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#1 can be the loneliest number: Why the top spot in keyword rankings isn’t always what it seems

Digital marketing is a very competitive field, with many businesses jostling for your, well, business. To get a competitive edge, some companies engage in telling half-truths. They’re not exactly lying to you, but they’re also not telling you the complete story.

In particular, the call or email that deals with keyword rankings is almost always the same. The company’s representative will send you a list of keywords that you’re not performing well in with us at the helm.

They’ll then explain their plan to turn that around for what seems like a very reasonable amount of money, should you dump us for them. Not only that, but all of this will happen really, really fast.

On the surface, it sounds like a great deal. We’re here to tell you that they’ll probably deliver on exactly what they’ll promise—and potentially sabotage the long-term growth of your campaign in the process.

You need to rank for the keywords that matter

The problem is that not all keywords are created equal. Depending on factors like your business type, areas you serve, and a number of other factors, some keywords have more search volume (actual people searching for them) than others. Some keywords have very little (read: effectively zero if measured over time) search volume.

Let’s say that you’re a company that provides heating and cooling services here in Phoenix. The keyword “gas furnace” has good search volume on a monthly basis. However, that means others are likely optimizing their sites around that keyword, and putting money into their SEO toward getting a higher spot.

In contrast, the keyword “natural gas forced hot air furnace” has far less competition, and zero search traffic in the past 12 months. You could easily rank #1 for that keyword if you optimized for it and put money behind it.

Yet, if there’s little traffic, that #1 ranking doesn’t mean much. You can rank #1 for dozens of keywords and never get a single call.

That’s because putting money into keywords with little-to-no real life search volume is a lot like casting your fishing rod into your backyard swimming pool. Yes, you’ll be the best (and only) fisherman there. It doesn’t mean you’ll catch anything.

Want to check the keywords you’ve been provided?

You can look at approximate search volume for keywords using Google Keyword Planner—a free tool provided by Google. Click the button below to get started.

It’s good to be #1 in keyword rankings (except when it isn’t)

Spending money to get the top ranking for a lot of inconsequential search keywords is often a double-whammy.

First, you’re putting money into a place where it’s not going to be effective at generating more calls and leads for your business.

Second, that money is most likely going to be funds siphoned off from other parts of the campaign, hurting the marketing that is working.

As strange as it sounds, a lower position on a more competitive, searched-for keyword is better than the top ranking on a keyword no one is searching for in your area.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t “hidden gems” of keywords that have decent search volume and low competition. There are some out there, and we research and look for them with the tools available to us.

However, the idea that there’s an entire list of effective keywords that we’re missing is something you should treat with skepticism.

What about competitive keywords?

Getting a high organic search ranking in a competitive set of keywords is not something that happens overnight. It takes a great-run marketing campaign, marketing dollars, and—most importantly—time.

As a general rule, anyone who promises you instant results when it comes to keyword rankings probably isn’t telling the whole story.

When is marketing too good to be true?

Here are some questions you should ask any marketing company—including us!—that you’re thinking about working with:

#1. What is the search volume like for the keywords listed here?

If you’ve been provided a list of keywords that you could rank #1 for, select a few of them at random and ask for the specific monthly search volume of each. If it’s 10 searches or less per month, that probably isn’t a good keyword to be aiming at.

#2. Beyond getting me to #1 for certain keywords, how else will you build my campaign?

Building an effective marketing campaign that’s built for the long haul takes time and effort. The best campaigns are built holistically, with great websites, effective social media, and SEO all working together. It’s what we call having a digital marketing strategy, not just digital marketing.

However, for some marketing companies, getting you to #1 for non-competitive keywords is the extent of the strategy. Speaking of which, you should also ask…

#3. Where do you see my digital marketing a year for now?

This is a very difficult question for some marketing companies to answer, and for a simple reason: they don’t expect you to be with them in a year.

Their business model is to aggressively acquire new clients (and the money that comes with them), make flashy moves (#1 position for a ton of keywords) to keep you paying the bills for a few months, and then leave another company to pick up the pieces when the wheels come off several months later.

#4. How do you keep up with rapid changes to organic search?

On average, Google makes between 500 and 600 changes every year to their ranking algorithms. These are the mathematical equations that determine how search engine results appear. If the company you are working with doesn’t have a dynamic system that can quickly adjust to the algorithm changes, you probably don’t want to work with them.
The wrong choice could be fatal (for your campaign)

Ditching your existing keyword strategy to chase after low-volume keyword rankings can really do a number on a campaign. You could be undoing years of work and disrupting your current rankings for competitive keywords.

Even if the reports coming back to you are filled with numerous #1 rankings, your calls and leads will eventually drop, as fewer and fewer people are visiting your website off of organic search.

This may lead to an attempt to correct this trend using paid advertising on Google (through Google AdWords). But, that’s committing further money to chase ever-declining results.

At some point, with a strategy geared around getting ranked #1 for as many keywords as possible, your campaign will likely be dead in the water.

That’s a lot of headache and heartbreak for keyword rankings. Here’s why.

Being ranked matters less than it used to

First, let’s get this out of the way: we talk overwhelmingly about Google here because they are (completely and utterly) the dominant search engine used in the United States.

Over the past few years, Google has made significant changes to its search algorithm. One of the biggest changes to happen in the last decade has been the slow rollout of personalized search. This means that Google uses data about the searcher (prior search history, location, and probably much more) to generate the best, customized results for that person.

This has diluted some of the importance of keyword rankings, since other factors are now determining the actual results people see when the search for a particular phrase.

Another thing that has brought keyword rankings down is that Google has sought, where possible, to de-emphasize organic search in favor of other elements—especially paid advertising.

This is something we talked about last year. You can be in the #1 slot for a selected keyword and still be relatively far down the page, buried beneath ads and Google’s own interface, which may include maps or other features.

Finally, keyword rankings are less impactful because keywords themselves are less impactful. In the old days of SEO, people used keywords exclusively to tell search engines what their site was about. Now, Google’s algorithm is far more sophisticated, and keywords are a very small part of what it looks at.

Overall, most SEO professionals recommend that you build websites that actual humans would like and want to read, and Google will like them, too. That’s a big change from the days of keyword-stuffing a site.

The right team makes all the difference

Getting great marketing results for small-to medium businesses requires long-term planning and a dedicated team. At 5 Fold, we have both.

To learn more about what makes our digital marketing work, well, work, give us a call at (480) 939-3203 or connect with us on Facebook.