Why it’s time to stop obsessing over search engine rankings
Tap, tap, tap. Can you hear it? Tap, tap, tap, tap. It’s the sound of someone performing a daily vanity search, to see whereabouts their business appears in the Google rankings for that keyword they treasure so much. Thud, thud, thud. That’s the sound of them marching towards the marketing department when the position is different to yesterday.
Thankfully, we’re moving out of the SERPs dark ages. Most marketing managers and directors now prefer to focus on the many, much better indicators of digital marketing performance – such as traffic, engagement and conversions – over search rankings, but in some corners, a daily, or sometimes more frequent, check of the Google results is still part of the routine.
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Why the obsession?
To be fair, this hard-to-kick habit is understandable: business owners and directors want their companies to rank highly in Google, not just for the pride and corporate kudos that can bring but also for the long-held notion that being at the top of the results for a particular keyword will ultimately deliver more sales.
Today, the foundations on which this idea is built are looking shakier than ever. More and more people are using longtail queries – and Google’s ranking technology is constantly being refined to reflect that – instead of the one or two-word generics of old. And if businesses get too hung up on their rankings for vanity keywords, they risk losing sight of the many more focused terms capable of delivering traffic and conversions.
“[We] typically rank #2-3 for ‘SEO’,” wrote Moz director of audience, Cyrus Shephard, in a March blog post detailing his (least) favourite SEO myths. “It sends good traffic, but not nearly as good as the thousands of long-tail keywords with more focused intent. In fact, if you went through our entire keyword set, you would find that ‘SEO’ by itself only sends a tiny fraction of our entire traffic, and we could easily survive without it.”
It’s a situation typical of many businesses and the key, says Joshua Steimle in a piece for Forbes, is to pay more attention to user intent than to whatever magic keywords you may arbitrarily decide to target.
“The old way of SEO focused on a small number of ‘golden keywords’ which, individually, generated a lot of traffic. For example, our headquarters is located in Utah, so we used to focus a lot of attention on ranking well for ‘utah seo’. We were #1 for this keyword for years, but now we don’t focus on that keyword so much anymore. Why not? Because we noticed that it accounted for less than 3% of our total search engine traffic, and that visitors who found us by searching for ‘utah seo’ weren’t as likely to convert, or turn into leads, as were visitors who found us through other keywords. Someone searching for ‘utah seo’ might be looking for a job at an SEO firm, writing a research paper, or be a competitor. But someone searching for ‘hire utah seo company’ is very likely to be looking to engage a firm like ours. In addition, it’s easier to optimize for these long tail phrases because most of your competitors are still going after the more generic, shorter terms.”
The impact of Universal Search
What the obsession over ranking positions for specific keywords also fails to take into account is that the way in which Google now ‘moulds’ results around individuals – based on factors such as topicality, search history, location and device use – means a website’s ranking position can change not just from day-to-day but from minute-to-minute, location-to-location and device-to-device. Anyone with colleagues based in offices elsewhere will know how dissimilar the search results can appear in other locations. So the idea of a website having a ‘fixed’ ranking position is outdated in the face of how Google’s technology actually handles search results.
Then there’s Universal Search to consider: Google’s apparent quest to keep people on the SERPs for longer. This means businesses’ results are often pushed further down the page, via the blending of the usual top results with localised results and, in some cases, image carousels, videos, news articles and maps. All of which – personalised results, shifts in user behaviour, Universal Search – means, basically, that classic 1-10 results pages don’t really exist anymore.
It’s not just the way the search results look that has changed, though. Google’s tweakery has given rise to new user behaviours over the past few years. At the end of last year, an eye-tracking study by Mediative found that while previously people’s attention was captured almost exclusively by the ‘Golden Triangle’ at the top left of the screen, today search users are much more likely to scan down the page vertically.
“The #1 organic listing is shifting further down the page,” wrote Mediative’s Rebecca Maynes upon launch of the study. “And while this listing still captures the most click activity (32.8%) regardless of what new elements are presented, the shifting location has opened up the top of the page with more potential areas for businesses to achieve visibility. Where scanning was once more horizontal, the adoption of mobile devices over the past 9 years has habitually conditioned searchers to now scan more vertically—they are looking for the fastest path to the desired content.”
Staying ahead of this trend requires businesses to keep in mind their users’ intent. When creating the content for a webpage, consider what the page is for; what purpose it should serve for the people visiting it. If your target audience is looking for the best 4k televisions to buy and you have a blog post on your website whose title tag is “The top five 4k TVs on the market”, research suggests users could be more likely to click your link, even if it’s not at the top of the results – because it more closely and explicitly meets their needs.
Ranking is a means, not an end
Let’s assume for a moment that a business is able to shore up a reasonably high ranking for a particular keyword. Just being at or near the top of results is not a guarantee of any level of success and those who think it is are forgetting one important fact: ranking highly does not make you irresistible. If visitors don’t like your website once they arrive, many will just go back to their search results and try someone else – it takes a fraction of a second. It won’t matter to them whether you’re search result number one or search result number thirty-one – if they think your copy is clunky or find your site difficult to use in any way, they’ll leave.
Energy wasted obsessing over ever-changing ranking positions would be better focused on website user experience and its continuous improvement.
Forbes recently published an article about good website user experience. They said it helps to “capture and retain the attention of current and potential customers” – which sounds logical. We like websites that are easy to use and we dislike ones that aren’t.
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Be a likeable brand
In his classic marketing book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini cites brand likeability as one of the biggest influences on consumers. He says people are much more likely to buy from you if they like you.
Cialdini says attractiveness is a big likeability factor. When he wrote this in 1984, he wasn’t talking about websites, but we can apply it to websites now.
This concept is particularly useful in the cases of those who covet high rankings occupied by market-dominating competitors. There are some battles you are never going to win. Instead of obsessing over the SERPs and pouring time, effort and money into chasing the leaders, divert that energy into strengthening your brand identity and becoming known – and loved – for what you’re really good at. A neat subversion of differentiation was offered up by Avis in the 1960s. The company decided to market itself as ‘No.2’ in car rentals because Hertz was the market leader by a long way. The campaign played on Avis’ perceived inferiority and the consequent need to put customers first – here’s an example from it:
Don’t just mimic your higher-profile and higher-ranking competitors. Do your own thing and make your online presence different – become liked and eventually loved by users – through the creation and effective distribution of good, unique content.
What is ‘good’ content?
Google says your written content “should be created primarily to give visitors a good user experience, not to rank well in search engines.”
The idea that your website copy’s only function is to push you higher up search results is absurd, not least because it is based on an outdated understanding of how search engines work, but also because it assumes that visitors will definitely convert once they arrive on your site – which we know is not the case. You need to encourage users to trust and like your brand.
So good content, now, is content that’s been written to actually be read by humans.
Many websites use complex language because they think it dazzles readers and Google – think being the operative word. Clear and uncomplicated writing is usually the best approach, because it is refreshingly straightforward and accessible to readers.
Popular writing guide The Elements of Style tells us not to overwrite or overstate, because “ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”
Of course, your copy’s tone and style will depend pretty much entirely upon your target audience(s), but its aim should always be clear communication. Leave lofty synonyms and clunky-looking keyword phrases out.
So what’s the role of keywords now?
Basing all of your content around a list of twenty or so generic search terms is not an effective approach anymore – no matter how aggressively you target those search terms.
Moz advises to use keywords intelligently and with usability in mind. Keywords should appear naturally and sparingly in your copy – repetition not only ruins the writing but it also won’t help rankings one bit. We’ve known this for a long time.
Generic search terms are usually what we call ‘short-tail’ – which means they’re vague and probably used by every company in your market. Long-tail keywords are better.
Longer search terms are naturally more specific, and there is less competition for them – so if you use them you’re much more likely to attract searchers who are ready to convert.
Searchers are shopping around
In March, Google reported that searchers carry out an average of 12 different searches before they even start to click on websites – which suggests people don’t put too much stock into search rankings and like to have a good look around.
This means you cannot afford to have a user-unfriendly website. Visitors will largely judge your entire company based on how your site looks and feels, so you need to make sure they have no reason to leave before they buy or enquire.
Conversion rate optimisation (CRO)
There are, of course, others steps you can take to make sure more of your visitors convert. Rather than increase your levels of traffic, CRO helps you capitalise on the traffic you already get. First of all: it is absolutely not an SEO alternative. A CRO campaign is totally separate to an SEO campaign, but both should be run simultaneously – and continuously. So, if anything, it’s an SEO companion.
The aim of CRO is to make your site easier to use and thereby encourage more traffic to complete your ‘goals’ – which range from the sale of a product or service (a full conversion) to the completion of your contact form and a subscription to your newsletter.
Expecting every visitor to fully convert instantly and on their first visit is not especially realistic. Completed contact forms and newsletter subscriptions can also lead to conversions – maybe not immediately, but in future – so they are very important. But sometimes users will encounter obstacles that prevent or discourage them from filling in forms and subscribing.
A CRO specialist identifies problems with your site and how its user experience can be improved, and then makes sure the necessary improvements are made. A/B testing is one way this can be done – this is where two variants of the same page will be created, with half the traffic landing on version A and the other half landing on version B. Then the user engagement for both versions is examined and the better one identified.
For example, there could be a problem with your contact form that stops users from properly filling it in. Or, worse still, there could be a technical fault with your checkout that makes it difficult for users to complete purchases. Worryingly, technical issues like these can potentially go unnoticed for quite a while – who’s to say a visitor will take the time out to tell you that your website doesn’t work? Abandoning a shopping basket and going elsewhere isn’t difficult.
Instead of wasting time and energy obsessing over ranking positions, businesses would be better focusing on the things that will actually impact their bottom line: website traffic, user engagement and experience and, ultimately, conversions.
Written by Daniel Moores and Daniel Nolan
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