Keyword rankings and being on page one of the search engine results pages have been marketers and business owners’ priorities for years. What if I told you that this mode of thinking was outdated, and that many expert digital marketers worldwide no longer look to this SEO metric as the key indicator of online success?
My biggest pet peeve is speaking about SEO as though it’s an exact science, measured by the increasingly vague notion of the keyword ranking, a metric that is becoming more difficult to measure concretely.
Regardless of what some cynics may think, this post isn’t a cop-out. It’s one of many articles by industry experts such as Neil Patel, Moz, Search Engine Land etc on the subject, that aim to encourage people to look beyond the SEO landscape of 2010, and move forward into an era of actual measurability, and well… concrete results, rather than clutching at the straws of now almost abstract concepts. Let’s face it, even if you managed to rank number one in a particular location and on a particular device, if your site isn’t great, that won’t necessarily translate into sales, nor will it be permanent.
By no means am I saying that you shouldn’t try to improve your rankings and measure them, as you definitely should. Just don’t let this metric be the be-all and end-all of your efforts – it’ll cost you a lot of money, and there are other metrics that are much more worthwhile that you should be focusing on.
Why Keyword Rankings Are Hard to Measure
First of all, it’s important to note that Google themselves have admitted to there being around 200 possible ranking factors that are in constant flux due to their almost daily algorithm changes. So not only does this mean that there are 200 potential elements to look at with regards to optimising your site; even if you manage to nail them all, the algorithm will change and you’ll likely see your rankings drop “inexplicably” at some point. So for this reason alone, your rankings will fluctuate, making it hard to measure them.
Secondly, if you are logged in to your browser, such as Chrome, a number of factors can influence the search results that get returned to you:
- Your location
- Your device
- Your operating system
- Your browser
- Your search history and websites that you’ve clicked onto before: if you shop on a particular site a lot, such as Amazon, it’s likely that this result will be prioritised as Google knows that you regularly shop there
- Your bookmarks
- Your Google Calendar: for instance, if you look for particular services like taxis, they’ll know that you might have a flight booked the next day and tailor the result to get you to the airport
If you’re not logged in, or are even in Incognito mode, your location and device will still affect the websites that you get served, meaning that rankings are still tailored to you. Search engines will give you a biased view that pertains to your preferences. Essentially: page one doesn’t really exist anymore. This makes it incredibly difficult to track rankings, unless you’re doing so on multiple devices and locations. However, they still won’t be exact, as there are far too many factors to be taken into account.
Another reason that rankings are difficult to measure is the fact that Google is constantly testing out different ways of serving their results pages. Some examples include:
Paid & Organic Results in the SERPS:
Pure Organic Results in the SERPS:
Maps, Videos & Organic Results:
Knowledge Panel, News Items & Organic Results:
There are many more variations of search engine results pages that you could be served (shopping ads which are known to affect organic rankings and conversion rates, Google’s own answers to questions etc.), these are just to give you an idea. So if Google is testing out new ways of serving you the best result, it stands to reason that the rankings are going to fluctuate, as your landing page may not fit into what is classed as a “best result” for that query: people may prefer a video, a news article etc.
Why Focusing Primarily on Keyword Rankings Could Hinder Your SEO Efforts
User Focus Is Key
We are constantly being told by search engines themselves that we need to focus on users and their intent, above anything else with our marketing efforts – focusing solely on rankings means that everything you do prioritises search engines rather than actual humans. If you’re writing content to rank for it, you’re forgetting to write content that people will want to read and engage with. By all means research topics that people are searching for to get some more traction, but I can guarantee you that some of the most popular and shared pieces of content were original ideas that there was no keyword search data for – it was a risk that paid off.
As previously discussed, it’s really hard to accurately measure your rankings. There are tools out there to help you (some more accurate than others), but they all cost something – particularly if you’re tracking a lot of keywords.
They Do Not Always Reflect Success
Having worked in digital marketing for over 5 years, I’ve witnessed some pretty weird things. A client I worked on for 2 years, for which I did absolutely everything that “best practice” SEO commands, didn’t see any results on their site for about a year and a half – they were getting pretty frustrated (as I can assure you, was I), and then one day everything just started to work.
Conversely, I’ve had a couple of clients with some pretty severe technical issues who have been delighted because I highlighted and fixed one technical issue which somehow doubled their traffic overnight. I’ve also seen some websites rank number one for their key terms, but have extremely poor conversion rates.
Other sites I’ve worked on have been on page 2 or 3 for their “key” search terms (obviously depending on who is looking), but whose conversion rates have tripled (as they were ranking extremely well for other terms they hadn’t really considered, and as we worked on making the website user experience better); which at the end of the day was their goal. They didn’t care how many people came to their site or where they ranked, they wanted to sell more of their services – which as a business goal, make a lot more sense.
Difficult to Track
See above section.
You Are Limiting Yourself
With Semantic search, Google now looks at the context of pages and synonyms to be able to determine whether a page is relevant to a user’s query. Trying to focus on a particular keyword’s ranking seems pretty futile in this context, as there is a multiplicity of terms that people could be using to get to that one page – if you have hundreds of pages, you’d lose your mind trying to rank number one for every single term. You can’t possibly list all of the terms that people may search for, for a particular service, or any spelling errors made, and try to track them.
Essentially, the main reason that I believe reporting on and focusing on keyword rankings as a marketing win is this: they’re a vanity metric. It might sound really cool to tell people that you’re ranking number one for your key term, but if that doesn’t translate into any of your actual business goals, then surely it’s an irrelevant metric to look at?
They do not convey any kind of indication of the value of the SEO work carried out. Sure, they act as a reasonably good indication of overall success of the campaign, and if they’re dropping considerably or even simply staying static, then yes, you want to look at what’s going on. But what metrics should you be paying more attention to?
Valuable SEO Metrics in 2018
I say 2018 – these factors have been important for quite some time now, but it’s high time to start focusing on these more.
This may seem obvious but not all marketers or business owners set as much stock by this as they do rankings (even though organic traffic increases and keyword rankings are inextricably linked). Measure organic and general traffic increases in Google Analytics: if you see your organic traffic increase month on month, then obviously your good work is paying off. Use this data by seeing which pages are getting the most traffic and analyse what you did on these.
The best way to use this data is to look at the valuable pages on which traffic isn’t increasing and to devise a strategy to improve their performance. You can also see which pages are performing best and find content ideas to create more content of this type or around similar themes and increase traffic further.
Engagement is a huge topic in SEO. We know that click-through rates in the SERPs can influence your rankings: if your site continually gets shown as the top result, but no one clicks through, you’ll get replaced by a website that may rank lower but that people are engaging with. To know if people are engaging with your site you want to look at:
Google Search Console
In here you can look at important pages and see what the CTRs are: if people aren’t clicking through, have a play with your title tags and meta descriptions to make them more compelling.
To do this, go to Google Search Console > Search Traffic > Search Analytics, and filter by a specific page:
Not only will this give you an indication of how often people are clicking through to your site, but this view will also give you an idea of the multiplicity of terms that have been searched for, and for which the page was returned in the SERPs: which one you rank for, which ones people click through on etc.
Time on site and on specific pages, bounce rate and pages visited in Google Analytics: see which pages are performing well and why (e.g. how is the content written? what call to actions are present on the pages?). Make sure to also look at pages where people spend little time, pages on which visitors leave the site (so high bounce rates and small amount of pages visited etc.) as you’ll be able to objectively look at the page and try to understand why people simply aren’t interested in finding out more about the site – at this point you can make improvements. Make sure to check technical issues (page speed is key: if a page takes too long to load, people will leave) as well as potential copywriting issues (is the text well written? Is it hard to understand? Does a pretty broad question only have a vague 200 word answer? Is it riddled with spelling mistakes?) or design issues (is the page broken? Difficult to read because of the font? Tough question: do your pages look spammy? If people think they’re going to be scammed by a website, they definitely won’t be signing up for services or buying something online).
Measure Referral Traffic
Getting links from other websites is one of the cornerstones of SEO, as it increases your website’s authority. However, if they aren’t bringing traffic, they might not be that relevant. If referral traffic is increasing, this is a good indication that you are increasing awareness about your business and that your inbound links are of quality as they’re actually being clicked on and referring some relevant, quality traffic to your site.
This is the big one: regardless of how much traffic has increased (whether overall, paid or organic), and regardless of engagement metrics improving – are people actually signing up to your services, are they contacting you, filling in enquiry forms, buying your products, emailing or calling about your services? These are the business goals: you want more people to buy into your brand, use your services, buy your products, invest in your cause, look to you as an industry leader etc. All of this is measured by actual goal completions in Google Analytics. If your conversion rate and number of conversions improve, then you know you’re doing something right. After all, there’s little point in ranking number one or increasing traffic to your site if people aren’t completing the action that you’d like them to at the end of the day (unless of course, pure brand awareness is your business goal).
Ultimately, whilst keyword rankings are fine to keep an eye on, you shouldn’t do this to the detriment of the other metrics you should be measuring too.