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Keyword Rankings: The Magic Eight Ball of Reporting Metrics

In the SEO world, keyword rankings have been considered an important metric for so long and are such a visible result of the work, often keyword rankings become the core metric of success. We are not here to tell you that keyword rankings are not important, and the studies showing 1 all appear to be accurate, but we will say they might be less important for reports on SEO success and less accurate in those reports than you think.

But... How can keyword rankings possibly be less than the end-all-be-all of reporting SEO success?

Go ahead, ask it. Even if you know the answer as a professional, it is natural for us to gravitate towards rankings as the main measurement. After all, at a cocktail party or over a beer, both site owners and SEO professionals like to talk about rankings. It's what all of us see when we search for a term. Improved rankings do matter, but because of a changing competitive landscape and Google naturally wanting to vary their results to improve the user experience, they can be very misleading. Remember the real goal is to increase relevant traffic. 100 interested visitors to your website are much more valuable to you than a top 5 ranking that gets you no clicks. Remember, rankings help you reach your goals, but they are not the goal itself.

Who's Rankings Are Right?

Being overly focused on keywords also leads to another problem: accuracy. Accurately measuring rankings brings to mind the story of the men in the pitch-black room with an elephant. One says it is a snake, another thinks it is a tree, etc. But they are all touching different parts of the animal (trunk, leg, etc.). Google has long been focused on improving their user experience through a focus on local and personalized results. Because of this, rankings vary often naturally through Google. They can vary based on any or all of the factors below:

The changes leading to this variability over the past year have taken the crown from rankings as the primary metric for reporting on SEO success.

On top of this, the trend has coincided with RavenTools removing their ranking tool and SEOMoz (now re-branded as Moz) having to rework their tool to comply with Google's API standards.

So, what should we do?

Have no fear. There are many metrics available to indicate progress. For example Google's Webmaster Tools (GWT), can provide accurate insight into average rankings for search terms that visitors have typed and can track search impressions. Google Analytics (GA) offers insight into organic traffic to your website, including conversion tracking.

Our advice is to use GWT to keep an eye on rankings, but remember that these numbers are not the end-all-be-all measure of success. Impressions with no clicks bring no value, and you may be ranking for words that received no impressions during the report window, which, again, probably offer a limited value. Rather than focusing on rankings, focus on relevant traffic. Not only will this make any online marketer more proactive in troubleshooting issues beyond ranking, but it will also closely align what the marketer and the client consider to be a success.

Quality SEO will often get you top rankings for many keywords, and in some cases improving rakings for a specific keyword is an important strategy, but rankings should be seen as just one part of an overall online plan. Remember the goal is traffic, visibility, and sales, not a talking point at a cocktail party.

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