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Dan Smith

Why Solely Focusing on Keyword Rankings Could Harm Your SEO

Dan Smith
Why Solely Focusing on Keyword Rankings Could Harm Your SEO

Ever since I became involved in the SEO industry, my focus has always been on content. I didn’t come to the industry from a communication background (although I’ve always loved reading and writing), and didn’t hear SEO ‘gurus’ or ‘masters’ all saying that you need to focus purely on great quality content (in fact, it was usually the opposite — huge volumes of backlinks are good, mmkay!).

Yet I’ve always had this belief that content plays a vital role in SEO. More so than any other component, actually.

When you’re producing content on-site and off, it has a multitude of benefits. From showing Google your brand is live, active and engaging with your audience, to providing a resource that attracts your visitors, delivering great quality content really will ensure you see success not just with SEO, but your digital strategies in general.

As such — and particularly today — it pains me when I see clients only willing to focus on it on a minimal level. They’re so obsessed with wanting to appear on the first page of Google for one or two specific terms that regardless of what else is happening, to them, if their ranking positions for these terms aren’t improving, the SEO strategy isn’t a success.

And when you have clients asking for this regularly, it can be all too easy to just succumb to their requests. I mean, the customer is always right, right?

Sure. Just not in this case.

There’s little doubt that utilizing keyword research and analysis is a necessary part of SEO, but as is the case with any other aspect of SEO, it could very easily end up having the opposite effect on your strategy if used incorrectly — and there are five clear reasons why I believe this is the case:

1. You end up putting the focus on the search engines, not the user

Google wants to deliver a first class search experience. They always have done and they always will do. And over the years, they’ve got better at doing so — and they’re only going to get even better.

Due to this very reason, your entire SEO strategy needs to be focused around the user. If you focus it on anything else primarily — ranking for specific keywords, in this instance - it’s practically guaranteed you’ll lose that focus on the user.

When you’re looking at keyword rankings first and foremost, whilst you’ll no doubt still create content, you could be doing so based on the keywords, rather than your audience. Your titles might not be as great as they can be, your copy may be unnecessarily ‘stuffed’ with keywords and your links could look unusual and / or out of place.

I do have to explain at this point that some will no doubt say “Yeah, this was the case - 10 years ago,” but it still happens today, particularly with those organizations who haven’t truly embraced digital (which, unfortunately, is more than most truly realize).

2. Doing so can be a large burden on resources

OK, so there are tools out there that can help you monitor the ranking position for certain keywords, but I’m yet to find one that provides data which is consistently:

  • Accurate
  • Up-to-date
  • Cost-effective

As such, in the past I’ve generally found myself / my team monitoring keywords on a manual basis. Typing in the phrases, working through the pages (generally only up to page 10 - anything after that and I’ve found there’s too much regular fluctuation) and tracking the results in a spreadsheet.

Fine if we’re just monitoring a handful of keywords on a monthly basis, but if a client has dozens — or hundreds — of keywords they want weekly ranking reports on, it can end up eating into your allocated time considerably; time that could be better spent elsewhere.

3. By itself, it’s not an accurate reflection of SEO success

A couple of years ago, I was working with two clients. Operating in different industries and with different audiences, both were signed up for SEO and both had a list of keywords they wanted to rank on the first page of Google for. As an agency, we agreed on the fact we’d have achieved SEO success once their websites were ranking on the first page for the phrases specified.

A little while in, Client 1 wasn’t ranking for their terms and they were getting frustrated (let’s not get into this - apparently “it’s a long term strategy” translated to “you’ll see results in 4 weeks”). They wanted to hold that coveted first position desperately.

Similarly, Client 2 also wasn’t ranking for their terms - yet they were anything but frustrated. They were getting visitors to their website, enquiries via e-mail and some high quality conversions.

It’s at this point that I truly realized there needs to be a distinct push to explain to clients that purely ranking for keywords is not the be all and end all. What’s more, for those clients focusing on them, it’s often on the assumption that when it happens, it’ll result in increased traffic and conversions.

Unfortunately, that’s not always - or even regularly - the case.

But that doesn’t mean these goals can’t be achieved.

For me, SEO success today is defined by firstly getting to the root of what the client wants to achieve. SEO is so versatile that I genuinely believe it can impact on almost everything a business wants or needs it to. And if you can identify these points at the start, you can develop the entire strategy around the journey to achieving them.

Of course, the client will often need direction, so as a starting point I put the focus on organic traffic and conversions, both on a quality and quantity basis. If you can show that organic traffic to the website is increasing in volume and appears to be of a great quality (let’s say the average visitor duration is a couple of minutes and they’re viewing a couple of pages per visit), as well as showing a direct impact on conversions, that’s usually what clients find to be the most interesting, useful and beneficial information.

4. Keywords are becoming increasingly difficult to track accurately

Once upon a time, you put a keyword into Google, hit return and you could track the ranking of a website for that phrase. Irrelevant of where you were in the country (or world, in fact, assuming you were using the same version, such as .com or .co.uk), the results were always the same.

As you’ll no doubt be aware, this isn’t the case today and if you type “digital agency” into Google, you’ll get listings based on a number of different pieces of criteria, including the location of any agencies within a close proximity to where you currently are.

There are ways to get around this, such as by turning off location-based tracking, but for the majority of browsers, that’s a manual action. You have to physically change your default settings, which means for most users, their search results for non-location related phrases could be completely different to their friend’s at the other end of the country.

5. You could limit yourself massively

Google’s approach to search is now semantic. It doesn’t just look at the words you put into your sub-headings or which you use as anchor text for your links. Instead, it looks at the entire content on the page and determines, using its own ‘mind,’ what the page is related to — and then ranks it for the terms it deems appropriate.

For this reason, if your SEO strategy is focusing solely on a set list of keywords, you could be losing out on a huge amount of traffic, as you’re essentially telling Google to only consider X page for Y phrase.

Of course, Google is intelligent enough to know X page won’t just be about Y, but Z too. The problem, however, is that if you didn’t focus on Y so intently, Google would most likely realize the page was also associated with A, B, C, D and E — all topics that could bring in high quality, targeted, organic traffic.

I feel it’s important to point out that I’m not saying you should completely and utterly disregard the ranking of your website in the search engines for keywords. After all, the only reason you get the right levels of organic traffic is because you’re ranking highly for certain phrases.

What I am saying, however, is that you shouldn’t necessarily focus on getting to the top of Google as your first priority. By all means, consider rankings within your SEO strategy, but understand they don’t have to be a priority - and can, if put on a pedestal, very easily be the downfall of your otherwise perfect SEO strategy.

Dan Smith is the SEO Specialist at Leighton. Responsible for the development, implementation and ultimate success of client strategies, Dan brings a decade’s worth of digital and communication experience to the table and firmly believes quality, audience-relevant content delivered effectively across all channels is the key to success. His last article for SEMrush was "5 Simple Ways I Got 100+ Genuine Twitter Followers a Week Organically and Easily."

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