Why rankings matter

by Tom Albrighton 28 February 2012 SEO

I like Drayton Bird. His emails usually make me smile. But last weekend, I got one that made me frown.

The subject was ‘Google rankings panda phooey’. Here’s how it started:

Do you like the idea of being top of the Google rankings?

Of course you do. It’s not as good as seeing your ad on TV but it does give you that nice warm glow.

But will it change your world?


It won’t do you any harm. But it won’t do you that much good on its own.

So far, so good. It’s true that chasing rankings for their own sake (or for the wrong keywords) is completely pointless. That’s why most professional SEOs don’t regard ranking as a valid performance metric, however much their clients might obsess over it.

You may be top of the rankings, but that’s only half – no, not even half – a fraction – of the battle, for two reasons.

1. Google is not the only source of traffic. It is only a part – a lesser part – of what’s available

Now, point number 1 is an intriguing statement. I presume we’re not talking about search traffic, since Google is the undisputed leader with around 85% of the search market; its nearest rival is Yahoo with 5–7% (depending on location).

On Google, finishing first brings you more than just a medal

If we’re talking about traffic in general, then yes, Google is only one source of traffic. Facebook, or YouTube, or affiliates may all figure, among other possibilities. But referrer profiles differ markedly from site to site, and search volumes differ from keyword to keyword – we can’t say definitively that Google is ‘a lesser part of what’s available’ across the board.

In a way, it’s a chicken-and-egg question, because the relative importance of Google to your site depends on your ranking. If you rank nowhere, your Google traffic will naturally be modest – but that doesn’t mean that a better ranking would not be worth pursuing for you.

Conversely, if you rank highly, Google is likely to send you a lot of traffic. Take this site as an example. It ranks highly for highly relevant keywords like ‘copywriter’, ‘tone of voice’ and, er, ‘brummie slang’, as a result of which it receives over 75% of its traffic from Google.

In fact, I would conjecture that Google is a very important source of traffic, if not the most important, for almost every commercial site.

I’m not 100% clear what Drayton was implying, so let me just make my own point absolutely crystal. If you get a high Google ranking for a popular and relevant term, you’re going to receive a lot of very valuable traffic – probably far more than you get from any other source, all things being equal.

That’s why the SEO industry exists, that’s why it spends 95% of its time focusing on Google and that’s why its clients drop big money to retain #1 rankings for generic terms.

Also, I would argue that being top of the rankings can be more than ‘a fraction’ of the battle. For some brands at least, rank stands in for reputation – and reputation drives sales. When people search for an unfamiliar term, it’s human nature to assume that the top-ranking site is pre-eminent. Only the most confident searchers will conclude that a result on page 3 or 4 is actually the one they’re looking for.

The email goes on:

2. Traffic is one thing. Sales are something entirely different…

Any fool can get more clicks – and pay handsomely for the pleasure. What you want is clicks that convert.

Even that’s only half the truth. Conversions are just the start of the job. Then what do you do to turn those conversions into money?

That’s what you have to think about.

This is also absolutely true. And again, no self-respecting SEO would be looking at traffic volumes as a primary measure of success for a commercial site. As Drayton says, the key is converting traffic into sales – or, for some types of business, leads that become sales.

The thing is, though, conversion isn’t just a number. It’s a ratio determined by both its numerator (conversions) and its denominator (clicks, visits). And it’s better to have a conversion rate of 1% on 10,000 visitors than a rate of 10% on 100 visitors.

So conversion rate certainly is one thing ‘you have to think about’, but traffic volumes are an important determinant of that rate. To build a site that converted like a mother while completely ignoring your Google ranking would be madness. Even the best sales letter needs the right mailing list – and building ranking is one equivalent of building that list.

Also, you don’t necessarily have to ‘pay handsomely’ for ‘more clicks’. If we’re talking about PPC, then yes, it’s easy to spend a lot and get little. But with natural search, a modest investment of time, effort and cash can deliver gangbusting results. And once it’s achieved, a high ranking is a precious and powerful asset for any business, delivering valuable ongoing returns with only modest ‘top-up’ investments. (I speak from experience.)

As I say, I like Drayton, and I mean no disrespect. All I’m saying is that search marketing has its place in nearly every online marketing project, and Google rankings are usually pretty important. It’s wrong to suggest otherwise, and it’s not really fair on those marketers and copywriters who have put a lot of effort into understanding search.

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