It is easy to rely on keyword rankings as a determinant of SEO success, but whether you are tracking your rankings manually or using a tool to determine your position in search results automatically, the rankings shown won’t tell the whole story. Rankings are a barometer, but in the big picture, they’ve become too variable and personalized to be a singular measure of success. Before I explain, let’s do a quick test.
Start by opening a new tab or window in your browser and heading to Google.com. Type in a keyword that describes a product or service your business offers and run the search. Once it’s ready, start digging through the results to find your website.
Where did your site rank? If an SEO agency is handling your site optimization you might be ranking pretty well, but if you haven’t done any optimization on your site, it might be showing up a few pages back. Regardless, the rank you see and count on to make judgments on the success of your website may not be the same rankings that your customers are seeing when they search for the products or services that you offer. This is all happening thanks to the personalization of search and how Google tracks your location and search queries. Below I’ll show how this works through some example test searches which you can also try yourself. I cover both location and search history and you will be able to see how I can get different results through personalization despite using the same query.
Using two browsers, one with my cookies and cache cleared ahead of time, and one that retained my previous log-in info and cache history, I was able to get very different results for the search query ‘hiking trails.’ In my logged in profile (on the left in the screenshot below) I have the location set to United States and the results ranged from sites that cover trails across the US to specific sites for hiking in Tennessee, Los Angeles and the Smoky Mountains. In the browser that had cookies cleared and no profile logged in (screen shot on the right), I was shown results specific to Boulder, CO, where our office is located. Because Google can pick up a location from your ISP, it does exactly that when there is no profile or location set. However, if my location is set to Boulder when I search from my profile and I travel to Tampa, FL to visit family, my search results will be much different than that of a searcher in Tampa.
Conducting this same search in Bing, with two different locations set, also yields similar results. With my location set as United States, the results included various pages about hiking across the country. However, when I set my location back to Boulder, CO, the results were much different and focused on trails specifically in Boulder.
Give this a try with the same search query you used during the first test. At the top right of the results page in Google there is a small cog icon. Click on that and head to Search Settings. From there you can change your location and using various locations across the country give your same search query a run and see how it affects the results. If you have a customer searching for your product, depending on their location, they may or may not see your website. This is especially true if you have a location specific businesses serving customers in a specific geographic area.
Search History Personalization
Working and living in Boulder, CO makes it easy to indulge in outdoor activities. I myself am an avid cyclist and it shows in my search results. I made the location neutral by setting both to United States, but left my cookies and browser history alone in one browser. Using the search query ‘bicycle’ I was able to garner different results and this is based on sites I have visited or searches I have made in the past. In the browser with my stored history and preferences (on the left in the screenshot below), the following bicycle companies were ranked: Trek (4), Giant (9) and Cannondale (10). In the “clean” browser with no search history, the results for the same manufacturers were the following: Trek (4), Giant (12) and Cannondale (13). Because I have a strong preference for mountain bikes, Google served me results that had specific manufacturers higher up rather than general information or Amazon sites. Looking at the listing for the results from saved search history on the left you can also see that those various pages have the listing colored purple, meaning that I’ve visited those sites before which Google takes into consideration when adjusting rankings.
Customers visiting competitors’ websites can be an issue if you are actively competing with a competitor for a top position in the search engine rankings. A customer who has researched a competitor in the past is more likely to see their page in the results again only because they have previously been to that site and Google will continue to promote them based on that history.
If You Can’t Depend Solely on Rankings, What’s Left?
Because your customers most likely are searching with some prior preferences and website cache history intact, and because Google is using that stored information to influence rankings, what can you use to measure the success of your optimizations?
One of the easiest ways to track success, and also the most simple, is through traffic. Just as an increase in foot traffic will ultimately provide more sales for a brick-and-mortar storefront, more online traffic to your site will increase your exposure, and ideally your conversions.
Looking at daily or weekly traffic data may be useful, but at Parallel Path, we track our client’s success by monitoring year-over-year trends. As we work with our clients and optimize their inbound marketing efforts, we track their progress year-to-date and compare it to the year prior. If our efforts are successful, the site should be seeing more traffic for any given month throughout the year, and the year-to-date total should be higher than it was for the year prior. Looking at these longer term trends also helps to smooth out any bumps caused by week-over-week changes or odd fluctuations that occur periodically depending on the market you are in.
This screenshot shows a year-over-year comparison for a specific product category for one of our clients. In this case, traffic to this product category increased by 126.46% when comparing January-May 2013 to the same time period in 2012.
The other way we slice our data is through product category segments. After we review the high level organic traffic data, we create Advanced Segments in Google Analytics for any specific product categories a client’s site may have. If a client was an online bicycle retail store, for example, we would create Advanced Segments that tracked the incoming organic traffic to the Bicycle category, Apparel category, Accessories category and so on. In doing this we can further dive into which sections of the site are successful and which sections need further optimization. It also provides insight into the relevance of traffic coming to the site. If overall organic traffic is increasing, but the traffic to the core products or services pages is not, we can easily see this and make course corrections as necessary.
The other benefit of aggregating traffic data into product categories is that we can see the progress of a section of the site as a whole. Often times with rankings it is very easy to focus on one specific keyword and how that one keyword affects one page. However, for a given product category, there is going to be a cloud of keywords that, although somewhat different, are interrelated. With the Advanced Segments we can track this cloud of keywords and pinpoint how much traffic we are seeing for each term as well as dive into the matched search query data to look for new keyword opportunities.
While rankings continue to change and adapt to the specific user, traffic continues to be a neutral metric ready to be examined any way you desire. Comparing long term trends and looking into specific categories of your site will provide you with the data you need to determine the success of your inbound marketing efforts and how to continue with your future optimizations and campaigns. So while rankings may be useful, they shouldn’t be your only focus.