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April 14, 2010

Ranking Analysis – How to Look Beyond What Is or Isn’t Ranking

Website owners and managers will always be fascinated with how well they rank on search engines.

However, rankings can be deceiving because they only provide a small part of the data set anyone will need to gauge online success.

Who wouldn’t like to be No. 1 on Google for an organic listing? Among the busy array of results (including paid ads and local search), a top ranking still shines.  It shouts: “I climbed the mountain and beat out the other guy.”

But did you?

Here are 12 key points to consider with your ranking numbers that quickly touch on other aspects of your online marketing initiative. Keeping these factors in mind will help you make better choices about what next steps you should take to ensure that you’re better positioned to improve your company’s bottom line.

1. Did you pursue the right keyword?

A  No. 1 ranking is possible with barely any effort, but will it drive traffic? You might rank well for Cleveland Legal Counselors, but odds are more people are searching for Cleveland Lawyers.  If that’s too competitive, try Lawyers in Cleveland and get your share of traffic from the vast ways people search.

2. Are you targeting the right search engine?

A top ranking on Bing can trigger big smiles.  However, if your website only gets 3.5% of its traffic from Bing – for all keywords – the ranking may not deserve a lot of attention.  Yes, conversions are worth considering, but you need to constantly think about what precious time you’re committing to Bing when other engines may pay off in an even bigger way.

3. What’s your track record?

You need to chart the progress.  It’s not a good sign if months go by and you can’t crack the top 30 positions on among search engine results.  Own up to the fact that maybe the keyword phrase is too competitive if it doesn’t show an improvement.  Look for headway.  For keywords with little competition, maybe you’ll rank higher sooner.  But that’s not always the case. Your search engine optimization (SEO) practices may help you show a marked improvement even for more competitive search terms.

4. Setbacks are common.

If you manage to get a great ranking – perhaps in the top 5 spots – don’t panic if your ranking dips a bit. It could easily rebound.

5. Substitutions aren’t inferior.

Like NBA bench players, new keyword options can excel if given the opportunity.  If you can’t get a high ranking for a keyword phrase among your starting lineup, remove it after a few months. Why keep it if the keyword phrase isn’t gaining momentum – either toward a top ranking or in its ability to convert.

6. Don’t be misled by your computer.

With personal settings, browser history and different data centers, it’s increasingly tough to know if your exceptional ranking is really what it seems. For your most significant keywords, you may want to have someone else tell you how the keyword phrases ranks.  Or, test out the search terms with some other ranking checkers (including third-party sources) like the ones listed below.

SEO Book Rank Checker (for Firefox):

This tool still references your computer but has a setting to avoid your Google personal settings.

Easy-to-use third party (note that it defaults to top 10)

Mike’s Marketing Tools:

Third-party tool with multiple engines

7.  Understand your landing pages.

It’s not uncommon for the home page to be the landing page for a powerful keyword phrase. Your conversion opportunity may really be an inside page. In a fantasy world, you could tag keywords and they would magically be directed to your preferred pages. In reality, that’s the beauty of paid search. But don’t give up on your home page. If it’s working, find a way to establish Calls to Action within the content, the core navigation, and diverse user cues to make sure visitors go where you lead them.

8. The crowded home page.

Another problem with the home page is the fact that many keyword phrases often rank well for it. A few keywords may perform better if you are able to adapt your strategy and target some interior pages for some of the keywords. Your website analytics package should help you see what keywords are being used to reach the home page or any other page with a crowded keyword field.

9. Balance greed with diversity.

Online marketers get excited if they have more than one page appearing in the top 10 search results for the same keyword phrase. You should consider whether one of the pages could better support another keyword phrase that lacks the visibility it needs to generate traffic and sales or leads for your business. Don’t make a hasty decision. If a keyword phrase ranks No. 7 on one page and No. 15 on another page, don’t assume the No. 7 ranking is the best one to attack because it’s closer to  the No. 1 position. You need to weigh what you’ve already done with both pages, keyword themes on the website, the amount of content on each page, conversion opportunities and more. For example, the No. 7 ranking may be the best you’ll do for the one page.  For another page, the No. 15 ranking may not have taken as much effort to a achieve (meaning you could still do more with SEO to improve the ranking).

10. Visitors tell another part of the story.

Unfortunately some businesses lack conversion data and settings. At least you can look at the visitor data in your website analytics. In the purest sense,   visitor metrics will indicate whether the ranking has any merit.

11. Be honest about your conversions.

Many websites lack opportunities to connect with visitors. Your top ranking may be wasted if your potential customer encounters a poor design (with usability messes), text overload (visitors typically prefer to scan) and information without a clear Call to Action. Offering your phone number in the 14th paragraph isn’t very effective.

12. Know your website strengths.

To appreciate your rankings (or lack of them), you need to know your website’s strengths and weaknesses. Take a look at the competition. Study which website ranks No. 1 or even No. 10. What do they have that your website lacks? Maybe it’s a great domain name (with a keyword), an age advantage, more links, and more content (multiple pages) to accentuate keyword themes, etc.

Business owners and marketers can study rankings every day, but the ranking position alone won’t help. Look at the rankings within the context of overall traffic, conversions, your SEO efforts to date, the viability of your website, and your ability to spread keywords across the website.

Ultimately, you may need more pages to support your preferred ranking over the long haul. While making that investment, keep an eye out for alternative keywords that your website can realistically support – today and in the future.

Mike Murray is president of Online Marketing Coach, which helps small businesses with online marketing challenges and opportunities. Since 1997, Mike has written extensively about the industry and produced several studies. He also speaks at regional and national conferences, including Search Engine Strategies and Content Marketing World.