google-beansThere’s been a lot of buzz around Google’s recent announcement of the upcoming ‘Caffeine’ update to its search engine. Some coverage has been insightful of Google’s move towards the real-time web, and of course some of it has been woefully misinformed (as noted elsewhere).

However, almost nobody (bar a lone commenter on Matt Cutts’ blog) has seemed to mention the fact that Google Caffeine appears to serve AJAX results by default, at least in Firefox (oddly not Chrome or IE7 though).

caffeine-ajax

Google has played around with AJAX results before, to some criticism over the potential effect on web analytics of removing keyword data from the referrer string. However it appears Google has done some work on this, and every AJAX result in the Caffeine SERPs is redirected through a URL that sends the required referrer information, as shown below:

http-headers-2

This referrer string was talked about on the Google Analytics blog back in April, notable for including the &cd= parameter, which tallies exactly with the ranking of the result clicked on.

So if this is rolled out along with Caffeine’s other changes to Google’s foundations, could this spell the beginning of the end of automated rank checking? I suspect it probably will in the long run.

It’s a logical direction for Google to go in, as it’s one of the longest standing issues with the accuracy of their search data. If Google could stop rank checking bots tomorrow, I doubt they would, because from an advertising perspective, the volume of their impressions for competitive terms could drop dramatically, and advertisers may start spending less on AdWords. For this reason, a soft-launch that slowly begins to disrupt rank checkers makes sense.

However, with Google’s increasing focus on conversions and CPA models, the volume of impressions becomes less important while at the same time the accuracy of their historical search data becomes far more important. If Google can show stronger correlations between impressions, CTR and ultimately conversion rates, they can legitimately charge more for their ads, and advertisers will be happy to spend more as their profit margin increases.

So where does this leave SEOs in a world without rank checkers? Well, most experienced SEOs have been banging on about conversions for years, and SEO’s close correlation with usability, accessibility, information architecture and ultimately findability makes us pretty well placed in a world without rank checking. I suspect Google will add after the fact ranking data to Google Analytics, and there’s already some fantastic data available through Webmaster Tools. I think as an industry we need to start working towards claiming the field of conversion optimisation for ourselves, before others such as the paid search lot, or other online marketing departments with less expertise in this area start claiming it for themselves.

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