Traditional SEO reports have focused heavily on rankings. However, with the widespread use of personalized search as well as instant search, ranking report data has become increasingly inaccurate, and there has been movement in the SEO community away from the reports. Though ranking reports do provide some helpful information, more focus must be placed on more accurate and insightful tools such as web analytics in order to properly assess SEO performance.

Ranking ReportWhether users are aware or not, most search engine results are affected by personalized search. Users signed in to Google will see results customized by their own settings, past searches, and social circle information. In fact, even if a user is not signed in to a Google account, the engine stores up to 180 days of signed-out search activity linked to a cookie that includes past search queries and most visited links. Searches are geo-targeted based on IP address and cookies. For example, if you type “gym” into the search box, your results will be gyms in your local area. All these customized searches render inaccurate traditional ranking reports, which run queries in the search engines to provides information on where your listing would be ranked if a user searched for a given keyword. Instant search further complicates the issue by showing the user customized potential queries.

Many SEOs agree that the value of the ranking report is diminishing, although still provides some value. The ranking report traditionally provided actionable information about the engines. Ranking reports can help in demonstrating trending over longer periods of time, but in the short term, fluctuating results will generally not provide good information and will frustrate those who hang their hat on search engine rankings. The ranking report can also help with competitive research, demonstrating competitors’ approximate rank so you can learn from higher ranking sites, and maintain your competitive advantage over lower ranking sites. For example, if you see in a ranking report that a close competitor consistently ranks higher than your site for a given keyword, it is worth looking into their site content and structure to see how they are able to attain a higher ranking.

It is important to keep in mind that although rankings can be useful, the ultimate goal of SEO is to increase site traffic and revenue. And to track the effects of SEO on traffic and revenue there is no better tool than web analytics. Analytics provides actionable SEO data. For example, analytics shows what keywords produced traffic. Knowing this is more valuable than simply knowing where something may rank because it ties SEO directly to site performance. Analytics also contains traffic numbers from each search engine, which can help webmasters determine which engines need the most attention. Analytics provides in-depth behavioral insight about how people using keywords from organic and paid search experience your site. You can easily see whether the keywords that you optimized are at the top of the list of traffic drivers. If you’re not seeing what you hoped for, then it’s time to optimize further or choose new terms. It is worth comparing this list to rankings to see whether the terms you rank well for are bringing in traffic or vice versa. Sometimes keywords for which a site has a lower ranking will bring in the most qualified traffic. If you have goals or e-commerce set up in your analytics, you will be able to get even more insight into the most profitable and highest converting keywords.

Though web analytics have the potential to be very powerful, there are a few reasons that prevent people from using analytics in their SEO reports. First, many people don’t know how to use analytics properly, and are unaware of all its reporting capabilities. The biggest problem however, lies in many sites’ failure to properly implement their analytics tool. Analytics requires someone with both knowledge of the tool and business in order to be set up in a way that makes sense for the website. Poorly implemented analytics can lead to inaccurate information in the traffic sources report, which is bad for SEO reporting.

Another tool that many SEOs use for information is Google Webmaster Tools. The product already helps to diagnose many SEO issues like duplicate page titles, dead links, and trust and authority site issues. The tool also provides approximate information on the amount of impressions your listings garnered for any search query. It includes the amount of times your listing was clicked as well as the average position of the listing. Averaged information can be helpful to guide the SEO process, but is not very actionable as an SEO reporting tool. We look forward to Google’s future improvements to the tool that may help to provide SEOs with more accurate data on search results and make reporting a more scientific process.

Search Discovery uses a combination of tools in order to provide the best possible information to our clients. Using ranking reports, analytics, Webmaster tools and other research tools, we can begin to see a fuller picture of how sites rank, how those rankings generate value, and how competitors stack up. The key to rankings is focusing less on the definitive ranking number, and more on the trending and relative position of the site in the context of real-world, revenue-generating performance. Good SEO isn’t about the day trade of search engine result rankings; it’s about constantly improving your site over the long term in order to improve your business. In order to properly track SEO, companies must focus more on their analytics implementation so they can get information about what keywords send both volume and qualified traffic to their site. That insight should drive SEO efforts.

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