Why Keyword Rankings are misleading for SEO

By Simon Ensor
SEO 21.08.2017

By its very nature, search engine optimisation is about increasing your website’s ability to rank for given search terms, which in turn should result in more conversions from the search engine results pages (SERPs). No wonder then that for a long time the primary focus of SEO campaigns has been on getting people to rank higher for their ‘target keywords’.

The problem is that a blinkered focus on keyword rankings, especially if it is on a handful of ‘money keywords’ is a not a true measure of success. It can also lead you into some fundamental SEO mistakes, as documented by SEMrush. If you only continue to read this for the next 30 seconds, here are a few key takeaways:

  • Keywords are only indicative of success, the proof is organic traffic and subsequent conversions.
  • Poor research and lower than normal click through rates can result in number 1 rankings for what might look like good keywords but actually deliver very little results.
  • SEO campaigns should be traffic and conversion driven, allowing for an easily attributable ROI.
  • Don’t completely discount keyword rankings – just take them with a pinch of salt.

So what factors contribute to keyword rankings being part of the garden path that you may, or may not be blissfully strolling down?

Incorrect Research

Research is absolutely critical to an SEO campaign. Admittedly keyword research is still an integral part of SEO but the difference between great research and uneducated/lazy research is stark. It is akin to that famous scene from The Matrix – the red pill or the blue pill, after which turning back will involve a painful amount of reworking.

Searcher Intent

Absolutely essential but often overlooked. Search volume numbers can distract from searcher intent. As such, if you gain traffic from a keyword that is not aligned with the solutions that your website is offering they will probably just bounce off your website. Poor quality traffic, no conversion.

Low Search Volume

It is getting harder and harder for SEOs to get clear search volume data from the Big G. The Keyword Tool changed to the Keyword Planner, then search volumes became ranges depending on your adwords budget. We often find very conflicting data from the Keyword Planner and what we see through our own analytics.
Regardless, we see it all too often where the real search volume data takes second fiddle to number one rankings. The rankings end up as ego strokers with very little kick back in terms of quality traffic. When this comes to light, both the client and the SEO will feel somewhat foolish.

Hey but at least you ranked number one, right?

Filter bubble

The Filter Bubble was something that was introduced by Eli Pariser a number of years ago – for more information have a read of my blog post on Search Engine Watch. The crux of the argument is that our search results are personalised, with an emphasis on preferences that are in turn dictated by previous activity. You don’t even need to be logged into gmail for some of these factors (e.g location) to come into effect.

As a result, not everyone’s search results are the same. This can cause havoc on those purely focused on rankings and distract from the wider SEO strategy.

Long Tail Traffic

Guess what? Great content does more than just help you rank for your target keywords. I hope this is not the first time you are hearing this, but if it is then know this: it is highly likely that the majority of your traffic will come from longer tail keyword traffic. So why not look to capitalise on this?

The arguments for long tail traffic are extensive. I’ll try to be brief. Great content should be solving user problems or at least fulfilling their searcher intent. Your content should then be aligned to your Inbound Marketing Funnel, therefore ultimately ending with conversions. People research products and services prior to making a purchasing decision so why not get them interacting with your brand at this early consideration stage?

Clearly if you are purely focussed on the end game transactional search terms and their corresponding rankings, you may well miss out on a rather large slice of the pie. You also won’t take note of the additional benefits of this long tail traffic.

Latent Semantic Indexing and Rankbrain

Some pretty complicated words there. To avoid the terminology, LSI can be viewed as Google’s giant thesaurus and Rankbrain allows Google to understand queries which they have not had before (a surprisingly large amount). Both mean that Google is able to understand the intent behind a search term rather than just the keywords themselves. Let’s look at an example:

If Yellowball’s only concern was to rank for ‘SEO Agency London’ we would discount Google’s ability to rank us for other search terms with the same user intent, which could also produce high levels of conversions. Examples might be SEO Services in London, SEO experts London, London based SEO Management or SEO Campaign Management. Through our focus on our main keyword we might also neglect content which contributes to our authority as an SEO provider and therefore reduce our ability to gain all of this valuable traffic.

Should I forget about Rankings?

Absolutely not, and no (for all you trolls out there) I’m not contradicting myself. Just be aware. Keyword rankings are indicative of success and can be a great KPI if chosen carefully. However, they are not the be all and end all. There are lots of other factors that have a stronger correlation to the success of a results driven SEO campaign.

What Should an SEO Campaign Focus on?

Thanks Simon but you’ve only told me half the story here. I appreciate that, so here are some key metrics that you should incorporate into your campaign. If you are an SEO these will help build a higher level of trust with your client if they are properly educated on the topic. For clients it will give you far more clarity on the success of the campaign and a stronger business case should you come to renewal point (whichever way you go).

Targeted Organic Traffic

Unless your boss is some sort of egotistical maniac (and even if they are!), getting to number one in the rankings is in order to facilitate a higher level of traffic. In addition to this, with higher user intent than more disruptive marketing channels, there is an expectation of more targeted traffic. As such, the level of targeted organic traffic to your website should be used as a success metric.

We say targeted because you should be reviewing the queries within Google Analytics or Search Console to ensure that the traffic coming from search is aligned to your solutions/sales funnel. Furthermore, that spam data is not warping the data.


If anything should be the top priority for an SEO campaign, conversions should be it. The majority of businesses that run campaigns with Yellowball are looking for a monetary conversion, although conversions can come in many different shapes and sizes. For instance, a non profit trade association may be looking for increased exposure to larger players within the market, although in the end this would be in order to represent this client.

Get conversion tracking set up via Google Analytics, a VOIP number on your website and access to the CRM so that you can crunch the data and assess the number of conversions (and quality of conversions) occurring on the website. If you do not have an e-commerce website, syncing the data with that of your CRM will give you a clearer idea of the value associated to genuine conversions for the business.


Finally, and this is harder for some business than others. Don’t assess your ROI based upon revenue generation. Much like keyword rankings, revenue can be misleading in terms of return on investment. There is almost always a cost of sale so if you are using an SEO agency, the ROI should be calculated based on the net margin of the conversions produced by the increase in organic traffic and compared with the associated agency fees.

We hope this helps and if you have any questions, or indeed want to find out more about the SEO campaigns that we run then just shout!

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