Why SEOs Shouldn't Fixate on Keyword Rankings

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a game that's simple in principle and surprisingly complex in execution. There are hundreds of strategies, dozens of opportunities and, to top it all off, the playing field is always changing.

Everyone has different advice. It's almost impossible to relate cause directly to effect, so you're never quite sure what is and isn't working. Figuring out what to measure isn't even straightforward.

However, many businesses of all sizes put enormous weight on one metric: keyword ranking. Businesses tend to be specifically interested in ranking for one "high profile keyword" (or a small group of these keywords).

The reason seems obvious -- surely, if you hit the top spot for your chosen keyword, you're hitting the jackpot, right? And, let's face it, it's a great ego brand-booster.

But focusing on position, especially for a small group of keywords -- and especially to the detriment of other factors -- is a terrible idea. It's usually isn't best investment in a campaign or a good indicator of the overall health of a campaign. Let's look at why.

The Keyword Ranking Trap

Ranking for generic keywords isn't a bad idea. If you're ranked number one for your golden keyword, all the better. The traffic's free once you're there, after all.

The problem is when you focus your attention only on this area.

  • It's risky: By the very nature of the game, you don't know how much traffic you'll actually get when you get there. You don't know how much traffic is actually available, you don't know what your organic click-through rate (CTR) will be, and you don't know how well this traffic will convert. Yes, you can make some pretty good educated guesses, but you can never know for sure (some people make terrible guesses!). Putting all your eggs are in one basket is a massive risk to take with your SEO budget. You're also heavily exposed to things such as algorithm changes.

  • It's hard: SEO is abstract, and people, by and large, are terrible at processing what abstract thoughts and ideas really mean. So when you say, "Ranking for this keyword is going to be extremely difficult," they think, "Oh well, we'll just spend a bit more money and try a bit harder." Let's put this into perspective. If your target keyword is worth ranking for at all, we're talking hard as in beating Bruce Lee in a fair fight hard. Stopping a wrecking ball with your thumb hard. Running a marathon in under two hours hard. OK, maybe I exaggerate, but you get the idea, right? Yes, it can be done, but it will often be extremely tough and an extremely long haul, with uncertain results. You might invest heavily and never get there.

  • It's directly competitive: Unlike long tail traffic, for example, you're going directly head to head with other serious players. And it's just the nature of competition that, sooner or later, there'll be someone out there who has more money to burn, is tougher, is smarter, or is sneakier than you. If you can knock someone out of the top spot, someone else can do the same to you.

  • It's not a bottom-line metric: Keyword rankings can be a useful tool in the feedback loop of decision-action-measurement that makes up any campaign, but they don't directly affect your bottom line. Traffic and conversions are what you need. Targets should always be made in terms of bottom line metrics; keyword rankings are a technique, not a result.

  • It's a red herring: Most SEO practitioners have had this experience. They report a 500 percent increase in search traffic to their client, who responds, "That's great, but why aren't we at number one for the word 'conferences' yet?" (If you're a designer, this is the SEO equivalent of a client saying they love the design, but they want it in Comic Sans.) In other words, it distracts attention from more important metrics, results, and, most frustratingly, successes.

  • It's not even the best source of traffic: Generic keywords usually don't even offer the most or the best quality traffic in any given search niche (sometimes it can even be a small proportion). By focusing on specific keywords you might miss much bigger opportunities.

What You Should Do

It's all very well declaring what you shouldn't be doing, but what should you be doing? The answer is to diversify your efforts.

  • Work with a range of keywords: Work on a range of keywords at different levels of competition and potential traffic, but ignore the most competitive ones until you've knocked all your other opportunities on the head. The number with which you work will depend on you and your business: it could be 10 or it could be 100. Think of it as hedging your bets. Just don't spread yourself too thin.

  • Go for long tail traffic: Working with the long tail avoids many of the pitfalls of generic keyword rankings and, even better, you usually get a much better result in terms of traffic for the same budget (although your results may vary).

  • Work with analytics and conversion optimization: Perhaps not strictly speaking a part of SEO, but certainly this is a part of the web marketing mix. If your site already has reasonable traffic, you can often squeeze more conversions from it by getting a good grip on how people are (or aren't) using your site, and making design, copy, and interactivity changes appropriately.

Everything in SEO is a rule of thumb, and there will be plenty of exceptions. It might well be that a specific effort to move from number three to number one for your main keyword might be just the ticket for your business.

But, in general -- and especially if it's a small businesses with a limited budget or starting on optimizing a new site -- taking a diverse approach initially and focusing on more specific goals later is the way to win.

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