Recently our SEO department found itself in the middle of an old fashioned restructure. Working for a tech start up that has grown immensely over the last 4 years, it’s something that’s come to be expected, a normal part of doing business. Especially when you consider the dynamic nature of the SEO industry; constantly evolving with off shoots of importance shifting from links, to content, to social media, to vertical search, to whatever the latest change Google has made to their algorithm.
So the restructure began as they always do with a three part overview examining the value offer, the current work-flow, and how this value is communicated to, and realized by, clients. Usually during this process (at least for SEO) the alterations to the value offer are minimal…clients always expect the same value, to watch their keywords rankings increase, and ultimately watch revenue skyrocket.
The main change usually comes in the tweaks designed to improve how we provide this value to clients: what’s the most effective way to build links, how to create/seed content for core keywords, what new techniques to utilize in order to increase the organic rankings of these keywords, what are the latest SEO best practices…rinse and repeat. In addition, the internal work-flow always has room for efficiency tweaking via enhanced project management systems or the addition of specialist roles.
In the ever changing world of SEO, the one untouched mainstay of the restructure has always been Reporting. Throughout all the changes our reporting has always answered the age old SEO question uttered by many an SEO client: “How many positions have my keywords increased in Google?” By utilizing internal and third party tools, we’ve always tracked keywords positioning and movement across all major and second tier search engines. This was always a trusted, unquestioned process.
That was until last week… During the restructure we began truly analyzing the accuracy of our keyword ranking reports by these third party tools. We started with a preliminary comparison of the organic returns for keywords based on the following variables: engine, time of day, geographic locations and logged-in vs. first time users.
The results of these tests were pretty surprising, as there was a decent amount of variability. A keyword searched in New York by a logged in Google account user showed different results than those done by a first time user in Baltimore. A surfer searching on Google in Montana displayed different results than one in Texas. The more we searched the more we realized Google has taken the rankings game one step further and personalized it based on a visitor’s search history, along with other important geographical and demographical information.
The further we dug, the more we realized additional factors like Yahoo’s Paid Inclusion for organic rankings, the expanse of vertical search, and the "freshness" factor of many social media efforts nearly invalidated traditional keyword ranking reports. There are too many variables in the field to take these keyword reports as the final word on the success or lack thereof for client SEO campaigns. In essence, we found that the heart of SEO keywords rankings reporting is as much an illusion as the guarantee of page one rankings. This came as quite a shock as our entire customer base determines whether or not to continue to utilize our service based on how well we’ve increased their overall rankings.
With this realization we went back to the drawing board and started fresh to create the most intuitive reporting format that provides both us and our clients with actionable insight. We started by examining the KPI that could be accurately tracked across analytics systems. Utilizing Google Analytics, Omniture Site Catalyst and Yahoo Stores Web Analytics we decided to focus on tracking all changes in traffic and revenue directly resulting from our SEO services. Luckily we brought many of our clients onto the Google Analytics platform several months prior so we had the much needed historical data to demonstrate how our efforts on targeted keywords resulted in increased traffic and conversions in these areas.
These findings also lead us to also alter our link building strategies. In the past our goal was to gain links in order to affect the search engine rankings; however, we now know we need to focus building relationships, not just links, in order to drive traffic on top of the typical increased rankings benefits. Like any relationship, we need to nurture these partnerships by working with site owners to create incentives that will benefit both our site and theirs.
Lesson of the story, no longer is it our goal to obtain the coveted #1 spot on Google (although hey, we’re not complaining if we do!). Instead our goal is to drive as much long term traffic and revenue to our clients sites as possible by targeting the personas that match our clients niche and the tribes that these personas create. By investing more research into the market, identifying where the persona’s gather, and communicating with the tribes they form, we are much more apt to build stronger, more authentic relationships with the customer base. This allows our clients to not only benefit from the traffic, links and conversions, but also to build a strong brand that resonates with their market.
The days of black hat SEO and fighting the algorithm are over. It’s now upon us as SEO experts to provide a real value to the client, communicate it with data – and welcome the new generation of SEO.