BlogGuidesKeyword Rankings Don’t Matter (and What Does)

Keyword Rankings Don’t Matter (and What Does)

As SEOs, we often talk about how the industry changes on a daily basis. Google allegedly updates its algorithms 500-600 times per year.

With so many changes, some of which being major, to stay relevant in the industry we would have to always be on our toes. Improving our processes, the types of links we build, the vendors we use, and the strategies we create…

So, why are so many SEOs still acting like it’s 2012?

Adapting To Change

Even in 2018 there are plenty of people building social bookmarks, buying PBN links from sites that link to anything, keyword stuffing, and making keyword rankings the primary KPI (Key Performance Indicator) when working with clients.

We see it in the Facebook groups all the time.

“How many keywords should I rank someone for with a $1,000 a month budget?”

“What do I do once a client ranks for their keywords?”

“The client wants to rank for [some vanity term] how much do I need to charge them?”

But, that’s simply not how Google’s search engines works. Plus, if you are doing client SEO – you’re doing more harm than good for your profit, retention rate, and client education.

Don’t agree with what I’m about to say? Awesome! Let’s talk about it in the comments >:D

Why Keyword Rankings Don’t Matter

That’s the short way of saying, “Why keyword rankings don’t matter as much as you may think they do and you should be looking more towards other things and use rankings for what they’re good for in 2018 and beyond.”

But, that’s not as catchy.

Semantic Search & User Intent

In 2013, Google’s core algorithm was overhauled with Hummingbird, and later an “add on” algorithm in 2015 called RankBrain.

This basically made Google smarter. It understood searcher intent better, and are actively working on improving their ability to understand what search queries mean, beyond the definition of the words used.

Google now understands things like how “attorney” and “lawyer” are interchangeable. Your “car accident” page can rank for “car crash” without ever mentioning the word “crash”.

Combine that with the stats in this tweet from 2010 which states “70% [of search queries] have no exact match, 20% never seen before in past 90 days”, and you can start to see my point…

Even a small local service business can generate traffic from hundreds or thousands of search queries. Even if you’re only tracking 10.

You Don’t Have A Lot of Control

Saying “this website ranks #1 for this search term” isn’t the full picture.


Google will personalize search results based on the device, previous search history, and proximity is one of the top ranking factors for maps.

Not to mention that SERPs are always being updated and your result right now may look a little different in an hour.

So, what you’re really saying is “This website ranks #1 for this search term, using this device, with this search history, at this time, based on my current location.”

Rank Trackers

These tools, when used to show a client “results” are a double edged sword. From a clients perspective, it’s just a graph with a line going either up or down.

Or, a table with a static number saying “you are here.”

To a client, the image on the left looks great. Going from #75-100 to the bottom of page 1 in a month!

To an SEO, the image on the right is better. Starting at #3 and then being consistently #1.

We understand the CTR, traffic, and lead increases of going from #3 to #1 is much higher than #100 to #10.

But, clients don’t.

At least once every couple of months a client says something along the lines of

“This report says I rank #x for this keyword, but when I look at it, I’m really #y.”

This really sucks when your tracking says they’re in the top 5, and they find themselves on page 3.

So, if you base how successful a campaign is around where the client ranks for specific keywords…

How successful the campaign is also depends on what tool you happen to use to report on it.

Rank Tracking Accuracy

For 5 days I tracked 5 local keywords using 7 different methods of tracking.

Footnote: This is not a case study on “how accurate are these specific rank trackers or these tools in general.” The data set is way too small to come to any conclusions about that.

 How it was all tracked:

  • The website in question is a local law firm. Not a client and I never clicked on the site on Google
  • 4 of the 5 search terms would all contain the city modifier “manchester nh”
  • All tools were set to track from Manchester, NH
    • Where available, tracking was set to desktop and to find any page on the target site that was ranking
  • Personalized, Incognito, and ISearchFrom results were all recorded one after the other
  • Tracking tools check rankings on their own schedules
  • I did not set any margin of error for this since it was only 5 days & 5 terms
  • Anything that wasn’t within the top 100 was listed as #100 for the sake of graphing

What I was looking for was the difference in position between a personalized search and each of the six other tracking methods.

Here are the highlights:

If you want to check all the data for yourself you can click here.

Search Term: Personal Injury Lawyer Manchester NH

Ranking Variation: +/- 3.66 repeating


AccuRanker ended up over 15 positions off on average. This is due to one day the position being marked as #100 where every other method found the term to be 5-11.

Search Term: Personal Injury Attorney Manchester NH

Ranking Variation: +/- 1.66 repeating


This time, Microsite Masters (MSM) is the outlier. For the first 2 days of the test, MSM was off by 10+ positions.

Search Term: Personal Injury Lawyer

Ranking Variation: +/- 15.16 repeating


This is the most interesting one of the five. I knew ahead of time that ranking tools can have a hard time getting accurate results without city modifiers in the search term.

Even if the tracking location is set to that city and if you search for the term in that city, the organic SERP still shows local results.

Rankings for this were all over the place.

Numbers are negative for the graph.

On the first day, a personal search couldn’t find the keyword within the first 100 results. But, an incognito search could. Only 2 of the 4 rank tracking tools could find it either.

Search Term: Car Accident Lawyer Manchester NH

Ranking Variation: +/- 3.36 repeating



This time, Pro Rank Tracker was the outlier. Similar to the first term, this was due to a single day being listed as #100.

On the other hand, AccuRanker showed the same average result as a personalized search.

Search Term: Car Accident Attorney Manchester NH

Ranking Variation: +/- 6.03 repeating



This term has a similar story to the previous one, Pro Rank Tracker is an outlier due to one day recording a #100.

In Summary

These tools are by no means bad.

But, they’re not perfect, and sometimes they’re way off. There are simply too many variables that determine ranking position for each instance of a search.

SERP Diversity

What exactly does it mean to rank anyway?

This article from Moz, back in 2013, identified over 20 different SERP placements.

Sure, you’re #1 organically.

But, you’re below 4 ads, 3 map listings, and 1 featured snippet.

Not to mention that you can be #1 and still have a lower CTR than #2…

Algorithm Changes

Algorithm changes can happen any day at any time.

Tactics you use today can hurt you tomorrow. Your links can carry less weight, your optimized site can become over optimized.

It’s a pretty scary thought if you could lose multiple clients overnight just because Google made some changes you couldn’t have prepared for beforehand.

Especially due to bugs in the algorithm, Google testing things, or core algo updates in which Google just changes how they evaluate things.

Not only that, but a loss in rankings does not always mean a loss in traffic or leads.

70% [of search queries] have no exact match” Source.

You’re likely not tracking even 10% of the search terms that are generating traffic.

Between personalization, rank tracking accuracy, and algorithm changes, we have very little control over “where things rank”.

This makes keyword rankings a dangerous and unreliable KPI.

Speaking of KPIs…

If Rankings Don’t Matter, What Does?

The goal of marketing is always the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re advertising on TV, running FB ads, throwing business cards out of a helicopter, or doing SEO.

The only thing that matters is “will the campaign make more money than it costs?”

Otherwise known as ROI (return on investment).

At the end of the day, whether the client knows it or not, being #1 is just vanity if it doesn’t make them more money than they spent.

ROI is also a really easy sell.

SEO has a compounding ROI, even a subpar campaign is likely to generate an ROI over a long enough time period.

In this example, the client is paying $1,000 a month for 6-months.For the first 5-months the campaign is not profitable. At the end of the campaign (month 6) the campaign has generated $1,050 in profit.

Not a great number, but – unlike advertising, just because you stop paying for SEO doesn’t mean your results go away right away.

After 12-months, the total investment is still $6,000 but the campaign has now profited $12,000.

Having those conversations with clients, you can essentially eliminate the fear of “what if this doesn’t work”. Even if it does poorly, it’ll likely still generate a positive ROI as long as the campaign was executed to some degree of success.

Tracking ROI

In order to use ROI as your primary KPI, you need a way to show clients that they’re generating more money from the campaign.

Chances are, you’re not going to be able to gain access to their internal CRM to see exactly what customers came from the internet, exactly how much money they made from them, etc.

But, we can look at the next best thing.

Lead tracking & Lead value.

Calculating Lead Value

You can use SEOButler’s lead value tool* to calculate a prospects or client’s lead value.
[*The lead value tool did not survive the relaunch of the website and will be available again asap]

Not only is this usually going to blow the clients mind, you’re going to learn more about the efficiency of the their business.

Let’s imagine we’re working with a roofing company.

For every 10 phone calls, they close 2 deals, and profit $1,000.

Each call is worth $200 to them.

If they’re a $1,500 a month client, you can then show them the numbers. All they need is 8 calls a month to be profitable. 75 calls a month to have a 10x ROI.

This is also where we can introduce the compound ROI.

“Mr. Prospect, let’s say the campaign is a failure, and at the end of 6-months, we’ve only generated an extra 10 calls a month for you. Would you also consider that a failed campaign?”


“Okay, great. So, those 10 calls a month over the course of the campaign would be a total of 60 calls. Based on the numbers you’ve given us, those 60 calls will bring you $12,000 in revenue. That’s a $3,000 profit on a failed campaign.

But, just because you decided at the end of 6-months to stop working together, doesn’t mean everything we did is gone. Let’s say for the next 3-months you still get those 10 calls a month, then another 3-months averages an extra 5 calls a month.

That’s 45 extra calls. 12-months after the campaign has started, you’ll have invested $9,000 and have gotten 105 calls. Based on the numbers you have us, that’s worth $21,000. So, even what we agree on being a failed campaign, you’ll still over double your money.

If I said, ‘give me $9,000 today and in 12-months I’ll give you $21,000’ would you take that deal?”

An Oscar worthy performance, if I do say myself.

Chances are, the client has no idea how much leads are actually worth to them.

Now that we know how much each lead is worth, we need to track that.

Tracking Leads

To keep this short & sweet…

You can track phone calls using a solution like CallRail. Once the account is set up, create tracking numbers and either change out the numbers on the website or use Dynamic Number Insertion.

You can add the lead value using CallRail’s interface or track is using Google Analytics goals (CallRail guide).

You can safely tracking GMB calls without hurting the NAP as well.

Chances are, 80-90% of leads will come through calls.

Next, you want to make sure you’re tracking form completions. You can either do this using destination goals in Google Analytics and a thank you page, or Tag Manager form events.

What are keyword rankings good for?

I’m not saying rankings are bad, that you shouldn’t care about them, or that they’re pointless.

I still talk about rankings with SEOs, clients, and in the content I write.

But, when talking about keyword rankings, it’s important to make sure everyone involved understands what they should and should not be used for.

Rankings are a metric for SEOs to use to diagnose campaigns, not for clients to determine how things are going.

Rankings are great for understanding how the broad strokes of a campaign are doing.

How are the car accident related terms that are being tracked performing? After onsite was finished, were there any noticeable losses, gains, or increased amounts of fluctuations?

Are the “lawyer” terms ranking better than the “attorney” terms? Maybe send another link or two with “attorney” in the anchor.

If you’re keeping a log of all changes (which you should) then you’ll be able to diagnose gains and losses.

After algorithm changes, you can review which clients were impacted and how severe those changes were. Perhaps the mobile-speed update hurt a specific client, improving their page speed should then be a top-priority.

Use rankings as a line of defence.

Did something break? At a glance, are things performing well? As rankings increase, does traffic and leads? Are there any strategy changes needed?

Let’s Wrap This Up

SEO isn’t what it used to be, and as SEOs, we need to evolve with the times as well.

The days of judging a campaigns success based on specific keywords and where our tools tell us those terms rank are past us. There are simply too many factors that change SERPs for individual searches for us to really know who ranks where with 100% accuracy.

Instead, we can use keyword rankings for what they’re good for. Diagnosing campaign health, testing, and making strategy adjustments based on the estimated positions and ranking graph history that our tools give us.

Finally, we can change how we view success as well as what our clients look for by focusing on ROI. By calculating how much leads are worth and tracking leads generated, we can show the monetary value of our work.


About the author:
Marketer by day, frustrated programmer by night. Jarod Spiewak is an agency consultant & owner of Blue Dog Media who focuses on strategy and automation in order to achieve better and faster results.



3 thoughts on “Keyword Rankings Don’t Matter (and What Does)

  1. An eye opening read which validates something I’ve believed in all along. I’m not in client SEO (I only ever work on my own affiliate websites) however in 6 years of ranking I can honestly say I haven’t used a rank tracker – I’ve always focused on growing my traffic without chasing particular keywords.

    My answer to “IF RANKINGS DON’T MATTER, WHAT DOES?” would be ‘money in the bank’!

  2. Very nice article, Kurt!

    I am using Nelio A/B, which has an entry price that’s ok for small site owners ($29/month, single site, but you can use multiple subscriptions). $89/month for the more advanced plan.

    Customer service has been great, and it seems to work well so far – at least to me, a beginner.

    I’m curious what you think about it!


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