“Looking at keyword rankings as the indicator of success in SEO is like measuring the success of a baseball team based on their batting average instead of their wins.”
If a business hired Geek Powered Studios in 2012, 2013, or 2014, they probably hired us as an “SEO company”. They likely hired us with the explicit goal of gaining higher rankings in Google searches for a few target keywords. For example, a real estate agent in Austin, TX would have hired us to get them showing at the top of Google searches for keywords like “austin real estate agent” or “austin real estate company”.
Back then, part of our process was to take the client’s target keywords and input them into a keyword ranking tool that would track the keyword position in Google every single day. With this tool, we could see if our client’s website moved up or down in the rankings from one day to the next. We proudly reported to our clients when keywords jumped to the first page, and we truly believed that these reports were a helpful measure of our efforts.We proudly reported to our clients when keywords jumped to the first page, and we truly believed that these reports were a helpful measure of our efforts. Keyword rankings were the scoreboard of our work.
In those days, we also reported our link building efforts to our clients. We would send regular reports on all of the new links that we had “built.” Most of those links were niche directories, guest posts, and local listings (it’s a bit sickening thinking about how much money we gave to the Yahoo! Directory). In that phase of our company, the work was straightforward. All we needed to do was build decent links with optimized anchor text, sprinkle the target keywords into the content, and choose one focus keyword for each page on the website. This strategy worked, and it worked well.
The writing was on the wall, however, that this strategy was not going to be sustainable into the future. Google continued to put out messages through then Head of Webspam Matt Cutts, telling the SEO community that the Google algorithms were getting tougher on SEO tactics like directory linking and anchor text abuse. The data we were collecting indicated that the days of "simple" SEO were coming to an end -- the algorithms were becoming far too complex for link building and keyword-centric SEO to be sustainable. After all, the last thing we wanted was to put our clients in jeopardy by breaking Google guidelines and attracting a penalty.
In 2014 and 2015 our business was growing, and our reputation as one of the the best regional SEO companies was generating loads of new clients for us. We hired more employees to keep up with the new accounts, and we moved into a larger office. The growth was incredible, but I lay awake at night knowing that our entire business and deliverables needed to be reinvented to prevent ourselves from becoming extinct. SEO had changed, and we needed to pivot to stay relevant. So, in 2015 we made the conscious and deliberate effort to phase out keyword reporting, and in its place, add holistic account reporting.
Now in 2017, our discussions with clients about account success do not involve talks about where a particular keyword is ranking. Instead we discuss lead counts, analytics data, and ROI. These are the measures of a successful SEO campaign. SEO is not about “keyword rankings”, SEO is about driving ROI from search engines to your business.
So why specifically did we reframe our discussions to avoid discussing keyword rankings with our clients? I’ve broken that question down into several important sections, in hopes that you can better understand how we arrived at our decision:
Without further ado, here are the 8 reasons why we no longer use keyword rankings as a barometer of SEO success:
1. Choosing Which “Money Keyword” To Track is Usually a Wild Guess At Best
A client might think that they should rank for a certain keyword, for no other reason than they think that’s how their customers are searching for them. Take the earlier example of the real estate vertical in Austin, TX. A realtor may decide they want their website to rank for the keyword “real estate agents in austin”. However, through a quick data analysis we can see that that particular keyword receives fewer than 10 searches in Google per month. But, if we look at other keyword variants that are phrase matches to “real estate agents in austin,” we uncover that there are 17 other similar keywords that are searched a combined 960 times per month. So, why would we limit ourselves to “optimizing” for just one money keyword, when we can go after all related keywords instead?
Because “money keyword” selection is often simply a best guess, we must instead use analytical systems to find the best search opportunities for a client. In order to do the best and most efficient marketing possible, we must initiate our work based on evidence, not assumption. That is why we use a complex system of market analysis and need state analysis to uncover how searchers are looking for businesses in a certain vertical. These complex analyses often uncover areas in the market that would be much more profitable than the originally assumed “money keywords.”
2. Link Building Is No Longer a Keyword-Centric Strategy
In the early days of search engine optimization, SEOs would build dozens, hundreds, or thousands of backlinks with the “money keyword” as the anchor text. Back then, keyword rich anchor text was a major (if not the most important) signal to Google that those were the keywords your website should be ranking for.
Because of this outdated SEO strategy, you would see content that looks like this:
In modern SEO, anchor text is still important, but less so than in the past. The algorithms have become much more complex in how rankings are ordered, and anchor text is just one small indicator to Google for which keywords a website should rank for. Most modern SEO practitioners now favor “earned links” rather than “built links”. It is much more valuable to have a powerful website like CNN write an article about your business and link to you once with no keywords in the anchor text, than for 10 low quality directory sites to link to you using your “money keywords.”
Because link building is no longer a keyword driven tactic, it does not make sense for us to focus on keyword rankings. We no longer want to optimize for just one keyword on a page, we want to optimize for the intent of the searcher, using all of the words on a page.
3. Nearly Identical Keywords can Have Wildly Different Rankings
We see this time and time again when analyzing the rankings of particular keywords for a website. Close variants of keywords often have wildly different rankings, even though the intent of the search is the same. For example, a realtor might rank on page one for the keyword “austin realtor” but the same website could rank on page 7 for “austin tx realtor.” Had we solely looked at and reported on the latter keyword, we would not be accurately representing the health and progress of the account.
4. Long Tail Keywords are Opportunities
If we spent all of our time optimizing for “money keywords” and ignoring all of the other ways searchers are looking for our client’s services, then we would be missing out on a huge opportunity to get new customers. In fact, it is estimated that around 20% of Google searches are unique long tail queries that have never been searched before. People are not robots searching in keyword snippets -- they are asking questions and using their own dialects, writing styles, and quirks to do so. This leads to longer, more conversational search queries that do not reflect singular keywords. This type of conversational search behavior also leads into our next reason:
5. A Rise in Semantic Search Means That People Are Searching In New Ways
The increase in mobile device usage -- combined with improvements to local search algorithms, and new virtual assistant technologies (think Siri, Alexa, etc) -- means that more users are using their voices to search. A search done via voice looks vastly different than a search punched into a desktop computer.
Take a look at this graph from Google Trends that illustrates the increase in searches featuring the words “near me”. From 2015 to 2017, “near me” searches have exploded, indicating that the search landscape is changing, and changing quickly.
If people are searching differently, then we need to be performing SEO differently to meet them where they are. As SEOs, we need to provide localized search results for hyper segmented audiences instead of lumping all of our searches into one “money keyword”.
6. Organic Position One Is Losing Value (Kind Of)
In theory, ranking organically in position one for a particular Google search should mean that you would see high volume of traffic coming to your site. MOZ did a study in 2014 that showed a website could expect roughly a 20-30% click-through-rate (CTR) on an unbranded first position ranking. That means that 2 or 3 out of every 10 searchers would click on the first organic listing.
Now in 2017, changes to the core ranking algorithms, local algorithms, and ad placements, have made the SERP a more complex landscape. We now have 4 paid ads above the organic listings instead of 3, which pushes organic down further. We’ve also seen improvements to how Google handles local search intent, which means map pack shows more for localized searches. We’ve also seen a strengthened organic positioning for high domain super sites like Yelp, Zillow, and Wikipedia, especially for localized searches.
Take for example this screenshot of the Google results for a search for “austin chiropractor”. As we can see, the only results showing above the fold are 4 paid ads and a local map. The coveted “position one” is pushed well down the page and will likely have diminished click-through-rates.
However, not all hope is not lost for organic SEO, as some studies show CTR’s actually increasing in the face of changing SERPs. The reason for increased organic CTR? Data seems to suggest that click-throughs have increased because of better organic visibility on mobile. More searches on mobile could yield more clicks to first few organic listings, as users may not be as keen to scroll lower like they do on desktop searches. This indicates that we should be focusing not on ranking for catchall keywords, but instead optimizing SEO efforts for hyper localized mobile searches.
7. Search Results Are Increasingly Customized To The Searcher
Have you ever stopped to think why Google (or more specifically its parent company Alphabet) would spend their time and money to build out an internet browser (Chrome), an internet provider (Fiber), and even a home automation company (Nest)? Aside from the obvious financial gains, the answer is data. If you are logged into a Gmail account, using the Chrome browser, on Google Fiber internet, Google can track and follow your behavior across your entire internet experience to collect an unbelievable amount of data on your behavior. This data can be used to influence how advertising is displayed to you, as well as how search engines should perform for you specifically. If Google can gather data to better understand you, they can utilize that information to provide a better search experience for you. Google uses context to decide what to show you, not just the keyword that you searched.If Google can gather data to better understand you, they can utilize that information to provide a better search experience for you. Google uses context to decide what to show you, not just the keyword that you searched. It makes sense that different audiences may have different intent for the same keyword.
For example, if you are in Austin, Texas and you search for “Hightower”, you are probably looking for the popular restaurant in town called The Hightower. However, if you are just a few hours away in Houston TX, a Google search for “Hightower” might instead be looking for information about Hightower High School. As you can see in this example, the exact same keyword should return different search results. If Google uses context in how keywords are treated, then we as search marketers should too.
Additionally, the contextual and customized nature of Google results creates a problem for SEO keyword tracking tools. If 2 different searches for the same keyword yields different results, how can a tool accurately report that a keyword ranks in a specific position?
To be fair to the SEO software companies out there, I am not arguing that keyword ranking tools are completely useless. In fact, our team does look at ranking data from SEO tools like SEMrush and AHREFs on a weekly basis. However, we use ranking data from these tools to analyze campaign health as part of a large pool of other data signals, and not for specific keyword reporting purposes (which is an important distinction).
8. Overall, The Algorithms are Smarter Than Money Keywords
Google algorithms have become much better at understanding search intent, so we are no longer limited to searching in a keyword-only fashion. For example, Google understands that somebody doing a search for “wall socket not working, no fuses are tripped” could benefit from information on an electrician’s website, even though the user didn’t type “electrician” into their search.
With a mathematical system called latent semantic indexing (LSI), the search engines can understand keywords in context of the page content. Simply put, LSI is a system that allows the algorithms to read the content around the keywords. With LSI, if a user is searching for a lawn mowing company, a web page that mentions keywords “lawn mowing, landscaping, and grass” is likely of higher value than a page that just mentions “lawn mowing” 3 times. The value of keywords in your content is directly related to the quality of other content on your site.
This type of complex indexation system was created in order to serve better content to users, but also out of a reaction to keyword stuffing. Years ago, black hat SEOs would stuff content full of their target keywords and the pages would see improved rankings in search results. In those days, a page with more instances of keywords ranked better. Now, with LSI, stuffed content is algorithmically penalized thanks to Google Panda, and rich, contextually relevant content is promoted.
At the end of the day, SEO firms, PPC firms, and digital marketing firms are all hired for the exact same reason: to use the internet to make more money for clients. And if the goal of hiring one of these companies is to make more money, then we should be reporting our value in terms of ROI and how much revenue our efforts generated for our client businesses. Digital marketing companies and PPC agencies generally do a good job of this -- they show the budget that was spent vs how much revenue or leads were generated. On the other hand, many SEO companies fail to see the value in this type of reporting, and rely entirely on ranking reports to highlight their efforts. It is my opinion that SEO companies who are still using keyword rankings as a measure of their value are doing a disservice to themselves. SEOs are digital marketers, and as such we should be showing our value to our client's bottom line, not just showing them what keywords we got them to rank for.