Keyword rankings have had a lengthy reign as being the primary metric used to evaluate performance, making it a vital aspect of any SEO campaign.

If we go back a few years, there was so much information on keywords that users were putting into their search bar to reach our web content. All of this was readily available within Google Analytics, and you could obtain fairly accurate search volume estimates from Google’s Keyword Tool.

The first update that SEO professionals dreaded was Google’s move to cut off keyword data altogether and appearance of “not provided” within Google Analytics.

Most recently, Google decided to transfer search volume estimate within their Keyword Planner tool to show estimates in broad ranges. Before you could get a keyword and learn that that particular term had been searched for 1,500 times every month, now we’re told that the term is searched between 1,000 to 10,000 times each month. These changes have forced marketers to shift their strategy to focus on a topic-centric content strategy, specifically for content sitting at the top of the funnel.

Keyword Rankings Are Wrong

The biggest critique of keyword ranking data is the fact that it is basically inaccurate.

The three biggest reasons can be broken down into three broad buckets:

  • Personalization
  • Device
  • Location

With the launch of Google+, the SEO industry was intrigued about personalization within search.

Essentially, Google delivers results that are personalized based on a user’s search history. For example, if a user were to search for a query like “luxury cars” and they were previously on an Audi website, it is a possibility that Google would alter the rankings of the search results to show Audi near the top.

However, this would not be the situation for a user that has not previously visited Audi’s website, which makes it difficult to determine which website actually takes first place…it can be different from one user to the next.

Device and Location

While personalization does play a role in the doubt towards keyword rankings, it doesn’t hold a candle to the role of implicit query factors like device and location.

Over the last five years, one of Google’s biggest advancements in search has been its ability to take into account facets of a search query that are not explicitly stated.

For example, five years ago if a user typed “Houston restaurants” into their search bar, a list of general websites that talked about Houston restaurants, or where a restaurant was, would pop up. Jumping back to 2018 and that same search on “Houston restaurants” will equip Google with which device the user is searching from, the exact location of the user while they are searching, and even if they are currently moving.

So, say the user ran a search on their iPhone while walking around in the heart of downtown Houston at 12:15 PM. The query to Google would actually look like this:

“Which restaurants are currently open for lunch within walking distance of my current location in the center of Houston, Texas?”

Without even having to type it, Google was able to gather all of this information, resulting in a completely tailored search result to this user’s current situation.

As was discussed in personalization, this adaptation makes who ranks #1 for “Houston Restaurants” even more contesting…the result is different for every user.

Keyword Rankings Can Be Used As A Guide At Best

A strong keyword ranking does not always equal a high volume of organic traffic or improvements in revenue. Since there is a loss of visibility on search volume metrics, it has become difficult to truthfully estimate the gain in traffic from an individual keyword. Then we add in the changing appearance of the search engine results page, such as the prevalent increase in featured snippets and the task at hand becomes even more intimidating.

If you are fixated over where your site is tracking in rankings, you will probably overlook mass amounts of actual value that your site’s content is bringing in. For instance, say you have built content with the goal of driving social traffic, but it is not necessarily designed to rank for much itself. If you are using keyword rankings to determine a level of success, it could be assessed in a completely inaccurate way.

Gauging Performance At The Topic Cluster Level

Due to these changes in Google’s algorithms, SEO’s are shifting to linking related content under a topic clusters model. Organic search traffic and conversions are primary search goals, so when you are able to group your content into clusters to try and gain visibility for any searches related to a topic, you look at the collective performance of the groups of web pages versus just the performance of individual pages.

This model of analysis helps account for the differing goals of each piece of content. The system is able to tell us which topics typically drive more traffic growth in comparison to others as well as what topics convert traffic at a higher rate. Having this ability provides a clearer vision for a team as to what they need to focus on next without exclusive focus on keyword rankings.

So, What Can We Do With Keyword Rankings Then?

Despite the dissolution of the need for keyword rankings, we shouldn’t close the book entirely on them just yet. We can still use keyword ranking data for digging into SEO problems that happen to your site, and also to look into the objective behind certain searches. Earlier this year, the new version of Google Search Console was rolled out and should give you everything you need.

If there’s anything you take from this article, as a marketer you should be aware that data in regards to keywords is not 100% accurate. Therefore, it should never be used as your primary performance metric.

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