Over the last few years, the correlation between high rankings and optimal, qualified organic traffic from search engines has blurred. This is, in part, because Google uses many different personalization techniques to customize the search experience of its users. This makes it difficult for search marketers to normalize search engine results page (SERP) variability. As a result, rankings, as a key performance indicator (KPI), do a poor job at measuring SEO value or forecasting future organic success.
Content Marketing and Rankings
While Google was implementing wholesale changes like Panda, Penguin and Freshness, and personalization to its algorithm, content marketing became in vogue as an Internet marketing tactic. Shortly thereafter, bloggers, marketers and some search marketers began sharing anecdotes of an apparent diminishment of correlation between rankings and maximum organic traffic.
Many search marketers — including myself – began to understand that through content marketing (publishing lots of owned and earned media), tracking keyword rankings didn’t forecast well and wasn’t a good indicator of future traffic, conversions or customers. However, the number of keywords driving traffic month over month gives some indication as to the search success of a continuous content marketing campaign. This fundamentally changes what it means to win at search today.
Google’s Author Stats Sheds More Light
Google Webmaster Tools provides attributed author analytics on published content, regardless of the publishing source. The authorship tool generally reports on an individual’s content marketing activity with regards to search. Below are the top 34 blog posts with 10 or more SERP click-throughs over the course of a month. They’re grouped by first page rankings versus second page and beyond.
It’s commonly accepted that the higher a page ranks, the greater the number of impressions and subsequent click-throughs. The data above shows blog posts that reside, on average, on the third page of Google actually provided more impressions than the 17 blog posts that reside on the first page. But the number of SERP clicks on first page blog posts is slightly higher. This seems to fly in the face of what’s generally accepted by search marketers – the second page and beyond is rarely traveled.
The number of clicks seems only to slightly bolster the value of first page rankings. However, if you factor in the 341 other blog posts with one to ten click-throughs that don’t reside on the first page of Google, the value proposition of using rankings as a KPI comes into question. Impressions and clicks for later ranked posts are much greater in number than first page posts.
By no means does the above represent an adequate sample set to make sweeping conclusions; but it does shed some light on content marketing’s impact on search measurement – it devalues rankings. Here’s a much more thorough example of rankings versus traffic from a highly traveled blog.
What Does This Mean?
As mentioned above, Google has many ways in which it personalizes SERPs. This personalization is reflected to some degree in the average SERP positions in the above chart. Just because a web page appears to rank number one in the SERPs doesn’t mean it will appear there for everyone – likewise for SERP results on the second page and beyond.
It’s not that being number one on Google is valueless. It’s that search marketers have no tactical way to optimize for personalization. All of the hard SEO work done to acquire consistent rankings in the past can now be shuffled all over Google’s SERPs.
The only way to truly optimize for personalization is to build an online community by creating great problem-solving or entertaining content that people want to consume and evangelize across the Internet. That’s called content marketing.
Personalization and Content Marketing
The more people that consume and evangelize a blog’s content, the more likely it is that personalization will serve up additional content in subsequent searches.
For more than six months, the term Facebook Like drew 100+ unique visitors per month for a client site. The site didn’t rank on the first 10 pages of Google for that term. Personalization relevancy from consistent, quality content marketing drove the traffic, not rankings from SEO. By the way — it converted at 2.5%, too.
The Mighty Long Tail
The above ranking data is an average of multiple search terms to the same page, to include the long tail, chunky middle and fat head. All of which have an impact on the average ranking of a URL.
Long tail search rankings on the second page and beyond can help drag down reported average rankings for URLs in Google Webmaster Tools. This attributes to a perceived devaluation of rankings.
With a daily publishing routine, content marketing can massively grow long tail keyword traffic and push down the average ranking of a URL. However, the end result is more traffic, conversions, and, ultimately, more customers.
Over time the long tail traffic will start to positively impact the chunky middle and fat head terms, too. This is reflected by the 556 percent growth in the number of keyword phrases driving traffic over this 26 month study using content marketing.
Content marketing has eliminated the need to track rankings in a meaningful way. Consistent blog publishing dilutes the metrics associated with average rankings because of a large influx of long tail traffic over time. However, the tradeoff is a growth in the number of keyword phrases driving traffic, increased unique visits and conversions.
Content marketing also takes advantage of Google’s personalization and serves up popular content on keyword phrases it might not have otherwise shown. Finally, expect to see conversion rates grow because personalization, by its very nature, serves up the most relevant content.