The ups and downs of keyword ranking reports

Ranking reports are synonymous with SEO, but how useful are they in 2016?

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Ranking reports have been a mainstay of SEO since the existence of SEO itself, and to this day they remain a key part of many a marketer’s toolkit. But while the tools haven’t changed much over time, the same cannot be said of the wider search landscape.

Changes in user behaviour, widespread adoption of mobile, and a general demand for instant search gratification have been the catalysts in Google’s evolution (other search engines are available), and as a consequence the search results pages we see today are almost unrecognisable from those of years past.

The comings and goings and various iterations of different types of results, such as ads, images, news, authors, social media and so on, not to mention the personalisation of search results, advancements in local search, and Google’s experiments with features like Knowledge Graph, have thrown so many variables into the search mix that it’s hard to argue a case for ranking reports at all. All considered, it’s impossible to track ranking results based on every eventuality, location, and user type with any degree of accuracy.

This begs the question; are ranking reports useful in modern SEO? I was sent an article last week in which the author made a good case for ranking reports, so I wanted to expand on this slightly by adding my own two cents to the discussion.

Are ranking reports still useful?

The short answer to the question above is “yes”, ranking reports are still useful. However, there are some pretty big caveats to consider.

Firstly, ranking reports should only ever be part of a larger reporting model, and not a defining success metric. As mentioned above, the sheer number of search variables and constant fluctuations of search results make tracking every eventuality impossible, and therefore a snapshot, or average position at a single moment in time only tells part of a much bigger story.

Viewed on their own, ranking reports are nothing more than a vanity metric. Anyone using ranking reports to track the performance of their SEO activities should be doing so alongside other tools that allow for some “so what?” analysis – Google Analytics being the most obvious example.

Ranking highly for a keyword may look great in monthly reports, but what use is that ranking if it sends no traffic, or does not lead to any conversions? Hint: not much.

Secondly, tracking a select number of keywords can lead to tunnel vision, and a disregard for other keywords which may be sending traffic to a site. It can be easy to focus efforts on high volume, short-tail keywords, but often it’s the lower volume, long-tail terms that drive the best traffic.

Of course, tracking the organic performance of specific keywords in Google Analytics is easier said than done, now that the majority of that information is encrypted.

image credit Google Analytics

Organic Search keywords report in Google Analytics. Super useful – not.

With upwards of 80% of keyword data encrypted in most cases, it’s questionable as to why this report still exists in Google Analytics at all, but that’s another discussion entirely. The fact is, organic keyword data is now unavailable in Analytics.

An alternative data source, while questionable in its accuracy, is the Search Analytics report in Google’s Search Console. This report provides a list of all the terms for which a site has been visible for, and received clicks for, during the selected timeframe.

image credit Search Console

Google Search Analytics data, showing no. clicks, impressions, CTR & avg position for top 10 keywords over a 30 day period. Useful, but not perfect.

While this is great for looking at organic search performance, unfortunately the fun stops there – there is no way to tie this data to visitor data in Google Analytics, so there’s no way of telling what became of those clicks. At least, not specifically.

The value of ranking reports

While tracking the daily movements of individual keywords may not be much use nowadays, looking at rankings en masse can provide valuable insight into a website’s search performance over time. This has been particularly useful in recent years, considering the disruption caused by Google’s various search algorithm updates.

Ranking reports can flag issues very quickly, and often raise the alarm before other reports do. A sea of red arrows in a ranking report is rarely a nice sight, but it’s far better to be alerted to any problems early, than to be left wondering why visitor numbers are plummeting in Analytics. Conversely, a mass uplift in rankings is usually a sure sign something is going right.

Ranking reports are a useful tool for measuring SEO performance, but the ups and downs of individual keywords should never take precedence over the metrics that really matter; good quality traffic and conversions.

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