Many think SEO is all about ranking reports. In fact, I have seen many companies that use ranking reports as their primary performance indicator. This is a dangerous path, and in fact, though rankings are something to be aware of at a very specific level, they can be very misleading and cause some poor decisions. Especially for small or geographically targeted businesses. It is important to equip yourself with the knowledge of how fixating on rankings can lead you astray. Two of the most misrepresented metrics in SEO are rankings and traffic, and yet they are often the primary reporting information. We will save traffic for a future blog post, but today I just want to inform you a little about rankings.
Why Can Rankings Lead You Astray for SEO Performance?
There are a few ways that focusing on an individual ranking or even total rankings can lead you down the wrong path for decision-making. Especially for small businesses. Here are some examples.
Rankings Change by User and Location:
Over the years Google has become much more nuanced with rankings. The algorithm has become very intelligent at understanding users and user intent. The same search phrase can produce different rankings from one user to another (based on search history and activity) and from one location to another (Google tries to give you results more relevant to your location). In this sense, companies can cherry-pick for positive or negative needs. A company can find a place where you don’t rank highly for an important keyword and scare you, or at the same time find an example where you do rank highly to feel better about things. You need to take rankings as just one signal combined with traffic related to the search concept. Also, keep in mind that there can be drastically different search volumes for different search phrases.
Search Phrases Have Different Search Volumes:
Typically your product or service pages are “aimed” at certain search concepts, and with ranking strength, they will rank for a number of specific but related search phrases, but never for everything. One of the other risks of fixating on a certain search phrase or the number of phrases you rank for is that you may rank for 50 search phrases that bring you 2 clicks per month because they are rarely searched but then have one phrase that brings you hundreds of visits per month. That one phrase is far more important to your business (if it converts), than the other 50, even if the other 50 make you feel good, or are reported by your SEO company as a success. It is best to avoid ranking reports in general, other than in the case where you have truly nailed down the bread-and-butter terms that are converting for you. In this case, it is worth keeping a close eye, but in most cases, small business owners can get sidetracked on the number of different phrases they rank for, or even on a specific phrase that may not even bring in good traffic. And even with your bread-and-butter terms, you may rank differently by user and location as mentioned above.
Search Volume Deception: I also see a few ways that companies take advantage of people with this. Often, search terms that have very low search volumes also have very low competition. Therefore, they are easy to rank for because nobody is really putting resources into targeting them. Many sketchy companies will sell to you that they will get you a top ranking, but then they get you that ranking for a term that nobody searches for. This is generally quite easy with very basic SEO. It looks good on a report, but it actually does nothing to help the business get more customers. I also see businesses optimize to a low volume term so that they can use it for sales. I recently came across a company that used the term “Search engine positioning” throughout their site and claimed it to be a regularly used term. They ranked for it and used it as a selling point that they ranked for it. It is actually a very low-volume term with low competition. But to the uninformed, it looks like they are dominating the space. Be careful. In the SEO world, if nobody searches for something, it has very little value. On both sides.
Global vs Local Search Terms:
Another item that sometimes leads people in the wrong direction is ranking for a global phrase vs. local. This gets more to where traffic can lead you astray, but I just wanted to touch on it here. A local business that serves a local community may get large volumes of traffic from ranking for a blog post on a subject, and this can be beneficial to their site as a whole if people find the post useful and link to it, but if it mostly generates traffic that is outside their market and doesn’t convert, it has a different type of usefulness. As mentioned, this traffic and ranking do have SEO value, but may be something to filter out when looking at general SEO goals and progress. Google algorithm updates in 2022 reduced this happening as often for small businesses. I saw many small businesses lose their “global” rankings with blog posts, but still keep local rankings and traffic. To the point that I saw some sites lose 40% of search traffic year over year, but still have an increase in conversions (calls, form fills, appointments, etc.)
In the end, you want to focus on rankings and traffic that converts to new customers and clients. Though some rankings do help for different reasons, I see it cause stress and lead to confusion more than it helps in many cases. I just wanted to help inform business owners of how they can be confused or head down the wrong road when relying too much on ranking metrics for progress. The goal is to rank for the right things that bring you business or generate links and search strength. The other isn’t necessarily worth your time and stress.
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