Justin Spring

The Panera Guy Lesson: Why Rankings are Irrelevant to SEO in 2016

Are rankings really worth chasing in today’s personalized search experience? Here’s my take on some pretty shoddy, albeit too common, SEO advice.

Are rankings really worth chasing in today’s personalized search experience? Here’s my take on some pretty shoddy, albeit too common, SEO advice.

I was sitting at Panera when I heard them.

Behind me, two guys were discussing digital marketing.

One was a business owner. The other was trying to sell him marketing services.

The guy selling was bragging about a lot of unrealistic and unrepeatable (by my standards) successes. I lost interest after a few minutes and stopped listening.

“If You Look at Their Rankings…”

Forty-five minutes later their conversation caught my attention again when I heard the words "Adept Marketing."

It was the salesman again. He told the business owner, "They make a lot of money, but if you look at their rankings, they don't do very well. It's sad people don't realize to look at that."

A few minutes later they got up to leave.

I looked up and made eye contact with the salesman. 

He blinked and then said to the business owner, “Oh… that’s Adept right there.” As if I was an entity and not an actual person.

I smiled and then looked back down at my computer.

I couldn’t help but think how outdated this guy’s thinking was.

In this post, I’m going to show you why. The short version is: It’s 2016. Rankings don’t work that way anymore. 

They haven’t for over a decade.

Google Killed “Page One” in 2009

There was a time when you could easily measure your position in Google's search results for a given keyword.

Just go to Google.com, enter the keyword, then see where you ranked.

That lasted until 2005 when Google rolled out "personalized search" for anyone logged into Google. 

That was the beginning of the end for the famous “page one” of Google—and for the rankings my friend from Panera values so highly.

The true end came in 2009, when Google rolled out personalized search for everyone, regardless of whether they were logged in or not.

Personalized Search Means Personalized Results

Personalized search means my page-one results for a given keyword will not be the same as your page-one results for the same keyword.

Google’s not just looking at keyword density and backlinks anymore. It’s also considering:

Location of the person doing the search
Search history
Age and gender
Type of device (mobile, desktop, etc.)
Social activity

And those are just the big ones. Google is refining its algorithm all the time, adding new variables as they strive to provide the best results for you.

"Page One" of Google Is a Myth

Personalized search results mean the rankings Panera Guy was so obsessed with are not actually “rankings” at all.

They’re just guesses. 

They’re created by tools that estimate where pages will likely end up for a given keyword in Google.

The tools don’t have access to any of Google’s user data. They cannot factor in the effect of personalized search results.

Which means, their estimates don't measure what Google actually returns when a user performs a search.

There is no “page one” in Google anymore. There hasn’t been since 2009. 

With apologies to Panera Guy, unless he has a time machine that can take you back to 2004, you should run from any SEO or digital marketing agency that makes wild promises about rankings.

Results, Not Rankings: What Successful SEO Looks Like in 2016

Let me show you what successful SEO looks like in 2016.

First, forget rankings for a few minutes. 

A legitimate SEO program starts with a focus on increasing quality traffic. Then it seeks to convert that traffic into profitable customer actions.

Sales, orders, lead forms, phone calls: those are the results that matter, and those are the things we look at to determine the success of our efforts.

Goal #1: Improving Quality Traffic

An increase in quality traffic is the first thing that should happen when executing a modern SEO strategy

Here’s the chart I watch for our efforts at Adept:

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That's a 46% increase in sessions since January 1 of this year, plus a 25.74% increase in pageviews.

Not too shabby. 

You can buy sessions and pageviews with advertising of course, but Adept’s traffic increases have come almost entirely from our three primary marketing channels:

  • Organic
  • Referral
  • Social channels 

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If you’ve never thought of referral and social as part of a broader SEO strategy, you’re probably still living in pre-2009 SEO thinking.

Modern SEO is not about hacking Google or taking shortcuts to the top of the search results. 

It’s about value creation through content. Those efforts are what ultimately lead to steady, sustained growth in SEO.

Goal #2: Converting Traffic into Profitable Customer Actions

Pulling traffic to your website is one thing. But what happens once people reach your site? Do they find content that truly aligns with what they were searching for?  

The quality of your content—not your rankings—is the secret to converting traffic into profitable customer actions. 

This might be the most important metric of all. And it’s one Panera Guy would never be able to check with his rankings tool.

At present, 22% of Adept’s organic sessions pick up the phone and call us.

22%!!

And 1.7% complete a request for proposal form online. 

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That means more than 1 in 5 people who visit our site from organic traffic are contacting us for more information.

That’s a result I’m proud of.  

As a business owner, that's what I look for when I measure the success or failure of our SEO efforts—real leads that turn into real, profitable results for our business.

That's where your focus should be too, not on your rankings.

And One More Thing... Our Rankings Are Pretty Darn Good—if You Know How to Read Them

I've been hard on my friend from Panera, for good reason I believe.

His myopic infatuation with rankings represents everything that's wrong with SEO in the world of digital marketing. But even so, I want to be clear that there is some value ranking estimates.

Like traffic, rankings estimates are a leading indicator of the success of a new SEO initiative.

Rankings are not how we measure success, but they can tell us when our efforts are starting to have an impact.

You should be tracking a broad range of keywords, not just top-level keywords like “SEO,” which we’d never try to rank for anyway. We want to rank for terms that imply someone is looking for an SEO agency.

Here again, if Panera Guy knew what to look for, he’d find that Adept was doing pretty darn well:

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The Rewards of SEO Done Right

SEO has been laser-focused on rankings for far too long.

Google’s personalized search results are only going to get more refined over time, which means social and referral channels are going to get more important to SEO as we move into 2017 and beyond.

Don’t be like Panera Guy, and don’t be fooled when guys like him make big promises about rankings. 

Rankings are irrelevant.

Results—and only results—are the true measure of a successful SEO program.

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Justin Spring

About Justin Spring

Justin’s enthusiasm for new and big goals fuels his passion for building businesses – both his own and our clients. By remaining grounded in sound business financial and marketing performance metrics but continuously learning and trying new technologies and methodologies, he leads Adept as it evolves relevant services and grows client relationships.