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Can Losers Come First?

Sunday, July 05, 2009
Grant Whiteside

An examination of changes in Google and the significance of not ranking first.

Can losers come first? Sure they can. If you look at the online marketing world in terms of pure winners and losers, the winners are going to be those companies and websites that reach their goals. And since for the large majority of businesses the main objective is to generate revenue, conversions are ultimately the bottom line in measuring site performance.

Managers, marketers and even online experts sometimes get very hung up on search engine rankings. Even here at Ambergreen we still get the occasional call from the SEO of some big multinational that heard from his wife’s golf caddy that their direct competitor is ranking first in search results while they are only in second or, god forbid, third.

However, good online marketers will be able to look at the complete picture and understand that while top results in search engines are important (with 80% of people not getting beyond the first page), and excellent in driving traffic, they do not necessarily guarantee conversions. This is not to say that search engine results are insignificant…far from it,  but what we can say is that there are an array of other factors that come into play and can have a far greater bearing on your site performance (i.e. conversions) than rank.

Elements such as page titles, meta- descriptions, competition, landing pages and a host of other on-sight factors come into play. Relevant content, calls to action, internal and external taxonomy and page layout can all have as massive an effect on the rate of conversion as ranking, if not higher.

To keep up with these dynamic developments in the world of online marketing, Google last week implemented a change to their referring string, which can tell your favourite analytics package what page and position you were at on at the time of the click through. The change in the new referring URL is expected to be rolled out gradually and impact only organic search referrers. This is indeed a significant and telling change from the global dominator of the search engine market.

Essentially, the change means that Google will now be passing ranking data through the referral string to your site. This in turn lets search engines take into consideration the relationship between KPI’s on different ranking sites. Does the fact that a site ranks in first three places mean that it has the most traffic? Maybe. But does it mean that it makes the most conversions? Absolutely not.  Does a site with high traffic get a higher conversion ratio? Does the number six result actually have the highest average order value?

With the change implementation, all of these questions will become a part of how Google compared your website within its relevant environment and against competition. With this type of specific rank data, Google can accurately link individual keyword rank to performance, which is a significant change in understanding the true value of a keyword and indicates areas for possible improvement.

How can this change affect your SEO activities? While the transition to the new system will be gradual, it is probably a good idea to first realise that ranking is no longer (and actually has not been for a while) the best way to judge SEO results. It is critical to speak to your online marketing firm and find the opportunities to better understand the elements that truly impact conversions on your site. A strategic approach to SEO activities is still key in making the most out of your online marketing budget and maximizing conversions and site ROI.

Grant Whiteside
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