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How to Stop the Vanity of Your Search Metrics

Imagine you publish two blog posts. In one week, one page shows up in 1,500 searches. The other page appears in 850 searches.

It’s clear which one is on the right track.

Or is it?

Metrics can be misleading. If you don’t go below the surface, they’re done in vain. So, which metrics give you deeper insights to improve your SEO strategies, and which don’t?

If you don’t go below the surface, your search metrics are done in vain, says @itsrbek. #SEO Click To Tweet

Let’s get into it. (I’ve pulled traffic and ranking data using tools from Ahrefs, the company I work for, to illustrate my points. You also can use Keywords Everywhere, a free Chrome extension, for search volume and costs per click. Majestic is a popular alternative for backlink research.)

1. Keyword search volume

The keyword search volume metric refers to the number of searches performed for a keyword within a time frame – how many times people search “Formula 1” on Google in a month?

Image source

Keyword volume is generally used to understand how popular a keyword is and to predict how much organic traffic a page would get if it ranked for that keyword.

Many marketers are taught to use this metric to decide which keywords they want to target when optimizing their pages for search. They follow the logic that goes like this: high search volume equals high traffic equals more clicks. Consequently, low search volume equals low traffic equals fewer clicks, right?

Not quite.

Wrong assumption

Search volume does not equal clicks. Or, in layman’s terms, people don’t always click on a Google result to get the information they need. Thus, even if your page is in the No. 1 spot in the search results, your page isn’t necessarily getting a click.

High search volume doesn’t necessarily lead to clicks, says @itsrbek. #SEO Click To Tweet

Here’s an example for the keyword phrase, “how much is the Nintendo Switch,” which has an estimated monthly search volume of 5,500 in the United States. Only 38% of searches result in clicks.

Why doesn’t the top link always get a click? Google’s featured snippets (also fondly referred to as “answer boxes”) tackle a searcher’s question right away and publish the answer at the top of the results:

Wrong assumption

Two words: paid ads. For any sort of commercial term, advertisers are buying tons of your keyword search traffic through Google AdWords.

Let’s imagine I work for a company that is an amazing resource on the best types of cycling shorts. I check Keywords Explorer for “cycling shorts” and discover out of the 4,200 clicks received on the search engine page, a whopping 38% goes to a paid result (i.e., not the page I created).

In short: Targeting keywords based on high search volume sounds tempting but you should dig deeper into context to get a more accurate (and valuable) gauge of their traffic potential.

Do this instead

Look at traffic potential (i.e., clicks from the searches). Aim for high-traffic keywords instead of highly searched keywords. You can gauge this by referring to the SERP overview in Keywords Explorer.

Let’s explore a scenario with two possible keyword phrases.

Plug “submit site to search engines” into Keywords Explorer. It returns a search volume of 700 with traffic numbers in the 6,000-to-9,000 range for top ranking results.

Now, let’s try “SEO tips.” It has a higher search volume (3,600), but it sees significantly lower traffic numbers for top ranking results (300-to-1,250 range).

It’s clear that even though “submit site to search engines” has a lower search volume, it is likely to earn more traffic than the higher search volume phrase, “SEO tips.”

2. Number of organic keywords

Number of organic keywords references how many total non-paid keywords your page ranks for. It’s tempting to reel off a metric like this to impress your boss or client – we now rank for 100 more keywords. More keywords ranked equals more traffic, right? Champagne all around!

Wrong assumption

Don’t pop the cork just yet. The page could rank in position 99 for all 100 keywords and not receive organic traffic from any of them.

Position of keyword rankings matters more than quantity of rankings, says @itsrbek. #SEO Click To Tweet

Let’s take it from the beginning with an example.

Let’s plug into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer the address of a website for gamers,, to look at its organic search data for all countries.

The site ranks for 6.7 million keywords and earns an estimated 11.3 million visits through organic search traffic per month.

Now, let’s plug in

It ranks for fewer keywords (5.3 million) but sees significantly higher organic search traffic (17 million) a month.

Wait, what?

The truth is that ranking position matters – a lot.

Do this instead

Look at the distribution of your organic keywords’ positions.

Studies have shown the first three results in SERPs get 60% of the clicks. In other words, ranking for a keyword is nice. But, it’s better for your organic search traffic for the keyword to be higher up on the search results.

Let’s revisit the previous example.

Heading to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer > Organic search tab, I untick the ranking boxes for 4 through 10 and 11 through 100 in the organic keywords chart to find how many keywords ranks for in the top three positions.

The data reveals that, of the 6.7 million ranking keywords, only 153,534 show up in the top three results on their corresponding search pages.

Doing the same for finds 231,050 of its 5.3 million ranking keywords are found in the top three results on their search pages.

Looking at organic keyword distribution, it’s clear that while ranks for fewer keywords overall, it has the advantage of ranking for more top positions in the SERPs.

That’s likely a big contributing factor to the originally disclosed gap in organic traffic.

Breaking down your organic keyword rankings by positions is a great way to find out where to focus your next efforts – work on your pages ranking fourth through 10th to boost them into the first three results. You’re likely to see some nice traffic growth from that.

TIP: Even if your keyword ranks in a top three position, it isn’t guaranteed to bring in tons of traffic. You still have to take into account the traffic potential.

3. Total number of backlinks

Much like organic keywords, the total number of backlinks to your page matters to an extent. For example, if you have five backlinks to your page and your competitor has 5,000, it’s unlikely that you’re going to outrank it anytime soon.

Wrong assumption

While it’s tempting to give yourself a pat on the back at upward-trending backlink numbers, this metric is not particularly insightful – many things, including domain authority or domain rating, come into play in the backlinks game.

Let’s revisit vs.

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PC Gamer has 4.18 million backlinks to Kotaku’s staggering 25.1 million, yet its domain rating is only three points less. And, as discussed, PC Gamer also sees higher organic traffic.

Backlinks alone won’t bring higher search rankings, says @itsrbek. #SEO Click To Tweet

Focusing solely on the total number of backlinks can give you an inaccurate view of your SEO progress.

Do this instead

Look at the quality, relevancy, and diversity of your backlinks:

  • Quality – a link from a page with high authority matters more than a link from a page with low authority. It’s like preferring to consume medical advice from WebMD vs. a blog page written by your mother’s childhood friend. 

In the world of backlinks, measure website authority with metrics like URL rating (UR). A backlink from a high UR page generally brings more authority in search engines’ eyes than one from a low UR page.

  • Relevancy – backlinks from sites similar to yours are more valuable. Search engines consider relevancy by looking at the content surrounding the backlink as well as how relevant both the domain and page are.

For example, you run a hair salon and want to secure more backlinks. Your friend has a water sport site and agrees to include your content. Because the sites are not targeting the same topic or audience, Google triggers a manual penalty and the additional backlinks backfire.

  • Diversity – subsequent links from the same domain or page weigh less in the eyes of search engines. 

Having 100 backlinks on the same site won’t have the same impact as the first link on the site because the first link brings the most value. Work to expand the number of sites with backlinks to your site. Your search rankings would benefit much more by having 50 backlinks from 20 sites.

Work to expand the number of sites with backlinks to your site, says @itsrbek. #SEO Click To Tweet

The next time you analyze new backlinks, go deeper. Dive into the quality of the backlink and check whether it’s coming from a new-to-you domain or one that’s already linked to you multiple times – and, of course, make sure it’s not a spam site.


While vanity metrics often look good and can be an indicator of overall SEO progress to a certain extent, they don’t necessarily provide actionable insights. You need to dig deeper.

The above metrics are all great examples of data points to track your performance, predict success, and decide on next steps.

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).

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute