Why Keyword Ranking Isn’t an Important Metric of SEO Success

Keyword ranking isn’t a useful metric of SEO success.

That’s a bold statement, and it wouldn’t have been true ten years ago – when SEO thrived on and centered around keywords. Keywords are still important, keyword research especially. But in terms of lead generation or traffic flow, tracking search engine result pages (SERPs) just doesn’t pay off. That’s surprising and even concerning to some business owners, so we’re taking the time to discuss keywords – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and what we like to focus on instead to improve your online presence.

How are keywords still useful?

In the beginning, keywords were king. That’s because Google was trying to answer people’s queries and could only do so by matching exact words. For example, “movie times in Overland Park KS” could bring back any website that had “movie”, “movie times”, “movie Overland Park”, and other combinations in them. You can probably already see the problem. That user wants to know what movies are out and when they are playing in a theatre near them. But any web page with “movies in Overland Park, KS” – like, all films ever filmed there, or movies that take place there – would rank high, yet not answer their question.

(Spoiler: no movies have ever been filmed in Kansas. No, not even the Wizard of Oz.)

Nowadays, search engines are moving on to what’s called semantic search. This algorithm – using the mathematics of language from artificial intelligence research – understands long tail keywords as entire phrases, so not only “movie times in Overland Park, KS” but the user intent of “I want to know what movie is playing where and when” – including “near me”, so that the city doesn’t even need to be specified.

What this means is that keyword research is still really important. We use it constantly; to identify how and why users are getting to your site, develop content, and develop a Paid Search (Adwords) campaign. We’re never getting away from that, and it’s an especially major focus at the beginning of a new SEO campaign. Beyond the research, there are three major ways keywords help:

  • They are a way of measuring success.
  • We do want to know what attracts new and returning customers.
  • We do want to own as much of the SERP real estate as we healthily can.

But once we collect that data – “how do people find my site?” – how important is it to know, every day, “exactly what position of what result is getting me that traffic”?

How are keywords not useful?

Let’s revisit those three major ways keywords help and edit them a bit:

  • They are not a great way of measuring success.
  • So many other factors go into keyword ranking than pure site awesomeness.
  • Do you always click on “the first” result on the page? Or do you click on the most relevant?

First: relevancy. Google is trying to give users the best possible search results. In fact, Jason DeMers in his June Forbes article makes that point very well vis-à-vis keyword ranking:

“Google wants to give users the most appropriate, most useful possible results. Because of that, there’s no longer an easy way to improve your rank directly. Rather than trying to rank as high as possible for as many queries as possible, your goal in the modern SEO world is to serve as many user needs as possible, and then make sure Google has all the information it needs to make a final and appropriate determination.”

Search engines are juggling a lot of detail to make that call, which is why you’re presented with so many options – a few ads, a map pack, organic results, maybe a knowledge graph. But you don’t necessarily take Google’s word on it and just click the first result. You scan down the page for bolded words, relevant phrasing, a source you’re comfortable with, and then click. That’s how a #2 result could get three times the traffic as result #1. Is that going to affect the rankings of #2 and #1? Sure, and they may end up switching, or that previous #1 could drop off the page entirely. It is also entirely true that results closer to the top of page one, and results on the first few pages, are owning really important real estate. It takes a very dedicated user or very specific search to go all the way to page 5. (One time I went to page 30 on a whim. It was in Swedish.)

That said, as long as you aren’t on page 10 for everything – and keep in mind that important word: everything – then you’re going to be fine. Because while short keyword ranking like “coffee shops in NYC” is very difficult to crack, long tail keywords like “best organic fair-trade coffee near me” are far more open and far more relevant to your user base. People will find what works best for them, not just what ranks the very best.

This brings up another important point. The search below “Coffee shops near me” is a geo-search, so Google is using my location to determine good results.


That’s not all search engines use. Many factors go into keyword ranking including user:

  • Location
  • Search engine
  • Previous searches
  • Previous search history (what sites you visited)
  • Demographic data (which especially skews paid ads)
  • The state of the current algorithm
  • Search add-ons, like the knowledge graph or map pack
  • The time of day – keywords fluctuate constantly

That is why it’s not a great way to pin down success. There is no “universal SERP” to measure individual fluctuations against, and other than very broad rules like “be on or near page 1”, the rankings just don’t strongly determine user behavior. For example: say your business is in a major retail area. Do you need to exist there? Yes. But does it really matter if your store is the third of fifth one in a row? Probably not. What matters is that the customer slows down, admires the display, sees your open hours, and steps in to make that purchase.

How else can I know I have a good website?

For those outside the SEO world, keyword ranking is so obvious that it’s hard to avoid. When I bring up the way it’s a risky metric, clients ask really good questions like: “If my competitor ranks higher, won’t they get all the new buyers?” and “What if my competitor beats me for everything?” We then discuss the warnings here and new ideas, but the real question, is, “Then how do I know my site is doing well?”

And that’s a great question. Now that we’ve reviewed the three benefits of keyword research (the good) and the three drawbacks of keyword rankings (the bad), let’s tackle the other metrics of SEO success. Because at the end of the day, search engine result anxiety can be downright ugly. It’s not a direct marker of success, it fluctuates violently. It’s so individual – and the more time and energy (and money) we spend pouring into it, the less we can do to really improve the site. So what exactly does that look like?

The Ten Best Metrics of SEO Success

Your SEO team gets so much data about your website on a daily basis. What each means to you is very dependent on your company and client base. For example: normally a sudden jump in bounce rate and drop in time on site would be a red flag. But in our case it was for a new contact page and it was great news, because new users were landing there, calling the company for an appointment, and jumping back off; they’d gotten what they’d needed, as had the business.

So here are our favorite ten metrics and what each means.

(How each is being tracked and reported is a conversation to have with your marketing team.)

  • Total Traffic: All of the traffic to your website, and how that breaks down into the various sources (i.e. referral, direct, paid, and organic). This is arguably the most important number to know because it represents the total number of potential buyers. It also lets you know if the money you’re pouring into a specific campaign (like retargeting banners or social) is worth the cost.
  • Organic Traffic: Traffic that comes in through organic search. This is likely the biggest piece of the traffic pie and reports to the success of your SEO campaign.
  • Conversion Rate: Along with total traffic, this is arguably the most important metric. This is how many users are converting to buyers, by whatever metric works best for you: form submitted, appointment scheduled, movie watched, game downloaded, or purchase made.
  • Time on Site: How long people spend on the website as a whole, as well as each page. That should vary by the purpose of the page, so a blog post will take 5 minutes to read, but a contact form only takes a few second to fill out. Low time on site overall can be a warning sign that people don’t like it or find it useful.
  • Bounce Rate: How many people leave the site after getting to a specific page. This again varies by user purpose, but a high bounce rate overall means people don’t like what they’re getting. Design changes or a URL reorganization may be needed.
  • New Users: People who haven’t been to the site before (or recently). How many new versus returning users you want will depend on your industry, but low new users is often a bad sign that the site is no longer attractive.
  • Returning Users: People who have been to the site recently. Again this balance between new depends on the kind of product you offer, but if you want repeat sales you also want this number to be high.
  • Month Over Month: How your website changes by month as a percent change. This is a really useful metric because just staring at the numbers isn’t always helpful – “is 1,000 people in July good or bad?” Keeping in mind seasonal flow, this comparison lets you know how you are attracting users or losing them. Note that this isn’t directly in Google Analytics but something to calculate based on the available data.
  • Year Over Year: As with Month Over Month, this number confirms that you’re doing better than last year or if a specific campaign has dropped. This metric is especially useful because it takes seasonal traffic into account.
  • Demographics Data: Analytics compiles (estimated) information on your user traffic, including age, gender, and other interests. This lets you confirm if your marketing is responding to the demographics you’re hoping to target and lets you plan out new campaigns. For example, if a huge percentage of your buyers are interested in travel, a guest post on a travel blog or a remarketing banner on a hotel reservations site might really pay off.

There are many more metrics out there: a benchmark report, videos watched, whitepapers downloaded, scroll depth, blog shares, and more. But these ten are the start of a very strong SEO analysis campaign. They tell you how people get to the site, what kind of users they are, what they do when they are there, how much they like it, and how often they convert into a lead. Those all translate into real numbers and real marketing opportunities. They’re your bottom line, far more than keyword ranking ever can be.

In summary: There’s a big ol’ world of SEO metrics out there that need exploring. Let’s leave the keywords where they belong.


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