Reality Check: Stop Obsessing Over Your Site Ranking

There are many great SEO Analytics Platforms on the market today, names such as SEOmoz, seoClarity, Conductor, Brightedge, and more as the list grows every year.

Another one of the leaders is Raven Tools. A couple of weeks ago, Raven announced that they are dropping their ranking reports from the product. This is at least in part due to Google having set a deadline for being in compliance with their AdWords API.

I can’t blame them for making this decision, because they need to pass the annual audit to continue receiving data directly from Google. This is crucial to the ongoing usefulness of the tool itself.

Some SEOs are up in arms about it. I’ve even heard whispers of some SEOs wanting to change platforms. Is that reasonable? I think not.

SEO is Much More Than SERP Ranking

Online marketing is a data driven discipline. It is easy to get caught up in ego metrics that don’t drive business, but that make the CEO or SEO team feel like they have accomplished something. But those metrics don’t necessarily matter.

SERP Ranking is one of those ego metrics.

Hear me out before you decide I’m losing my grip on reality.

SERP Ranking Is Over-rated

At the end of the day, a business should be focused on revenue and profitability, right? Let’s start by agreeing these are the most important metrics to pursue. If you disagree, please explain why in the comments.

The assumption is made that, if you rank at the top of the SERPs for keywords with a lot of volume, you make a lot of money. In a perfect world, that would be absolutely true.

But the cause and effect are not automatically linked. You have to compel them to click on your listing instead of another, keep them on the site long enough to pique their interest, and find a way to convert them. This is just to get a lead, not revenue yet!

If you pick the wrong keywords to pursue, you will struggle to convert them to a lead, and even more to squeeze money out of them. Chasing high volume head terms is a high effort, high upside, yet highly short-sighted strategy.

Yet SEOs all over the country, especially those who are employed in very large businesses and enterprises, find themselves running firedrill analyses every other day. Why?

Because a head term dropped from #8 to #9 on the SERP, and the CMO is freaking out.

What a colossal waste of time! Imagine what else you could be doing to drive revenue, instead of obsessing over the ranking of one keyword.

The opportunity cost of churning again and again is enormous. The word “analysis paralysis” comes to mind, where you spin and spin the data, only to figure out no action is necessary.

It is time to stop this cycle of inefficiency.

Two Paths To The Same Outcome

Head terms are great for several reasons. They come with a high volume of searches, are well known and understood, and it is an enormous accomplishment to sit atop the rankings for one of them.

Downside of Head Terms

Head Terms are always a priority for enterprises when I talk to them. After all, if you can’t build a short list of high volume keywords to target, how can you track progress?

There are several issues with head terms that you should consider.

  1. Competition is fierce. If you are thinking they are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, keep in mind that everyone else is thinking the same thing. SERPs are dynamic and evolve by the minute, so you can’t control the daily and inter-daily fluctuations. They will happen, and you have as much influence as everyone else scrambling to take your spot does. Is this a good use of your limited time?
  2. Head Terms are rarely “buy” terms. When you get online to figure out what a particular jargon or industry catch phrase means, you search for it. Are you looking to buy at that point in time? No! As people move down the decision funnel, their searches become more and more specific. Unless you have a strategy for nurturing those folks along, you are busting your hump for incremental improvements in awareness. That’s it.
  3. Targeting head terms is getting more difficult. Google has gone to great lengths to remove scalable manipulation tactics from SEO practices. Now you cannot jump to the top of the SERPs just because you have a site with an exact match keyword in the domain or a bunch of new content on the topic. Backlinks need to have a healthy mix of link types while also varying up anchor text, meaning you now have to target semantic variations on the keywords. And you can’t accelerate the process too much, because a sudden, excessive burst of link growth can risk your site getting flagged by the almighty Google.
That sounds a whole lot like spinning your wheels, focusing on busy work because you simply don’t have a better way of doing it.

Why the Long Tail is “Where It’s At

The smart SEO is not just keeping daily tabs on a short list of head terms. If you look at any site’s list of keywords driving traffic, you will find that brand terms often account for over half of the visits.

How much of the remaining visits tend to come from head terms? If your customers search like the rest of the world does, it will be a small share of overall visit volume.

Don’t believe me? Here is some data that was pulled together courtesy of SEOmoz. It’s a couple of years old, but still very much relevant.

Head Terms vs. Long Tail Keywords Search Volumes

Now consider competition. Would you rather:

  1. Pursue 10 head terms that can drive up to 10K visits per month, knowing that it will take between six months and two years to reach the top three spots on the SERPs for all ten keywords.
  2. Pursue a mix of long tail keywords that collectively can drive up to 10K visits per month, knowing that you can start ranking high on page one for non-competitive keywords within days, weeks, or months.

The typical enterprise answer is both, but with a focus on #1. To the contrary, I posit that prioritizing #2 is the right answer. Not only can you show faster results, but by pursuing long tail terms that are on similar topics to head terms, you will also eventually rank for the head terms by default!

This is the whole premise behind content marketing. You aren’t force feeding content that ranks the head terms. You are widening the net and side stepping the competition.

To sweeten the potential return, Long Tail can grow indefinitely, while head terms can only deliver a share of total searches for a few words. It’s the equivalent of expanding your target market to qualified prospects (searchers in this case), which we all know is good for finding new revenue opportunities.

Better Way to Benchmark SEO

The answer is to evaluate your SEO holistically. Map out the funnel of search volume. expected clicks, conversions, and final sales. Look at where revenue is originating, all the way down to the keyword.

Stop thinking of head terms as the holy grail. Yes, they remain important in the long run, but there are many more moving parts that you need to be managing to get this right. You don’t need a string of home runs to win the game, just a well-structured strategy of doing the small things right (something they call “small ball” in baseball circles).

This is not something that you can change overnight, by the way. Obsessing over ranking is how many companies think it works, so education and evangelism must begin long before you flip the switch. But it is worth the effort to change focus, because your long term success depends on it.