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11 min read

The Evolving Role of Keyword Rankings in SEO

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

Keyword rankings have long been an essential part of SEO. To understand what terms your website should rank for and in what position it ranks is considered hugely valuable information by much of the SEO community.

However, there are parts of the community that question the role of keyword rankings in today’s far more complex SEO world. I spotted this blog post from Linkdex via Twitter and put it to the team at Impression to discuss.

Here are our opinions on the role of keyword rankings in today’s search marketing world. Feel free to join the discussion in the comments below:

Emphasise traffic and conversions over rankings

One of the key themes that came out of our discussion was the need to focus on results over rankings. It’s rare (though it does happen) that a client comes to us simply wanting to rank for a certain keyword. Far more common that they have a goal in mind, such as increasing website traffic or, more commonly, making more sales and more money.

Though keyword rankings feed into this, they’re not usually the end goal.

Edd Wilson, Head of SEO Strategy

I always try to put emphasis on traffic growth and conversions over keyword positions, but keyword rankings are still an important indicator to look at.

Tom Craig, Managing Director

I don’t believe in reporting purely on keywords, but I think it’s a piece of the puzzle that shouldn’t be ignored. It can also help show our clients that their SEO campaign is moving in the right direction, even if their traffic drops initially as we work to improve traffic relevance.

Keywords as a strategic driver

Keywords can help to drive the strategy for a marketing campaign and should be used for that purpose. Keyword search volumes and rankings have a massive implication for the business and identifying strengths and weaknesses contributes to the overall campaign’s strategy in terms of focus.

Edd Wilson, Head of SEO Strategy

Chasing rankings for a term which has a search volume of 5000 per month might seem like a great idea. But when you review the traffic from that keyword, you also need to consider how it converts. Wanting to appear in position one for a keyword with fewer searches but a higher conversion rate makes much more sense and suggests that traffic is more relevant. This can guide the focus of the overall strategy.

Charlie Norledge, Head of Technical SEO

I had an example of a client who had a set of four very similar keywords. They’d optimised for two of them, but not for the other two. The only difference between the optimised terms and non optimised terms is that the latter included one extra word. But the search volume for the latter was significantly higher. In this case, the search volume was a really important dictator of the overall strategy and enabled my client to think about their product naming conventions to be more effective in search.

Keywords in context

The context around our keyword rankings is often more important than the rankings themselves. By understanding what we’re trying to achieve, such as a focus on a specific product, category or audience, we can reflect that in our keyword insights – but only as part of the bigger picture.

Petar Jovetic, SEO Director

Another factor I’ve thought about regarding this keyword debate is context. Keywords give you something more tangible to focus on. They’re more granular; the client’s focus is X and the keyword that correlate with those objectives are Y… Organic landing pages in GA give you this insight to an extent, but you have no idea what keywords are bringing in that traffic to that page. It’s more constructive and actionable saying “I want to move this keyword from position X to Y rather than I want traffic to move from this to that.”

Laura Hampton

I had a client for whom keyword rankings were really important. They were a holiday cottage listing company and to attract new cottage owners to list on their site, they needed to show strong rankings for their key terms. This was seen as a sign of the value of listing on that website and as such, was an important KPI for them. This had to be balanced, of course, with the KPIs around customer attraction and conversion but at the same time, we couldn’t ignore the importance of rankings either.

Charlie Norledge, Head of Technical SEO

I had a client whose site was outdated and the conversion rate was low, but they had one strong link to their site which, combined with the fact it wasn’t a competitive industry, meant they had really strong rankings. When I suggested we update the site for conversion rate improvements, they didn’t want to as they worried it would negatively impact their rankings. They were so focused on being number one, they missed the bigger picture which is making sure you deliver an exceptional user experience and that your audience converts.

Edd Wilson, Head of SEO Strategy

With search queries becoming more and more varied, it’s less likely you’re going to put so much emphasis on one keyword. That’s why content strategy in SEO is important these days, because you’re wanting your content to rank for so many search queries, rather than one page that focuses on [product name]. Plus, I think the way a lot of people are looking at keyword rankings is flawed because they’re not considering the intent, which is what Mike King has spoken a lot about recently.

Do we need to track keyword rankings?

For me and the team here at Impression, the short answer is ‘yes’. We do need to track keyword rankings because, whether we report specifically on them or use them to inform the wider strategy, they’re still an essential part of SEO.

We know, for instance, that our position 1 rankings across our primary service areas are a huge contributor to the number of enquiries we receive. In our industry, being number one is often viewed by prospects as a sign of our ability to do our job and as such, this is something we track as a matter of importance. We also really enjoy testing what changes our rankings to prove (and disprove) SEO theories.

At the same time, we recognise how important keyword rankings are for our clients. For our cottage client, they specifically needed to rank well for one term which they used to attract new cottage owners to list with them. For other clients, keyword rankings are more about strategy; our client that sells virtual office services, for example, knows he is number one for a range of London focused terms, but not for his Dublin product, so this informs our strategy moving forward.

Landing pages and conversions are also essential pieces of this puzzle, without which, you don’t have any proof that your rankings are even helping the business. Anyone can get your business to number one for an obscure phrase for which no one else ranks, but if that term doesn’t deliver you a tangible impact on your bottom line, it’s not worth pursuing.

The importance of good data

One of the things we pride ourselves on as a team is our data-driven approach to SEO. This means that, as well as building our own tools and scripts in house, we also invest in a range of tools that help us track data points.

One such tool is Stat, a keyword tracking platform that is capable of going into huge amounts of detail. It’s not cheap, but it’s something we believe empowers us to make better informed decisions, so we pay for it. There are alternatives out there.

I like to categorise my keywords in Stat, to provide me a more macro view of my rankings. This enables me to tell my lingerie shop client, for example, that their rankings across the bras section of their site have improved significantly since we updated those pages and implemented some canonicalisation to enhance that section, and we can therefore replicate this for other categories. Equally, I can use dynamic tagging to tell them how many keywords they have in the top 10 by category, to see where they’re strong, and where the opportunities to improve lie.

Keyword rankings will never be the full picture. But they are an important piece of the puzzle. When we collect that data intelligently and use it to inform our strategies, it can be a hugely powerful contributor to the success of an SEO campaign.

What are other SEOs saying about the importance of keywords?

Whilst we’d like to tell you we’re the only SEO agency in the world (!), we recognise that we are part of a thriving community of online marketers, all of whom are able to contribute to this discussion.

We used an outreach tool to put out a request to the community, and also reviewed what people are saying around the web, to provide a fuller picture:

When we think about keywords, it’s a distraction. There are 400,000 searches for the word ‘TV,’ but really those are 400,000 people trying to figure something out through search. So really you have to figure out who are the people behind this search so that you can match them up with the right page and do things that will resonate with them. And another key distinction is the fact that keywords are very ambiguous. Take ‘Asian Holiday’ for instance; does that mean going on a trip to China or does that mean Chinese New Year? Understanding the people behind these searches helps you put the ambiguous keywords into perspective.

Mike King, iPullRank via Bruce Clay Inc

My suspicion is you should probably be rank tracking. I think that if you turn it off and you don’t do it, it’s very hard to get a lot of the value that we need as SEOs, a lot of the intelligence. It’s true there are challenges with keyword ranking reports, but not true enough to avoid doing it entirely. We still get too much value from them.

Rand Fishkin, Moz

If I could only report on one metric it would be search engine traffic. It gives us an indication of how much traffic your rankings are generating. It may be that the site is ranking well, but not attracting traffic. Or it may be that it is not ranking well for the competitive keywords, but is bringing lots of traffic through long-tail phrases. The whole idea of search engine optimisation is to increase awareness of your service and products online, so search engine traffic as a metric really tells you if this has been successful.

Cheryl Luzet, Wagada

If I could only report on one metric, it would be conversion rate. It’s great to rank no 1 for your chosen keywords after hours of hard work. It also great to have all your marketing campaigns integrated across the full marketing mix driving traffic to your website BUT if none of this meets your objective – whether that be sales, donations, enquiries etc – it is pointless. You may drive 1 million visitors, all from organic traffic. But if your bounce rate is 99% and your conversion rate is zero – its wasted traffic and you may as well take your website offline.

Michelle Soper-Dyer, Transalis

At the end of the day, sales and enquiries are the most important thing for any business. You can build as many hyperlinks as you like and make whatever SEO changes you want but ultimately it comes down to increasing their profit. If you’re not doing that then your client simply isn’t getting a good ROI from you. Your organic and referral sales should be the highlight of your client report at the start of each month, preferably showing a positive increase month-on-month and year-on-year. Otherwise… what are you bringing to the table?

Barrie Smith, Receptional