Why You Need to Stop Obsessing Over Keywords and Rankings

Do you constantly worry about where your website is ranking organically for your keywords? Well, it's probably time to stop.

SEO used to be all about keywords. Heck, many SEO campaigns were based entirely on the question, “Which keywords do you want to rank for?” The cost of your SEO campaign often was determined by the number of keywords and the level of competition for those keywords.

If your current website goal is to rank for a set number of general keywords, then you are doing it wrong. It’s time to stop obsessing over keywords. 2015 is approaching quickly. We live in a post-Hummingbird world of highly personalized search and “keyword not provided.”

In reality, keyword rankings tell you one thing: where your site ranks for a keyword during one specific search. If that sounds a bit circular, it’s because it is. Even in today’s world of advanced search and multi-layered internet marketing, many website owners are running in circles trying to figure out how to improve their rankings when that isn’t even close to the real problem.

A (Very) Brief History of Keyword Data

Keywords have been a big part of SEO and data tracking for longer than Google Analytics has been around. In the not-too-distant past, we were able to see exactly which keywords brought users to a site. We could also determine which keywords led to conversions. Armed with this information, SEOs felt like they could do anything.

In 2011, Google made a big shift in the SEO industry when it announced it would protect the privacy of Google users by placing major limitations on keyword data. Any Google search conducted by a logged-in user would not pass keyword data to Analytics. This left us with the infamous “not provided” in our search keywords report. Coincidentally, very few people felt the internet was a more secure place.

Panic ensued. How were we supposed to measure anything if we didn’t know which keywords were bringing people to the site and driving conversions?

To make matters even more complicated, in 2013, Google made more changes to further restrict keyword data. Now we’re lucky to see 10% of the natural keywords that brought users to the site, and many of these tend to be branded keywords.

keyword not provided

Of course, Google sometimes giveth when it taketh away. Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) has given us other options. With loads of data regarding impressions, clicks, and average ranking by keyword, we can still get a sense of how people are getting to our sites. But we can’t determine which keywords are driving conversions, and GWT only gives us a limited amount of clicks and impressions (limits that seem rather arbitrary).

webmaster tools impressions

In this case, we only get to see data for 60% of our impressions and clicks. None of this data tells us what these users did after they landed on our site. How is one to know which keywords to focus on? Still, this data is valuable, especially for guiding changes based on pages/keywords with very low CTR.

webmaster tools keyword data

In summary, we can still get an idea of the keywords driving traffic to our sites, but we can’t really breakdown exact data. In other words, it’s become a bunch of guess work. More about that later.

Personalized Search and Hummingbird

Limited keyword data isn’t the only thing we have to worry about. We’re also contending snark keyword image googlewith personalized search and Google’s Hummingbird algorithm. Combined, these two current realities make traditional keyword SEO into the equivalent of hunting for a Snark.

Personalized search makes rankings almost meaningless. The search results you see nowadays are based on your search history, your location, and other factors. If ten people from ten different cities search for the same thing, there will inevitably be ten different SERPs. Sure, there will be some overlap, and most brand searches will yield pretty consistent results. But personalized search runs pretty deep. Even two people conducting the same search from different computers in the same office can see different results. Throw in a different browser, and the results can shake up even more.

Although personalized search makes it impossible to definitively declare, “My website is ranking number one for Minneapolis widgets,” all keyword hope is not lost. Nor should keyword strategy be abandoned. It’s still a necessity to optimize for relevant keywords. The here point is that the rankings themselves are not the measurement we should be focusing on. In fact, having a narrow keyword strategy (think back to the old “we’ll optimize your website for 5-10 keyword” SEO plans) isn’t a smart move at all.

Today’s search engine is much smarter than keywords. Google aims to provide answers to your questions, to deliver the exact search results that will yield what you are looking for. If you are trying to rank for 6 general keywords, then you are focusing your efforts on ranking for things that probably aren’t leading to targeted visits. In other words, you might get the traffic, but the conversions won’t follow. For most businesses, web traffic without conversions means a whole lot of nothing.

Enter Google’s Hummingbird. This algorithm, launched in 2013, is all about providing a smarter search experience. It’s adaptive and dynamic. Hummingbird focuses on the real meaning of your search query, allowing it to deliver the results you want. Instead of pages that match a few words from your query, you’ll get results that match what you are trying to find (sometimes when you aren’t even sure what that thing is). With this type of advancement, users can conduct more specific and more sophisticated searches. Your site might be ranking great for “widgets,” but that doesn’t mean much if the other pieces aren’t in place. Conversely, you might not rank at all for “widgets” but still be in great shape for more specific queries that bring in customers who want to buy your widgets.

Unpacking Keyword Data

In spite of all the obstacles, there are still ways to get at some pretty promising keyword data. As I mentioned above, Google WMT gives you impressions and CTR. If you set up different categories in WMT, you can increase the amount of keyword data you have. You can breakdown your Analytics by landing pages and trace conversions back to original landing pages. Using GWT and your best detective work, you can even make educated guesses regarding which keywords might have trigged the landing pages that led to conversions. With just a few hours of sleuthing each month, you can get a rough idea of what keywords are working for you. Of course, by the time you’ve done all that, you have little time left for actually marketing your site. But that’s okay. At least you have a pretty good idea about the keywords that Google ultimately controls anyway.

You can also overcome the personalized search problem and figure out approximate rankings based on the average keyword position shown in GWT. Add in an automated rank checker that crawls the search results from some mysterious location not suspect to personalized results, and you can get a pretty good guess where your site might come up for a given search. Of course, that won’t tell you how people are actually finding your site. Nor will it tell you why your visitors aren’t converting.

If Not Keywords, Then What?

Keywords aren’t dead. As long as there is search, there will be keywords. Ranking well for relevant queries is still a very important method of driving traffic to your site. But creating an entire marketing strategy around a handful of “money” keywords is impractical in today’s world. Very few businesses could succeed with such a strategy.

Not knowing the keywords that are bringing visitors to your site is not cause for pulling out your hair or cursing the Google gods. You can’t measure business success in keywords or rankings. Success is measured in leads and conversions (or whatever your KPIs might be). A website’s goal should never be “to be rank number one in the search engines for X.” This type of strategy is not only impossible to achieve in today’s world, but it doesn’t lead to fruitful results.

SEO has come to mean a lot more than simply optimizing for search. Today’s SEO should be about optimizing for conversions. This includes bringing the right traffic to the site—and bringing it from multiple channels. It also includes making sure your site is set up for the conversion to take place.

Instead of asking “How can I rank better for my keywords?” you should be asking these questions:

  • How can I bring more meaningful traffic to my site?
  • How can I convert my existing traffic into customers?

If you think the answer to the first question is by ranking higher on your keywords, then you wrong. Or at least only part right.

It’s time to stop paying attention to your keywords and start putting more focus on your actual traffic. After all, keyword rankings will never mean a thing if you aren’t getting the leads and sales that allow your business to survive.

One thought on “Why You Need to Stop Obsessing Over Keywords and Rankings”

  1. For my first mega SEO case study I’ve chosen to follow Chapter 3 from The Advanced Guide To Link Building by Neil Patel and Brian Dean.

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