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Should you measure SEO success against keyword rankings?

Many of the clients we pride with SEO services come to us asking if we can get them to rank 1 for a certain keyword. But how important is it for you to have that first position? Will gaining that position get you what you’re really after, more business?

So how should you measure SEO success?

SEO is always evolving and you need to stay up to date. We’re going to explore just some of the different reasons why placing importance on keyword rankings as a metric may not be best to aim for and why overall we believe that return on investment should be the number one metric you’re looking at.


A typical “Goal Funnel”

Here’s the order of what we believe are the most important KPIs for most businesses:

  1. Leads/Sales
  2. Traffic to site
  3. Keyword Rankings

It goes without saying that they are all directly related, for example your visibility on search engines will be a contributing factor to the amount of traffic that arrives on your site. There are however other areas which can bring more traffic to your site, such as meta and structured data which can improve click through rates, knowledge graph results and local results.

Factor #1: Position 1 isn’t the same for everyone

Did you know that Google takes into consideration what you’ve searched for, browsed previously and also where you’re searching from? Google uses this information to give you what it believes are the best results for you, and therefore the search engine results pages (SERPS) may look different person to person.

This makes it pretty difficult to get an accurate idea of where your pages are showing in the results for your potential customers. Many keyword tracking tools will give you an unpersonalised result, which does give you a rough idea on where your keyword ranks, however this isn’t always accurate. Some ranking tools are also able to give you a ranking based on a specific area (we’d suggest using the main location of your target market).

This also means that if your chosen tracking tool shows a decrease in rankings, it might not mean that your potential customers are seeing this drop too. If you see a drop in keyword rankings it’s important to have a look at the impact it’s had on the traffic and see if there has actually been a decrease here too. You may need to segment your data down to page level in order to get a clearer picture of the change in traffic and remember to take seasonality into consideration too.

Factor #2: Organic search is being pushed down

With ads, the knowledge graph and local packets being some of the features that Google uses on their result pages, that ever sought after position one is moving further down the page. This essentially decreases the likeliness of someone clicking on your organic result on pages with these extra features.

This has become more relevant with Google moving their ad positions last year to a more “mobile friendly” layout. With this change they removed the right side ads and added another ad above the organic results.

Here’s an example of a knowledge graph:

knowledge graph example

As you can see this pushes the organic results down the page and if there were ads for the search the organic results would be well below the fold.

Here’s an example of a local packet.

local packet example

The same thing occurs as with the knowledge graph – the organic results are being pushed down the page. Ads can also appear above these which would again, push the organic results further below the fold.

Whilst this may appear to devalue the importance of organic placements, it doesn’t. It just means that it’s more important for you to understand the keyword opportunity of the keywords you’re trying to rank for. It may be that you get more traffic from searches which don’t have these features, even if it has lower search volume, as the likeliness of someone clicking on an organic result is much higher.

Factor #3: Most searches are long tail

Did you know that around 70% of searches are long tail? A long tail keyword is one that is more specific and will usually consist of 4+ words. This is much more akin to natural speech with there being multiple ways to ask for the same thing.

long tail keyword graph

Moz – The Search Demand Curve

Here’s some examples of ‘Fat Head’ vs ‘Long Tail’:

Fat HeadLong Tail
boilerNew combi boiler on finance
flightsFlight from leeds to heathrow
insuranceMulti car insurance policies

There are usually lower search volumes for these keywords, so they can be hard to predict. You may be wondering; how can you track keywords if you don’t know what the keyword is? The answer is that whilst possible, it can be extremely difficult. We would suggest tracking broader phrases which will give you a rough idea of where you are positioned for the keyword groups.

Should we stop tracking keyword rankings?

No, keywords are a great way to identify your position in the market and to identify new opportunities to gain new traffic, However we would say that the main metric to measure against would be conversions and traffic to your site. This where you can easily see if there have been improvements and your SEO efforts are working.