May 17, 2017

If you are watching your website’s rankings for a handful of really important keywords, and not paying attention to traffic quality, sales and other conversions… you are doing it wrong.

Are Keywords Still Important?

Finding and using the right keywords in moderation is still important. But when it comes to checking your website’s rankings, most good SEOs will tell you that keywords are just one of many things you should look at as a way of measuring how your website is doing. I have even been telling some clients to forget about keywords altogether, since obsessing over a few keywords is a leading cause of search engine misery.

What?! But if I don’t rank #1 for “Blue Widgets” I will go out of business!

You sure about that?
SEO without KeywordsCheck your Organic Search Traffic in Google Analytics or another traffic monitoring tool. You may be surprised to see that since your SEO campaign started, your traffic has improved – even if you aren’t ranking well for “blue widgets”. But if your SEO is too focused on just a few keywords and not truly optimizing your site and its content, you probably won’t see an improvement with all your eggs in one basket.

Real people search for real things.
While some may search for your exact two word key phrase, many do not. They search for “best prices for widgets in blue”, “blue widgets with free shipping” or even a complete question like “Where is the best place to find blue and red widgets?” (especially if they are using Siri). If your optimization and inbound marketing are done well, these people will find you – maybe even without searching for the exact phrase, “blue widgets” at all! For example, the real estate website I am so fond of using to demonstrate things like this may not always rank at the top for “Jacksonville Real Estate”, but it gets a huge amount of traffic and leads from people searching for homes in specific neighborhoods, by street address or MLS number. Relatively few sales or leads have come directly from “Jacksonville real estate” or other allegedly high-value search terms, even when the site ranks #1 for them. “Cityname real estate” searches do have a lot of volume (the number of times the phrase is searched) if you check Google’s Adwords keyword tool or some other keyword research method. But think about this: how many realtors and SEOs are feverishly checking the rankings all day every day which inflates that number?

Another good example, and SEOs often point to this as proof of ability, is “cityname SEO”. But what if the SEO company isn’t too concerned with the local area? They may not even think about localized key phrases.
So an SEO may be able to point to a decent postion for that phrase and claim it means something, but how is the overall organic search performance?  Are they getting visitors who searched for something more meaningful? Knowing how your site ranks for certain keywords is helpful in getting a broad view of how it is going, but reaching more people for a wider variety of searches that are relevant to what you have to offer is much more productive.

Organic Search Term Diversity = More & Better Traffic

Here are some charts from SEMRush showing the organic search traffic to, and a few competitors who also rank well for “Pittsburgh SEO” or “SEO Pittsburgh“. The graphs show all organic searches, not just “Pittsburgh SEO” which has a monthly search volume around 500 searches, most of which can probably be attributed to all nearly every SEO agency in Pittsburgh checking their own rankings frequently. Real SEO customers tend to search for other things.
Our organic search traffic is much higher than the others because rather than micro-managing one or two keywords, a much wider net is cast.

Good organic search traffic

not very diverse traffic

Higher Images = Lower Ranking

Eyeflow penalized by Google

Note to competitors: If you figure out how to copy what Ker Communications does and it starts working for you, send a thank you note or something.


If Not Keywords, What SHOULD you be looking at?

Well, it depends on your business and your goals, but traffic and conversions are going to be more useful than keyword rankings alone. Ecommerce sites may need to rank for specific products to get the traffic and make the sales. An informational site about blue widgets may in fact need that keyword to do well. The important thing is to make sure you know what success looks like, so you don’t focus on the wrong goal. Keep your eye on traffic volume and quality, and whether or not you are achieving your business goals, not just your keyword goals.  

  • Phil Laboon

    hey Nick, I thought I recognized that last chart 🙂 We tried to move SEOzio to it’s own domain instead of 301ing to Eyeflow – Google apparently didn’t like this very much… We put the 301 back in place so hopefully that will fix the issue. Did you check out the new SEOzio? Would lov to get your thoughts!

  • Hey Phil,

    That’s weird about the SEOzio move. Seems like making a landing/intro page, then linking to the SEOzio domain from there would have been the thing to do to keep any links to that page and still pass some link value on to the new domain. I’m not a big fan of making users take too many extra steps to get where they are going, but when spinning-off a product or service, that would make sense to me.

    I did play around with the new SEOzio not long after relaunch, and it is much better than the old one. Looks great, too, especially compared to most of the other free all in one analysis tools.
    If it was mine, I would probably have a bunch of disclaimers throughout the explanations because of the way people tend to take a tiny piece of information and run wild with it, but that’s a people problem not a SEOzio problem 🙂 Wouldn’t want people coming back saying, “you said links are like votes so I bought as many as I could…”

    • JB

      You didn’t really buy that story did you?

  • Phil Laboon

    You would think that would be the case but it wasn’t – trust me we were all surprised. Seems like they spanked us on a few specific keywords but our traffic is higher than it’s ever been (Last week was our highest organic traffic ever).

    Seems like since we switched everything back the traffic and rankings have been growing faster than anyone on that list according to SEMrush position report.

  • Danielle

    This is fantastic! I just had a conversation with another SEO company who told me that
    keywords were the single most important thing to have throughout my site and that all my pages should have the main keywords since the site will not rank for anything without them. It sounded unbelievable so I went looking for information about keywords and found this. You are saying the opposite is true and what you say makes so much more sense to me.

    You are right about how people search, too. I never search for just one or two words.

    • Thanks, Danielle. Glad you liked this and I hope it has helped in some way.

      Having the right words and phrases is in your content and titles is important, it is just that they should not be the first and last thing you think about when writing.
      There is this kind of weird phenomenon in online marketing where people see things as only black or white, with no shades of gray in between. People read something about keywords and it leads them do things like use the same words repeatedly in everything they write. Then they read something like this article and remove all of the keywords from their pages – even when they make sense to be there. There is always a middle ground, but it seems like people kind of forget that when it comes to SEO.
      When writing this article, I was thinking mostly about analytics and progress tracking, and how using keyword rankings as your main measurement can lead you to focus only on those in the content, in social media or wherever else.
      Kind of like the “create websites for people not search engines” saying: “write about a subject, not a keyword”.

  • Spook SEO

    Hi Nick!

    I do agree that if our SEO is too focused on just a few keywords and not truly optimizing our site and its content, then we will definitely won’t see any improvement in our website. This is such a good post. Thank you for sharing and I am really looking forward to read more of your articles.

  • David J

    After reading this and some other things about topical optimization I stopped putting keywords into everything. Just like you said I wrote as if I was going to be graded on it. That is really what it is to get good Google rankings. Google is grading our work so it should be at its best. I now write about the topic without repeating and my blog posts rank higher and it works for the whole website.