What’s the Deal with Keyword Rankings?

“I want to rank #1 for this keyword.” When you work in SEO, you frequently hear that statement in early conversations with clients. It’s a common belief that keyword rankings are the most important measure of SEO success, and so clients often believe that a top ranking in Google is how they will know their investment has been worthwhile. This may have been true in the old days, but the fact is that so many things have changed in recent years, with Google in particular, that rankings are no longer a true measure of SEO success.

So, what’s happened and what should you be looking at instead of your site’s rankings?

What’s Changed?

There have been some big shifts in search engine results in the last few years, and these have impacted the relevance of keyword rankings as a metric for SEO. Here are a couple of major changes that have diminished the influence of rankings.

  • Changing SERP Layouts– The search engines are constantly experimenting with new features and layouts for their result pages. Additions like the local map pack and the knowledge panel (see right) in Google draw the user’s attention away from the traditional organic results and offer new avenues to your site, if you’re visible in these areas.
  • Increased Personalization – The engines are becoming better at personalizing search results based on everything from your past search history to your physical location. This means that there’s no longer a “true” #1 ranking. What I see in the top spot may be completely different from the first result you get. Because of this, it has become more difficult to accurately track rankings, although most tools do make an effort to strip out personalization and give you the most accurate results possible. All of this makes reporting on rankings sticky.

What to Measure Instead

Well, if rankings aren’t as important as they used to be, how do you measure your site’s organic performance? Here are some other things to look at to get an idea of how your site is doing in organic search, as well as its overall health.

  • Traffic – Yes, it is possible to get more traffic without being in the #1 spot. If rankings aren’t exactly where you’d like them to be but you’re getting more organic traffic, you’re probably doing just fine. I would be concerned however, if your rankings are down and your organic traffic is down. This likely means that your competition has gained an edge in the engines. Keep an eye on other traffic sources, as well. Remember that organic work, including content creation, can contribute to referral traffic and social media traffic, too. As you promote your content and gain visibility, it’s logical to see growth in these channels.
  • Conversions and Revenue – Do you have goal tracking enabled on your site? If not, now would be a good time to set that up. Keep track of key interactions like button clicks and form submissions. Of course, you’ll also need to keep tabs on your bottom line. If goals and revenue are up and you’re not ranking #1, your site is doing A-okay.

Eyes on the Prize

At the end of the day, remember that you want your website to grow your business, and you do that through increased traffic. A #1 ranking won’t do you any good if it isn’t bringing people to your site. You absolutely do need to keep an eye on general ranking trends and know where your competitors are sitting so you can be in the mix, too. However, when it comes to judging your site’s effectiveness, it’s time to look beyond its keyword rankings.