Keyword rankings were once the foundation of SEO work. Search engines like Google and Yahoo ranked web pages primarily on the number of links the page had along with the keywords targeted on the page in places like the page title, H1, meta keywords, and content.
While those basic principles are still in play, they are handled in a significantly more complex search ecosystem than even existed 5 years ago. For that reason, many digital marketing companies are moving away from focusing on keyword rankings reporting and instead monitoring metrics that monitor the bottom-line such as organic traffic to the site, site conversions and revenue.
Below are just some of the major shifts in the search environment that are making the use of keyword rankings as the main measure of success unreliable and even risky:
Search Results Are Personalized
Search results are personalized based on your IP address geolocation, search behavior, social connections and other factors. For this reason, different people see different search results for the same search query, including the bot that pings the search engine to track the rankings and create the keyword rankings reports many website owners focus on. That means that the actual fixed ranking for a site and keyword cannot really be determined. Only an average for a specific keyword, or index for a set of similar keywords (see Semantic Search information below), can actually be tracked.
Tracking Rankings May be a Violation of Some Search Engine’s Policies
Tools that check for website rankings must have permission to ping search engines like Google to get that data which makes the future for reporting on rankings very uncertain. While many tools can still do this, access to this information is getting more limited; however Google itself provides information about ranking position to any website owner through their Google Search Console account, so this will likely become one of the top go-to sources for keyword ranking on Google.
For the reasons stated above about the personalization of search results and the unreliability of tools that track rankings, many of these reports are approximations at best, thereby making them weak tools for determining an SEO strategy. What keyword rankings primarily reveal is how much exposure a site is getting in search results, and while this can be useful information, rankings should always be monitored alongside the site’s organic traffic data so that actual results are used to determine the level of success for SEO efforts.
Over Reliance on Keyword Rankings Can Create Problems
While keyword rankings can be helpful, using rankings as the main measure of success or failure may create incentives to take unnecessary risks. For example, an outdated practice like keyword stuffing is sometimes used purely for the purpose of quickly ranking higher, but it may actually hurt a site’s performance more than it helps in the long run. Yet many digital marketing professionals still do this to appease the demands of clients who focus on keyword rankings. Unfortunately, these short-term gains can put a site at risk for possible algorithmic or manual penalties down the road.
Most Search Engines Handle Semantic Variations in Searched Keywords Well
The most talked about example of how advanced semantic search has become is Google’s Hummingbird update in 2013. For example, search engines are now sophisticated enough to know that “lawyer” and “attorney” are closely related keywords and will serve up search results accordingly, so optimizing and tracking rankings for each variation is not going to provide much benefit.
Schema Markup May Be More Effective Than Pushing Keywords
For the purpose of communicating what topic a website or webpage is about, technologies such as schema markup and microdata may be more effective than pushing keywords. While the structured language is limited, schema markup has been adopted by multiple search engines and technologies for the purpose of categorizing information into entities including Google, Yahoo, Bing, Yandex and Pinterest. Schema allows information to be clearly conveyed to search engines, and possibly other technologies, without having to create an unfriendly user experience caused by keyword stuffed content.
For many local-based businesses, placement in Google or Bing’s map packs can have a bigger impact on the amount of qualified traffic a site gets than ranking #1 in organic search for a top keyword. Additionally, most search engines use some different factors to determine ranking within the map packs along with those that determine organic rankings.
Rankings are not forever, and for every place one website moves up or down, another site (or many other sites) are affected. That means ranking is temporary and influenced by the efforts of every website in the search results, now and in the future. Furthermore, changes in technology, such as mobile devices and responsive website design, as well as search engine algorithm updates can change rankings overtime and sometimes suddenly. This makes chasing rankings a potentially expensive and time-consuming endeavor that may or may not provide any real benefit to the website owner.
For years people typed in stilted and truncated searches like “dentist frisco” or “steve madden shoe store.” This is due to how search evolved and how people adapted to it. However, because of the growing use of voice search on mobile devices, search queries are now more likely to look like “Frisco dentist open now” or “Store near me that carries Steve Madden shoes.” Because of the near limitless variations of these types of searches and the growing number of mobile searches, old-school keyword ranking for “top keywords” is likely to matter less and less over time.
Ranking for Keywords that Don’t Matter, Doesn’t Matter
While the world of digital marketing is filled with many skilled, hard-working and honest professionals, not all SEOs are the same. Many use keyword rankings to obfuscate the data that really matters, things like traffic, conversions and revenue. Improvements in rankings don’t always lead to more qualified search visitors or customers. Rankings cannot be viewed accurately in a void which is why a solid SEO strategy will focus on traffic, but also conversion. Getting a site to rank on keywords no one searches isn’t terribly difficult and can look great on paper, but ultimately it isn’t very beneficial for the website owner.
Whether you building your own SEO strategy or choosing a digital marketing agency or SEO to help your site reach a bigger and more relevant audience, be sure focus on metrics that matter and execute on tactics that serve your bottom line. While saying “My site ranks #1 for X..Y..Z” may sound great, an SEO strategy that leads to a successful, profitable, and growing business is better.