People who work in search LOVE to talk about rankings. But that doesn’t mean they should. Or that you should listen. Looking at rankings gives you false insight and ruins your business. (I‘m exaggerating, but only slightly.) Here’s what you should look for instead ...
Ranking reports used to be the bread and butter of SEO. Underpaid monkeys used to spend hours of office time churning out pages and pages of keyword reports. They, sigh, we, would look at the rankings of hundreds of keywords, rank them and graph them. We might tabulate them and if the client was really lucky, add in some conditional formatting.
And that was just rankings. There’s traffic data, keyword data, conversion data, on and on the list went. It would take hours to compile. HOURS I TELLS YA! Then the client would flick through it. Then throw it in the bin.
See, keyword reports, rankings specifically, are rarely much use. And yet the SEO community still keeps churning them out. And it’s time someone made a stand. And that someone, is me. Here’s why ranking reports suck. You ready?
1) They’re the product of too many variables
Sorry, I‘ll tone down the science. Who do I think I am, Jennifer Aniston?
Search engines use an increasing number of metrics to determine the rankings of just one keyword. They’ll look at the number of links to the site, and the quality of the sites they’re coming from, the social interactions on your site and the cleanliness of its code. I could go on, there are literally hundreds of factors. And that’s for every page on your site. Google and Bing will do this for every page, on every site on the web and rank them for every keyword.
This means that when you’re looking at a rankings report, with say, 100 keyword positions on it, you’re really looking at the combination of several thousand things happening. As any scientist (and probably Jennifer Anniston) will tell you, that’s not really telling you anything. If something dramatic happens to your report, you won’t be in a position to explain why (and therefore, what you’re going to do about it) because the number of things that it could be are almost infinite.
If you want to make better decisions, get better data. Not just piles of the stuff.
2) SEO is about traffic, not rankings
The SEO community loves ranking - we even get jobs off the back of our ranking successes. But why? Rankings won’t get you sales, only traffic will do that. And rankings are not traffic. Oh no sirree.
If I do some SEO on my site and I get an extra 500 keywords on the first page, is that better or worse than moving one keyword from position 2 to 1? Well, it depends on the keyword. It’s not impossible, in fact it’s likely, that losing just one position, going from position one to position two with one keyword will lose you traffic, even if you get any number of keywords on the top page.
Why? Because overwhelmingly, the higher the position, the more clicks that position attracts Of course, some keywords will be searched more than others, so this will depend on what keywords you’re talking about. But to be clear, if you want traffic, and to be clear, you do, it’s all about getting as many keywords as you can to the number one spot. Everything else is a distraction. The more keywords you’re tracking, the more distractions you have.
3) Even one good ranking doesn’t mean more traffic
So to be clear, it’s not just looking at rankings en masse that’s the problem. It’s that even if you’re focusing on top ten rankings, that’s not really much help. Why? Because Google is cleverer than that. It returns rankings based (partly) on whoever is doing the searching. And where they are in the world. We call these things personalization and localization and they are just one of the many things Google uses in its algorithm. Run a search for your chosen keyword, then ask your mother to do the same. What are her top five results? What are yours? Chances are, you’ll see different results. There are so many factors like search history and location that there’s almost no way the rankings in your ranking reports are as representative of your SEO as you think they are.
4) Clicks are cruel
But let’s assume that all results are the same for everyone. Even that wouldn’t mean that better rankings would lead to more traffic ...
Let’s say I wanted to buy a projector (I do actually, know any good ones?) Look at the search results.
Where did your eyes go first? Could you HONESTLY tell me that they went to the top organic listing, projectorpoint.co.uk? Of course they didn’t. Your eyes are drawn to the images or the PPC ads for this result, so where do you think you’re likely to click?
So, what, all rankings are bad?
Hopefully I've now poisoned your mind against tracking your keyword rankings. And now we can focus on what you should do.
Sometimes, SOMETIMES, it’s good to look at rankings. In fact, I‘ll do more than concede it. You actually should look at some of your rankings, but you have to look at the right ones. Sounds like I‘m contradicting myself? Don’t worry, I‘ll explain now.
Know your niche
SEO is about priorities. That’s an important point, so I’ll say it again. SEO is about priorities. You can’t rank for every term, and certainly, you shouldn’t try to. If you spread your SEO efforts too thinly, you won’t make any progress.
Instead, focus on your niche There’s a lengthy explanation of what that means here but essentially it’s your main, or ‘head’ term, and the keywords that contain it. So if the head term you were targeting was projectors, your niche would be projectors for sale, Sony projectors, etc. Some of you might not know which niche you should target, and that’s fine. If your site has been around for a while and gets some non-branded SEO traffic (eg, people who arrive at your site via the search results who haven’t searched for your brand by name), here’s how to find yours with our Strategizer tool. But if you’re just starting out, you need to some keyword research to find out what the best niches are. You’re looking for niches that have low competition and high volume. If you don’t know what you’re doing, relax - our tools can help.
If you focus on your niche, and ONLY monitor the terms on your niche, you’ll see what progress your SEO is having, across the entire niche, not an endless list of pointless keywords.
Cull everything else
So you’re targeting your niche which, just to clarify, is the focus of the SEO work you’re doing. This is not about your vanity, so if there are a few terms that aren’t in your niche that you’re curious about, cull them. I don’t care if you’re ‘just checking’ them, I don’t care if that term has been in your family for six generations, if it’s not in the niche you’re focusing on, it’s not going in a keyword report. End of.
But what’s the harm in looking?
Looking, as you call it, is a gateway drug. First you’re just looking at keyword rankings out of curiosity. You know it’s not the focus of your SEO work, but hey, you’re just curious. If it goes up or down, no biggie. But curiosity is a contagious thing. Someone, your boss, your client, your alter-ego, will say "Oh, we’re number four for this term, I wonder where we are for that one". So you add that term to your ranking report. I mean, you’re just looking, right?
This process goes on and what was once a focused, meaningful keyword report, is now a flabby, pointless, time-sapping series of spreadsheets. And that’s if you’re lucky. I’ve met people who became so addicted to adding keywords to their reports they were stealing from their families and turning tricks on street corners. True story.
A good keyword report
A good keyword report though, is a useful thing. And actually, it’s a thing of beauty. Why? Because you can see at a really granular level what your keywords are doing. By focusing only on your niche, you can see what happens when you add more content, link build to a given page, launch a campaign on Facebook. You can see precisely what’s happening at a level that’s makes sense. There’s no wastage.
Here’s how I’d do a keyword report.
The most important thing is traffic, right? So start with that. You can get this from Google Analytics (henceforth known as GA), or whatever analytics you’re using. (I’ll be using GA screenshots). Click in ‘Traffic Sources,’ 'Sources,' 'Search' then ‘Organic’: then type the name of the niche into the search bar.
You’re about to look at the GA account of our friends, Interactive Mathematics They teach people math, so they’d probably want to rank for keywords that include the word algebra like how to do algebra or algebraic long division *eyes glaze over*.
Do this with your site and what you’ll be looking at are basically the results of your SEO. Remember, you’re only doing SEO on your niche so you’re only interested in traffic for your niche. Anything else isn’t relevant.
So, now we have the traffic, we need to see how that corresponds to rank positions. Where, after all, is that SEO traffic coming from?
Set up a ranking report
There are a whole host of ranking report tools out there. Wordtracker make a very good one, which I‘ll be walking you through in a moment so you can see just how good it is. But in the interests of impartiality, if you decide to go with someone else, please make sure the tool is:
- Web-based (if it runs on your computer it’s likely to take into account your own cookies, location etc.)
- Automatic - there is nothing more boring than forgetting to run a report then not having consistent or reliable data. Get one that runs automatically.
- Called Wordtracker- sorry, my boss is looking, bills to pay etc.
Now with our Keywords tool, it’s easy peasy.
1) Log in.
2) Click ‘New Campaign’ and fill in the deets.
3) Next, do this.
4) Now, add in the keywords in your niche and those of your competitors if you want to, hit ‘generate report’ and you’re good to go.
The resulting report is now your page two. Over time you’ll get a clear picture of your keywords rankings for your niche .
If your rankings drop out of the top 30, there will be gaps in the data, but over time you can see the gentle upward curve of progress.
As some of you may have noticed, the keyword legend on the lefthand side has been blurred out. I needed some historical data so I borrowed it from another campaign. This is cheating, but it had to be done. So don’t judge me.
We’re now looking at traffic and rankings for your niche. This, really, is all most of you will need. If someone says "Is your SEO working?" you can say, "Well, I‘ve been focusing on this niche and look at what’s happening". Job done.
But maybe there’s another page you could add in there, to really see what effect your rankings are having on traffic. Yes, there is a Page 3.
Sometimes Google Analytics doesn’t play nice with keyword data. In recent times an increasing number of clicks are not being assigned to their correct keywords and are instead rolled up into something called [not provided] This may in fact be your most popular keyword by a country mile, which is not great. There is a way of getting around this (of course) but first, we need just a little background.
You should have a crystal clear picture in your head about which pages are optimized for what keywords. And there should be as little overlap as you can conceivably manage - no two pages should share a keyword if at all possible. We call this keyword mapping and we make it nice and easy to do in our tools, if you’ve not done it already. But for this article, I ‘m going to assume you have.
So, you know what keywords each page is optimized for. You can then look at how many people arrived on those pages from the search engines directly, and you can get a rough idea of how well you’re ranking for the relevant term. You can do this really easily in GA.
Learn to love this page. When, if, your keyword data dries up, this page will save you. It’s also quite handy to see how your site is being received. A high number of impressions (the people who can see your site in the search results) and a low number of clicks (giving a low clickthrough rate, or CTR) will mean that your website isn’t very persuasive. So you can change the meta description, and maybe the title, and see what happens.
If you’ve designed your website with keyword rich web addresses (URLs), you can put the name of your niche in the filter bar and it will filter all the URLs that contain that word.
Or, if there’s a section of your site that your niche corresponds to, you can put that in too. So if I was intmath.com and I was interested in the www.intmath.com/basic-algebra section, I‘d do this:
If you’ve built your site in this way, it's a great way to get loads of detail on how your niche is performing. You could, if you wanted to, map the impressions you’re getting against your actions. So something like this:
Over time, this will transform into a detailed marker of all that you’ve done on your site. And a detailed record of what works and what doesn’t.
If you’ve not built your website in this way, you can still generate this report too (like you saw earlier) but because you won’t be able to focus on the section of your site that you’re link building towards (eg, your niche) the insight you can get from it won’t be as nuanced. Is it worth re-ordering your site in a more logical, keyword rich way? Personally I would, but it’s not my business and it’s not my bills that need paying. (Although they do, but that’s another article).
So there we have it. Andrew’s three-page SEO report that actually means something. Wasn’t that easy? What I‘ve written here is designed as a starting point for all the reporting that you’ll do. Every business is different, with different goals and different requirements. You need to own this and decide what numbers you need to see. Are you interested in conversion? Maybe bounce rate? Where the rest of your traffic is coming from? Ask yourself what questions you need your reports to answer, and only get that information. Don’t burden yourself with reams of data that don’t tell you anything. Not sure how to find the information you need? Then PLEASE let me know in the comments. This is the first article of (perhaps) many talking about numbers and what they mean. So if you have any questions, or ideas for the next post, post in the comments.
But in the meantime, let me know how this goes. Whichever keywords you’re currently tracking, stop and do this. Try it out for a few months and let me know how it goes. If you’re not making better decisions in less time you can sue me.*
*You can’t really.
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