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September 25, 2017   |   4 min read

Why Keyword Rankings Are Poor SEO KPIs

Still Using Keyword Rankings as an SEO KPI? Here’s Why You Should Stop.

Feeling frustrated because your latest set of tracked keyword rankings did not meet established goals? Is your CMO asking why your website dropped two positions month-over-month for a target term? Before questioning your tactical SEO strategy, look first to your perceived value of keyword rankings. The problem may not be because of the work that’s been implemented, but rather, because you are surveying ranking metrics as a Key Performance Indicator.

If this is you, first know that you are not alone. Although tracked rankings have been rendered as an unreliable KPI for the past couple of years, many brands still cling to this metric as a measure of success. And this is understandable. Because of the close-knit relationship between keywords and organic search, it is hard to detach rankings from results. To foster a better understanding of the way keyword rankings should be used, let’s start with some motivations as to why “as a measure of organic success” is not one of them:

1. Rankings are not the same across the board. A page’s keyword rank is subject to change based on user history, user behavior, location, device, and search engine, among other factors. Tricky, right? While several keyword reporting tools by-pass these roadblocks to a certain degree, this lack of standardization makes it difficult to provide rankings with 100% accuracy.   


An example of differing search results between Google and Bing.

2. They are affected by external changes. Although many organic search factors are in your control, others are not. Google’s algorithm updates for example – like Panda, Penguin and more recently, unconfirmed Fred – are notorious for shaking up rankings and keeping digital marketers on their toes. The way competitors rank is another external factor that can be reacted to but not controlled. And don’t forget the massively authoritative websites that compete with everyone (e.g. Wikipedia). Many of these key players have cemented themselves into top positions, making it nearly impossible for other websites to transcend a certain rank.


Websites like Wikipedia, that have built up extreme levels of credibility, typically take top spots and are difficult to surpass in the rankings.

3. Top rankings do not guarantee visibility. Because of the ever-evolving SERP landscape, many traditional, well ranking organic listings have been pushed below-the-fold. How so? Extra paid ads and a mixture of featured snippets that in some cases eradicate the need for clicking-through (e.g. Quick Answers).


Four paid ads and a Quick Answer has pushed traditional organic standings below-the-fold. 

4. Rankings do not equate to ROI. Conversions do.And while top rankings make it easier for users to find a website, they do not guarantee goal completions (or click-throughs and engagement for that matter). Ranking above-the-fold on “page one” for all tracked keywords provides absolutely no value if visitors aren’t compelled to visit a webpage or have a poor customer experience.

5. Search volume trends may affect organic traffic, regardless of rank. Many keywords are seasonal in nature, yielding high average monthly search volumes during on-months and low volumes during off-months. For example, the term “popsicle recipes” shows significant volume in June and July but drastically reduces in popularity during the winter months:


As expected, the search volume for "popsicle recipes" is higher in the summer months and lower during the winter.

Consequently, although top rankings may be sustained all year long, organic traffic is still likely to dip during a keyword’s off-season.

So, how should keyword rankings be used?

Just to be clear - keyword rankings are still an important part of SEO, if not the end-game. They offer insights that should be used to drive your organic strategy. Instead of using them as a main KPI, use them to:

Prioritize pages and search terms for optimization.

A full set of webpages cannot be optimized all at once – hence the need for some cherry-picking. Enter rankings (and reality). Moving up a few positions post-optimization will do nothing to help the visibility of a page ranked on the eighth page of search results. However, some well-made optimizations may improve the visibility of page/keyword combos appearing on the bottom half of the first page or the top half of the second.

Conduct Content Elements Research.

Is there a page/keyword combo you would like better (and realistic) visibility for? Step away from your own rankings for a second to examine the rankings of others. Specifically, explore pages occupying the top positions you hope to overtake for certain search terms. What are some common characteristics among these results listings and their corresponding pages? Are they making use of:

  • Similar semantic terms?
  • Specialized formatting?
  • Videos and images?
  • Tables and charts?
  • Reading levels?

Patterns indicate elements that could put your webpages in Google’s good graces – an important step toward improving metrics that are more reliable performance indicators (e.g. user behavior, goal completions, etc.).

Are you ready to re-think the role of keyword rankings in SEO? When it comes to reporting on organic performance, stick with the intelligence of Google Analytics to pull meaningful metrics. Stop using search terms as a measure of success, but continue using them to pull insights for your strategy. Your KPIs and your website will thank you.

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