Keywords Rankings Are Not a Success Metric

Do you obsess over your keyword rankings? I’m here to tell you they’re not worth it. Here’s why that is and where to look instead.

I don’t want to beat around the bush here, so I’ll just come right out and say it—

If you find yourself awake, late at night, Googling keyword after keyword to measure the results of your SEO efforts, you may be addicted to rankings.

It's intervention time.

Now don’t get me wrong—rankings do matter.

There is value in targeting a set of relevant keywords and measuring how well they perform in search results with a ranking tool. No doubt about it.

But you’re obsessed. And it kills me to see you go down that road because:

  1. Rankings, in and of themselves, don’t equate to sales for your business.
  2. You’ll tear your hair out trying to track them reliably.

You want to make money, right?

I know, silly question. Why else would you invest in online marketing? But the reality is many people have a hard time keeping their eye on the prize when it comes to SEO. It’s easy to mix up signals with success metrics.

A signal is an indication that you’re on the right path, that what you’re doing is moving you toward your ultimate goal.

Keyword rankings are a classic signal for SEO. Others include:

  • impressions,
  • clickthrough rates,
  • and traffic.

These signals can give you insight into how well your marketing strategies are working to get your business in front of more eyes.

But on their own, they’re meaningless. What good is more traffic to your website if it’s not converting into leads or sales for your business?

That’s where success metrics come into play.

A success metric is that “ultimate goal” I mentioned above. It’s what your website is designed to do—generate leads and/or make sales for your business.

This is where your focus should be. Is what I’m doing resulting in more phone calls or form submissions?

In my own experience, I’ve seen a number of cases where keyword rankings appear to be down but conversions from organic search have improved. Does it really matter that you’re not number one today for that keyword if you’re raking in more leads than ever before?

Which brings me to my second point–

Keyword tracking is ridiculously unreliable.

That's right—not only are they a poor indicator of success, keyword rankings are impossible to track dependably.

What you see when you Google "atlanta dentist" at home on your desktop may be dramatically different from what your next door neighbor sees when she Googles the same thing on her smartphone.

Why? Because history-based personalized search, location, device type, clickthrough rate, and auto-suggested searches all affect what you see in your search results.

In local SEO, the "location" of the searcher is particularly important in determining rankings. I put "location" in quotes because where Google thinks you are is not always where you are.

That's why you and your neighbor, from the example above, did not see the same local results for "atlanta dentist" despite being at nearly identical locations.

Your neighbor was on her mobile phone which is typically better at pinpointing her location thanks to GPS. You, on the other hand, were on your desktop which Google has to guesstimate the location of based on your IP, WiFi, and mobile data.

In other words, as far as Google is concerned, you and your neighbor are in different locations. That means you will both see a different set of local results. (Check out this evidence-based article from Whitespark’s Darren Shaw for more on this concept.)

As you can see, measuring your true rankings in this dynamic environment is impossible because there is no true rank for any given keyword. What's more, every ranking tool uses different algorithms to try and sort this out. The result is an estimate, not something you want to put all your focus on.

So how do you measure success?

As mentioned above, instead of obsessing over a signal like keyword rankings, you should focus your attention on success metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs).

What that is will depend on your website and your goals as a business. But in general, a good KPI can be summed up as an action you want a prospect to take that moves them through the sales funnel. Ideally, the action results in a sale, but a lead is not too shabby either.

This is where you should place your attention when assessing the value of your marketing efforts. If the numbers don’t look good—appointment requests are down, for example—that’s when you turn to the signals like keyword rankings to figure out what’s gone awry.

In our agency, we build client reports with this mentality. Instead of inundating our clients with even more overwhelming graphs and tables, we center their attention on typically three KPIs, such as:

  • appointment requests,
  • phone calls (we use phone tracking),
  • and, more broadly, localized search traffic.

The subsequent pages of the report take each of these KPIs and break them down further into additional relevant information like the source and location of an appointment request or the engagement of search traffic.

If things are going well, these numbers should be on the rise or at least holding steady. If not, then it’s time to start investigating. And yes, that analysis will likely include keyword rankings.

So, please, think about how your keyword obsession is hurting you and the people around you. We both want the same thing—for your online marketing to be successful. Let’s focus on metrics that truly contribute to your bottomline.

And really, I'm sorry to come down on you so hard. It’s just that we care.

Written by Jackson Armstrong on August 18th, 2017 in Marketing

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