In defense of Ranking Reports

Today Matt Cutts posted a Google Webmaster Help video on the topic of ranking reports, which is embedded above. In it, Matt states that rather than obsessing over your rankings, focus on converting more users. I completely agree that it all comes down to conversions, and that one shouldn’t obsess over rankings, but the video seems to imply you shouldn’t report on rankings altogether, and that monitoring rankings for your most important (“trophy”) keywords is a bad use of your time. It also seems to imply that ranking reports are really just an annoying thing that “disagreeable” clients request.

Whether that implication was intentional or not, I do feel ranking reports still have their place in SEO reporting. Here’s why:

  • Ranking reports are a good proxy for overall SEO health – are you not able to rank for any of your keywords? Did you have a bunch of rankings that went away over night? Did you make a change and gain a bunch of rankings? Movements in rankings can tell you a lot about what is going on in a macro level – maybe those changes IT made to the site really helped (or hurt) your website’s ability to rank for your most important keywords.
  • Keywords matter to managers – like it or not, most managers are interested in what keywords their site ranks for, and they use this information to help justify SEO budgets. While it shouldn’t be your only data point, it almost always is a data point that managers want to know about (even the non-disagreeable ones). In my opinion, the more data, the better, and keyword ranking information is data.
  • They don’t take much time to create – in the video, Matt states that creating ranking reports might not be the best use of your time. There are many tools that create ranking reports automatically, and most also allow export into Excel for you to manipulate the data quickly. If you’re investing time into SEO, and already paying for premium tools such as SEOmoz, why not take advantage of automated ranking reports?
  • They help you understand your content strengths & weaknesses – if you have crappy content, it (usually) won’t rank well. Looking at your under-performing keywords is a great way to figure out where to focus your content marketing & IT budgets to improve the weaker areas of your website. Likewise, knowing what keywords and areas of your site rank well will expose additional opportunity for related content (and keywords) you could create.
  • Trophy keywords can convert, too – while focusing on conversions is extremely important, if you aren’t ranking on Page 1, you probably aren’t going to get much traffic to convert in the first place. Having business-relevant first page rankings can earn you a lot of traffic, and then you can convert that traffic into sales. But if you’re not ranking for any keywords relevant to the products & services you’re selling, you’re not going to have as much opportunity to convert in the first place.
  • Ranking reports keep you informed of the competition – a good ranking report also includes how your top competitors are ranking for your most important keywords. Much like ranking reports give a good finger on the pulse of your site’s SEO, they also give you insights into your competitors SEO.
  • Ranking reports help you understand how search engines work – looking for patterns in your rankings, and how they change, can give you insights into algorithm changes. Ranking data can also help you understand differences between search engines such as why you might rank well in Bing but not Google for a certain phrase, or even looking at the granular level of Google (web search) rankings versus Google Places rankings.
  • Ranking reports let you know if the correct page is ranking – if you have an international site, and the Canadian version of the content is outranking the US version of the content for a US searcher, you’ve got a problem. Tracking not only rankings but landing page URLs will help you find problems with your site that is causing the wrong page to rank for a given keyword.

With personalization, and most recently Google Search Plus, rankings are less important to fixate over, which I think is what Matt is really trying to say. And while it is important to de-emphasize the importance of ranking reports, and understand rankings are for the “average user” and not representative of personalized results, it’s still important to collect this information and have it at your disposal…it can tell you a lot, and it’s something that still matters to both the SEO and the business manager.

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