In Mike Grehan's New Signals to Search Engines he highlights how personalization, social media, and universal search may help move search beyond text and links.
Mike also contended that ranking reports are dead. While clients should see the end effect of optimization in their analytics and sales data, ranking reports still have good value to professional SEOs. Below are a couple examples of why and how ranking reports are still important, even as Google crowds the organic search results with universal search stuff.
Track Your Growth
When you build a new site from scratch you get to see how effective your link building strategies are as the site's rankings improve. You have to get in the game before you compete...ranking improvements give you an idea of how your site's trust is growing even before you rank well enough to receive much stable traffic.
This early feedback data can be used to guide further investment in link building efforts, and prioritize which websites get the most effort and investment.
Show Clients Baseline Rankings & Growth
If you sell services to clients and they have a brand new site with limited traction then a ranking report shows baseline rankings and proof of growth, even before top rankings yield lots of traffic. This helps customers have confidence in their SEO provider, even if their SEO investment loses money before making it back.
Page 2/3 Rankings
If you rank on page 2 or 3 for some high value keywords you might not see much traffic from them. But if your keyword rankings let you know that you are close to the top you can consider working on link building and altering your site structure to improve the rankings of those pages.
Services like SEMRush also help give insights into such ranking improvement opportunities.
Algorithm Changes & Penalties
How Are Search Algorithms Shifting?
Is Google putting more weight on authority sites? How much does the domain name count (if at all)? Is anchor text becoming more important or less important? How aggressive should you be with anchor text?
When major algorithm updates happen, tracking a wide array of sites and keywords can help you hypothesize what might be gaining importance and what might be losing importance.
What Happened to My Google Traffic?
Sometimes sites get filtered out of the search results due to manual penalties, automated penalties, automated filters, algorithm changes, or getting hacked. Sometimes the issues are related to particular pages, particular folders, whole sites, or keywords closely related to (or containing) another word.
Seeing a traffic drop gives you some clues that something may be wrong, but one of the easiest ways to isolate the issue and further investigate is to look at ranking reports to see what keywords and what pages were affected...then you can start thinking about if it was a glitch, something you can fix, or something you can't.