What’s Your KPI: Search Rankings are a Terrible Performance Indicator

Welcome to “What’s Your KPI?“, an ongoing blog series about Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), as they pertain to the world of SEO.

In this edition of What’s Your KPI?, we will discuss search results rankings.

This article discusses in depth what a ranking is, how rankings work, and the aspects of an SEO campaign that rankings can and cannot measure. If you don’t want to read the whole article, the short and sweet version can be found at the end in the Bullet Points for Review section.

What Are Rankings?

Before we start, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about terminology. For the purposes of this blog post, and generally when SEOs talk about “rankings,” they mean “How high one of your website’s pages appears when someone searches for a specific keyword.” For example, if you own a hardware store, someone searches Google for “local hardware stores,” and the front page of your website appears in the third spot on the search results page, you might say that your homepage ranks third for the term “local hardware stores.”

Tools like Google Webmaster Tools will also give you a list of keywords that have a number next to them, this number tells you (on average) how high that page of your website ranks for certain search phrases. As you can see from the image, Google Webmaster Tools calls this number “Average Position,” but it means the same thing as “ranking.”

A lot of people get really excited about rankings when they first get into the world of SEO. In theory, rankings are the perfect measure of how well your business' SEO campaign is going. Search results are a big scoreboard, and when you search for your keyword phrases, you can tell right away where you stand, both overall and compared to your competitors. That's why it's called a "ranking," right?

Unfortunately, that's not how rankings actually work.

Let's dig a little deeper into exactly how Google (and other search engines) come up with search results so we can better understand what, exactly, a ranking is and what it is not.

How Rankings Work

Pretend that your friend has just asked you for a movie recommendation. It might be easy to just give them a list of your three favorite movies, but if you want to make sure you are helpful to them — you’re a good friend — you would ask them some questions to help clarify what might interest them.

  • What genre of movie do they have in mind?
  • Are they going to be watching the movie by themselves?
  • Will they watch it on a date?
  • With a bunch of friends?
  • With their family?

Depending on the answers to those questions, you might recommend entirely different movies.

Search engines are similar. When someone searches for something in a search engine, “good movies” might be the words they type, but the search engine will try to figure out as much as they can about the person searching so that they can give them better search results.

Google is well-known for personalizing its search results. Google places a cookie in your browser that tracks the websites you visit. That way it can figure out what kinds of content you like (long articles or funny videos?), what you normally look for, and what seem to be your favorite websites. This has become even more personalized since the recent launch of Search Plus Your World, where if you search for something through Google while you are logged into Google+, it will use information from your profile, your search history, and your friends on Google+ to try to bring you more personalized results.

Even if you are completely logged out of every Google product, have cleared your web history, browser cache, cookies, and are browsing in “safe mode,” Google can still figure out what kind of computer or mobile device you’re using, what browser you’re using, your internet speed, and most importantly, your location.

Sound a bit creepy? Maybe. However, personalized search results do usually deliver on their promise to make search results more useful for the user. For example, if you search for “local hardware stores” while you are physically in Tampa, Florida, don’t you want to get different search results than someone searching for “local hardware stores” who is physically in Redmond, Washington?

The bottom line of this customization is that no two people have the same search results. Let me say that again. No two people get the same search results. A more in-depth article about this can be found here. This means that, unlike a scoreboard, where each website would always be third or tenth across the board, a business’ website may show up much higher or lower in the search results for different people searching in different locations on different computers at different times.

So if websites never show up at the same place in the search results, how can you have one solid number that’s considered your “ranking” for a keyword?

The “rank” numbers available from tools like Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools are more like an average. If your rank is “8″ for a certain term, that means that on average, your website is showing up eighth in the search results for that term.

Why “Rankings” Aren’t a Good KPI

Not Really a Score: Now that you know that nobody sees the same search results, it’s easier to understand why rankings can’t be a hard-and-fast measure of SEO success. It’s great to have a higher ranking than your competitors, but that doesn’t mean you will always show up higher in every search result set just because you have a higher ranking. Even if you have a higher ranking, your competitors may sometimes show up higher than you. Conversely, even if you have a lower ranking, you may show up higher than your competitors. It all depends on who is searching.

Depends on Good Keywords: I’ve hinted at it several times throughout this article, but I’ll say it explicitly: There is no “one” rank for your entire website for every keyword. Certain pages of your website will have a rank for a specific keyword. For example your home page may have a ranking of “5″ for “local hardware store,” but it might not even rank in the top 10 for “stores that sell nails.” The reason this is important is because if you are trying to rank for the wrong keywords, you may never have true “success” in the form of customers who want to buy your products. As a hardware store, ranking in the top 5 for the word “tools” feels really good, but accomplishing that top ranking won’t necessarily bring in the kind of people who are looking to buy your products from you.

It’s Getting Harder To Track: There used to be several tools where you could enter in a keyword or phrase that you were trying to rank for, and then you could track week-to-week or month-to-month whether your rank for that term was rising or falling. Unfortunately, due to some updates in Google’s policies, there are few, if any, tools that do that anymore. The only places to get information about your site’s rank are through Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics, and neither of those tools have the functionality or present the information as well. This makes it difficult to track whether or not your rankings for specific keywords are changing.

So What Are Rankings Good For?

Essentially, the only thing that rankings are good for is that they can give you an idea of, on average, how visible a page of your website is in the search results for a certain keyword phrase. That’s it. Sorry folks.

Bullet Points For Review:

  • “Rankings” are how high your website appears in the search results for a specific keyword.
  • Search engines personalize everyone’s search results, so no two people ever have the same results.
  • A “ranking” is really an average number, meaning sometimes you will show up higher than your ranking, sometimes lower, depending on who’s searching.
  • This makes it hard to use as a comparison or as a definite measure of success. At best, it can tell you generally where you are, but not much else.

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