It’s About the Traffic, Not Keyword Rank
Long ago in a land far, far away (the Bay Area), I managed the SEO for a large e-commerce website.
How large? Not Amazon.com massive, but during peak season, we cleared a million bucks a day.
From a fledgling e-commerce site built by brick-and-mortar merchants with no e-commerce chops, the site grew into a category killer, dominating high-volume keywords in its retail niche. And this happened not by accident or luck, but mostly due to the efforts of the SEO Department of one. Yours truly. Hold the applause, please.
Organic traffic accounted for 60% of site visits two years in. The site continued to gain search visibility and was well ahead of earnings projections.
And that’s when it all came undone. Cue the music by The Guess Who.
The Year of Lost SEO
The folks in the C-Suites, always on the prowl, invited themselves to the weekly SEO meetings with our consulting firm. Not to listen and learn, but to right the SEO ship.
In their view, something had gone terribly wrong.
That thing was keyword rank. To whit, a single favorite keyword, and not how well it ranked, but where it ranked. They wanted it to rank on the home page, where it had previously ranked, and not one level down, where it had moved in the wake of a Google algorithm update.
So for the better part of a year, dismissing the protests of SEO grunts who knew better but feared for their jobs, it became the primary mission of C-suite SEO to move rank for the pet keyword from Page B back to Page A.
Rank for keyword did indeed move. But it shifted to yet another page and dropped several places, amplifying the C-suite displeasure. And for the better part of a year, overall site traffic stagnated. In terms of growth and SEO initiatives, it was the worst year of my lengthy tenure (yes, I outlasted the C-suite execs). In my memoirs, I’ll refer to it as The Year of Lost SEO.
Lesson 1, quite obviously, is to allow people to do their jobs, especially if they’re more qualified than you and closer to the action.
Lesson 2 is the point of this blog rant: Never value keyword rank over total organic traffic. Rank doesn’t always translate to revenue.
Keywords Matter Less Than Quality & Relevance
By the time of our ill-fated project, Google had already moved away from a strict keyword focus. Keyword density, or the frequency and repeats of a keyword, no longer worked the way it used to.
Once, we had a formula for the copywriters: “Repeat the primary keyword X number of times and the secondary keyword Y times. Mix well and serve the keyword spam to our customers.” Today, Google sends that recipe back to the kitchen.
Keyword density remains a factor in rank, but Google cares more about the quality, thoroughness, and uniqueness of your content.
Is It Helpful to Track Keywords? Part 1
Keyword tracking remains a staple of all SEO platforms. At Culture Cube, we track keywords for every site we manage in the geographical area the business serves.
“But didn’t you just say the keywords don’t matter?”
No, not exactly. Keyword tracking still has value if you keep it in perspective.
You can’t track all keywords
Your site may rank for tens of thousands of keywords. It’s not possible or helpful to track them all. So you’ll end up tracking just a representative sample — and no duplicates, please.
In Google’s world, “air conditioner repair” and “air conditioning repair” have the same meaning. How can you tell? They have identical search volume. Google aggregates several closely related keywords into a single term. So if you’re tracking “air conditioner repair” and “air conditioning repair,” you’re tracking the same essential keyword twice.
Rank is relative & fluid
Keyword rank is a snapshot in time taken at a select server location. Obviously, “plumber near me” will show very different results in New York City than in Los Angeles. But even from the same location, keyword rank will fluctuate throughout the week, and it’s heavily influenced by search intent and user behavior.
For proof, look no further than the data in the Google Search Console. For your brand name, where by rights you should be #1 always and forever, your rank may average 1.6, 2.1, or even lower. There is no true #1 anymore. It all depends.
Long-tail terms may drive more total traffic than prize high-volume keywords
Long tail keywords are more specific search phrases, and with the rise of auto-completion and voice search, they dominate today’s search landscape because they return much better results. 70% of all searches use long-tail queries.
What gets you closer to a lunch locale: “restaurant” or “vegan organic pizza near me?”
Search volume for long-tail keywords, while much smaller than head terms, and so small that it may not even register at the individual keyword level, can be huge in aggregate.
For proof, I invite you back to the Google Search Console. Under Performance > Search results (filter by “Page”) Google displays up to 1,000 keywords driving visits to a page. “Water in bottom of dishwasher when not in use,” with only 90 searches a month, may not be in your keyword tracking list, but it’s casting a ballot for SEO health.
#1 rank ain’t what it used to be
According to leaked AOL data back in the day, a link in the #1 position of the search results would garner 40% of the clicks.
AOL, which used to be America’s plodding dial-up gateway to the internet, has ironically rebranded itself as an identity theft and premium tech support company. And in 2022, the flood of traffic from a #1 rank has slowed to a trickle.
Google search results have changed so dramatically that organic listings usually appear well below the fold. Google Adword, Shopping, Local Services ads, and the local 3-pack occupy the prime real estate.
Even in simpler times, Search Console data made me question the AOL “findings.” A keyword with an average rank of 1.6 might have a clickthrough rate of 2%. Even branded terms rarely came close to 40% clickthrough. And during a user test I requested, the reason for this became apparent.
Sure, it helps to be #1, but if users think you’re less relevant than a result one or places below you, or they see a link to a more recognizable brand, guess where they’ll be clicking? My optimized pages drove high keyword rank, but keyword rank didn’t correlate directly to traffic.
High-value content trumps keyword-stuffed content
Google was a keyword-based search engine when it launched in 1998 — admittedly better than flawed competitors like AltaVista and Yahoo, but easy enough to manipulate with spam SEO techniques.
Fast forward to 2022, and Google is approaching human intelligence. Or, judging by Jay Leno’s interviews with average Americans, Google may already be ahead.
Google can, in fact, detect some things better than the human brain — AI-generated content, for instance. So if you rely on an AI platform or service to produce your blog content, and you post that blog with little human input or editing, it may not rank, no matter how well it’s “optimized” for a keyword. And even if it does rank now, it may not rank in a year as Google’s algorithm evolves.
Google, and Bing to a lesser degree, have moved to natural language algorithms that understand context, synonyms, and intent. Do humans speak in keywords? Yes — to an extent. You would always refer to a plumber as a “plumber,” and not a “water pipe installation and repair technician.”
But in evaluating plumbing services with a friend, you would also mention leaks, pipes, toilets, showers, faucets, and all other things that go with plumbing. Google looks for those related keywords as proof of relevance.
Rich, informative content matters more than keyword-optimized content. Use the keywords to establish the themes of your content, and not to write the content.
Is It Helpful to Track Keywords? Part 2
Keyword tracking still has directional value if you chose your keywords wisely. General keyword rank can be an indication of site health and growth. If you see a sudden, sharp downtrend in your tracked keywords, one of two things may have happened.
- Something may have gone wrong on your site and bears investigation.
- An algorithm update may have changed the way Google prioritizes your site. Read all you can about it, and make adjustments.
Don’t obsess about the keywords. Traffic matters far more than keyword rank.
Check your traffic data, and if organic traffic has also dropped sharply, you have a problem. If it hasn’t, you may want to re-examine the list of keywords you’re tracking.
How to Choose & Track Your Keywords
- Keyword rank should serve as a guide and indicator of site health. That’s it.
- Always designate the appropriate search area for keyword tracking. If your business serves Riverside, CA, track it in Riverside and not Los Angeles or Google US.
- Consider search intent. Don’t bother tracking a keyword you can never rank for. Most good SEO platforms have this built in, but the Jedermann version is to enter a Google search for a keyword and see what comes back. If the search returns nothing but news articles and Wiki pages, your service information page won’t rank, no matter how hard you try.
- Avoid duplicates. As mentioned, “air conditioner repair” and “air conditioning repair” mean the same thing to Google — the clue is identical search volume.
- Have a cutoff point. Below a threshold level of say, 100 searches a month, a keyword may not be worth tracking.
- Don’t clutter your list with every possible keyword and keyword permutation. Keyword clutter will cloud your view and create confusion. So after you create your initial keyword list, prune it to a manageable size.
We’ve covered a lot in this blog post, and I thank you for reading to the end. Here are the main points of the blog in bullet points. And to those of you who scrolled past the lengthy exposition in this blog and straight to the bullets, God bless you. I would have done the same.
- Keyword tracking is a valuable guide, not an end unto itself.
- Use keyword rank as one of several indicators to measure site growth.
- Track only the keywords that matter to your business in your service area.
- Check traffic data to see if there’s a correlation between keyword rank and traffic.
- Choose your keywords carefully, and don’t obsess about them. Traffic matters more than rank.
- Never write for keywords; write for people first, and Google second.
- Informative, well-written content matters more than keyword-optimized content.
- Use the keywords to establish the themes of your content, and not to write the content.
About Culture Cube Digital Marketing
Culture Cube specializes in digital marketing for local businesses. Our clients include plumbers, HVAC installers, appliance repair companies, and local newspapers.
We offer the expertise of a large agency at small agency rates.
Because we specialize, we’re better qualified to promote your small business and create the most effective campaigns.
We don’t waste client money on lavish offices, fancy equipment, costly business trips, and endless meetings. We pass our savings on to you and welcome you as a partner more than a client.
Please contact us to learn what we can do for you.
References & Further Reading
- Google’s DeepMind says it is close to achieving ‘human-level’ artificial intelligence (Daily Mail)
- Winning the Zero Moment of Truth (a free e-book from Google offering insights into Google’s “thinking”)
- Google claims it reduced irrelevant search results by over 50% in seven years (Search Engine Land)
- AOL Proudly Releases Massive Amounts of Private Data (TechCrunch)
- Google Says AI Generated Content Is Against Guidelines (Search Engine Journal)
- AI-Generated Content: Can Google Detect It? (Serpstat)
Peter Losh is the SEO Director of Culture Cube Marketing in Upland, California. He's also a de facto UX designer, site builder, and content creator. Unlike most folks in the SEO biz, he works directly on the sites he optimizes, having witnessed the effects of recommendations that go ignored or misunderstood (in previous gigs).
Peter has worked on websites since the salad days of the internet, first as a graphic artist and web designer at the Centers for Disease Control. Then came several years of freelance web development, SEO and e-commerce management for business sites of various sizes, and ultimately a 10-year stint as the sole SEO Manager of PartyCity.com.
In his spare time, he enjoys classic film, classical music, and classic comebacks. And cats.
Professional Work Experience
- Search engine optimization
- Ecommerce management
- Conversion rate optimization
- UX design and analysis
- Copywriting and training
- E-mail campaign design
- Web design and development
- Graphic design