Some SEOs and brands think that rankings are a very important metric to track for SEO success. But is this really the case?
Some sites rank well for high-volume keywords but don’t get any benefit from it because the keywords do not meet user intent, and the user ends up leaving the site because they could not find what they are looking for. This leads to a bad user experience.
High search engine rankings can be great — but only if the keywords drive traffic, deliver conversions and improve your ROI.
Sometimes, a brand owner or client has specific keywords for which they want to rank because they think those keywords are valuable. You plead your case on why these keywords will not be good targets (e.g., because they have low search volume, the content does not meet the intent and so forth), but you’re a team player, so you go ahead and target the keywords to make your client happy.
Once you get your client into the top three positions in Google, they come to you and say, “Great job, but I did not get any traffic or sales from the keywords that you have optimized for.” This is a perfect time to re-educate your client on how ranking high for keywords does not equal success. Rankings only matter when they are delivering performance and business value.
Should you track all your keyword rankings?
Most enterprise-level SEO platforms make their money by how many keywords you enter into the system, but are all keywords worth tracking? The short answer is “no.” It will cost you an arm and a leg to track all keywords, especially if you have a large and well-established site with thousands or even millions of pages.
You should only report on non-branded keywords that rank in striking distance, all your branded keywords that delivered conversions in the last few months, and keywords that have performed well from a paid search perspective. Be sure to play close attention to long-tail keywords, which may not drive as much traffic but can drive conversions due to more specific user intent.
Once you see keywords move up into striking distance because they delivered visits, then you should start to track them. You might be thinking, “How I can find out which keywords delivered visits if I did not track them and Google took away keyword-level data?” The answer is through regular manual checks and research with third-party tools that use estimated and advanced ways to combat the not-provided algorithm.
Do you even need keywords on the page to rank anymore?
The answer will vary depending upon your domain. If you’re a high-authority site that has high-quality inbound links and useful content that is relevant for a given keyword, you may find yourself ranking well for keywords even if you did not specifically include them on your page.
When you don’t have the exact keywords on the page but are still relevant enough for a search term that you come up in search results for it, this is called query expansion. For example, perhaps you have a webpage about cycling that ranks for “biking,” even though you use the term “cycling” throughout the page. Google is becoming smart enough to understand that these terms are synonymous.
The point? Even if you are tracking keyword rankings, you may not be getting the full picture; you could be ranking for terms you don’t know about because you didn’t think to track them in the first place.
Query chains: An important signal for intent
One of the most important signals is query chains. Google can sometimes determine the “intent” behind a keyword or phrase, since a search engine can look at contextual data.
For instance, a search for the term “apple” could be either a fruit or a computer. If Google detects that the previous query by the user was for computers or consumer electronics, then the results will reflect that and not listings about apple trees or fruit. (To learn more about this, take a look at this article on query expansion techniques.)
In other words, the rankings you see have some element of personalization to them and may not even be universal — another reason why tracking keyword rankings can be tricky.
Tracking search engine rankings can be informative, but high rankings only matter if the keywords deliver business value (visits, traffic and conversions). While rankings can contribute to overall success, they are not a reliable measurement or predictor of success.
Instead, increases in traffic and revenue, along with other conversion metrics, should be your main focus to improve your key performance indicators and ROI.