Are Keyword Rankings Still Relevant for SEO?

Since the early days of digital marketing, back when Google was still competing against other search engines such as Yahoo and Alta Vista, SEO companies have been using keyword ranking reports to assess the performance of their campaigns. Back then, the ultimate sign of a successful SEO campaign was achieving a number one ranking for a competitive keyword in Google’s search engine results page (SERP).

As a result of the heavy focus on keyword rankings, SEO firms would often do whatever it takes to get their websites to rank as high as possible, sometimes even turning to questionable strategies such as keyword stuffing. In response to these grey hat tactics, over time Google has implemented a variety of algorithmic changes to prioritize search relevance and content quality over keyword density.

Although the SEO industry has changed a lot since then, the fixation on keyword rankings continues to dominate the conversation for both businesses and SEO companies.

All of that said, it’s important to note that keyword rankings are far from irrelevant to SEO in 2020. Keyword rankings still provide valuable insight into Google’s search algorithms (ie. what keywords are they associating with your website?) and how customers are finding your website.

However, keyword ranking reports are not the only way, and definitely not the best way to measure campaign success, as they provide an incomplete picture of your overall campaign performance. Keyword ranking reports are also not the most accurate, as rankings vary widely between users and fluctuate constantly due to three main factors: algorithmic changes, browser history, and proximity.

Algorithmic Changes

Google is constantly keeping SEO companies and business owners on their toes. Along with periodic major updates such as Panda, Penguin, and RankBrain, Google is regularly fine-tuning their search algorithms, making subtle changes every day. For example, if your website is organically ranking in the #8 spot for a specific search term, Google may decide to move it up in the SERP to evaluate its performance in a higher position. If the click through rate (CTR) for the website improves in a higher position, Google may choose to leave it there or move it up even higher. If not, it could get bumped back down to a lower position. Google’s main goal is to give users the information they need as quick as possible, so if your website isn’t supporting this goal, they won’t show it.

Minor adjustments such as these allow Google to tailor its SERP to the user’s needs, based on their behavior. As a result of these constant keyword fluctuations, keyword ranking reports become somewhat inaccurate. Your report is likely to show some keywords in positions different from live results, as the keywords may have already shifted by the time you receive the report.

Browser History

As part of their mission to provide users with what they’re looking for, Google analyzes past searches and browser activity to determine which websites will most benefit the user. If you’re signed into a Google account while browsing the web or use an Android device, Google has access to nearly all of your historical data. Google will use this data to create personalized SERPs for each user.

With this high level of customization, it’s probable that your search for a keyword will look much different from another user’s search of the same keyword. While this has many benefits from a user experience standpoint, it creates a challenge for SEO companies to provide accurate keyword ranking reports to their clients.

In the past, mta360 has used keyword ranking reports from third party platforms, which are not influenced by historical data. This means the rankings you see on the report could differ greatly from what you see in your actual SERP. As a result, we’ve moved to a more comprehensive overview of our clients’ SEO campaigns, looking closely at traffic, leads, and more.

Proximity

One of the biggest changes we’ve seen in local SEO in the last few years has been an increased emphasis on proximity. With location services available on nearly every device, Google can now deliver customized search results based on a user’s precise location. This creates another level of complexity for keyword ranking reports, as every user will have a different output based on their local results, and ranking reports aren’t able to accurately reflect this. Searching for something like “HVAC service near me” presents a completely different SERP than what someone a few miles away might see.

Some SEO tools try to overcome the proximity issue by showing keyword rankings for users in different areas, but these tools typically only show rankings for one keyword at a time. Business owners need to be able to accurately track rankings for hundreds of different keywords at once to find any real value in a keyword ranking report.

Which brings us to our main takeaway:

Keyword rankings, while still relevant and important to SEO, are nearly impossible to track in a way that factors in all the intricacies of Google’s search algorithms.

Due to this, keyword ranking reports should always be taken lightly, and it’s important to also evaluate other KPIs that are more accurate and consistent such as organic traffic, conversion rates, and backlink volume.

Google’s SERPs are constantly changing. Just a few years ago, organic search results were dominating the top of the results, but now this area is filled with knowledge cards, paid advertisements, and a variety of other features designed to keep users on Google’s landing pages. Even #1 organic rankings have to compete for visibility among Google’s sponsored results. This has forced SEO companies to reconsider the value of individual keyword rankings and implement new reporting tools and strategies to help their clients achieve success.

If you’d like to learn more about how mta360 overcomes these hurdles to help keep your business running smoothly, feel free to give us a call or contact us today.

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