I have been in the SEO business for more than six years, and I always chuckle when a client or colleague says, "Oh, so you're an old dog in the SEO biz, huh?" While many recognized names in SEO have been at it for years longer than me, I've been around long enough to see the landscape of my profession revolutionized again and again. But one client question has remained constant since the beginning, and that is, "Can you get me to rank No. 1 on Google?"
Usually, this question is brought about by another -- sometimes unspoken -- question, which is "How much traffic can I expect from a No. 1 Google ranking?" It's a fair question, but historically it has been tough to answer, not just because there are a ton of variables, like keyword variations and seasonal business factors, but also because up until recently, we could only guess. But until moving forward with any client, I try to get to the root of these questions because the truth is that ranking No. 1 on Google for many types of keywords is not all it's cracked up to be.
You see, traffic by keyword position is not something that the search engines really wanted us to know about. It's tough to say why they kept it a secret for all of these years. The cynic in me says that it's because they wanted to sell more paid search (PPC) inventory because the metrics for PPC have razor-sharp precision compared to SEO. My inner optimist tells me that it's because the search engines were more interested in optimizing their algorithms for relevant search results than being marketing tools.
But of course, we all know that organic search, and search engines themselves, are nothing if not marketing tools. Whatever the reason for the secrecy, the fact remained that we SEOs had to at least attempt to answer the rank/traffic question for our clients. I think that we, as an industry, did a pretty good job of estimating what could be expected assuming that our client worked closely with us and gave us access to their analytics.
One cool hack was the Wikipedia traffic stats hack. Let's say your client is trying to rank for the keyword term "Dwayne Johnson." A Google search reveals that The Rock's Wikipedia page ranks second for that search term. The Wikipedia traffic stats application shows that the English version of this page was viewed approximately 227,000 times in June of 2010.
This is hardly perfect data because we only have the total number of page views, not the number that came from Google. But it's a starting point. In March 2008, Search Engine Land wrote a great piece on how to use Wikipedia to reveal traffic stats.
Also, in late 2006, AOL accidentally leaked click data percentages based on ranking position. As you might imagine, this was one of the biggest pieces of news in the history of the SEO game. We finally had solid evidence to back up many of the claims we were making. No longer were we depending on our clients to believe only our professional expertise and hypotheses. We now had numbers, directly from one of the search engines.
Understandably, the SEO blogosphere exploded with countless extrapolations of this data, like this one from SEO Black Hat. And using publicly available market share data (what percentage of total searches belong to each search engine), we could estimate traffic, by ranking position, across the major search engines.
With all due respect to AOL (how else was my grandmother supposed to have an email address?), it's not exactly a big gun in the search engine lineup. SEOs wanted Google data, and we wanted it bad. About six months ago, our wish was granted. Google, inside of Webmaster Tools, added data on rank, impressions, clicks, and click-through rate for common keyword queries. To get to this data, log into your Webmaster Tools account, expand the "Your site on the web" menu in the side bar, and click on "Search queries."
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