How your keyword strategy is failing you (and how to fix it)

One day very soon, we’re all going to stop worrying about “keywords”.

And then we can all rejoice.

ron swanson dancing

But until that happens, whenever “SEO” comes up, the next phrase muttered usually involves “keywords” and “rankings”.

This unhealthy obsession with “keyword + rankings” (that was a search operator joke) has long been misleading.

Historically, keywords gave us a fairly reliable way to measure progress in the otherwise abstract and confusing world of SEO. (Not to mention, the very real danger of cheap SEO providers.)

The problem is that today, keyword rankings are basically useless. This means the way we’ve traditionally optimized and measured for them is basically useless as well.

Here’s why.

Why your 2005 keyword strategy doesn’t work today

Rightfully (or wrongfully), keyword rankings have been SEO KPI #1 for over a decade.

And back in the day, this made sense.

Search engines were more-or-less one dimensional, which made SEO a very straightforward process. Everyone, no matter who you were or where in the world you were searching from, would largely see the same exact search engine result pages (SERPs) when looking for a specific keyword.

In this environment, keyword rankings (as a metric) were very simple, reliable, and (I can’t believe I’m going to say this when referencing Google) transparent.

On top of that, analytics programs freely passed keyword referral data back to webmasters. Meaning you could see exactly which terms people used to arrive at your site.

By matching keyword positions or rankings with the referral data you were seeing in analytics, you could easily see the $money keywords – or which ones were driving success (in terms of traffic and conversions).

Unfortunately, none of this is true anymore.

So good thing you scanned over the last ~165 words anyway. 🙂

Something about personalization

Today, everyone’s search engine result pages (SERPs) are being personalized based on your:

  • Past browsing history
  • Physical location
  • Social media connections

Just to name a few. :/

That means the keyword rankings you’re seeing, instead of being static and universal like the good-old-days, are completely personalized to you as an individual.

For example, look up a traditionally head (or super popular) keyphrase like, “Pizza” and you now get something like this:

Modern SERP’s pull from a variety of different sources (here you’ll see the huge prevalence and opportunity of local search emphasized), with traditional “organic” results pushed off a bit.

(This also means the role of “SEO” has evolved to include influential satellites like AdWords and Yelp. But that’s a topic for another day.)

The concept of keywords having one specific rank, and then benchmarking efforts against it, is today at best worthless, and at worst misleading.

But wait, there’s more!

Dude, where’s my keywords?

The second part of the keyword ranking equation was using referral data from your analytics to see how and where people are coming from.

With this info, then you could at least get an idea of (a) how people are looking for you and (b) how to use that information to do a better job of optimizing your site.

So even if keyword rankings are losing value, this referral data was extremely helpful in giving you clues to influential topics and keyphrases.

Now, SEO encompasses much more than just Google Search. Hoooooweeevverrr… Google Search is a virtual monopoly, meaning they can pretty much do whatever they’d like. Starting with, taking away almost all keyword referral data that gets passed to webmasters and site owners.

A few years ago, they moved to make all searches secure (except for ad clicks). Now in your analytics program, where you used to see the specific keywords sending you traffic under “organic”, you now see a [not provided] placeholder that accounts for the majority (~70-90%).

That means you can no longer see what keywords are sending you traffic from organic search….

… due to “privacy reasons”…

… but you can, however, pay them for it via AdWords.

How ironic. And convenient.

Keyphrases are still very important. Trouble is, we now have to infer or assume what keyphrases are popular and how to best optimize with huge gaps in verifiable data (and you know what they say about when you assume).

One of the easiest ways, is to simply alter our strategy a bit and focus on what we can control (our website) instead of what we can’t (keyword rankings).

The simple change to update your strategy

If (a) keyword rankings are unreliable, and (b) keyword referral data is nonexistent, then… something needs to give.

Going forward, it’s easier to shift focus away from keywords (directly), to the performance of your landing and content pages instead (so you can indirectly assess topic performance).

Then reverse-engineer success based on topic – i.e. a broad set of long-tail keyphrases – instead of only one specific keyphrase. It’s messy, but practically easier (unless you’re interested in getting your PhD in SEO and analytics).

For example, one simple way is to take a look at your most popular content in Google Analytics from organic search:

Then cross-reference this information with some (remaining) query data in Google’s Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools):


And you can kinda get an idea of the long-tail keyphrases sending this page traffic (along with some position-related info – but let’s not over-emphasize this now, shall we?).

You can also use some paid tools, like Moz, to help track a certain number of keyphrases against specific landing pages:


In a way, this backwards process should actually benefit you by ensuring extra attention-to-detail when strategizing the information architecture of a site’s pages (and their respective keyphrases) in the first place.

The holistic future of search optimization

In today’s dynamic marketing landscape, SEO isn’t “SEO”.

Instead, SEO now takes a multi-faceted approach where you’re involving different disciplines (i.e. content, email, advertising, social), building a brand (i.e. investing in intangibles, not just conversions), and competing on multiple fronts (i.e. paid search positions, review & aggregation sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, beefing up your local listings, and more) – all at the same time.

Needless to say, this requires a lot of time, man (or woman – can’t accuse me of discrimination!) power, and sufficient investment.

The days of competing solely on (and overprioritizing) SEO are numbered.

But that’s not to say it’s any less important. In fact, search is only becoming more important and more influential in the buying process of customers.

Finding what you’re specifically looking for will always be priority #1 online. And that means search will be omnipresent and omnipotent because it’s so valuable (and profitable).

The trick will be to remain holistic and nimble as trends and platforms evolve.