How Important Are Keyword Rankings, Really?

Published Nov, 14 2013

Keywords and keyword rankings have been cornerstones of search engine optimization campaigns from the beginning. Keyword rankings are still a popular metric, and SEO agencies around the world use them to report the status of their clients’ search successes.

Higher rankings for target keywords mean that your website will have more exposure and better performance, right? It’s tough to argue with conventional wisdom, but when I hear people obsessing over these metrics, I get concerned.

The Keyword Evolution

The word has finally spread to most white-hat online marketing professionals that stuffing keywords into pages to “optimize” them is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad practice.

Search engines got wise to the fact that they were being tricked long ago, so they evolved.

Search is evolving.

Search engines look at loads of other stuff now, including the surrounding context of your target keywords. A page that simply says “farming” a bunch of times isn’t going to be as interesting as a page that also mentions things like irrigation, soil quality, fertilizers, etc.

You get the idea. It’s not just about owning a single keyword, but how you approach the topic as a whole. High marks for specific keyword optimization on a page doesn’t necessarily make that page more compelling to people who find it.

I believe that search engines are quickly evolving to take this into account, as they once did with the myopic and short-sighted keyword-stuffing practices our online marketing ancestors employed.

Not convinced? Don’t worry, I’m not done yet.

Personalization is Everything

Search results are increasingly different for every single user. Google uses your general search patterns, personal browsing history, and myriad other information to come up with the best results for you. You are a special snowflake, and so are your search engine result pages (SERPs).

Privacy or personalization?The tools we use in the SEO industry to generate keyword ranking report data can’t possibly simulate these highly personalized search conditions. Maybe if the NSA offers SEO tools in the future that will change, but for now we just don’t have access to enough personal information.

To make things tougher for marketers, Google now encrypts their search result pages, so it’s also becoming increasingly difficult to use referral source keyword terms as reliable sample data.

What does all of this mean? Your keyword tools aren’t as great at revealing your ranking for your target keywords as you probably assumed. They’re just not smart enough. Sorry, I know this is tough news to receive.

So Why Report on Keyword Rankings?

If they’re so crummy and imperfect, why do we continue to report on keyword metrics month after month? Using keyword ranking metrics that may likely be irrelevant in the near future isn’t the end of the world. We just encourage you to take them with the grain of salt they deserve and don’t let them distract you from building excellent content for your visitors and customers.

content marketingPages should track less with single target keywords, and more with important related concepts. Instead of focusing on specific keyword rankings, try to use them as a general guide to how much traction you’re getting in general topic areas.

If your rankings seem stronger in one keyword group versus another, it may be safe to assume that your site is performing better in that area. The data may not be exact, but at least the data for both keyword groups suffers from the same shortcomings so are presumably on a level playing field.

Keywords can also be helpful as a reference for general topic structure and weighting. Even if you don’t ever look at monthly keyword ranking reports, the initial act of brainstorming target keywords or doing research into relative keyword search popularity can be constructive.

We encourage our clients to focus on improving the quality of their content, not the optimization of their keywords. That’s where search is headed, and that’s what tomorrow’s top-ranking businesses will be doing.

Images courtesy of, Facebook, and TopRank, from top to bottom.