Keyword rankings are a useful and popular way to report on SEO. The concept of rankings is easy to understand, and the idea of tracking performance for your business’ most important searches is very enticing. However…
Keyword Rankings Aren’t Perfect
There are, unfortunately, several factors which can diminish the usefulness of ranking data. So, if you overemphasise (or obsess over) rankings in your analysis, you might be getting an incomplete or inaccurate picture of your organic search performance.
Rankings frequently fluctuate, often on a daily basis, regardless of whether your website is changing. These ups and downs can distort the true picture of performance, potentially giving you a misplaced cause for concern or sense of elation, despite the temporary and somewhat random nature of these changes.
As such, it can be difficult to discern the noise from actual, meaningful changes in your rankings. This problem is exacerbated if you only report on keywords on an irregular basis: the ranking data you collect won’t necessarily be representative of the entire period (e.g. month) you’re reporting on, unless you take averages.
Personalised Search Results
Search results often vary (if only subtly) for different people depending on factors such as location, device type, and search history. As such, ranking software attempts to give a generalisation of these variations. However, while these tools do their best to filter out personalisation, some degree of bias might remain.
Similarly to fluctuations, this could give you an inaccurate assessment of your ranking performance. The actual rankings seen by most people or by your most important audiences could be significantly different from the number reported by the software. For example, people in close proximity to a local business (i.e. the most important audience) might see higher rankings than those reported by the software.
It’s all too easy to find and track the most important keywords for your business, and then judge your entire SEO performance based on these rankings. However, herein lies a problem: what you perceive to be your most important keywords might be of only average significance compared with everything else.
Not only could you be misjudging which keywords actually bring in the most revenue, but by ignoring the contribution of long-tail searches (i.e. more obscure keywords) you could be unfairly assessing performance. If long-tail terms result in half of your organic search conversions, surely they’re just as important as the 10-20 high-volume keywords you’re obsessing over? Another reason to look beyond (just) rankings.
Ranking Data is Still Useful
Despite these caveats, keyword rankings are still useful, both to assess the general performance of keyword themes and for monitoring specific searches. Furthermore, many of the issues above can be mitigated with the right reporting setup, e.g. by averaging out rankings to minimise the effect of fluctuations and segmenting rankings by location to view performance across different geographic audiences.
However, ranking data is most useful in combination with other metrics. By utilising a variety of metrics in your reporting you can build a more accurate and comprehensive view of performance. With multiple types of data, you can more effectively:
- Verify whether trends are genuine or due to another factor (e.g. fluctuation)
- Identify issues and prioritise SEO activity
- Attribute and assess the value of your SEO
And plenty of other stuff too. This leads us to…
Other Important SEO Metrics
If you have the time, there’s a wide range of ways (too many for this post) to analyse organic search performance. However, for a simpler solution, there are a few metrics (available via Google Analytics or Google Search Console) which could considerably improve your SEO reporting:
- Organic traffic. Simply put, organic traffic is a fundamental overview of your SEO performance. Importantly, dropped rankings might not be significant if overall organic traffic remains stable or improves. Likewise, traffic might improve even if the rankings of your tracked keywords don’t. Either way, it’s important to note that the composition and value of traffic (which searches are bringing people to your website) could be changing, even if the numbers aren’t moving much.
- Organic page impressions. It can be useful to track how often your key pages show up in the search results, over time. Analysing this data can reveal pages which generate an unexpectedly high (or low) number of impressions, helping you to prioritise and make adjustments to optimisation. Similarly, if you’ve made changes to the optimisation of specific pages, you can assess their individual performance rather than making assumptions based on overall organic traffic.
- Organic page clicks/click-through rate (CTR). In addition to page impressions, the number of people clicking through to your pages is worth tracking over time. For example, if clicks are relatively low despite a lot of impressions (a low CTR), this could indicate that your page is showing up for low-relevance searches or reflect a less than compelling meta description. As with impressions, this is also another way to track performance after making changes to a page.
- Organic search queries. As well as viewing performance by page, the same metrics (impressions, clicks etc.) are also available for search queries. This data can complement keyword rankings and provide additional information about how your website is performing for given keywords. In addition, reviewing the queries you’re ranking for can be used to identify new keywords which can then be targeted (optimised for) more deliberately on your website.
- Organic conversions/revenue. Finally, it’s valuable to track what organic search is ultimately generating for your business, whether that’s conversions (e.g. enquiries), revenue, or something else of value. However, bear in mind that organic search is often one of the first steps in the customer journey, contributing to a valuable action later on. As such, it’s important to consider this contribution (known as an assisted conversion) when attributing conversions and revenue to different channels.
As well as using these metrics across all of your organic traffic, it may also be helpful to segment data by device type (particularly given Google’s new mobile-first indexing) and location. However, it’s important to get the fundamentals right first, while being realistic about what you can and should consistently report on.
While keyword rankings are useful, they have limitations. By building a more comprehensive picture of your organic search performance, you can monitor results more comprehensively, identify issues and priorities more accurately, and make improvements more effectively. So, instead of obsessing over every individual ranking fluctuation, it’s probably a better idea to step back and look at the bigger picture. It could improve results and save you a lot of unneeded stress!