Keyword Rankings Are Still Important, but Harder to Measure Than Ever
SEO firms have used keyword ranking reports to evaluate the performance of their campaigns since the early days of digital marketing, when Google was still vying for search engine supremacy alongside other companies like Alta Vista and Yahoo.
Back then, achieving a number-one ranking for a competitive keyword in Google’s search engine results page (SERP) was regarded as the pinnacle of SEO success. Companies would go to great lengths to get their websites to rank as high as possible on Google’s SERPs, sometimes employing gray hat tactics such as keyword stuffing to gain an edge over the competition. As a result, Google implemented changes to their search algorithms that disincentivized the use of these tactics, prioritizing content quality and relevance over raw keyword density.
A lot has changed in the SEO industry since then, but this peculiar fixation on keyword rankings continues to loom large in our collective consciousness.
That’s not to say that keyword rankings are irrelevant to SEO in 2020. A detailed ranking report can still provide valuable insight into how customers are finding a website, as well as what products and services Google associates with the website. In terms of evaluating the success of our SEO efforts, however, keyword ranking reports can often provide an incomplete picture of a campaign’s performance.
This is because Google’s keyword rankings vary between users, and fluctuate constantly in response to three key factors: algorithmic changes, proximity, and browser history.
In addition to periodically releasing major updates like Panda, Penguin, and RankBrain, Google also fine-tunes its search algorithms with more subtle changes each and every day. For example, if Google notices a website ranking organically in the #10 spot for a given search term, they may move it up in the SERP and then evaluate its performance in say, the #8 spot. If the website’s click through rate (CTR) improves, Google may choose to leave it in the #8 spot. If not, they may bump it back down to its original position.
These adjustments allow Google to tailor its search rankings based on the behavior of its users. They can also make keyword ranking reports somewhat inaccurate; by the time you receive a ranking report, your rankings for some keywords may have already shifted as a result of changes to Google’s algorithms.
Google has increased its emphasis on user proximity in recent years, which further complicates the ways in which we interpret keyword rankings. With GPS-enabled mobile devices in virtually everyone’s pocket, Google is now able to deliver search results that are customized based on a user’s precise geographic location. If I search for “shoe stores in Buffalo, New York,” there’s a good chance the SERP I see will look considerably different from that of someone searching for the same phrase just a few miles away from me.
One SEO tool called LocalFalcon attempts to overcome this issue by showing how keywords rank for users in different areas, but it’s relatively slow and only displays rankings for one keyword at a time. Ideally, business owners should be able to accurately track their rankings for hundreds of different industry-related keywords and phrases at once.
Google also uses past searches and browser activity to determine what search results users are most likely to benefit from. If you use an Android device or stay signed into your Google account while browsing the web, Google will have access to tons of historical data it can use to deliver personalized results in its SERPs. Again, this means that search results for the same keyword can vary significantly from user to user. This level of personalization is great from a user experience perspective, but it makes it all the more difficult for SEO companies to deliver useful keyword reports to their clients.
At mta360, we use another tool called Advanced Web Ranking (AWR) to create keyword ranking reports that aren’t influenced by historical data, but this tool does not address the proximity issue that LocalFalcon is designed to overcome. Which brings us to our big takeaway:
While keyword rankings are still relevant to SEO, there’s currently no good way to report on them that accounts for all the intricacies of Google’s search algorithms.
As such, keyword rankings should be taken at face value, and evaluated alongside other KPIs that are less volatile and easier to accurately measure such as organic traffic, backlink volume, and conversion rates.
It’s also important to keep in mind that Google’s SERPs look very different today than they did just a few years ago. Whereas organic search results once dominated the top of the page, Google now populates this area with paid advertisements, knowledge cards, and other search features that are designed to keep users from straying outside the Google ecosystem. Even if a website achieves a #1 ranking for a valuable keyword, it will still have to compete for visibility with Google’s own sponsored results.
This restructuring of Google’s SERPs has forced SEO companies to rethink the value of individual keyword rankings, and adopt new strategies aimed at helping their clients find other ways to appear on Google.
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