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What’s a Top Search Engine Ranking Worth?

Since the late 90’s top search engine rankings have been the thing to have, if you’re a website owner of course. Only lately has the SEO industry begun to try to move away from the “rankings are everything” mindset and focus on more traditional marketing aspects at the same time. It’s not been an easy process as “rankings” have been beat into our web-heads for so long. Many SEO companies themselves are having a hard time making the transition, let alone business owners who still think that top rankings are a measure of success.

The real answer to the question, “What’s a Top Ranking Worth” is, “this much,” which, of course, doesn’t provide much help at all. But that’s because the value of a top position for a keyword is determined by a number of fluid factors. In fact, if you really want to know what a top ranking is worth, you need to first answer these questions:

What is a Search Engine Worth?

The value of a top ranking on Google is different from that of Yahoo or MSN. Every engine gets a different volume of searchers, a different quality of searchers and a different intensity of searchers. Each of these plays a role in determining the value that a top ranking provides.

Market share: Market share is the most common measure of the value of a search engine. Google is by far the most popular search engine receiving almost 50% of all searches performed online. (Most recent stats: Comscore 45.4%, NetRatings 49.6%, Hitslink 51.41%.) That’s a pretty hefty chunk of market share considering the next biggest player, Yahoo ranges from 10-28% and the fifth biggest player, ASK ranges from 1-6% total.

Whenever someone is talking about wanting top rankings they are usually talking about wanting top rankingss on Google. If you’re going to be ranked anywhere Google is where you want to be. Unfortunately there are still some SEOs out there talking about top rankings on Alta Vista and Excite which, according to Hitslink get less than half of one percent of the search market share. While there is nothing wrong with being positioned on those search engines, focusing on them is not something you should ever be paying anyone to do. It’s just not worth it.

On a pure market share level, Google is the engine to consider first and foremost, but there are other considerations as well.

Quality of searches performed:? Because Google is the biggest engine that everybody cares about most, they probably also have one of the lowest percentage of quality of searches performed. A good portion of Google’s search (and I don’t have any stats on this, so this is my own educated guessing) are business owners, executives and employees performing vanity searches. That is, searching just to see where they come up in the rankings. Add this to similar searches performed by the SEO provider and/or consultants and employees, vanity searches can really start to add up.

Those same vanity searches are also performed on Yahoo and MSN, but not to the same degree. Remember, Google is the place to be so that’s where the higher percentage of vanity searches are performed. But even with the number of vanity searches performed, if you look at traffic stats, Google probably still provides more search volume to your site. In this case, market share outweighs search quality.

Search intensity: Different search engines produce a different level of searcher intensity. Demographics play a role in this. Some searchers use different search engines depending on what they are looking for. Other engines attract users that are shoppers more than researchers. This intensity can make the difference between a quality hit to your site or a mere “Sunday driver” taking a leisurely stroll through the web. If you’re an e-retailer you want traffic coming from those that are ready to buy your products. If you are an informational site you want visitors that are in the information gathering stages. Both of these can be intense searchers, but the intensity is focused in a different area.

What is a Keyword Worth?

All keywords are not created equal. There is a whole art to keyword research and selection so I won’t go into here but a top ranking for one keyword will produce different traffic, both in numbers and relevance.

Search volume: We all like keywords that get a lot of traffic. Getting a top ranking for a keyword that is searched twice a month isn’t as valuable as a keyword that is searched several hundred times each month. When someone promises you top rankings or your money back most likely you don’t get to pick the keywords; they do. And in order to ensure that they give you what they guarantee, you’ll get your top rankings, but not for high-volume keywords which are much harder to compete for. Instead you’ll get the low- or no-volume keywords ranked well. A lot of good that does!

Don’t be afraid of getting low-volume keywords ranked, provided that you are also working on the high-volume words at the same time. Many times the low-volume keywords will produce significant sums of traffic collectively while also providing the foundation for achieving rankings on the higher-volume keywords. The latter point is significantly important. A low-volume keyword only approach is the wrong approach altogether.

Relevance and conversions: While high-volume keywords are attractive by the sheer numbers of potential customers, they can often produce a far lower conversion rate than more specific, lower volume keywords. Take the word ‘golf’ for example. According to WordTracker that word gets searched over 7000 times a day. While the phrase ‘golf clubs’ gets less than 2000 searchers per day, significantly less search volume, the relevance of that phrase is far higher. This, in turn, means that if you sell golf clubs, you’re likely to get a much higher conversion rate off of traffic coming from searches using ‘golf clubs’ than searches using just ‘golf’. In the world of keywords, relevance matters.

What is Your Industry Worth?

Some industries get a huge amount of traffic while others can produce only a fraction of that. Take the mortgage industry. Searches for home loan related keywords far outnumber searches for flow meter related products. The value of your search engine ranking will depend on what industry you are in and the number of searches being performed online for what you have to offer.

For most industries, this fluctuation in overall industry search volume won’t mean a thing. It doesn’t matter if thousands of people are searching for motorcycle related products but only hundreds are searching for what ever you offer. All that matters is if there are enough searches being performed for what you offer to build a successful business online. Unfortunately, there are some industries where all the top rankings in the world won’t return a positive ROI simply because the volume of searchers is too low to sustain a business. You should know this before investing money into an optimization campaign. But even if your search volume is low, there are still other considerations that will help you determine the value in getting the rankings.

What is Your Profit Margin Worth?

Profit margins are a huge factor in the value of a ranking. Search volume can be low for your industry or keywords, but if you are in an industry with a high profit margin it doesn’t take much to succeed. This is why that some keywords, with seemingly very little traffic, can often go for a premium in the CPC (cost per click) market. In these industries one sell can easily offset the cost of the entire online marketing effort.

As with any industry, and any marketing efforts, you need to be aware of what your profit margins are. Some products undoubtedly have a higher profit margin than others, which makes rankings for these keywords more valuable to you regardless of search volume.

What is a Search Position Worth?

The position you get in the search results can matter a great deal. Statistically very few people click past the third page of search results and instead, if they have not found what they are looking for, go back to refine their search. In fact, a great majority don’t even click past that first page. This makes first page search results prime real estate. What is more, a good number of searchers will already find what they are looking for at the top of the first page and therefore never scroll down “below the fold” to the other half of the rankings. This is why everybody wants to be #1!

Unfortunately, only one person can be #1 and out of the dozens, hundreds or perhaps even thousands of others competing for that, the chances for you obtaining that are pretty slim… even with the best SEOs working for you. Simply put, your commercial site may never overcome the highly popular informational site which is considered the de facto authority on the topic. It can happen, but its a long hard road!

Also keep in mind that a well optimized site can actually do better in lower positions than the site in higher positions. Carefully crafted title and description tags can make your site much more compelling to the searcher. A #1 ranking isn’t always necessary, but it sure helps the ego!

What is Localization & Personalization Worth?

Search engines continually look for ways to provide more relevant results to the user. This is both good and bad to the business because what is more relevant for one is not as relevant for the other. If the search engines had their way (and they are trying to) they want to produce a completely different set of results for every searcher even though they are searching for the exact same thing. Why? Because when I search for ‘golf’ I might be looking for golf ranges in my area and you might be looking for high-end golf clubs. Through localization and personalization, if search engines can ensure that they are giving each user unique, but also highly relevant results, everybody wins.

What’s bad about this, and really, it isn’t bad at all, is that this makes search engine rankings almost completely obsolete. You may try and see where you rank for a given term, but if your site is not personally or locally (or both) relevant to the individual searcher you may be in a different position altogether. And here’s the real kicker… you’ll never know because you’re not them so you will never see the exact results that any other searcher sees.

So what is a top ranking worth? Not much of a lot, or a lot of nothing. In reality, it just simply depends. So should we stop focusing on top rankings altogether? No, but it is important to realize that search engine rankings are merely a single measure of success, not success in themselves. You can do a lot by focusing on other more traditional marketing aspects of your site such as usability, conversion improvement than top rankings alone.

Stoney deGeyter leads a spectacular team of seasoned marketing experts at Pole Position Marketing. You can read Stoney’s blog posts at the E-Marketing Performance blog and more of his work on several well-known SEO and marketing news sources including Search Engine Guide and Web Pro News. Stoney has authored two website marketing books: E-Marketing Performance: Effective strategies for building, optimizing, and marketing your website online and Keyword Research and Selection: The definitive guide to gathering, sorting and organizing your keywords into a high-performance SEO campaign.

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