Reasons Why You Should Not Obsess Over Keyword Rankings: A Route to Better KPI’s
Hands up! I’m guilty: a recovering addict. We’ve all been there, checking and re-checking our rankings or those of our clients, sometimes on an almost daily basis.
In this post I’ll try and capture, in no particular order, the reasons why I advise my clients not to obsess over keyword rankings, on a short term basis, anyway. They should not become the primary KPI (Key Performance Indicator) for your SEO but they are still vitally important for other purposes.
If you were looking down on a large crowd of people and noticed one or two people moving in a particular direction, would you draw the conclusion, from that data alone, that the whole crowd was moving in the same direction? Of course not. So why would you make the mistake of assessing visibility in Google by reference to one or two keyword rankings? They might not be moving in the same direction as the rest. You need to take a sample which is large enough to be representative of the whole population of keywords with a high degree of confidence.
Reasons Not to Obsess Over Rankings
1: Incomplete Data
If you’re checking just organic rankings, you only have part of the picture. Local pack rankings, featured snippets, knowledge panel or appearances in other SERP features can sometimes generate more traffic than organic rankings. You need to see the whole picture. It’s vital to track your website visits generated by your GMB listing appearing in the local pack, maps and knowledge panel.
2: Personalised Search Results
You may be seeing results that are personalised based on your search history, your location, your device (desktop or mobile), whether you’re logged in or out and a whole host of other reasons. You are likely to see different things from your target audience. A very small difference in search location can result in a big difference in local pack rankings. Distance between searcher and business address i.e. proximity has been cited as the number 1 local ranking factor in 2017. Use rank checking tools that provide data that is as consistent and reliable as possible whilst being aware that no tool is perfect.
3: Google Tests
Google is constantly testing algorithmic updates that change the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). Short term fluctuations therefore may be transient and you should not like awake worrying about them until an enduring pattern has emerged (and not even then because there are better things to do).
4: The Wrong Keywords
This is one of the most common problems I encounter. The client believes he knows which keywords he should be targeting but their competitors are getting torrents of relevant, targeted traffic by ranking for keywords your client never thought important. Test and re-test your assumptions using all the available tools and sources such as Google Search Console, AdWords Keyword Planner, competitor websites, search results pages etc. Ideally, test your assumptions by running an AdWords campaign which can provide fantastic intel cheaply. Symptoms of targeting the wrong keywords could be high rankings and no traffic or falling rankings at the same time as organic traffic increases.
5: Too Few Keywords
This is another of the most common pitfalls and usually happens because the client obsesses over short 2-word or 3-word keyword targets. This can happen when the keyword targeting seems too obvious to merit in-depth research. Clients have been amazed when I’ve shown them that a subset of all their long tail keywords accounts for 10 times as much traffic or potential traffic than a few vanity keywords. A subset could be all long tail keywords including the word(s) cost/price/how much or how to/how do I/how do you.
6: High Rankings Does Not Always Mean Maximum Traffic
If you’re appearing first in the local pack but have no Google reviews or worse still rubbish reviews, have spammed your GMB (Google My Business) business title to kingdom come and have neglected basics like description tags, you may find the sites below you are getting much higher click-through rates and more traffic. Traffic is therefore more important than rankings, provided it is the right kind of traffic.
7: Unprofitable Traffic
Even if you’re ranking top for the right keywords in sufficient breadth and are generating good traffic, it might not be converting well for reasons to do with your website. In the end most businesses exist to make money not to rank top. Which would you choose between (a) ranking top but losing money or (b) ranking lower and making profit. These comparisons may seem counter-intuitive and contradictory but they actually happen. The best way to make money (or more money) is to focus on the key drivers of profit. Which metrics and KPI’s are most closely related to profit? Managing and improving these KPI’s gives the best opportunity of increasing profit. Guess what? Those metrics are not rankings. Traffic is one step closer. Conversions are even closer. Clicks-to-call and clicks for driving directions may be even closer.
8: Evolving SERPs
The changing constitution of SERP features such as the space given over to paid adverts and other free search snippets, mean that rankings may not be comparable over time. A third place organic ranking may have less value today than three years ago, if a local pack is present now. That obviously depends on a range of factors.
9: Interaction Between Organic and Pack Rankings
It may be (speculation) that an appearance in the local pack, under certain circumstances, prevents an organic appearance. If this might be the case, then a disappearing organic ranking could be a good thing. Anyone have any evidence on this?
10: Time Constraints
The more time you spend collating, reporting, explaining and corresponding with the client every time rankings fluctuate, the less time you have to spend on actually improving rankings by doing productive work. There’s a balance to be struck between reporting and grafting.
11: Short Term Thinking
Obsessing over keyword ranking fluctuations encourages short term thinking by taking the focus away from solid best practice SEO activity. If you change your SEO activity in knee-jerk fashion every time your rankings move, you’ll be a busy fool.
12: Significance of Rankings
The relationship between rankings and sales is just too tenuous. What we should be measuring are the actions which are most closely related to profit i.e. those actions which signal intent. Appearing at the top of Google for short keywords does not always signal intent and most visitors generated by top rankings are high up the sales funnel. Rankings may be important but they should not be the primary KPI, especially for local businesses with shops and walk-in traffic.
Why Keyword Rankings Are Still So Important
1: Vital Clues
Many times it has been a change in rankings of one or more keywords that triggered the need for an investigation or website re-audit. It depends on the changes. If a few rankings move up and a few move down within a certain tolerance, I tend to treat those movements as not statistically significant. If there is an across-the-board fall or peculiar pattern in the change then my antennae start to twitch. My first step is usually to ask the client if anything to do with the website, hosting or NAP data has changed. It’s amazing how many clients didn’t feel it relevant to consult or inform me that their website had been changed in some major way, the business name had been changed or even the domain name had been changed. It is also this kind of questioning that has led me several times to discover the web dev had blocked the site from Google in error in the robots.txt file or redirects from microsites had been lost.
2: Medium Term Patterns
Provided a sufficient representative sample of keywords has been selected for tracking, then conclusions may be able to be drawn about the whole population of keywords. This can provide clues about competitive advantage (or weakness), vulnerability to updates in Google’s ranking algorithms and improvements in search quality.
3: Relationship With Traffic
Yes, yes I know! I said above that top rankings do not necessarily equate to maximum traffic, let alone maximum targeted traffic but the relationship between rankings and traffic, however tenuous, still makes it worthwhile tracking and managing. We need to cover all bases, right? It’s just that there are other vital things to consider too, especially for local businesses doing Local SEO.
4: Spotting Potential
I track rankings and also average rankings in Google Search Console of not only search queries but average rankings (across all queries) of each website page. If you get a good stream of traffic from a web page that ranks on average in position 10, then you know you’re in for a feast if you get into the top 3. It’ll usually be obvious from the page in question what keywords or cluster of keywords need working on. I bring all that data into Excel and analyse it. By filtering the data in the search queries report to show all queries that include a certain term e.g “how”, I can sometimes see that the aggregate traffic from all those queries – long tail and short – is far greater than one might have guessed. That should lead to discussions about content marketing.
5: Page Targeting
I use ranking reports to highlight which URL is actually ranking versus which URL I think should be ranking (or which has been optimised to rank). These differences can highlight weaknesses in targeting and opportunities for improvement.
6: Managing Means Measuring
It’s very difficult to manage anything and benchmark against targets unless you can measure it. As an ex-accountant who loves spreadsheets and numbers, I need no further persuasion about the need to keep rankings reports in my monthly reporting arsenal.
Okay, so if rankings are not the be-all and end-all, what other KPI measures should we be looking at? Well that will vary from business to business. For one business, a contact form submission may be the action which is most likely to lead to a sale. For another business it may be a click-to-call. For yet another, it may be a click on a link for driving directions. Those clicks-to-call and clicks for driving directions may happen on the website itself or direct from Google in the knowledge panel, local pack, maps etc.
For local businesses, especially those with walk-in traffic, more and more of the KPI actions are happening right from within Google. People can find the information they need without visiting your website. They can find reviews, pictures, location and contact details right from within Google. In this way, Google itself is becoming a little closer to your own home page than your own website. Paradoxically, therefore, your Local SEO efforts may be working and delivering profit at the same time as your organic traffic is falling because people don’t need to visit your website. In one interesting case study by Mike Blumenthal, 70% of the KPI actions took place directly in Google and only 25% on the website with the remaining 5% coming from Facebook and Yelp.
All these other KPI’s need to be measured and reported in order to help understand the effectiveness of various aspects of our marketing efforts, including SEO. That will also give clients something other than rankings to obsess over. When those actions take place on your website, they can be tracked, counted and reported. When they happen from within Google, they are reported in GMB Insights in your GMB dashboard.
So, for a local business with an office, KPI’s should usually include:
1. Contact form submissions
2. Clicks-to-call (from website, local pack, knowledge panel, local finder and maps)
3. Clicks to request driving directions (from website, local pack, knowledge panel, local finder and maps)
4. Local website traffic.
By now, it’s obvious that I think there’s a balance to be struck between obsessing over and neglecting keyword rankings. Keyword rankings are still vital in my opinion but just as one part of a complex jigsaw. All the pieces need to be in place in order to have the clearest picture of performance and they should not be a KPI, let alone the primary KPI.
Can you think of any other reasons for or against obsessing over keyword rankings (too frequently)? I must have missed some, so please add your own in the comments below and I’ll update this post.
Ranking Fluctuations: What to Expect + How to React from Moz.com
Should SEOs and Marketers Continue to Track and Report on Keyword Rankings? from Moz.com
Do organic keyword rankings matter anymore? from Search Engine Land.
Found this post useful, interesting or controversial? Then please share it! Do you have clients who beat you up about rankings and don’t realise they’re driving you in the wrong direction and to spend time on unproductive activities?