Keyword Rankings are Important … Just Maybe Not as Important

June 12th, 2013 by Amy Arnold

I have always been hesitant to use keyword ranking reports as the focus for a successful SEO campaign. They are a useful measure, but they aren’t the most important, nor are they reliable and trustworthy. Don’t get me wrong.  Ranking reports have value.  Just not as the primary reporting standard.

number-one-ranking-does-not-equate-to-visits
The prescription for success is focusing on the website performance rather than obsessively watching over the rankings. This image shows this client hit the #1 spot in April then again in May, and within that time the #1 spot garnered them 8 visits.

A website needs to be a dynamic living entity. Google respects business owners who take care of their website properties and make those sites engaging, interesting places to visit.  Website owners need to be mindful of which pages on the website are the strongest and most visited.  What pages have the highest and lowest Bounce rates, and why?  Which pages have the highest and lowest time spent on page – is there room for improvement?

A positive user experience is influential to the site strength.  Quality backlinks.  Author trust.  Engagement in the industry discussions online.  These are the things that will make a site strong, and from that strength, the site will show up in the SERPs, but maybe not for the phrases you want or expect.

Things ain’t what they used to be

A brief blog post  in mid-May says it very succinctly:

“Keyword ranking as a metric is diminished in importance and relevance as performance metrics are starting to replace it.”

“Performance” encapsulates so many details. It’s a lot of what is already mentioned: the behavior of the visitor once they land on your site.

  • If they are digging around to other pages,
  • reading more information,
  • spending time on the site,
  • taking the quizzes sitting in the sidebar,
  • watching the videos embed on the page,

– if they are doing these things, Google is rewarding that site as being trusted as a resource.

An excellent Bounce rate, not seen very often in this client's industry.

An excellent Bounce rate, not seen very often in this client’s industry.

If visitors land on a page and immediately see the content is not rich enough, there is no multi-media experience, there are no big happy buttons encouraging that visitor to go read about the doctor or lawyer, baker or candle stick maker, it’s boring.  And they will leave.  When visitors Bounce,

  • you lose a potential customer,
  • and it sends signals to Google that your page has little value.

In Wasting Time Worrying About Keywords,  the blogger asks:

“If Not Keywords, What SHOULD you be looking at?” Well, it depends on your business and your goals, but traffic and conversions are going to be more useful than keyword rankings alone.”

I’m not drawing a line in the sand saying that ranking reports no longer have any value.  What I am saying is for years we used rankings as the thumbnail data for reporting.  Rankings were the first thing discussed in new client kick-off calls and the first thing addressed in monthly conference calls.

However, keyword ranking reports are flawed.  They have been since the beginning of keyword ranking reports.  But they were, and still ar,e one measurement to use; one that is becoming a little less relevant.

Rankings are always moving around.  How many times have I said “The keyword rankings are simply a snapshot in time.  The report is not reflective of reality for all searchers all of the time.”  I have said that a LOT.

Ranking reports tell a very specific story.  You’ve chosen keyword A, B, and C, and that’s what you will be chasing.   But what if your site ranks for X, Y, and Z?  You won’t necessarily know it because those phrases aren’t in your list.  This is bad tunnel vision.

Google is showing us with every algo update, that what the business owner or the SEO thinks that a website should rank for is not necessarily what it will rank for.

A ranking report can’t predict the success or failure of a business online; it can absolutely help guide decision making and improving the website property, but it is not the definitive measure telling us that we have achieved the #1 spot and can now expect to dominate.

So What’s Important Now?

Rankings are still important. We still use rankings as a weather vane. But we have to remember that between the increasing personalization of search results and the localization of search results, rankings data is skewed.  We have to recognize that.

I am quoting 4 bullet points from Why You Shouldn’t Worry About SEO Ranking Reports:

  • Search results are personalized, based on website browsing history in some cases

  • Results are location based, so if you live in town A you will see something different if you move to town B

  • Previous search history is used to predict the most relevant links

  • People use different devices to search–although as people increasingly sync their smartphones, laptops, and tablets with each other, this may become less of a factor in the future

Or in Keyword Rankings are Dead: Long Live the ROI:  “A keyword searched in New York by a logged-in Google account user showed different results than those done by a first-time user in Baltimore.  A surfer searching on Google in Montana displayed different results than one in Texas.  The more we searched, the more we realized Google has taken the rankings game one step further and personalized it based on a visitor’s search history, along with other important geographical and demographical information.”

This is simply more background as to why ranking reports are flawed data, and more evidence why we cannot rely on these as our primary gauge of achievement.

Search Engine Land posted 5 Reasons Why Rankings are a Poor Measure of Success, suggesting among other things:  “start measuring the things that matter.”

Our team here has had some fairly intense discussions on improving Bounce rates on select pages and strategies around increasing conversions.  Looking at length of page visits and flow of site visits. Trying to pinpoint ways to improve the user experience and help them stick around longer on site.  These are the things we are talking about and measuring and testing.

In Rankings are dead – long live conversion!: “With Google’s continued focus on location based rankings, we strongly believe that rankings are becoming much more dependent on their specific location. For example, one keyword could rank much higher in Scotland than it does in Brighton. Even today when our clients mention that their highest paid person in office spots that their website isn’t ranking high for a particular ‘money word’, it can be tempting to scream at nobody in particular “It’s not just about rankings!!”.”