For quite some time now, Google has been using your logged in behavior and interests to try to deliver a more relevant experience to each user. For marketers, this means a less “aggregate” view of the search environment from things like keyword rankings. To help us still understand some aggregation, Google Webmaster Tools reports on “Average Position.” With the continued enhancements of personalized search, this metric is becoming more important to understanding how your website is visible in search engines, and it won’t mean the same thing it used to.

What is average position?

Average position indicates the position of your site on search results where you have an impression.  In the image example below, our site appears (on average) in the first position for 163 impressions on the query “marcel media.”

That’s pretty straightforward. No surprises. But what is surprising is that may not be all the impressions that exist for a term! Why? Simple: Personalized search. Because our behavior is having more of an impact on the listing, the number you see in impressions may not be reflective of all the queries that occur for a term.

How do we better understand our organic impression share?

If the listed impressions aren’t all the available impressions, regardless of your position, then how do we determine whether or not we’re capturing a certain volume of availability? This is where we start combining data from different tools.

For this exercise, we’ll be comparing AdWords keyword planning with data from Webmaster Tools to try to extrapolate how many impressions we’re actually visible for. Let’s take a look at a handful of terms with pretty good positioning and find out what our estimated impression share is.

Start by downloading your data from Webmaster Tools, then plug those terms into the Google AdWords Keyword Planner. With this data you want to line up avgerage monthly searches to your queries from WMT. Once you’ve done that, find what percent of the avg. monthly searches your keyword impressions are. You should have some info that looks like this:

We also know by now that the AdWords planner isn’t always exact. So, you may see in some cases you have over 100%. Why? Because like the position reporting, we’re dealing with averages. You may find some short tail terms with very high average monthly search volume where you’re only getting a fraction of the impressions available. This is because of personalized search. What I see in Chicago under one profile may be completely different than what you see in California under your own profile. This can also be totally different than what Webmaster Tools is reporting. In fact, you may not even see your site for a search at all.

Why does this matter?

With personalized search impacting our data more over time, we need to be cognizant of the impact and what will need to change. Rankings are simply a step in the user process and are not the ultimate metric. The concept of universal ranking position will slowly fade away as personalization increases within the algorithm.

As marketers, we need to understand our audience, we need to develop personas, and we need to understand how our ranking data and on-site key performance indicators (KPIs) tell us whether or not we are reaching these people.

Furthermore, we also have to understand that the days of “vanity keyword rankings,” and questions like, “Why don’t I see myself on Google for [query]?” are becoming unnecessary. If your impressions are driving clicks, and those clicks are resulting in conversions on your site, does it truly matter if you can see yourself?