Why Keyword Rankings are Poor Measures of Success.

The position of your webpage on a Search Engine Result Page (SERP) is easy to see but has very little meaning when it comes to bottom-line business success metrics.

What does SERP mean and what does it have to do with the position of your webpage?

SERP is often cited as an acronym for Search Engine Result Position. This is not the correct meaning. The correct meaning of the acronym S.E.R.P is Search Engine Result Page. The result your web page occupies within the result page is what is traditionally referred to as your “site ranking”. Search engine results are query-specific and typically a page-one result would be a placement within the first 1-10 natural results.  

Search engines rank web pages, not web sites based on how relevant that web page is to the search term inputted into the search engines search box. The results that most people refer to are the “Natural” or “Organic” search results. These results are distinct from advertising. See figure 1. 

For the purpose of this article and most other articles on this blog, I will be referring to the “Big Three” search engines, Google, Yahoo, and Bing. The Big Three all order their search results in approximately the same way as it relates to look and feel, number of results per page, and position of ad space. 

Ads, Knowledge Graphs, and Locals Results Prevent Most Natural Search Results from Being Seen First

In Figure 1 notice the line where the page ends. This line indicates the “page fold”. Anything above the fold is viewable with no scrolling. As you can see in most transactional searches natural results are not even viewable above the fold. This is why local, paid, and knowledgebase marketing strategies must be combined with any SEO/Organic strategies. This is also why even if you have first page rankings – even first position your organic traffic may no improve that much.

Figure 1 Desktop Search Engine Result Page (Google)

Why is Keyword Ranking Viewed as a Success Metric?

At one point it was all there was
When I first started in the field of SEO (2002) most companies aside from the largest corporations did not implement any type of web traffic analysis system. At that time any web traffic analysis software worth using was prohibitively expensive and required technical skills beyond what most website owners had. At that time, search engine results were also much more predictable and stable. They served as a simple way to show success to your clients. Then in 2005 Google launched Google Analytics. This was a turning point and allowed every single webmaster the ability to track his or her website traffic for free with the simple addition of a piece of code on their website. This provided better metrics that have more impact on conversion and the bottom line. 

Rankings are easy to measure and easy to understand
Just open your browser and search the keyword. Where you see your web page is your ranking. This is a very simple measurement and it is good for the ego – both client and SEO.

Ego
There are some clients who just want to be above their competitor for what they deem a valuable term. On the other hand there are some SEOs who have the same desire. I admire the competitiveness of many small business owners. It is part of what makes them successful. But when investing substantial chunks of money into marketing ego has got to be out to the wayside. 

Higher results do lead to more traffic
Higher results do lead to more website visitors but it is an aggregate result, the result of many well-ranking head and tail keywords. Additionally the really important and high converting keyword phrases are not usually the first to a client’s mind. Careful keyword research and competitive analysis lead to a smarter list of target phrases. 

I Want to Rank for “X Phrase”. Why?

Humans think in many different ways, therefore each industry has literally hundreds or thousands of keywords that make up the industry search volume. I have asked CEOS, clients, receptionists, and executives in the same industry what their most important keywords are. I often get many different answers, sometimes different answers on the same day by the same person. That is natural – it all depends on what we are focused on at the time. This is why we have to look at the data – and one of the biggest advantages of online marketing is the plethora of data that is available. There are a lot of tools that are available such as the Google Adwords Keyword Planner, Uber Suggest, Wordstream and SpyFu

Factors That Create Inaccuracies
Today the search engine result pages are much different than they were even a year or two ago. All of the major search engines have added new features that push natural results further down the page, interrupt the organic results, or serve different natural results depending on specific variables.

Personalization
Google is the most prolific at personalization but all of the Big Three personalize their results to some extent. If you are logged into your Google Account, all of your information is likely being used to give you the most relevant results for your query.  Try it sometime – have you and a friend logged in and logged out then do the same search, you will find that often you are served different results than each other. 

This is really a very cool process and gives us all better answers to our queries. Sure it serves up a challenge to traditional SEO practices but Google consistently serves up the most relevant results without the searcher needing to do much thinking. 

Location
Your physical location helps optimize the result set you receive. The easiest way to see this is to simply search for restaurants. You will see that Google has automatically detected your general location (even when you have location services turned off) and showed you restaurants that are near you.

Location personalization goes beyond simply detection it also assists in giving you correct directions and offering you the best results for a wide variety of searches. Location capabilities also help in vacation planning, as you can tell Google to search as if you are somewhere else, allowing you to plan places to go before you arrive.

History
Google also serves up personalized results based on your previous searches, where you have been, and what websites you have visited. This creates a phenomenon I have noticed where clients think they are already on the first page for many of their relevant search terms. This happens because of course, you spend a lot of time on your own website. Therefore, Google may show your site as a relevant high ranking result to just you. Try logging out and then searching again or searching in a private or incognito window.

Device Specific
All of the Big Three serve different results based on what device you are searching on. If you are on a smartphone, tablet, or desktop you may see different results or a different layout of the results. With the mobile search volume growing faster than desktop search volume, this is becoming an increasingly important variable. In 2019 63% of Google searches were performed on a mobile device. Google also serves it’s mobile search result set first as desktop results become less useful.

Figure 2. Mobile Search Engine Result Page (Google)

A Few Caveats


This article refers to the result positions of specific keywords at specific times. I still suggest tracking keyword positions but not for the insight that a specific keyword provides but as an aggregate leading indicator of improvement or decline in an SEO campaign.

The overall average results of search results positions tend to correlate positively with gains in unique visitors and conversion metrics. However, we have to jump through some hoops to get around Google’s personalized results. 

Metrics that tell the whole story.
If Keyword rankings do not tell the success story of an SEO campaign what does? That will be the subject of our next article.