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How to Understand Keyword Rankings (and Work with Google)

Posted In: Hidden by Dan Howard,
November 27, 2017


You might be forgiven for thinking this is yet another SEO blog post claiming that keywords are dead, but you can rest easy. We’re not about hyperbole at Boutique; as with everything in life, the truth is actually more complicated. Instead, I’m going to help you cut through the noise and understand what exactly you’re seeing in your keyword reports.


Why You Shouldn’t Trust Keyword Trackers


The fact is that Google has been working to personalise search for years now. As a user you’re far more likely to use a search engine that gives you results you are likely to enjoy or use, rather than one that gets served to everybody. Take a moment to think about your own search usage, and you’ll see what I mean.


Take out your smartphone and search for ‘taxi companies’. Next time you’re in another town, do the same thing. If you’ve travelled a far enough, it’s very likely you’ll see two completely different firms ranking first.


But to any keyword tracker that they have set up, both firms will see only the end result: they just got a search impression where they ranked 1st for ‘Taxi Companies’. Result!


Do they rank first for ‘Taxi Companies’ though? Well yes, they did. And no, because America just generated thousands more searches for the same thing, and you got 0 impressions from that. It’s all because Google is very good at filtering your results in real time, so you get the most relevant pages ranking every time.


Reporting Live from the Filter Bubble


In short, keyword ranking is a terrible KPI, because it changes depending on who searches for it, when, and from where. It encourages working towards an end that has no guaranteed return. Instead, look at traffic earned from generic search, time on site, or (prepare yourself) revenue!


Google doesn’t just tailor results based upon where you are. Results change depending on the device you’re using, whether your business is open when a local query is made, and even if you’ve just had a spate of poor reviews.


Google keeps every user inside a unique filter bubble generated from years of search history. It makes for a fantastic UX, but bots exist outside of this bubble. Ahrefs’ crawlers are unlikely to have a search history, per se, and they’re almost certainly not logged into a Google account with a realistic search history when they scrape SERPs.


Even if they were, they’d only ever show you what someone in their location, with their search history, searching at that time would see. Which is why bots are useless for measuring real-world performance.


So What Should I Do?


It all starts with having the appropriate tracking set up. Some tools, like AWR Cloud and Ahrefs, let you spoof the bot’s location to try to recapture a more realistic result. This certainly helps – if you’ve a multi-branch client or business, it can soon get messy managing it all, and you’ll soon find yourself scratching your head as one branch soars to the top while another plummets headlong into the deep.


The most important thing is to define and agree upon your targets in advance, and measure the most appropriate real-world KPI. The fact of the matter is that very few businesses should actually have the objective of ranking first for a keyword. One will need to increase revenue, another is launching a new product range so needs to raise awareness, and a third will need to increase engagement for their content.


Ranking makes it a lot easier to achieve these goals, sure, but it doesn’t put money in the till and it’s entirely possible to achieve growth without doing so.


But Keywords Aren’t Dead


Despite this, we still track keywords for clients. Not because ranking is a good measure of SEO’s value for a business, but because it’s a useful diagnostic tool.


Because bots exist outside of the filter bubble, they give us a glimpse of the ‘default’ position a site might occupy. The position from which it then up/down ranks a page based upon a user’s circumstances and preferences.


But this isn’t much use at all, for the day to day. Especially because search is increasingly moving users away from clicking the first result, and towards screenless and in-SERP solutions. Not to mention that you’re hard pressed to see an organic result above the fold on most mobile searches.


The Future of SEO & PPC


Nowhere is the need to cater to real people clearer than in the company’s current drive towards intelligent assistants and integrated technology. Google Home and Google Assistant aim to provide real-time solutions through a conversational interface for people that they get to know over time.


As you talk to them, you’re creating an increasingly nuanced filter bubble between yourself and your search results. Such is Google’s confidence in their filtering system that, in many cases, your intelligent personal assistant will choose an app, action, or site for you. Just how PPC & Google Shopping ads will interact with intelligent assistants remains to be seen (because, let’s face it, if Google always opened the top-most there’d likely be another fine in the pipeline for them).


So how do you ‘rank’ for a voice interface that only returns the single ‘best’ response? By giving Google exactly what it wants: information, and confidence.


We already know that Google Home pulls data from rich snippets for its answers, so making content clear and appropriate for this format becomes paramount to success in this emerging search market. And with features like product listings appearing in Image SERPs, the importance of structured data is becoming increasingly clear.


Future-Proofing Your SEO


So to prepare for the widest possible range of SERPs most businesses should consider the following a good starting point.


  • Claim, and maintain your Google My Business Profiles
    • Make sure the details on here match your site (and tag your URLs with UTMs to properly track performance!)
  • Revisit your existing content and think how you would verbally ask the questions it answers (maybe check with Answer the Public if you’re struggling)
    • Introduce and optimise your content to directly answer these questions.
  • Use structured data (and bookmark Schema.org now)
    • Content publishers, e-commerce sites, businesses with local branches nationwide, and brands whose names have multiple meanings – make it easy for Google to understand what your site is, and is trying to achieve
  • See that featured snippet in your SERP?
  • Done any dodgy link-building?
    • Clean it up – if you’ve got a manual action or a bad reputation, there’s no reason for Google’s assistants to trust the information you give it until you make amends

So no, I’m not going to say keywords are dead. There will always be words in search, and you’ll always be ranking for them (you hope). But if you want to be a top search marketer moving forwards, you’ll want to brush up on your technical SEO, and teach the robots to trust you.



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