Have you heard rankings are dead? With the rise of personal and social search, rankings are harder to accurately gauge. The good news is de-emphasizing rankings gives marketers opportunities to focus on other search optimization metrics that might impact their bottom lines.

As Rhea Drysdale, CEO of Outspoken Media and SMX’s panel moderator, said, moving away from rankings can also be an opportunity to help brands continuously push their campaigns forward. “Even after you’ve achieved top rankings, you can still measure SEO progress by focusing on traffic,  leads and sales,” she said.

Conduct SERP analysis

Rob Bucci, founder of STAT Search Analytics, was the only panelist to speak in defense of rankings reports. “They’re a direct measure of your SEO success,” he said. But in the same breath, Bucci acknowledged, “Ranking reports are myopic, and marketers run the risk of getting caught up on a single keyword.”

Instead, he advocates SERP (search engine results page) analysis. Measuring the whole page around different keywords gives a sense of not only how the monitored site is performing, but also which competitors are winning by reaching search audiences at different phases in the purchase funnel – and how. Bucci advised attendees to measure SERPs for insights on results in different targeted cities whenever possible, and he recommended marketers look for Google Places listings, domain diversity, types of content that make it toward the top and brands that earn top rankings. 

“Remember, Google doesn’t have a brand bias, but customers have brand bias … and Google has a customer bias,” he said.

Measure SEO success based on specific brand goals

Another tip all of the panelists advocated is thinking about SEO metrics that will reflect key performance indicators for business-specific goals. In essence, goals direct SEO KPIs – and a good KPI should be a reliable indicator of a goal. Traffic is not a true goal. Goals may be leads and sales, while awareness is a KPI that may be measured by increased traffic.

“How do you measure SEO?” The answer requires another question – “What’s your goal?”

“Reporting shows a number, analytics tell why and what to do about data.”

It’s important to consider the KPIs without getting hung up on details that keep a brand from pursuing ultimate goals. For instance, Ryan Jones of Sapient pointed out that high volumes of new traffic coming from a company’s YouTube Channel indicate video generates awareness. But he warned brands against over-investing in more video before monitoring the activity of YouTube traffic, lest they get stuck in their “awareness” marketing.

Jones also reminded marketers about the difference between SEO reports and analytics. “Reporting shows a number, analytics tell why and what to do about data,” he said. He explained that reporting tells marketers the score, but analytics reveal the score AND where all the players are situated and what their strengths are so it’s clear what play to make next.

Track ‘keyword bucket’ activity

Monitoring activity around different keywords can provide insights about prospects’ informational needs throughout the purchase cycle.  “Keywords tell you everything about your audiences,” Bucci said.

Create buckets for “ready to buy” and “unhappy” customers. Different keywords can trace users throughout the buying cycle. For instance, broad terms (like “digital camera”) might be part of awareness, then price comparison or model-specific phrases could reflect the “ready to buy” users (like “Nikon 400 reviews”) and other phrases will mirror search activity for current customers – happy or unhappy – who should be addressed.  

“Keywords tell you everything about your audiences.”

While marketers lamented the loss of some keyword information available in Google Analytics, Danny Sullivan reminded SMX forum attendees they still have a lot to work with through Analytics. More, Search Engine Land editor (and former Googler) Vanessa Fox encouraged marketers to get familiar with Webmaster tools and the keyword data it provides during her SEO metrics panel.

Combining keyword buckets with on-site performance can show where companies need to up the ante with targeted keyword usage (not enough traffic? Do more awareness.) or better support landing pages with CTAs (Not enough low-funnel activity from certain “ready-to-buy” phrases? Revisit the sales slant of pages to see if it’s too weak or too aggressive). Additionally, SERP analysis on different keyword buckets can show you where competitors are doing a better job of meeting search audiences’ needs throughout the purchase funnel.

Evaluate SEO hits – don’t always blame Panda and Penguin

The panelists also touched on using SEO metrics to understand traffic losses. As Vanessa Fox pointed out, it’s becoming common to assume that SEO losses are all derived from Panda or Penguin losses – but a number of factors can contribute to search hits.

She offered three check points to understand why losses happen and put ranking in context:

  1. Query count – Are less keywords directing traffic to your site? Are changes possibly related to seasonal demand or something bigger that happened in the industry?
  2. Clickthrough rates by category – Instead of obsessing about ranking for different phrases, look at the clickthrough rates. Are people actually clicking through on your organic positions? (Ryan Jones said Webmaster tools is best for measuring organic clickthrough rates and offered this tool to help: http://code.google.com/p/php-webmaster-tools-downloads/)
  3. Technical issues – Don’t underestimate the need to check out the tech side of your SEO.

That said, Fox encouraged marketers to focus on their content marketing whenever they sense an SEO loss … and as a sustainable approach to successful SEO.

“Content is more than buzz word. It’s a strategy key to powering industry terms and search traffic,” said Vanessa Fox.

Marketers are well-advised to broaden their organic search metrics this year to stay ahead with respect to SERPs and business goals – and many have been working at defining better KPIs for some time. At the end of 2011, better SEO metrics were cited as one of the leading marketing goals for this year.