Calculating the True Value of Organic Search

Search, at its core, is a digital vehicle that enables humans to interact with content on the Web in very natural ways. As humans, we seek out information. We seek out products, goods and services. Search engines organize content in relevant and meaningful ways that enable us to explore our curiosities. Search engines are digital switchboards, essential to the functioning nature of the Web.

Without an ability to search, the Web would not exist as it does today. We wouldn’t be talking about Facebook or Twitter. Our online experiences would be limited to checking e-mail or viewing a family member’s online photo gallery. The rich experiences that the Web enables would be invisible to most.

So it should come as no surprise that for companies with an online presence, “ranking” well across the major global search engines for competitive keyword phrases isn’t just nice to have; it’s critical.

Search engine positioning can make or break an organization. It’s that significant.

Understandably then, search engine optimization (SEO) is soaring in popularity. SEO is the process of targeting specific keywords within the copy of your Web site, gaining supportive inbound hyperlinks from other Web sites and webmasters, and making certain that your Web site doesn’t programmatically prevent Google and other search engines from discovering and placing your content within their indices. It’s both strategic and technical.

SEOs charged with managing a Web site’s organic visibility have historically relied on the “rank report” as the end-all measure of success. Client X calls on the phone inquiring, “Where do I rank on Google for keyword Y?” SEO responds, “Number one, ma’am!” Everyone is happy.

Unfortunately for both the client and the SEO in that scenario, current tools and reporting methodologies fail to capture the complexity and return on investment (ROI) of this effort. Uncovering the true story is far more involved.

Adding Insult to Injury: Google’s Behavioral Search and Search Wiki

For a long time, Google has had behavioral targeting in place, which aims to match results to a searcher’s intent based on historical Web browsing and search behavior. For visitors who search on the word “stories,” Google is forced to decide whether that query is most relevant to children’s literature or perhaps the number of floors in a high-rise building. Who’s to say which “stories” the user is searching for without any additional context? Google behavioral search seeks to solve that problem.

Enhancing behavioral search, Google launched its Search Wiki technology in November 2008. Search Wiki takes an additional step and enables the searcher to customize his or her experience. Searchers can now move certain results up or down on the page for a given keyword query, and can even eliminate a specific result from the page altogether!

If that wasn’t enough, just default search results (without either behavioral or Search Wiki influences) have become more geo-centric. Search results that are seen by someone in Seattle are likely not the same results seen in New York. In fact, it’s plausible that for a given keyword query, no two users will have an identical experience. We are nearing a search environment that yields completely personalized results.

This is problematic to the SEO community. New thinking is now in order.

Introducing Return on Rank

This past fall, search expert Bruce Clay proclaimed that the “rank report was dead.” What he meant was that rank reports, once the de-facto litmus test for SEO success, are now meaningless in a purely customized search results environment. What is important is the positioning at the time of the click, in addition to subsequent on-site behaviors.

This belief has led our search team to place more value in on-site behaviors and an in-development metric we’ve coined “Return on Rank.” Return on Rank is effectively our attempt at placing an ROI or return on ad spend (ROAS) calculation to organic search engine rankings at the time of the click. Driven by an evolving mathematical algorithm that factors in several data points, including paid search ad equivalency and some predictive modeling, Return on Rank will enhance SEO engagements and provide greater clarity on what’s really having an impact across the search results pages.

Goodbye, guesswork and blind faith.

We’ve taken this a step further by adopting new technologies from our search analytics partner, Enquisite. The Enquisite campaign platform is powering a number of initiatives where we’re looking at these types of ROI calculations. Though that platform doesn’t precisely calculate our Return on Rank metric, it does aid SEO efforts in assigning dollar values to SEO-related enhancements.

The bottom line is that reporting search engine positioning for targeted keyword phrases no longer makes sense. It’s worshiping a false idol. SEO should be focused on the results, not the rankings.

The fun part now will be telling clients who are inquiring about their search engine rankings that, “I don’t know and it doesn’t matter anyway.”

S. Ryan DeShazer
Global Director of Search Marketing