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Why Google Keyword Rankings Still Matter for SEO

Editor’s note: You may have missed the original version of this article when CMI published it in 2016. Search engine rankings continue to be important for SEO so we’ve updated the post to include some fresh examples.

Do keyword rankings matter anymore? I cringe anytime someone suggests that they don’t.

Sure, SEO changes over the years. But that hardly means it makes sense to overlook search engine rankings.

Let’s me start with why the question even comes up and then I’ll walk through how you can deal with rankings. Along the way, I’ll put some misunderstandings in perspective.

Sometimes marketers discount rankings

1. Google Analytics

In 2011, Google removed keywords with natural results in Google Analytics. You were left with the dreaded “not provided.” Gee, Google, thanks. I never bought your sorry line about not wanting to invade a searcher’s privacy. You show me the search phrases when I advertise.

When you couldn’t see the natural traffic details in analytics, rankings lost their appeal.

2. RankBrain

When the RankBrain algorithm came out in 2015, it became clearer that Google matches search queries with appropriate content even when a website page lacks the identical keyword phrase.

For years, Google emphasized that it didn’t look at keywords. In 2013, Google released Hummingbird, the algorithm that stressed the importance and meaning of search strings over individual keywords. Google focuses on ideas and concepts. That’s why your content sometimes ranks for keywords that aren’t even on your page.

Google focuses on ideas. That’s why #content ranks for keywords not on the page, says @mikeonlinecoach. Share on X

3. Inaccurate rankings

Ranking accuracy is a concern. It’s not a huge issue for me because rankings still provide a sense of how your content is doing. Rankings vary for several reasons, including:

  • Changes in algorithms (search engines always tweak them).
  • Competing websites that add SEO elements and/or expand their content.
  • Search engine results pages – SERPs (Google, for example, shows everything from featured snippets to People Also Ask).
  • Personalization, including user behavior and settings that influence what people see.

How to make the most of keyword rankings

1. Start with a manageable list

It doesn’t make sense to spend the time making and evaluating thousands of keywords if you only care about a portion.

2. Make sure the keywords are relevant

Marketers still make poor decisions with SEO. They insist on targeting keyword phrases that are too competitive or rarely searched.

Marketers make poor decisions when they target keyword phrases that are too competitive. @mikeonlinecoach #SEO Share on X

3. Use multiple tools

I routinely reference SEMrush and Moz (I create custom profiles). You also can reference ranking and related data in Google Search Console. I even spot-check some rankings with lesser known services like SERPROBOT. Unfortunately, some minor third-party services sometimes don’t work or they disappear.

4. Correlate key information

Keyword rankings don’t mean much unless you study other data as well. Ranking tools provide the corresponding page URL and average search volume from Google. Additionally, I compare that information with the top organic landing pages in Google Analytics to identify opportunities.

Consulting firm Kimley-Horn should look more closely at its data.

SEMrush, which tracks millions of keywords for websites, shows more than 7,000 phrases ranking one to 100 for the Kimley-Horn home page.

You might expect to see these top rankings for variations of the firm name:

But the website falls short for non-brand phrases:

Some of those are close, but look at these:

5. Modify your keywords

Sometimes you need to hit delete.

If a keyword phrase doesn’t rank, show it the door. Why waste energy on something that doesn’t help pay the bills? If a keyword started at 67 and made it all the way to 33 after several months, don’t get too excited. It’s not likely to crack the top 10.

Odds are, your content ranks for keywords you never considered. Track competitors and develop ideas from them on what works.

I use SEMrush all the time to discover related keyword phrases that I never chose. Though I have specific projects, SEMrush scans the universe (or part of it) and shows me other keyword variations and how a website ranks along with the page URL.

Study paid search data. Get access to the targeted paid keywords and search phrases that people use before clicking ads.

I find new keywords in all sorts of places – including website internal search data in Google Analytics and even a book index.

Find new keywords in all sorts of places, from paid search data to even a book index, says @mikeonlinecoach. Share on X

6. Reassign keywords

Congestion is one of the biggest problems with keyword rankings. When you look at keywords, rankings, and page URLs, you often see dozens if not hundreds of keywords attracted to one page. It doesn’t just happen on the home page as I showed with Kimley-Horn.

Here is an interior page for Kimley-Horn with some good and many too low rankings:

Let’s say you have 27 keyword phrases all tied to the same web page. Maybe four are among the top 10 positions. Bravo. What are the odds any of the other 23 will reach the top 10? If you modify the content and work on links (internal and backlinks), maybe some will move up, but you run the risk of hurting existing high rankings.

You might be better off to see whether some of those keywords could rank for other existing pages or create new content to support them.

7. Don’t neglect your conversion data

Calls to action and conversion data vary widely among B2C and B2B companies. It is possible to know how your organic pages come through (or miss the mark) for your brand. Track metrics like:

  • Sales.
  • Leads.
  • Event registrations.
  • Demos.
  • White paper requests (gated).
  • PDF downloads (not gated).

8. Understand ranking factors

Search engines consider dozens upon dozens of ranking variables when deciding which websites deserve to rank the best.

Google executives acknowledge that the top of the list includes backlinks, content, and RankBrain (the Google artificial intelligence technology that handles search queries).

Content clearly plays a significant role. Some marketers mistakenly believe they just need to create original, quality content. I’m sure good content will rank, but not always. I often come across exceptional content that doesn’t rank well.

Some marketers mistakenly believe just creating quality #content will net high rankings, says @mikeonlinecoach. Share on X

Rankings serve as proof about the content’s SEO value. Specifically, the following also tend to influence rankings:

Some marketers continue to cite social media as a ranking factor – at least for Google. It’s not one unless you count backlinks that may stem from social shares. Bing does mention social media as a ranking variable.

#Socialmedia is not a Google ranking factor (unless you count backlinks from shares), says @mikeonlinecoach. Share on X

9. Use keywords in headlines

Can you really write headlines without keywords? Should the content title literally be: How to (fill in the blank) to Build Your Business?

If you can’t work a phrase in your headline, at least pepper it with single keywords. I deliberately add words like “checklist,” “template,” “B2B,” “brands,” “employees,” and “study” to help secure more long-tail keyword phrase rankings.

10. Remember, keywords set the stage

Just like the headline, your page or post has words. When you write, how often do you give any thought about whether your content might be found on a search engine?

What’s your experience with rankings? How do you track them and keep them in mind as you evaluate other marketing data?

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Catch Mike Murray and get more SEO tips in person at Content Marketing World. And if you register by May 31, you’ll receive the early-bird rate. Plus, use the code CMIBLOG100 for an additional $100 discount.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute