The value of keyword rankings

Time to tackle another trend in SEO that may not necessarily be accurate: There’s an increasingly negative attitude towards keyword rankings as viable metrics of SEO success. I’m going to argue that keyword rankings are still valuable and should be an integral part of your SEO reports.

Over the years there have been many changes to the SERPs that, according to some, heralded the end of keyword rankings. From Local Search to Universal Search, every new tweak and addition to the results pages was seen as another apocalyptic event that now, Once And For All, made for keyword rankings truly useless.

The most recent Google features that have once again reopened the assault on keyword rankings are Personalized Search and Social Search. These would really make any monitoring of keyword rankings utterly and totally obsolete, some claimed.

That’s, of course, not quite the case.

Yes, all of those changes (‘improvements’ as Google would say) have impacted how we approach keyword rankings. But it hasn’t made them useless. It has just made them harder.

Instead of simply relying on a keyword ranking tool, now a good SEO has to go out and actually use Google. It’s necessary to put those keywords into the search box and see what comes up. It’s become vital to analyse the search engine results to fully understand where your SEO efforts should be focused.

So no, we can’t rely solely on those handy keyword ranking tools any more. We can’t just press a button, wait for a few minutes, and present a shiny report to our clients. We can’t be lazy any more. We have to put some actual work in.

And that, I fear, may be the real reason why so many SEOs are proclaiming the death of keyword rankings. Why put the extra work in when you can convince your clients it’s not that important anyway?

But it is important.

Personalized Search has not had the dramatic impact some predicted. It only applies to repeat searches where a user clicks on a particular result a lot, and it has no effect at all on any new queries (which is what most search queries are for any given user).

Social Search too has had limited effects. I don’t know about you, but I have yet to see any truly SERP-invasive social search result on Google.

Admittedly keyword rankings have become complicated. We can’t lazily rely on a ranking number any longer, but rankings should be placed in their proper context. We as SEOs now have to dig through the SERPs to see if we’re competing against local businesses, videos, images, twitter updates, or news stories. We have to go to the SERPs ourselves and determine if we’re better off optimising for ‘regular’ organic search, or if a change in content strategy is a better option.

But where our sites rank on those SERPs, especially as part of a long term trend, is absolutely a vital aspect of what we do. I’ll concede keyword rankings have lost their status as the king of SEO metrics, but it’s still metric royalty. It’s still up there in the throne room, and it should get the attention it deserves.

Keyword rankings are not dead. Not even close. Ignore them at your peril.

About Barry Adams

Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised technical SEO services to clients worldwide.

22 thoughts on “The value of keyword rankings

  1. Hi Barry,

    Completely agree with you – proclaiming the death of keyword ranking reports seems to be as fashionable as “we don’t even call it social media anymore” is in that sphere.

    Of the testing we do on a monthly basis and from the data I’ve seen from tests in the SEO Dojo, the Psearch effect is really not that variable as of yet.

    I think agencies that focus more on increased revenue/visits from organic search are justified in doing so in their communications and messaging, as visits are obviously a derivative of aggregate postition and CTR variables; however dismissing position reports completely is possibly rather premature.

  2. Totally agree with you. There’s a part of the “rankings are dead” proclamation that is more about obfuscating SEO and making it seem more mysterious than it is – it’s one thing to say rankings mean something different and are less reliable metrics in the era of personalisation / localisation. It’s totally another (and overkill) to then throw the baby out with the bathwater and forget about ranking reports altogether. Ultimately they’re the interface between the user and your website that SEO is trying to leverage – you’d be crazy to just stop monitoring them.

    However the more sophisticated arguments about rankings are saying it just shouldn’t be a KPI that clients/site owners look to as a measure of success – more an internal metric to understand what is going on in an SEO campaign. This I do agree with… personalisation or no personlisation, its a lot smarter to say “we want to improve organic search traffic / conversions by X%” than “we want to be on page 1 for Keyword Y”. One is a real, meaningful outcome, the other is just something you want to show the boss to make you look good.

    Good stuff though, and something I’ve wanted to blog about ever since I started reading “Rankings are dead” posts. Duly Sphunn at

  3. Personalization of SERPs is evolving, IMO, this is an algorithm that “learns” and refines so it is a moving target and not really a useful success metric. The problem is SEOs using rankings as a success metric. This is not a new problem. I wrote an article in 2003 where I basically said they were useless because they don’t really supply actionable data. ie: show a weakness or problem on the site. That’s why you do web audits every month and ranking reports less frequently.

    Rankings are definitely a benchmark I use and supply to the client with the caveat about #1 being a benchmark for progress in the space. ROI and sales/leads are the things that should be the metrics for success. These are metrics that measure “real biz success”. You can’t take traffic to the bank and SE’s don’t buy so… however, as a dataset for benchmarking Campaign progress… they are near the top.

  4. THANK YOU Barry,

    I could not agree more, Keyword rankings are still a valid metric for SEO, irrespective of Social or Personalised search even if (as we all suspect) that these will be bigger factors in time.

    I take a very simple stance to metrics, how does my client value my service to them? The majority like to use rankings as a simple indication of performance, they know that the higher the rankings should mean higher levels of traffic.

    It happened this morning a client rang me to tell me that we had moved back into the top ten positions for a primary term. Rankings are a great and simple way to show the performance of SEO.

    However I also agree that there are other elements that must be considered when reporting on SEO, I personally believe that the best metric is still – The Cost per Acquisition or the ROI.

    No matter the technical know how of your clients; Rankings, Traffic, Cost, Revenue, Conversions, CPA & ROI are metrics than can be easily understood by all. However CPA & ROI can be used to compare performance with other marketing channels.

  5. I am confused, We are targeting “offshore product development” and coming on 1st position, monthly search volume of this keyword is Ok but the problem is that we are not getting any visitor from this keyword so for me benefit of keyword rankings is nothing.

  6. @dhiraj: then you’re targeting the wrong keyword, and your SEO problems are beyond simple keyword ranking. You’ll need to take a step back to properly conduct the phase that comes first: keyword research.

    As I said keyword rankings are not the be-all, end-all of SEO metrics. There are many other factors that help measure SEO success. But when you’re targeting the right keywords that bring the right type of traffic to your site (something which has always been vital since the dawn of SEO and the glory days of keyword rankings) then you need to know where your site appears in the results as part of the larger trend.

  7. Great article filled with words of SEO wisdom. ranking just for the sake of getting a position in SERP should not be the prime objective. It’s all about the keywords tailored to your target audience. That’s what will not only bring you a lot of traffic but quality traffic as well.

  8. I think personalized is, in fact, a bit more of an impact than people are acknowledging. At least in some preliminary tests I’ve done for one of my bigger clients. For example, for one of their most important phrases, I have done a manual search on at least a half dozen computers recently, at different locations spread out across a 25 mile radius just to see what would happen. Of course these are all pinging the same data center, but at least it’s based on varying user systems over different IP blocks. And I’ve found that the phrase in question comes up in either the 2nd position at Google or down on the 3rd page. That’s a huge variation.

    I need to do a real test next – more comprehensive over a swath of phrases in different markets. But from this initial test, I’d say there’s something fishy in the whole personalized search results evaluation process Google uses.

  9. @Alan that’s very interesting. Were you signed in to Google for some of those queries? I’d love to see more comprehensive tests of personalized search, if only to pull it out of the anecdotal sphere and get it some proper tests with verifiable results.

  10. Well Alan and Barry, that’s the biggest disparity I’ve heard of yet. Anecdotal or otherwise. The only other time I’ve recorded such disparity it was in testing Mac/Safari to any PC based browser/OS combo which obviously brings set-up elements into play, rather than preference-led.

    I’m thinking that given the normal roll-out schedule for product and algo changes tend to start with the US, then UK, then rest of Europe – perhaps we’re not yet seeing as much effect from personalised search as one might in N.America. As Terry quite rightly pointed out earlier on, this is a learning algorithm and a moving target, so I am keen to keep an eye on developments here. I’d never rule out ranking reports, but what matters ultimately are visit numbers and subsequent revenues. If Google are making rank output variations that fluctuate from page one to page 3, as in your example Alan – then that’s something that effects visitor volumes and revenues in a way that requires research and attention.

    All fun and games!

  11. Barry,

    I’ve tried this signed in, not signed in, as well as using the &pws=0 URL addition which supposedly clears out personalized results.


    Yes – it’s a pretty big disparity. I think the only way to properly test this is a multi-site, multi-phrase approach where they are all checked across a wide geographic area. It would need to be quite extensive and well thought out.

  12. Hi Barry
    I agree that it’s vital to to put those keywords into the search box and analyse the results but I’m one of those proclaiming the death of keyword rankings as a metric to measure SEO performance specially if you look at absolute numbers instead of percentages what give a wider perspective in this allways changing landscape. Even less give them the range of KPI.

    For me, they are one more of the internal reports I could be running for my SEO monitoring / insight but never as a report to show clients the evolution of SEO campaign.
    Ignore any single bit of information is a kamikaze strategy but give them the overrated relevancy they were having is also crazy.

    Bas, could you add the poll a third option to reflect the opinion of those not voting for extremes?

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