thanks for the article. Mary Kay
 Jill Whalen said:
@Mary Kay I'm sure Hubspot will be treated by the same rules as other tool companies.
 Ramesh Nair said:
Jill, I do understand that one can't change the company name easily, but several parts of your website says that your services will help in getting high ranking for websites. One of the top menu itself is name 'High Rankings Advisor'.

Shouldn't you be changing these at least?
 Rod Ritchie said:
I've been in the SEO game for nearly as long as Jill and I've read nearly every one of her newsletters over the years. I've watched Jill evolve from an avid rankings fan, to a rankings denier and all points in between. To her credit, Jill was one of the first commentators to blow the whistle on Google's site rankings methodology whereby dodgy backlinks, keyword stuffing and other nefarious search engine marketing practices started to corrupt the search rankings. No doubt her customers were suffering while she stuck to white hat SEO techniques, so her gripe was real.

So I believe Jill and other many SEO professionals started playing down rankings as a report metric when they realised that it was impossible to guarantee top keyword spots for her clients unless they were in very uncompetitive niches. Of course there are other measures of a site's success, but lots of traffic from high rankings made many site owners a lot of money. Success in this aspect of marketing fed the SEO industry for years, and it really does continue as one of the important outcomes of a site marketing campaign.

As we all know, in the 'old days' hitting the top of the Google results for even the most uncompetitive search terms was relatively easy once you cottoned on to Google's evolving ranking algorithm practises. Now that Google has moved the goalposts, certainty is gone. Sites that moved to concentrating on their brand, using traditional marketing tactics, and focussing on building well written, useful sites are now reaping the benefit, and good on them.

Playing the Google game was a lot of fun. There are still ways to enjoy the game and be successful, but Google is not the easy target it was because it has become a corporate behemoth intent on cramming the top rankings with paid for search results. And while they blather on about what you need to do to your site to get high rankings on their search engine, they penalise excellent sites that have stuck to their rules and which have lost their rankings to lesser sites that Google has somehow allowed to trump the better sites. Often these good sites don't just loose a couple of places, they get set to page nothing after years at the top. What's this all about?

I really think Jill should keep high rankings as her company name and follow the aim of achieving good SERPs while at the same time assuring that her customers' sites are high ranking for content, navigation, load speed, etc, etc.

Anyway,keep up the informative commentary Jill, I respect your honesty and integrity.
 Jill Whalen said:
Ramesh, that's the name of the newsletter. The exact brand that I'm not really wanting to have to change.
 Jim said:
Interesting post!

However, I still don't see why running ranking reports is a fools errand. At the end of the day when dealing with ecommerce websites in competitive industries, ranking in the first page of Google for a short tail keyword (for example: jeans) usually leads to a high amount of traffic and sales, while also improving the rank for the longer tail derivatives (for example: womens jeans).

I have been doing a fair amount of research and noticed that 70-80% of the websites that are ranking within the first page of Google for high traffic keywords are big brands who are doing zero linkbuilding, while the first 20 results have at most 2-3 SEOish links pointing to them (if any).

Are you trying to justify that ranking reports are dead because you are having trouble moving rank and therefore it's easier to sell your clients on "improving" their organic traffic as a whole instead?
 Jill Whalen said:
@Jim, except that you have no idea where you rank because there is no "rank." So you can certainly give yourself and/or your client a false sense that they're ranking on the first page of Google, but that doesn't mean that the rest of the world sees that (as pointed out in the article).
 Jim said:
Well you do know how a website ranks by default when removing personalization (&pws=0). SInce most people don't click on the same websites everyday in Google, I don't think personalization plays that big of a role as many people think.
 Jill Whalen said:
But it does. There's no such thing as 'a ranking' and hasn't been for quite some time. And as I pointed out in the article, Google's only going to be using even more signals to provide even more deeply personal results to people.
 Heather Physioc said:
Jill, appreciate your thoughts and perspective, but I must respectfully disagree. The best SEO ranking software will ping multiple data centers for a reasonable average ranking in a given time period. Yes, in essence what you’re saying is true – results are highly personalized, the ranking report is just a snapshot of that moment in time, etc. But if you see a trend for a particular subset of key terms, landing pages or even just one page + keyword over time, it can be a signal that you need to spend some time on that page. SEO is ongoing. SEO is a marathon, not a sprint. And as the algorithms change, we need to change our content/on-page/off-page strategy for time to time to ensure we’re performing at our utmost, and keyword rankings are still a valuable metric for deciding what to do. When you manage large sites with thousands or tens of thousands or even more pages than that, looking at groups and categories and keyword ranking trends can help provide a road map for where we should be spending our time and attention. It can be a roadmap for finding those areas that maybe don’t have “amazing content that fulfills some need of your target audience.” Also, Google isn’t the only search engine that warrants our attention. Google makes up 70% of the market share, yes, but Microsoft is still at 16% and Yahoo is at 12% and they’re not to be ignored. Don’t take this to mean that I feel high rankings should be our main or only goal. But ranking highly for highly relevant terms DOES equal traffic and sales for me, and the data proves it time and time again. There’s no getting around it. This article strongly implies that the SEOs out there are measuring and acting on only keyword rankings – when in reality we’re measuring a host of different metrics, of which rankings reports are just one of them and we’re correlating it with numerous other data points.
 Kevin said:
Excellent post, however I would have to disagree. Otherwise people would just use this method to drop other people's rankings.
 WebRank said:
You make valuable points Jill, but there are many reasons why people value ranking reports. For instance, when compiling performance report of a business whose major income is generated via their website - one would be silly to ignore the ranking factor while analyzing performance. Not to mention the competitive aspect of it.
 Jill Whalen said:
Except for the fact that it is unmeasurable.