SEO: 5 Reasons to Stop Obsessing about Rankings

You want more of something – leads or revenue – and you know search engine optimization (SEO) is a great way to get it. Naturally, you want to track SEO performance, so you check how your favorite keywords rank … often. I know it’s difficult, but don’t.

Rankings have a place in diagnosing changes in your organic search performance, but they’re not valid key performance indicators (KPIs). Use them as supporting data rather than success indicators. Here’s why.

1. Rankings don’t indicate success.

Your obsession with rankings doesn’t help you understand what truly matters. Rankings don’t pay the bills.

If you must obsess about something, focus on organic search traffic and revenue (or leads) as KPIs. Every web analytics program provides this data in some form of channel reporting where you can monitor organic search KPI performance compared to that of your other channels.

2. Top ranking positions do not equate to click-throughs or conversions.

Even if you rank number one, the searcher has a lot of options on the page. They could click on a text ad, image, shopping ad, or skip over your organic listing and click on another site they prefer. In all of those cases, you ranked number one, but you still lost the click.

Your site still improves its brand awareness in that scenario, but ranking at the top didn’t impact  your KPIs. Since many keywords are purely informational in intent, meaning that the searcher wants to know something as opposed to buy something, different search queries drive dramatically different performance according to your KPIs, regardless of where they rank.

3. Rankings change second by second.

Where your pages rank for any given search is a snapshot in time. The instant after a ranking tool captures its data, it’s outdated. Obsessing about one ranking for one keyword in one second of the day just wastes time.

If you must look at rankings – as a supporting metric – then look at the data in aggregate for collections of keywords trended over time. You can’t make reliable decisions based on individual data points without understanding their context.

4. Your rankings are personalized.

If you’re checking rankings one-by-one on the search engine’s website or mobile app, the results you see are unique to you. If you frequently search for and visit your competitors’ sites, or your own, you’re more likely to see them higher in the organic search results.

Search engines personalize search results to show searchers rankings that are tailored to them based on their past search history, location, and everything else the search engine knows about them. If you use Google, also use Gmail and Google Calendar, carry an Android Phone, browse the web in Chrome, and navigate the physical world using Google Maps, the amount of information Google could use to personalize your search results is inconceivably vast.

By comparison, many rank-tracking tools use methods to gather ranking data anonymously, and in each country for international searches. Using this data is much more effective at diagnosing issues than Googling it yourself.

5. Tracking individual keywords ignores the long tail.

The long tail, those billions of keywords searched for a handful of times a month – or only one time ever – equal approximately 40% of organic search traffic, according to a 2018 study by SEO platform Ahrefs. Long-tail keywords form themes around a large “head” keyword that include many smaller long-tail keywords. Each drive diminishing value, but together they add up to a large number of searches in aggregate.

For example, the keyword theme for the high-value keyword “red womens shoes” contains smaller keywords like “red tennis shoes womens,” “red mary jane shoes for women,” and “womens red patent flat shoes.” Just checking the rankings for “red womens shoes” – which drives 18,100 searches a month – ignores the likelihood that the keywords in the long tail – which add up to 118,230 searches per month – rank entirely differently than their head keyword.

Some rank-tracking tools allow you to segment your rankings performance by keyword to show larger themes in aggregate. Trending this diagnostic data over time can be very useful.

Keyword ranking data does deserve a place among the other SEO data, but it’s not worth obsessing over. Use your KPIs (traffic and conversion) to steer your SEO strategy, and use rankings data (trended over time in aggregate) as a way to determine the cause of changes to your organic search KPIs. Only then will the data help you make SEO decisions based on the metrics that drive your business’ profitability.