For quite a long time, keyword rankings were a staple part of any SEO campaign. In a lot of instances they were a primary metric used to judge performance.
Today, your Google keyword ranking is simply one of several reasons your traffic can increase or decrease.
Google Keyword Ranking
Google keyword ranking indicates where on Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) a single webpage is positioned when a user enters a keyword. Typically, 10 results include a SERP, and the higher your position on such SERP, the more organic visitors your webpage will get. Recently, however, there are other SEO factors marketers will need to focus on.
Just six or seven decades back, we had so much more information about the keywords users were searching to reach our website. All this information was accessible transparently within Google Analytics, and you might become relatively accurate search volume quotes from inside Google’s Keyword Tool.
The first major update that changed this was Google’s move to encoded search and the dreaded look of”not provided” within Google Analytics. This means that you can no longer find out which keywords are bringing in the organic traffic your website is receiving. The”not provided” tag seems a little something like this:
This created a ripple effect across many SEO software providers that made lots of their tools less effective — or at least tougher — to measure the effect coming from organic search on a granular level.
Google’s next key change — a more recent one — has been its decision to move hunt volume quote within their Keyword Planner tool to reveal estimates in wide ranges. Instead of learning that a keyword was being searched for 1,400 times each month, we are told that it’s searched between 1k-10k times per month. This is not too helpful when creating your content strategy.
These changes have driven entrepreneurs to accommodate their search strategy to focus less on key words and shift to a topic-centric content strategy, particularly for content sitting at the top of the marketing funnel.
Keyword Rankings are Inaccurate
One of the major criticisms of keyword ranking data is the fact it is largely inaccurate. Many business leaders and even software providers of rank tracking data have admitted that this is true.
The reasons behind this can be broken down into three broad buckets:
Around the time of the launch of Google+, the SEO business was talking a lot about personalization within hunt. Even after the passing of Google+, personalization has turned into a big consideration.
Bonus points if you recall Authorship snippets (circa 2012).
Ultimately, Google will deliver outcomes that are personalized to a user according to their search history. This means that if I were to search for a query like”electric cars” and I’d previously been browsing the Tesla website, it’s a possibility that Google would tailor the positions of the search results to reveal Tesla near the top.
This would not be true for someone that has not previously visited Tesla’s website, making it very tough to determine which website actually ranks #1 (since it can differ from one individual to another ).
Device and Location
Whilst personalization plays a part in the ambiguity of keyword positions, it’s nothing compared to the role of implicit query factors like device and location.
One of Google major advancements in search over the past five years has been its ability to take into consideration aspects of a search query that aren’t explicitly mentioned. To make sense of what I’ve just said, let us take a query like,”Boston restaurants”.
Go back to 2010 and a search for”Boston restaurants” would yield a list of relatively generic sites that either speak about Boston restaurants or possibly are a restaurant.
Fast-forward to 2018 and a simple search for”Boston restaurants” will equip Google using a good deal more information than previously. They are able to determine which device you have searched from, where you are located whilst you are searching, even if you’re now on the move.
Let’s say that you searched on an iPhone and you are walking around in the center of Boston at 11:30 am. Here Is What this query would actually look like to Google:
“Which restaurants are currently open for lunch within walking distance of my current location in the center of Boston, MA?”
They’ve gathered all this information without the individual having to type it. As a result, they’re able to completely tailor the search results to this individual searchers’ current situation.
So … to answer the question of who ranks #1 for “Boston restaurants” becomes an even more challenging task.
Keyword Rankings are Directional at Best
Strong keyword rankings don’t always equate to high volumes of organic traffic, let alone improvements in revenue. As I mentioned at the beginning, we’ve lost a lot of visibility on search volume metrics, which makes it very difficult to accurately estimate the amount of traffic you can gain from an individual keyword. Factor in the changing appearance of the search engine results page (e.g. the widespread increase in featured snippets) and it becomes an even more daunting task.
If keyword rankings are your North Star, you may be traveling in the completely wrong direction.
Here are three search features that can interfere with your keyword rankings while presenting you with opportunities to capture traffic from Google in new ways:
Featured snippets are the enhanced search results that appear at the very top of Google SERPs. They’re a form of”wealthy snippet,” a grouping of structured data that Google has collected from a webpage. And due to their size, they can take an extraordinary amount of traffic away from the the results beneath them.
What makes featured snippet results so important? Publishers can earn them regardless of their Google rank. That’s right, it is entirely possible for a site below position #1 on the SERP to win this top-dwelling space, making Google rank noticeably less important for topics that are vulnerable to them. Check it out below — as you can see, the featured snippet is pulling in a result that technically ranks in position 3, allowing it to steal organic traffic from the results in positions 1 and 2.
Video is playing an increasing part in content marketing strategies, and not for superficial reasons. Videos published to any platform, not just YouTube, are now ending up on SERPs where Google has determined the intent behind a search query is best served in this medium.
These video results might take away traffic from publishers, but they also allow you to “rank” for keywords you might not have written content to target.
Image packs are large groupings of images that Google pulls into its SERPs from the Images tab in a Google search. As you can see below, they can be so large that they take up all the space “above the fold” of a SERP. This makes results ranking in position 1 for a specific keyword hard-pressed to catch organic traffic from that keyword unless they’ve published images dedicated to (and optimized for) this keyword.
When all you are obsessing over is where every page is monitoring against a ranking goal, you’ll probably be misses a ton of other value your content is earning. By way of example, what if you have built out some articles with the principal goal of driving backlinks or social traffic, but it is not always designed to rank for much itself (e.g. a research report)? Using keyword positions as a determining factor of success can evaluate content in a completely inaccurate way.
Measuring Performance at the Topic Cluster Level
To combat a lot of the issues I raised above, we shifted how we measured content at HubSpot. For the past couple of years we have taken a step back from analyzing the performance of articles on a page-by-page level and looked at the performance of articles at the subject cluster level.
Organic search traffic and conversions are our main search goals, so when we group our articles into clusters to attempt to gain visibility for any searches associated with a given subject, we consider the collective performance of these groups of webpages versus only the performance of individual pages.
This model of analysis helps us account for the varying goals of each individual piece of content. Also, running this investigation at scale tells us that topics have a tendency to drive more traffic growth compared to other people, and which topics have a tendency to convert visitors at a higher speed.
This information tends to offer much clearer insights for the staff as to what they should focus on following without obsessing over keyword rankings.
Is There Still a Place for Keyword Rankings?
Despite everything I’ve mentioned above, I’m not actually saying that keyword positions are dead (I can already see the tweets ready to be fired at me!) . Keyword data may be useful for digging into any SEO conditions that happen to your website, and also to look into the intent behind certain types of searches.
That said, the new version of Google Search Console that has just recently been rolled out should give you pretty much everything you need here.
More than anything, as a marketer you want to bear in mind that the data that you are taking a look at related to keywords is not 100% accurate. As a result, this should never be your primary performance metric.
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