Do SEO Rankings Mean Money?

“I want to rank #1 in Google for KEYWORD”

That’s how a lot of business owners approach SEO. It seems simple enough:

  1. People come to Google to look for your service,
  2. You rank #1,
  3. Everybody clicks on to your site, because we all know everyone clicks on result #1,
  4. So you get a lot of highly relevant traffic,
  5. BOOM. Money arrives in your account.
  6. You go grab a beer and plan your next holiday. Happy days!

But if that were really the case, then this blog article wouldn’t exist, and that would be bad.

No actually, unfortunately for all of us, SEO just isn’t that simple. And so this article aims to explore and educate us as to what SEO rankings actually mean, and what they don’t mean.

Mantra: Rankings aren’t everything, nor are they unimportant

SEO and rankings will be married eternally. It’s impossible to speak about SEO without mentioning rankings. The whole point of SEO is to gain greater visibility in organic search.

But, like most things in life, people often try to get too much of a good thing.

It seems obvious that ranking highly for your KEYWORD will make good business sense. If someone is searching for your product, and you are able to get yourself in front of them, then obviously that’s got to be a good thing.

But Google and digital marketing has changed a lot over the recent years. The signals that Google takes into account presently are far more intricate and nuanced than they were in the past. Google cares a lot about the entire journey of customers, and as such if it feels like you are only chasing rankings (but not actually adding value to users), then it might penalise you for that in the long run.

Let’s talk about some of the things that can show how rankings are not as important as they were before, or temper our love for rankings by putting them in perspective.

1. More distributed clicks in SERPS

A SERP is a Search Engine Results Page, like the one below:

What Google and the industry are seeing over time is that the clicks in SERPS are becoming more distributed.

Without going into extraneous detail (there are multiple studies dedicated to this), over the years what we are seeing is that people are scrolling down more and clicking more on lower results than they did before in SERPS.

To illustrate briefly, back in 2006 position #1 was shown to get 42%-56% of clicks (so almost half). More recent studies in 2014 (for example here and here) show that this has decreased to closer to 33% of clicks. Other studies suggest as low as 18% go to that first result.

Other heatmaps of SERPS show clearly that over time people are scrolling a lot further down than they used to.

What does this mean? 

  • It means that ranking in the top 3 isn’t as lucrative and as important as it once was. Clicks are becoming more distributed and people scroll down more.
  • It also means that so long as you get yourself onto the first page, or even in the top 6-7, then it’s probably time to shift focus to how to increase click through rate instead of just increasing ranking.

2. More complex search terms

Another major trend that is happening over time is that searches are getting longer, people are typing more words into Google than they were before. (In fact, they’re even starting to type sentences)

As such, the search term volume graph is also getting flatter. Search has been, for a long time, a “long tail” type distribution. What that means is that although certain terms have high volume, they only represent a small subset of all searches. As per the below diagram, people are becoming more likely to type in “red Nike men’s running shoes” than just “shoes”. We are becoming more specific.

Because long tail searches are complex, and varied, it’s impossible to track ranking for all of them. But they are very important. If you chase only ranking for only 2-3 main keywords, you could potentially lose out on most of your money-making traffic.

What does this mean?

  • Your main money terms you want to rank #1 for are only a smaller subset of all the search terms people will type in.
  • Focusing only on them means missing out on capturing lots of relevant traffic that lies beneath them
  • Tracking rankings becomes less and less important over time.

3. Personalised results

Much more than before, Google personalises our search results based on our own inputs. If you are logged in to Google Chrome when searching, you can be sure Google is personalising your results for you.

Sites that you seem to like, or your Google Plus friend’s posts, can get a boost in ranking just for you. So that means your SERP is not the same as my SERP, and it’s difficult to rely on the rankings you see.

What does this mean?

  • Tracking ranking is not as reliable as it was before.
  • Different people see different results in Google based on their preferences.

4. Geo-targeted results

Google changes their SERPS dramatically based on geo-location. If you do a “location sensitive” search in North Sydney and then again by the Sydney Airport then the results will vary. This is because of the preference to rank local providers above those who are further away.

What does this mean?

  • Tracking ranking is not as reliable as it was before.
  • Different people see different results in Google based on their locations.

5. The customer journey

Every point up until now has focused on just the Search Engine related reasons why ranking is not what it used to be. But that’s just a small subset of the reasons to shift our focus away from just ranking in Google. Google takes into account users’ reviews, their links, and the way they discuss brands online. All of these things factor back into the algorithm and result in changes.

More than ever, it’s crucial to focus on more than just ranking. Focus on the entire user experience, from start to finish. Not just the first interaction (ranking).

So why shouldn’t I just chase rankings?

Obsessively chasing ranking in Google is just like playing chess and focusing only on slaying the queen piece of your opponent. Obviously, killing the queen is a good idea; the queen is the most strategically valuable piece, a very important element of your enemy’s army. But killing the queen is not checkmate. It could contribute to winning, but it is not the definition of winning.

The most compelling argument against only focusing on organic SEO rankings is that it takes our focus away from what is actually most important:

The user (AKA, the King in the chess analogy).

And Google doesn’t like that. For those who obsessively try to understand their algorithm and try to rank highly in it, they have several branches of spam fighting algorithms to negate their efforts.

Summary: putting things in perspective

Rankings alone do not mean money. It is possible to rank #1 in Google and not make any money because your website experience or offering are terrible.

More and more people are faced with multiple choices, options, and they tend to explore them more.

We are entering a phase of SEO where rankings fall back into the bigger picture of a search engagement process. The entire journey from search to conversion and lifetime value.

Checkmate the King, understand the Queen.

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