This guest article post was published by Nik Tordil from Think Big Online.
For as long as anyone can remember, keywords were widely regarded as the main ingredient in running a web marketing campaign. What is that they used to say -- “keyword is king” or was it content? In any case, people used keywords as a basis for evaluating results and making quick judgments about whether a campaign is profitable or not. Come 2018, can we still say the same thing about keyword rankings? Probably not the way things are going -- do read on and allow us to explain.
So what has changed since then?
To get a better perspective, let us look back by about six years -- back when we could get a tonne of information on specific keywords that people are using to look up content on the Internet. All that information was available straight from Google Analytics including relatively accurate estimates on search volume.
That changed with Google's first major update which integrated encrypted search features to protect the personal information of users.
etter. Imagine the horror and frustration web marketers must have felt when they realized that they could no longer see what search terms people were using and the results the Google sends back for a particular search query. As you can imagine, this was a big problem for Internet marketing services at the time as most of them relied on web marketing applications that had suddenly become less effective or stopped working altogether.
Not long after, Google decided to modify search volume results in their integrated keyword tool to start giving broad estimates instead of ballpark figures. This meant that people no longer had data concerning the exact number of times a specific keyword was searched for in a month. If you had a keyword that you know had a search volume of 1,200 per month, Google would tell you that the keyword has been searched between 1000 to 10,000 times over the past month which does not tell you much at all.
Changes like the ones mentioned above have forced web marketing services to adopt a new content strategy that is less reliant on specific keywords or search terms. Instead, the focus has shifted to targeting a particular topic, especially one that is known to bring in the most traffic (topic-weighted content strategy).
Marketers that have failed to keep up with the change are essentially shooting blind and wasting thousands of dollars in the process.
So how should we view keyword rankings nowadays?
One of the first things web marketers need to understand about the current state of keywords rankings is that they are mostly unreliable in itself -- web marketing experts know to read the fine print on software applications that measure rank tracking data.
Don't believe us? Let us consider a few critical factors that make keyword rankings too unreliable for effective internet marketing:
When Google+ was launched, there was much buzz about "personalized search" and how it can change the way people do web marketing. Even with Google+ relegated to the sidelines, customization left a significant impact on the SEO industry just as many leading web marketing experts expected. How is this so?
The implementation of personalized search meant that Google would start providing search results that are tailored to a user's search history. For example, if we were to search "Android smartphones" and we were browsing Samsung's website just the other day, then there is a possibility that Google will customize the rankings of the search engine results to put Samsung on top.
Of course, personalized search will not be a factor for someone who has not been on Samsung's website before. This makes it difficult to pin down which sites rank on top for any given keyword as it would be different from one user to another.
Location and Device
Indeed personalized search plays a significant part in making keyword rankings inaccurate these days but it does not end there. Google likewise customizes search results by considering other factors such as your location and the device that you are using to do the search query.
Among the most significant improvements that Google has made over the past few years, is the ability to factor in elements of a search query which is not even mentioned by the user. So what do we mean by this? Well, consider the following example:
Let us say that you are looking to search for "hotels in New York." Back in 2010, that search query would merely give you a list of websites that talk about the different hotels around New York City. Today, that same search query will provide Google with a lot more information beyond the keywords used. For one thing, Google will be able to see what device you are using to do the search query and your current location.
Let us say that you are on your smartphone and you are walking around Central Park. Roughly, here is how Google would interpret that query:
"Give me a list of hotel establishments that are within walking distance to my current location in New York Central Park."
Google collects all of the information necessary to answer the query mentioned above even when it is not mentioned anywhere in the search terms. As a result, Google can personalize the search results entirely to suit the current situation of its' users. Thus, coming up with the answer to the question of who ranks on top for "hotels in New York" is a lot more complicated than most web marketers realize.
Use keyword rankings as a guiding star and not a roadmap
Today, having strong keywords in your campaign does not mean that you are guaranteed to have tonnes of organic traffic and significant improvements in revenue. As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, we have lost access to much information on search volume metrics over the years. It has become incredibly difficult to obtain an accurate estimate of how much traffic you are getting from a particular keyword.
Looking at the current trends such as Google's widespread use of featured snippets (selected search results that are featured on top of organic search results), it is safe to say that it is only going to get harder. There will come a time when it would be impossible to do search engine marketing by relying on keywords alone. If you use keyword rankings as a compass, then you might be steering your business in the opposite direction.
Simply put, there is no use obsessing over where a piece of content is tracking based on your ranking goals. Doing so would make you miss out on a lot of other material worth creating. For instance, you can write content with the focus on driving traffic and engagement on social media platforms without necessarily ranking much all in itself. Looking at keyword rankings as a benchmark for success often misleads web marketers as it paints an inaccurate picture of how your campaigns are doing.
So what can you do about it?
Measuring performance at a topic-tier level
So how the hell are we supposed to know which keywords to use for our web marketing campaign? Well for starters, we can change the way we measure success in our content strategy. The traditional approach of examining the performance of a given piece of content at an individual level no longer works, and we must instead, look at the performance at the topic-tier level.
The primary goal remains the same -- maximize organic search traffic and conversions. Considering that we are gradually losing more and more information on keyword volume metrics, we can shift our attention to grouping our keywords to cover a subject cluster that you can design to promote a particular outcome -- buy something, visit a website, sign up for a newsletter, download a demo or whatever. We can then look at the combined performance of these tiers of web pages which gives us a more accurate picture of what is going on as opposed to looking at the performance of individual web pages.
Grouping our content at a topic-tier level also gives us the opportunity to assess the different objectives you might have for creating a particular piece of content. We can analyze and scale topics under various categories such as which subjects tend to drive the most traffic and which ones generate more conversions. All this information can provide web marketers with better insights on what topics they can focus on next without being overly concerned about how a given keyword is ranking.
Now we are not saying that keyword ranking is a dead end. If we were, then we had better be prepared to deal with hundreds of angry comments. There is still a place for keywords in the current internet marketing landscape. Keyword information can still be invaluable for uncovering SEO-related problems in your website or look into the intention behind specific queries that make up those keywords.
The main takeaway here is that web marketers need to be aware that any information you might have on any given keyword is far from accurate. Hence, you should not be using it as a performance metric. If used correctly, keyword rankings can be the guiding star that tells you what content to create that would yield the best results concerning your objectives.