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The Myth of Permanent Search Engine Positions

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Reader question: I’ve just redesigned a Web site – the original was poorly designed and broke all the rules on meta tags etc. – but has great ranking on Yahoo, Google and AltaVista. How do I ensure that the new site retains the original’s ranking?

Answer: One of the biggest search engine marketing (SEM) search engine myths that won’t die is the myth of permanent search engine positions. This article will address this myth and others about search engine optimization.

Permanent top positions

No matter how badly you want to believe, and no matter what your personal experience is, there is no such thing as “permanent” search engine positions.

New pages and sites with unique content are added to the Web all of the time. Old pages are deleted or updated. How Web sites link to each other changes. How pages within a site cross-link to each other changes. URL structure also changes. The result? Search engine indices are always evolving. Search engine algorithms are always evolving. Therefore, positioning will always fluctuate.

So, to the reader, the answer to part of your question is one you probably do not want to hear. You will not be able to ensure that the new site retains the original site’s rankings. And no search engine marketer can guarantee it, either.

Do not hire an SEM firm that guarantees permanent positions. I understand that many search engine marketers are very confident in their abilities to gain top search engine visibility. Nothing wrong with that. But search engine marketers are similar stockbrokers. They can demonstrate past results but cannot guarantee future successes.

What you can look for in a search engine marketer is how well they follow all of the search engines’ guidelines, both the human-based search engines (Yahoo, Open Directory, Business.com, etc.) and the crawler-based search engines (Google, Inktomi, etc.) In fact, I am sure that if you follow all of the guidelines, your site will perform better than it is now.

The effects of poor site design

What I find very interesting about this reader question is that only part of search engine marketing was addressed. Sure, the poorly designed site ranks. What else is good about the poor site design? Did it deliver qualified leads? Did people enroll in a course or sign up for a newsletter? Did the site get a lot of traffic and not a lot of sales?

Or maybe people liked the poor site design. Believe me, I have designed many sites that do not meet my personal, aesthetic standards. But the target audience loved them.

Poor site design has plenty of impact. One impact it has is branding impact. For a Web site, a cool-looking logo has nowhere near the impact that a user-friendly Web site has. A top search engine position does not have as much branding impact as a user-friendly Web site. In fact, if people assume that pages with top positions provide the most relevant information, then going to a poorly designed site will disappoint them.

Visitors will remember your site as the one with the top position with a poor user experience. So when they see your URLs again in top positions, do you believe they are likely to click again?

I would focus your efforts on building a user-friendly, search-friendly and persuasive Web site that converts. This type of Web site usually has little problems achieving regular search engine traffic.

Rankings vs. qualified leads

I know that I am one of the more unusual search engine marketers because I do not provide ranking reports for my clients. I believe ranking reports are a waste of a client’s time and money. I feel I can give better value to my clients by providing them with thorough Web analytics reporting.

In my opinion, Web analytics tools (WebTrends, ClickTracks, HitBox, Urchin) are far more important. I can immediately see the results of a search engine marketing campaign using these tools.

The first indication that a “natural” or “organic” search engine optimization campaign is working well is that I see a considerable increase in traffic. I always see a jump in traffic after a link development campaign, which usually begins with directory submissions.

I also like to put tracking URLs on many of my campaigns. I like to know if the traffic comes from different advertising campaigns, such as Overture and Google AdWords. I also like to compare “natural” optimization traffic and paid inclusion traffic.

Checking different conversion points on a site is also important. How many minutes did people spend reading a page’s content? Longer than two minutes is a strong indication that people are genuinely interested in the content. Did visitors read the content but not take desired call to action? Maybe you should make the call to action more bold or obvious on a Web page.

Do ranking reports give you all of that information? They never have, and I do not believe they ever will. Also, when the software engineers at Google and Inktomi tell me the software they recommend, then I will buy it and use it. Until then, I will take Web analytics software over positioning reports any day.

Focus your efforts on conversion tracking and Web analytics. SEM is a part of that whole process.

Shari Thurow is Marketing Director at Grantastic Designs, Inc., a full-service search engine marketing, web and graphic design firm. This article is excerpted from her book, Search Engine Visibility (http://www.searchenginesbook.com) published in January 2003 by New Riders Publishing Co. Shari can be reached at shari@grantasticdesigns.com.

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The Myth of Permanent Search Engine Positions
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