Why brands should stop obsessing over keyword rankings, and focus on traffic and revenue

The real­i­ty in SEO is that there are many who are still over­ly con­cerned with key­word rank­ings, cling­ing on to them as a key per­for­mance indi­ca­tor. This kind of think­ing is detri­men­tal to brands’ over­all goals and deci­sion mak­ing. What the indus­try needs is a...

Richard Shove By Richard Shove from Buyagift. Join the discussion » 2 comments

Key­words, rank­ings, and SEO have gone hand-in-hand since the begin­ning of time. (Well not quite, but it cer­tain­ly feels that way.) As an SEO, this can be a bless­ing and a curse, depend­ing on cir­cum­stances…

Senior man­age­ment, in par­tic­u­lar, can some­times be guilty of judg­ing per­for­mance by search­ing for a few indi­vid­ual key phras­es — and if they’re not hap­py with what they see, SEOs can find them­selves backed into a cor­ner, in spite of wider suc­cess.

Report­ing and KPIs should always dri­ve action, and so when stake­hold­ers see key­word rank­ings which look unfavourable (and they don’t under­stand the nuance of per­son­al­i­sa­tion, local­i­sa­tion, or the role of a giv­en key­word with­in a broad­er strat­e­gy), they are often are often quick to react, demand­ing per­for­mance improve­ments for the term in ques­tion.

It’s the nature of our indus­try that there’s always pres­sure to improve indi­vid­ual key­word rank­ings. But just how fea­si­ble is it to manip­u­late improve­ments for indi­vid­ual key­words?

What’s an SEO to do?

His­tor­i­cal­ly, if we want­ed to improve a rank­ing for a cer­tain term, we would (more than like­ly) start by seek­ing new links, with manip­u­lat­ed anchor text, in order to boost the rel­e­vance of the page we are link­ing to. How­ev­er, in a post-pen­guin world, with poten­tial for man­u­al penal­ties, this becomes a very risky strat­e­gy.

Now, many SEO strate­gies do not focus on improv­ing an indi­vid­ual key­word — or even a par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of a site:

  • Often, some of the biggest oppor­tu­ni­ties to improve per­for­mance come from tech­ni­cal opti­mi­sa­tions which aim to make over­all gains and result in improve­ments on every poten­tial key­word.
  • Oth­er big wins fre­quent­ly come from cam­paigns, con­tent mar­ket­ing ini­tia­tives and impact­ful media cov­er­age which, sim­i­lar­ly, impact broad pools of rel­e­vant key­words, or a whole web­site.

That’s not to say that no improve­ments can be made to indi­vid­ual key­words. We can always manip­u­late pos­i­tive change in indi­vid­ual terms through tweaks to titles, head­ings and copy, as well as improve the flow of equi­ty to pages and improve­ments in inter­nal link­ing pat­terns, for exam­ple.

How­ev­er these tac­tics often — and quick­ly — reach a point of dimin­ish­ing returns, or you end up chas­ing your tail (pun intend­ed), par­tic­u­lar­ly with larg­er web­sites. Often, the effort doesn’t jus­ti­fy the return, when there are bet­ter and more effec­tive ways to spend our time.

There are oth­er ways we could poten­tial­ly improve indi­vid­ual key­words through a more long-term con­tent mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy. We can attract deep links to the page that our spe­cif­ic key­words rank for. We can ensure that the links we get are from oth­er sites are rel­e­vant or relat­ed to that key­word. Alter­na­tive­ly, we could attract links to our con­tent piece and indi­rect­ly direct the equi­ty via inter­nal anchor text to our tar­get page…

Ulti­mate­ly, though, there is far less guar­an­tee that we will improve the spe­cif­ic key­words we have tar­get­ed.

Which means…

Real­is­ti­cal­ly, we may see some improve­ment in indi­vid­ual key­words with such tech­niques but it’s at the risk of more worth­while pur­suits. Why focus on a sin­gle key­word, at the expense of the long tail? Why try to shoe­horn deep links to improve an indi­vid­ual page, over improv­ing the over­all author­i­ty of a site, which assum­ing a sol­id hier­ar­chy, will poten­tial­ly improve rank­ings of the site as a whole?

By now, my dis­dain for focus­ing on indi­vid­ual key­words is clear. Focus­ing on a sin­gle key­word, no mat­ter how pop­u­lar, resul­tant traf­fic is like­ly min­i­mal in com­par­i­son to the long tail of traf­fic avail­able relat­ing to said key­words. It’s sim­ply not pos­si­ble to try and chase improve­ments for each indi­vid­ual vari­a­tion. Equal­ly, rank­ings vary from hour to hour, from loca­tion to loca­tion, from user to user.

Challenges with reporting

Humans are crea­tures of habit and habits are dif­fi­cult to break down. Rank­ings are easy to under­stand, so are easy to cling on to as a key per­for­mance indi­ca­tor.

What we need, is a bet­ter way of report­ing suc­cess and to edu­cate by num­bers.

In the past, I have used an aver­age rank of a selec­tion of key­words to indi­vid­ual areas of a site to report on per­for­mance, rather than a sin­gle key­word. But this approach is flawed; the aver­age rank could well be brought down by key­words that pro­vide no real busi­ness val­ue. This is entire­ly depen­dent on the key­words you select, of course, but there’s a ten­den­cy to include those that rank well and allow the vol­ume of key­words includ­ed to creep up, as you dis­cov­er new key­words and equal­ly, remove those that have no vol­ume, or sim­ply don’t per­form. When report­ing and analysing per­for­mance, con­sis­ten­cy is key.

Instead of focusing on rankings, what should we focus on?

My pref­er­ence is always to look to traf­fic and rev­enue, as this is what dri­ves busi­ness. Traf­fic and rev­enue can be report­ed by pages, or groups of pages, defined by themes, depend­ing on the size of the site in ques­tion.

Quite sim­ply, you can’t argue with extra traf­fic and rev­enue. How­ev­er, like oth­er met­rics, this one has a flaw. When busi­ness­es report on traf­fic and rev­enue, they fre­quent­ly do so in the con­text of year-on-year com­par­isons. And with Google increas­ing­ly ‘shak­ing up’ its ecosys­tem, things can get messy.

I have per­son­al­ly seen a num­ber of sites show­ing YoY growth, right up until Google’s intro­duc­tion of the 4th ad spot, in late February/March of this year (result­ing in an effec­tive ‑1 drop to every major com­mer­cial key­word). Despite obvi­ous vis­i­bil­i­ty growth and suc­cess, you may not see YoY growth, as the land­scape shifts around you. But that’s anoth­er sto­ry, entire­ly.

With any report­ing, it’s dif­fi­cult to iso­late suc­cess. Nor­mal­i­sa­tion is one method that can be employed. When mak­ing your desired changes, report the change against a nor­malised lev­el of traf­fic and rev­enue. This allows you to see the change with less noise asso­ci­at­ed with it.

In addi­tion to the ever-chang­ing search land­scape, report­ing at a page lev­el may seem a lit­tle ‘black box’ for senior man­agers — but to me, it’s the only way to show improve­ment and prove real val­ue. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly preva­lent when we don’t have detailed key­word per­for­mance data in our ana­lyt­ics pack­ages (in an age of “not pro­vid­ed” key­words).

Here’s the crux of the problem…

I fear rank­ings will always be the thorn in the side of SEOs, as long as we obsess over them and senior man­age­ment remain une­d­u­cat­ed to the big­ger pic­ture.

If rev­enues have increased by 20%, what does it mat­ter if you’ve lost one place for a sin­gle key­word?

KPIs should help you to under­stand per­for­mance, and to dri­ve action — and rank­ings in iso­la­tion do not.

Why try to specif­i­cal­ly improve a sin­gle key­word, when the actions you take could improve hun­dreds, if not thou­sands? If our objec­tive is to help the busi­ness­es which we work with, and for, to be suc­cess­ful, then it’s up to us to edu­cate, and not to spec­u­late!

Richard Shove

Written by Richard Shove

Group Organic Performance Manager, Buyagift

Richard has over 10 years of client and agency-side experience in SEO. He is the currently the Group Organic Performance Manager for Buyagift and has previously worked at Yard Digital, and OMD UK. Richard is passionate about ensuring an integrated approach across all areas of marketing. Outside of work his passions are music and sport.

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