Proof Keywords Don’t Matter

by Rebecca Lehmann December 10th, 2010 

lower ranking, fear & panic So Google has been slowly choking the life out of your search engine rankings. And you’re panicking.

Actually, you’re freaking right the heck out.

Watching your hard-won first page link drop like a stone tends to induce a similar sense of dropping in one’s stomach. While rankings do not equal conversions, they are still well correlated. That much is indisputably true.

But fear not, web soldier, all is not lost! The name of the game now is Relevance, and not only do you already know the rules, you’re already playing it.

But I see you need some convincing, so let’s review a few important truths.

Rankings? Lies.

Back in the days of yore, everyone saw the same list of links when they searched for “cutest cute kitty cats”. But that was then. Today, I see different Context is kingsearch results when logged in than when logged out. I see different search results on my office computer than on my personal laptop. I see different search results from my laptop to my home PC. My clients see different search results than me, and probably with all the same variations I’ve listed above and then some.

Ranking is unstable at best because it varies so much from person to person, from account to account, from computer to computer, from browser to browser, from one location to another.

rankings change Google tries to predict what you want based on where you are and what you’ve done in the past. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously and creepily put it,

“We don't need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about.”

Personalized search was one of the first indications that rankings were going the way of the woolly mammoth and candy cigarettes. By tailoring the searcher’s results according to a myriad of factors including but not limited to search history, browser history and geographic location, the notion of ranking began to get murky.

Despite their ubiquity, personalized search results are still rather unknown to the general public and have led to some massive misunderstandings of how the search engines work. An excellent example of this came at the height of this summer’s BP oil spill coverage, when Howard Fineman, a Senior Washington Correspondent and Columnist at Newsweek, alleged on Countdown With Keith Olbermann that BP had bought every link on the front page of Google, including the organic ones.

That’s pretty laughable, of course, since buying an organic link would defeat the entire purpose of organic links. But the answer to the riddle became obvious when I conducted a number of searches myself to try to at least partially duplicate the phenomenon.

Fineman’s experience, which he so badly misunderstood, was a perfect example of personalized search. A journalist who was researching BP conducted a number of BP and oil spill-related searches. Google served up search results relevant to the search. BP is a branded search and naturally brings up BP’s website. The more he searched and clicked on BP-related sites, the more Google’s personalization kicked in to deliver related results. Because that’s what it thought he wanted. Because that’s what he looked for and clicked on and had a history of looking for and clicking on.

If everyone is seeing different search results, and you therefore can’t rely on ranking as a success metric, what can you use instead?

Welcome to the era of conversion rate optimization.

Conversion rate optimization, or CRO, more or less ignores ranking, concentrating instead on providing the user with the best possible experience for the best possible gain.

Conversions are strongly correlated with rankings, true, but they’re also strongly correlated with the way your visitors interact with your site.

Would more people sign up for your newsletter if the subscription form were shorter? If it were on a different part of the page? If it had a different call to action? If the color made it stand out more? Test it. Run some A/B or multivariate tests and figure out what variations are most likely to turn your visitors into customers. Ultimately, you don’t have a website because you want to rank – you have it because you want to sell!

Some will argue that CRO is not the same as SEO, but SEO is a lot bigger than title tags and keywords. As an SEO, ignoring conversion rates is a great way to alienate clients. You’ve got to be the total package, constantly researching, constantly analyzing. CRO is a natural fit.

If you live in the suburbs, you ain’t in the city

The Google Places algorithm has been rolled up together with the organic algorithm to produce an ugly baby: no more separate local and organic results, just one very mixed up page. (Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!)

If Google believes your search might have local intent, it will deliver a mix of local and organic results. Prior to the integration, it was possible to have a link in the 7-pack and an organic link below the map. Today, you get one link, period. It may be on the map, it may be organic. One or the other. This has had the effect of pushing out small businesses located just outside their target cities. While businesses in the burbs are getting burned, those in the city are sitting pretty. Too bad so sad, all you suburbanites!

However, all is not lost. Despite losing a handful of rankings for some competitive local keywords, clients have not seen any drastic drops in traffic since the integrated results arrived. Most have held steady, and some have even seen a slight uptick in traffic and conversions. Even the ones stuck out in the burbs!

It turns out that most of the site traffic we see is long-tail. And guess what? Long-tail searches don’t trigger the local intent algorithm.

So who cares if you used to rank for your pet keyword and don’t anymore? Your traffic probably hasn’t suffered at all. Your keywords are just a starting point, not the end all be all. Shift your focus away from those short, inflexible keywords and onto your long-tail traffic. Because that’s where the value is anyway. That’s where it’s always been. And you might have known that if you were obsessing over your analytics instead of fixating on rankings. If you need something to fixate on, go for the data.

Advanced segments in Google Analytics is an awesome tool you can use to figure out what keywords are driving traffic. If you’re a plastic surgeon, you can put different procedures into buckets and compare the buckets as a whole. For example, creating a “breast” segment that captures all breast surgery traffic can show you how much of your audience is interested, and you can compare it to the “body” bucket that covers tummy tucks and liposuction, or the “face” bucket. Another favorite trick is to create a “Questions” segment that looks for all the question words: who, what, why, when and how. That one can tell you what questions your audience is asking – so that you can answer them, of course.

Your keywords don’t matter.

At least not in the “I rank number one for purple monkey fungus” sense that we’ve all come to know and love/loathe. Let’s look at the data, shall we? In the example below, the clients priority keywords are “breast augmentation”, “breast surgery” and “breast surgeon” for the Houston, Texas area:

priority-kwds 

The orange line is an advanced segment built to look for exact matches to the client's high priority keywords. It sure doesn't amount to much, does it?

The takeaway: Those pet keywords? The ones you would put all your chips on in Vegas? Yeah, they’re not driving much traffic to your site. But your traffic (the big blue line) is really awesome and your widgets are selling like hotcakes! How can this be?

other-kwds

The keywords that are driving traffic and conversions aren’t your exact keywords, but they’re close cousins. They’re questions. They’re variations you never thought to target directly.

Some of it is branded, though that's excluded from the example above. People don’t need to use your keyword to find you – they just need to be talking about the same subject. The search engines, and Google in particular, have become very sophisticated with regards to how language is used and the vocabulary that generally surrounds any given topic. Content is king? Bah… Context is king. Throw “purple monkey fungus” on a page about the quantum physics of radioactive penguins and I bet it doesn’t rank half as well as a website that’s actually about purple monkey fungus.

Contextual relevance is the new hotness. Target your pet keyword, but surround it with language and vocabulary that supports it. That does a much better job of telling the search engines what your site is about than awkwardly jamming your keyword into every nook and cranny of the page. Not only does your site become more relevant for your pet keyword, but it also increases the likelihood that someone who isn’t using your pet keyword will still find you.

Rock stars gotta be pretty.

Back in the day, popular musicians didn’t need to be good looking. Then MTV happened. Seriously, do you really think the Mamas and the Papas would ever score a contract today?

mama_papas2

Rightfully they should, but we all know that rock stars today must rock the eye candy just as hard as they rock the microphone. As the song so aptly puts it, video killed the radio star. In the digital age, talent is nothing without looks. And often, sadly, pretty often makes talent irrelevant.

And so it is with your website now that Google Previews has arrived. Searchers can now see a snapshot of your site before they ever click into it. Which means if your design sucks, even if your content is awesome, even if your title and meta description are spotless and perfect, even if you’re magically ranked number one for that pet keyword of yours, you still may not get the click. Because your website is ugly. Websites are subject to beauty bias, too.

On the flip side, though, it may lead to a decrease in your bounce rate as searchers are better able to prequalify your site. If they can see that your site isn’t relevant (or that it’s just plain ugly) before clicking into it, they’re less likely to bounce in and then right back out. Previews are still too new for that to be anything more than speculation, but I can see it happening.

There aren’t really SEO solutions to the beauty bias, but you can keep your design current, A/B test different design elements, and make your content as relevant and focused as possible. There are some other considerations to keep in mind with Google Previews, also.

First, please, for the love of all that is holy and made of awesome, do not build your site entirely in Flash. Why not? Well, other than the difficulty that search engines have crawling Flash (as in, THEY DON’T, even though they have created the tech to do it, kinda), this is what it looks like in Google Previews:

google-preview-flash

Second, consider carefully whether or not you want to use a meta description. Everett Sizemore pointed out last week that sites with meta descriptions appear to be less likely to get the nifty little callouts that make Google Previews so awesome for vetting a site before clicking into it.

google-preview-callout

The danger in leaving out the meta description is the same as it always has been: You may not like the snippet Google chooses to display. I’ve seen Google pull snippets from disclaimers before, and that can be ugly. You’ll need to carefully weigh these options and make a decision to best benefit your website.

But before you abandon rankings entirely…

Knowing what you now know, why keep yourself chained to those restrictive keywords that cause your rankings so much grief? Why not ditch them and go on your merry way?

Keywords are important! I never said they weren’t. I never will say that they are not. Because they are what keep your site moored at the right dock. Because they give you focus. They are what the page is about. They are the seed from which the content is written.

No, keywords are amazingly important. Never lose site of them. It’s the rankings that shouldn’t be taken so seriously. Remember what I said at the beginning, about how rankings are well-correlated with conversions? That’s still true, and so ranking is still a good aspiration.

But when you don’t see your site ranking on the first page, please don’t panic. Someone else might be seeing it where you are not. And it’s probably not how your customers are finding you anyway. There are too many gray "ifs" to see rankings as an issue rendered only in black and white.

What’s your take on the rankings, rank tracking & keywords?

Rebecca Lehmann

Becky is a web data analyst and SEO ninja for Page 1 Solutions, a web design and marketing firm in Golden, Colorado. She recently learned how to knit.

White Hat, Black Belt

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10 Responses to “Proof Keywords Don’t Matter”

  1. Bogdanel says:

    Good to know. Thanks for sharing Rebecca!
    .-= Bogdanel recently posted: 10 Social Icon Packs That Does not Suck! =-.

  2. Kris S says:

    Very insightful post Becky, and your headline certainly grabs the attention of anyone in the SEO field.

    I thought you made some excellent points about the A/B and multivariate testing, which is a larger part of optimization that most tend to realize. The personalized ranking criteria have thrown us all for a loop over the past year and ultimately SERP stability has crumbled for most competitive industries.

    One light that still shines on keywords however, was Google's new search reporting interface in the webmaster tools. If you haven't had the opportunity to check this out – it's a great way to gain some real insight on your keyword rankings. The new search model can result in fluctuated rankings for different visitors as you said, and the Google Webmaster tools report the fluctuations and average positions.

    While the methods and process have changed, the underlying goal of SEO is still the same – creating quality content relevant to a topic and it's human readers. As you stated, it's all about relevance.

    Great post, looking forward to the next one!

    Cheers,
    Kris

  3. Jim Rudnick says:

    Hmmm…good post, Rebecca…but the thrust of same then needs a query resolved…

    if not "rankings" to be followed on, then how do we SEO practitioners, show a client "where" their hard earned SEO budget has gone…ie without a tracking device….I wonder how many clients would ever "buy into" SEO?

    ?

    Jim

    • Kris S says:

      Hi Jim,

      I just wanted to re-iterate that the Google Webmaster tools does now contain a reporting interface for "Organic rankings." As the personalization came in, you're right that it became a lot more difficult to sell a client – however I find that tool really helps quantify results.

      Also, I think a good client won't necessarily need to see "hard keyword ranking evidence" to prove your value. The organic traffic, quality of qualified traffic and conversion rates should be the real seller in my opinion.

      Good luck!
      Cheers,
      Kris

    • Rebecca L. says:

      I would agree with Kris here. If you can't rely on rankings, look at other metrics like % increase in leads or site traffic. Set your KPIs with your client as soon as possible to set reasonable expectations from the start. If a client says they want to rank #1, ask them why – the "why" is what they actually want from you.
      .-= Rebecca L. recently posted: Friday Link Love for December 10- 2010 =-.

  4. Hi Rebecca

    I was sent over here after asking one of my experienced marketer friend lots of questions! He sent me the link to this post.

    Excellent information that I will bookmark for reference. Thanks so much for such a comprehensive post. There is so much fluff on the net these days. It's so hard to wade through all the posts and know what is for real.

    I am so glad I have friends who can point me in the right direction. Thanks for sharing this with us Rebecca. Much appreciated.

    Patricia Perth Australia
    .-= Patricia@lavenderuses recently posted: Are You a Tweetheart-Commenter…or both! =-.

  5. Kimi says:

    Rebecca,

    Always interesting if we talk about PR topic, love it!

    Since my PR dropped to 0 last year, i tend not too care about PR, because i know, people can manipulate it.

    I instead concentrate on creating useful videos for others and i do believe PR comes from alone, most important to me is my traffics, it means i want people want to find my content that i hope it is useful for them.

    Thanks for bringing this topic.

    Kimi.

    • Kris S says:

      Hi Kimi,

      I wanted to try and shed a bit of light on PageRank(PR). It is essentially a voting system, where a link would represent a vote. Think of PR as someones "popularity on the net" – or at least that was the goal.

      The more "popular" a website is (higher pr) the more weight their vote carries. Achieving a link from a PR9 page would essentially be a very strong vote for your website.

      All this said, PR is a bit outdated and somewhat obsolete. It can be quite easily manipulated and therefore it's weight in Google's ranking criteria was significantly reduced. It was a novel concept, but PR is now only one of the hundreds of algorithmic ranking criteria – and not even a very heavily weighted one from what I can tell.

      Keep your content relevant and useful to readers, and let the traffic flow ;) Good luck with your site Kimi!

      Cheers,
      Kris

  6. Kimi says:

    @Kris,

    Thank you very much for clearing it up, it was really helpful for me!!

  7. Robert says:

    Hi Becky,

    I found this post after trying to explain this exact topic. The point never has been rankings or PR (*sigh*). It's all about the conversion.

    But trying to explain that to some folk seems to be a never ending nightmare. Oh well… we try.

    I'll be sure to point doubters to this post, thanks for the write up!
    .-= Robert recently posted: RE-MAX Finest =-.