Looking Beyond Keyword Rankings

toy storyOne of the best things about marketing a business digitally is the ability to measure the effects of the work you do. Clients get to see evidence of return on investment, and we use the data to learn and improve.

With SEO, the first signal everyone looks out for is ranking changes. It’s natural to focus on keyword rankings – they are the simplest way to demonstrate progress, but focusing too narrowly on this metric is not a good idea.

Why Are Rankings a Poor Metric for SEO Success?

There’s a lot more to SEO than rankings – what matters is relevant traffic, and that won’t always come from the keywords you thought it would.

Rather than focusing solely on a few big money rankings, it makes sense to have a long-tail strategy. Ranking well for a wide range of low-volume but highly-qualified keywords is often far more effective than a few ego-boosting top-3 positions, and it’s a far more resilient and scalable approach.

When the right visitors do arrive, you need to engage and convert them – great rankings are worthless if your visitors don’t buy, call, download or perform whatever action will generate revenue on your site.

As an objective-led business metric, rankings are meaningless.

Metrics that Make Sense

Rather than rankings, SEO reports should focus on traffic and conversions. That’s what matters to businesses investing in online marketing – KPIs like cost-per-acquisition and the average value of an SEO visit.

Other metrics that can be used to indicate progress during the earlier stages of an SEO campaign include things like Domain Authority, number of indexed pages, Google crawl rate/depth etc; Rand Fishkin suggests dividing reports into ‘leading performance indicators’, ‘marketing KPIs’ and ‘business KPIs’

As well as focusing on proper business metrics, it’s important to analyse what users are doing on the site between clicking through from the SERPs and either completing a conversion or navigating away.

There’s a world of data beyond rankings that can help reveal obstacles to SEO success and shape intelligent solutions to any problems that exist.

Some of the easily accessible data that’s worth delving into includes:

– Click through rate from search results

If you have good rankings but a poor click through rate (CTR), this may indicate a lack of trust in your brand, or lack of compelling page title and description. You can see CTR data and average positions for specific keywords in Google Webmaster Tools. Just select ‘Search Queries’ from the main dashboard.

– Site usage data

There is a great deal of data in Google Analytics showing how visitors have used your site. Visit depth and duration, bounce rate, percentage of new visits etc. can provide broad insight into how your audience is interacting with the site, whilst the ‘Visitors Flow’ section helps you visualise the user journey through the site, showing where people have dropped off and helping you identify user experience problems.

– Multi-Channel Funnels

If you want to properly understand the value of your marketing efforts, particularly if you’re investing in a number of different channels, it’s important that you can see not just how a visitor reached your site directly before converting, but also how they discovered the site originally, and where any other visits came from in between. This will give you a clearer, more complete view of the role SEO is playing in your business.

Don’t Waste Your Time Trying to Measure Rankings

There’s no need to ignore rankings completely, but they are becoming harder to measure anyway.

The world of search is increasingly local and personalised; even when you’re not signed in to Google, your location, device and search history can determine the results you see when you perform a search.

And it’s not just searches for plumbers and pizza that are assigned local intent; Google is increasingly providing locally-tailored results for queries that don’t have any obvious geographic dimension.

Reporting on rankings at both local and national level provides a bit more visibility, but these can change daily, even hourly.

Increasingly, you won’t even know which keywords referred visits, thanks to the rise of “(not provided)”, and Google is taking a tough stance on rank checking tools – Raven Tools stopped providing rankings data earlier this year after Google threatened to block their access to the AdWords API; Raven said that whilst this was a difficult decision, it reflected their belief that internet marketing is moving “away from individual ranking results as the most important metric and towards campaign performance metrics including traffic, conversions and goals.”