For two decades now, search marketers have gravitated toward one metric--one KPI--that's apparently more important than all the others: keyword positions.
On the surface, it makes sense. The entire point of search engine optimization (SEO) is to increase your visibility in search engines, improving your rankings so you get more eyes and clicks for links to your site. If you're rising in rank for various keywords, it's a decent indication of success, and if those rankings start to fall, it means you're doing something wrong.
But as the sole indicator of your campaign's health, it just doesn't do the job. Fortunately, there are some alternate metrics that can help you get a more accurate picture.
So why are keyword positions such an overrated metric to track?
Why Keyword Positions Are Overrated
First, let me be clear. I'm not saying keyword positions aren't a valuable metric to understand; I'm saying we tend to put too much value on it. Most marketing agencies tend to zoom in on one or two key metrics to measure results, and if keyword positions are one of those metrics, you might end up with a skewed vision of what's really going on.
- Keyword specificity. Thanks to Google Hummingbird and semantic search, specific keywords aren't as valuable or as targetable as they used to be. You can still use keyword research to guide your campaign toward valuable groups of keywords and phrases, but the one-to-one correlation between keyword prominence and rankings for that keyword is no longer as predictable or precise as it once was. Trying to rank for one specific keyword will likely cause you to rise in rank for a host of related keywords.
- Ambiguous data. It doesn't help that Google doesn't provide you with specific information about how you're ranking for various keywords. Google Analytics gives you a wealth of information about the traffic that gets to your website, but not much about how that traffic searched for you. Sure, there are third-party tools to help you track your rankings, but even these aren't perfectly reliable.
- Correlation with value. Let's say you've earned the top spot for a keyword you believe to be highly relevant for your business. Congratulations are in order! But why? How can you be sure that this number-one-ranked keyword is sending you more traffic, or sending you more valuable traffic? The truth is, keyword positions are a good indication of greater visibility, but they don't carry a specific value.
- SERP volatility. A quick look at any SERP volatility chart will tell you that keyword positions don't stay in one place for long. Entries rise and fall quickly, in response to all kinds of uncontrollable, external forces. You shouldn't celebrate a massive success if you rose to the top after a competitor got penalized, and you shouldn't panic after a failure, if the failure was just due to a minor shakeup. There are too many forces influencing search rankings to credit yourself for their rises and falls.
What to Track Instead
So if keyword positions aren't a valuable metric to track, what should you track instead?
Your goal should be to track a wide variety of metrics, diversifying your analytics report to get a high-level understanding of everything that's going on.
These are just some of the metrics you can add to your report:
- Average positions. Instead of looking at your positions for each of several individual keywords, take an average measure of several keywords and phrases. This will help you filter out the noise from keyword volatility and give you a bigger picture of your overall performance.
- Organic traffic. Along with keyword rankings, organic traffic is probably the most popular metric for beginners to use. It tells you how many visitors have come to your site after clicking on one of your links in the SERPs, and serves as a more specific indicator of your visibility and appeal to new visitors.
- Email subscribers. Tracking email subscribers gives you a greater indication of value than simply tracking people who saw or clicked on your website.
- Blog commenters. Similarly, blog commenters show that your target demographics aren't just stopping by--they're actively engaged with your brand.
- Onsite conversions. Your onsite conversion rate won't be affected by your SEO campaign directly, but it can and does serve as a measure of value you can use to make sense of your other metrics.
Focusing on any single metric is bound to give you a skewed impression on the effectiveness of your campaign.
Only by reviewing multiple KPIs, and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each as indicators of your overall performance, will you walk away with an accurate view of how your campaign is faring.
Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.