Why Tracking Keyword Rankings Is Useless

For a long time, SEO providers and businesses and have used keyword rankings to evaluate the success of their SEO campaigns.

However, reporting on keyword rankings alone is often a poor measure of success.

Here’s why:

1. Keyword data is no longer being provided in Google Analytics

If you have looked at Google analytics lately, you may have noticed that up to 80-85% of your keyword data is obscured with the label (not provided).

keyword-not provided

This means it is increasingly difficult to know what keywords are driving traffic to your website.

In addition, the number of keywords (not provided) entries in Google analytics has been steadily increasing over the past year. In fact, some people suggest that eventually, you will not be able to get any keyword data at all.

This means that over time you will lose the ability to understand what keywords are your most valuable.

Your most valuable keywords are not the ones you think they are

Valuable keywords are the ones that actually increase sales and leads – not website traffic.  These are the ones you want to rank for.

Trying to rank for high traffic keywords without knowing if they actually help drive sales means you might find you waste a lot of dollars trying to rank for keywords that simply don’t work.

Therefore, focusing on rankings without understanding what revenue you get in return is pointless.

2. Rankings on keywords vary from person to person – search is now personalised to the user

For a long time, Google has been providing personalised search to all users.

What this means is that if you and another user on another computer type in the same search query, you both might get different results in the search engine ranking.

The result you see is personalised to you and are based on your browsing history and whether you have been on the site before.

Therefore focusing on rankings which can and do from person to person, may not be the best way to evaluate your campaign.

Personalised search is not new, but surprisingly very few people are aware of it. It was first introduced in June 2005 and initially impacted people who were signed in to Google accounts. It was extended to all users in December 2009.

3. Rankings vary by device

We live in a multi-channel world. No longer do we use only one device to surf the web.

The fact is, search results on different devices can vary quite dramatically.

This is because Google’s aim is to provide users with the best possible user experience. If your site is slow to load or is not optimised for mobile, there is a chance it may not appear in the search results for mobile phone users (even if it is ranked on page one of Google when you use a desktop computer).

Instead, a searcher using a mobile device might see those websites that are better optimised for a mobile experience rather than one that they might see on their desktop computer.

The issue here is that ranking reports don’t differentiate by device and because the search is personalised, it is not an accurate reflection of a businesses rankings in Google.

Instead of showing results to users based on keywords, Google now shows results based on the type of query they have.

Pre August 2013, if a user typed in where’s the best place to buy an iPhone 5, Google would have looked for a website optimised for “buy iPhone 5” and might have shown stores where you can buy an iPhone 5.

However, with semantic search, Google is more likely to deliver a result more similar to the user’s query.

Instead of showing several stores where you can buy an iPhone 5, it might show things like a blog article about where the best place actually is to buy an iPhone 5 based on a user review.

Similarly, a search for “acid reflux prescription” used to list a lot of drugs, which might not necessarily be the best way to treat the disease. Now, Google says results have information about treatment in general, including whether you even need drugs, such as this as one of the listings.

The change recognises the fact that our searches are becoming increasingly more complex – many of us do not type keywords into Google anymore – instead, we type questions and we expect Google to deliver the answers.

Focusing on keywords alone, therefore, is not useful unless we can use the data to help understand our customers better. The more we understand our customers, the more you can deliver a better experience to them on the web and increase the likelihood they will buy from you.

With this in mind, you may find you need to increase the number of pages on your website to capture the wider variety of searches in Google and at different stages of a users decision making journey.

How to measure success?

Success with an SEO campaign needs to be measured on several levels besides just keyword ranking.

Some key metrics to consider include:

  • Has my website traffic from organic search increased
  • Have my sales (or number of leads) from organic traffic  increased
  • Has the number of enquiries or newsletter sign ups increased
  • Increased website engagement – has the average time on site improved
  • Has my position in search results improved over time

What time period should you track?

Search engine optimisation takes time and is subject to daily swings.

Therefore while it is good to look at keyword rankings & organic traffic at a monthly level, you should also see if your business results (i.e. sales/leads) are improving on a quarter by quarter basis as well. This is because some businesses are quite seasonal and business results at a monthly level can vary substantially.

What you need to do now?

Because of all the changes occurring in search, we recommend adopting the following:

  • Ensure you have goals set up in Google analytics so you can accurately measure success against business goals
  • Focus on several metrics to evaluate success – not just keyword ranking positions alone
  • Start writing content on a blog – post valuable content that captures the richness & diversity of things your customers might what to know or type into Google to find you
  • Make sure your website loads fast
  • Have a mobile optimised version of your website
  • Use paid search advertising to work out your most valuable keywords and then use the data to optimise your website
  • Ensure webmaster tools is linked to your Google analytics account – this will help give you a rough indication of what search queries people have typed into Google to find you

Common Issues

On a final note, you might find you have been blogging and adding content to your website without much success.

This is entirely possible and often comes about due to:

  • lack of strategy and planning about the content on your website
  • Content that is not focused around your customers and what they might type into Google during the decision making journey

Make no mistake, having a sound content strategy is a must. If you are finding limited success, then it is worth considering getting professional help.