I would bet that many predictable searches (think “web design company”) are typed into Google by people like me, who do SEO professionally, or by business owners / nonprofit executives who want to see where they rank on what they think their clients are searching for.
Humans have been obsessed with ranking #1 (or in the top five, or on page one) for as long as search engines have been around. And I get it.
I still track rankings. I still feel the thrill of watching a keyword I’m working on rocket up to the top five as well as the despair of seeing a sudden inexplicable plummet below the fifth page of search results.
And yet for years, YEARS, we’ve known that fixating on rankings isn’t the best approach to SEO. Google customizes search results for individuals based on all sorts of factors, and they’ve been doing this since 2004! There’s basically no such thing as a generic search result.
When I track rankings through Moz or SEMRush, I’m tracking a make-believe number that exists for very few people, unless they are using a browser that has no cookies and no personalization (including IP location). I would guess that very few of us browse the internet so anonymously, and those who do are not typically using Google.
Knowing that 92% of internet searches are conducted using Google, and knowing that those search results are customized for most people, why do we still track rankings as though they’re consistent or real?
SEO software like Moz and SEMRush (and AHREFs and others) depersonalize search results to help us track where we rank without personalization, and that’s an easy number for us to work with.
But does it pay off? I’ve seen clients rank number one for a search term that they want to rank for, but it does nothing to help them build business. Nothing.
And maybe it’s the vanity of ranking number one that’s important (I am vain about it, too; this isn’t a dig at my clients). If so, great. We can work with that, though I’m not sure if it’s truly valuable.
But if you actually want to get something more out of SEO than a comforting ego stroke, then you need to think about search volume and conversions.
Search Volume Over Rankings Tracking
Over the past few years I’ve started to pay more attention to search volume than rankings. New Why implements content strategies to increase search volume by answering questions that people have about our clients’ services, products, industries, and experience.
The content we create and/or optimize, based on this research, increases what is known as “long tail keyword” search results. People are more comfortable asking Google complicated questions, and Google is getting better at delivering relevant results from these complicated searches.
In the early days of Google, people searched the internet like they would a card catalogue or the yellow pages. Now we talk to Google (and sometimes we literally talk to Google “Hey Google,”) the way we might have talked to a human librarian in the past when we needed help finding an answer.
Most of the traffic we get for this blog is from a variety of searches, almost all of them long-tail, and I don’t find value in tracking them.
All I know is that the post gets a lot of traffic because it answers a common question that people have, even if that question is worded very differently depending on who is asking it.
Now, when it comes to local searches we need to pay closer attention to these predictable non-long-tail keyphrases because someone (that someone is me) is going to search “Italian restaurants in Sheridan, WY” rather than, “where can I find the best lasagna if I’m driving through Wyoming.”
Here’s what you need to do to have a solid SEO strategy:
- Be optimized for your services and products so that when people are using simple searches you stand a better chance of showing up.
- Create blog content that answers questions that people may have about your field of expertise. Tip: if it’s a problem you solved, it’s a problem someone else will be looking to solve, and you should share your solution.
- Track how people use your website using heat mapping software.
- Make changes to your website to help people complete your goal easier.
Now, more on numbers three and four. For help on this, I had Michelle, head of our web development team, give me her input.
SEO needs conversion optimization
Or, just because you build it, doesn’t mean they’ll come.
I mentioned above that sometimes we can see our clients rank fairly well for a particular search term, but we still see no impact on their primary goals, be that registrations, sales, donations, inquiries – whatever – and they get frustrated. They think “We got them to the site. Why aren’t they buying (or signing up, donating, etc)?”
Which, for whatever it’s worth, always reminds me of Field of Dreams, one of two great Kevin Costner baseball movies, where building a baseball diamond was all that was needed to lure ghost ball players out of the afterlife and into a cornfield in Iowa.
So, we built a site, we got users to take a look, and then… nothing. Why? Well, because this game is a lot more complicated than ghost baseball (well, maybe not, but that’s a topic for another blog entirely). And this is where conversion optimization comes into play.
Conversion Optimization + Heatmaps = TLA ❤️❤️❤️
Conversions refers to the number of visitors to your site who take some specific action or actions that lead them closer to becoming part of your community in some meaningful way, and conversion optimization is just the process of making the ratio of converting visitors to overall visitors higher over time.
Your final on-site goal might be to get visitors to purchase something or to make a donation, but other “conversions” might be getting them to fill out a contact form, sign up for a newsletter, download some sort of freebie, register for an event.
So if you’re getting traffic to your site, but aren’t converting those visitors to customers/donors, you need to start looking more closely at your site’s structure and asking if you’re making it easy enough for users to convert.
Heatmaps are excellent tools for that. Heatmaps are tools that show us how and where users click on your site, with “hot spots” of activity showing as bright red, yellow, or white patches with cooler spots showing in blues and greens.
In the heatmap shown here, for example, you can see that most visitors to that site click in the search box at the top right of the screen.
That could mean a lot of things (your navigation is bad so nobody uses it, site users know exactly what they want so they search, visitors to this site don’t explore/browse) and deducing what it means often requires combining heatmap data with other information (knowledge of the site and what it’s for, Google Analytics, etc).
A lot of heatmapping tools also provide scrollmaps that show us how far “below the fold” your users tend to scroll on your pages (and separate that out for mobile and desktop users), and others track what are called “rage clicks” – repeated clicks on elements that users think should be clickable, but aren’t.
Some tools also will “follow” a user across many pages of your site, allowing you to watch their path in video, as if you’re looking over their shoulder.
Sounds a little creepy, right? Well, it is. It’s also super valuable if you’re trying to figure out how people are actually using your website.
The benefit of these tools is that they provide small tidbits of information that you can use to try to figure out what your visitors are looking for and remove any and all obstacles to them getting it quickly, so that they don’t get frustrated, sidetracked, derailed before they give you their email address, sign up for a class, etc.
At New Why, we’re currently in the process of rebuilding our own website AT LAST (you know the one about the cobbler’s kids not having any shoes, right?), and we’re using heatmaps to help inform that process.
We know, for example, that over half of the clicks on our homepage are to either the blog or contact page, and the next most popular chunk is to the About page.
What can we do with that information? A few things:
- We’ll probably put either a contact form or call to action to the contact form front and center on the homepage. This is the #1 action we want visitors on our site to take, after all, and it seems to be the one most visitors WANT to take, so we’ll provide multiple access points/ways for them to reach us. Hopefully, that will remove a little friction, and make it even easier.
- We’ll probably include some recent blog posts on the homepage or a CTA to the blog, too, to connect visitors to that more quickly. We know that our blog generates business (true story: Our post on why you shouldn’t hire a web developer has generated more business for us than we ever expected!), so we definitely want to get folks reading it ASAP if they’re interested.
- Most folks aren’t clicking on our services pages. We still don’t know what to make of that, but we’re going to look at that in conjunction with other data (Google Analytics shows us a lot of folks are landing on our service pages from Google searches – bypassing our homepage, so maybe they’re visiting our homepage as their second page, and then heading to contact after they’ve gained a little trust in us).
Also, we can look at that super popular Facebook admin post and see that over 50% of visitors read all the way to the bottom (that’s rare for a long post- but hey! You’re still here, too!), and almost none of them engage with us beyond that.
We could make the decision to convert that post to a resource that we require an email to download (we won’t – we’re suckers and too nice and want people to succeed with Facebook even as Facebook seems dead set on making that harder. WTH Facebook?).
So what else could we do?
We can add a newsletter sign up to “get more great tips for social media managers”, or link to other popular posts, or maybe add a call to action to get a social media audit done by our marketing team.
There are LOTS of ways we can increase conversion optimization on that post, and then we can use heatmaps to gather even more data over time and continue to refine our approach through tests/data/tests/data/ad infinitum.
The point is simply that heatmapping tools offer a lot of random insight in a visual way that can help us optimize landing pages to increase conversions. They’re great at highlighting little pain points or opportunities that may be otherwise invisible.
Should You Stop Caring About Rankings and Give Up on SEO?
Okay, no. While I suggest you stop caring so much about rankings, I don’t suggest you give up on SEO. Google search will still bring people to your website, and some of those people will end up being clients.
We will still continue to track generic rankings, even though they’re not a reliable or consistent metric, just to have something to compare progress to. But more importantly, pay attention to search volume, and MOST importantly, make sure your site is built so that once the right people are there, they’ll easily, eagerly take an action that will help your business or nonprofit.