Everyone wants to be the best. Whether you’re rooting for your favorite basketball team, participating in your town’s annual pie-baking contest, or competing for the top sales in your office, aiming for #1 is a natural human impulse. This desire for dominance comes out in full force when businesses are competing to be #1 on Google through search engine optimization (SEO). The distinct rankings and plentiful metrics make it tempting to constantly fight for the top ranking spot. And while there’s nothing wrong with striving to be the best, you may want to rethink your previous perspective on rank tracking. Ranking #1 on Google no longer means what it once did – in fact, many would say it’s overrated.
Rethinking Rank Tracking
When it comes to rank tracking, it isn’t uncommon for clients to zero in on the #1 position. “Can you rank my website #1 for these ten keywords?” they might ask. “How long will it take to reach the top? Why haven’t I reached #1 for this keyword or that keyword? How much will it cost to get me there?”
While we appreciate the ambitious goal-setting, these questions demonstrate that many people overestimate the importance of ranking #1 on Google and don’t fully understand how SEO works in 2020. Ranking #1 does not automatically equate with SEO success. Instead, you should be focused on traffic, which drives conversions and sales. NEWSFLASH: The top-ranking page does not always get the most search traffic. In fact, it’s quite common for a lower-ranked page to outpace the #1 result in search traffic.
According to a study conducted by Ahrefs, which analyzed over 100,000 non-branded search queries with at least 1,000 monthly searches, the top-ranked page only received the most search traffic 49 percent of the time. That’s less than half! Keep that in mind the next time you set your sights on #1. Also, keep it in mind if you’re ranking below your competitors. Even if they snag the #1 spot, you can upstage them where it matters: search traffic.
It will take some time and effort, however. Ahrefs recommends two things:
- Cover the topic in great depth. Explore long-tail keywords that include your keyword to find more facets of the topic to discuss. For example, if your target keyword is “high protein snacks,” you could also try to include keywords like “high protein snacks for kids” and “high protein snacks on the go.” You may even wish to strive for an “authority” page on the topic that is broad, comprehensive, and steadily amasses a large number of backlinks. This won’t work for everyone, but it may be a worthwhile goal for certain websites.
- Figure out (and satisfy) search intent. Basically, why are people searching for the keyword? What are they hoping to learn or do? Once you determine search intent, be sure that your page’s content satisfies the searcher’s curiosity. Google tracks “searcher satisfaction” and rewards websites that address searchers’ needs.
Not only will those two actions help you boost your search traffic, but also they’ll benefit your readers. It’s a win-win!
The Fight for the Top Spot
When discussing rank tracking these days, you need to keep in mind all of the different factors influencing where organic listings appear on search engine results pages (SERPs). As we’ve discussed previously, Google has been sliding more and more advertisements and features above the top-ranked webpages on SERPs in recent years. What sorts of things are rising above the rankings and snagging coveted SERP real estate? The following are some common examples:
- Google Ads: Clearly labeled as advertisements, Google Ads often push organic results down the page. If you’re interested in rising to the very top of the SERP, consider starting a Google Ads campaign.
- Featured Snippets: A Featured Snippet is a short section of a top-ranking web listing that Google believes the user will find useful. Unlike typical listings, the content is shown before the link to the page. As of January 2020, to prevent duplicate URLs on SERPs, web listings selected for a Featured Snippet are not included on the first page of organic search listings.
- Knowledge Panels and Cards: Knowledge Panels (i.e., information boxes) are automatically generated for certain search queries. They provide information stored in Google’s Knowledge Graph, a knowledge base maintained by Google. They typically appear to the right of the organic listings on a desktop search. A Knowledge Card is very similar, though typically not as extensive, and it usually appears above the organic listings.
- Image Packs: A horizontal row of image links, an Image Pack lets the user click through to a Google Images search.
- Local Packs and Teaser Packs: If Google believes the searcher wants local information, it may display a Local Pack, which is a map featuring three physical locations that Google believes the searcher will find relevant. It also lists the businesses’ contact information and links to their websites. Teaser Packs are very similar, but they may also contain reviews, images, prices, and more.
- News Boxes: If the user searches for something newsworthy, Google may include a box of news articles on the SERP under the heading “Top Stories.”
- People Also Ask: Google’s algorithm can generate a list of FAQs based on the searcher’s query. For example, if you search “bluetick coonhound,” Google will catch your drift and present a “People Also Ask” box with questions like “Do bluetick coonhounds make good pets?” and “Do bluetick coonhounds bark a lot?” When you click the question, a drop-down answer that looks rather like a Featured Snippet will appear.
- Shopping Results: Retailers can use Product Listing Ads (PLAs) to sell products that are relevant to the user’s query. They typically include images, pricing, and a link to buy the product.
On many SERPs, organic listings are drowning beneath all these features. Let’s explore a few examples that show how these special features and other issues are tarnishing the idea of ranking #1 on Google . . .
Special Features Push Down Organic Listings
First, let’s look at the SERP for the query “does a root canal hurt”:
Google answers the question immediately with a Featured Snippet and then includes a People Also Ask feature with related queries. Those two features dominate the SERP, shoving the first organic listing (by Colgate.com) down, many pixels away from the top of the page. And because the Featured Snippet (from Medical News Today) takes up so much SERP real estate, it snags a lot of monthly organic traffic: an estimated 7,959 according to Ahrefs. The first organic listing, on the other hand, only gets an estimated 1,521.
Organic listings are being pushed further and further down the page by all of Google’s SERP features. In an extreme example provided by Moz, the query “lollipop” produces so many special features, the first organic listing is 2,938 pixels down the page! That listing follows a large-format video, a Knowledge Panel with information about the song by the Chordettes, a Video Box, People Also Ask, an Images Box, Top Stories, and more.
To fully understand your numerical ranking, you need to know more about the other features on the page. Rank tracking is no longer enough; you must view the actual SERP or receive more context to understand how far down your listing appears on the SERP.
Ads Snagging the Top Spots
Advertisers are getting in on the action as well, as seen in the query “renters insurance”:
The first four results the searcher sees are advertisements, and they look quite similar to the one organic listing shown at the bottom of the page. If a searcher is moving quickly, they might not even notice the black “Ad” label in front of each advertisement’s URL. State Farm may have gotten the #1 top spot for organic listings, but it sits quite low on the page due to the four advertisements situated at the top.
The Featured Snippet as #1
Next, check out this search for “how to clean your phone”:
The giant Featured Snippet and “Top Stories” feature push down all the organic listings, which can’t be seen unless the user scrolls down. Because Google chose to display a section from The Spruce article in the Featured Snippet, that web listing will not be shown on the first page at all. Therefore, the Featured Snippet has effectively ranked #1 on the SERP. Some SEO tools acknowledge this, while others still consider the first organic listing to be #1. This inconsistency is frustrating and makes it difficult to understand the value of rankings.
Knowledge Panel Stealing Attention
People are often so concerned with the central panel of the SERP, they forget that Knowledge Panels (located on the right side of the screen) can steal traffic as well. Especially if they feature eye-catching images, they are often the first place a viewer looks when the SERP appears. Take a look at the example below, displaying results for the query “iced coffee.”
Not only is the Knowledge Panel stealing the viewer’s attention with its delectable images of iced coffee, but also Google has presented a recipe box at the top of the page with three go-to recipes. And after that? A “People Also Ask” box is trying to get users thinking about related questions, including the best iced coffee at Starbucks. Anyone trying to rank for the keyword “iced coffee” has a lot to compete with, and it’s going to be difficult to best the images in the Knowledge Panel and the recipe box. Plus, unlike the old days when viewers’ eyes often traveled linearly down the page, a SERP like this promotes a “pinball gaze pattern,” in which the viewers’ eyes bounce around the page in a nonlinear path, hopping between the special features, images, and organic results.
Adjusting Metrics and SEO Tools
Remember the days when Google’s search results consisted of a list of 10 blue links, which each included a URL and a text snippet? We’ve come a long way since then. Today’s SERPs are often complex, colorful, and interactive, varying dramatically based on the search query. Sometimes the SERP even answers your question right away, so that you don’t need to visit any of the results presented by Google, in what’s known as a zero-click search.
Considering all these changes and nuances, we clearly need to update the tools and metrics we use for rank tracking. Mike King of iPullRank recommends that we utilize the following six values:
- Legacy Rankings (rankings as previously computed)
- Web Rankings (the metric used by iPullRank, includes featured snippets)
- Absolute Rankings (includes all features on the SERP including ads)
- Feature Rankings (includes all organic SERP features)
- Offset (pixel position of ranking measured from the top of the page)
- Page (the page on which the ranking was seen)
So instead of focusing on that #1 position, you can look at things like the pixel position of your listing on the SERP and all the features that sit above your listing. These will help you better understand the worth of your ranking.
Rank Tracking Going Forward
As search engine algorithms evolve, our perspectives on rank tracking must evolve as well. According to the Nielson Norman Group, the first item listed under the search box on a SERP currently only receives 28 percent of clicks. In 2006, the first item received 51 percent of clicks – that’s a huge jump! Back then, top-ranked listings often stole the searcher’s attention and lower-ranked listings weren’t likely to get many clicks (or even glances). Now, users are used to seeing a lot of information on SERPs and are more likely to glance around the page and click somewhere other than the #1 organic search listing.
So while it isn’t foolish to aim for a #1 ranking on Google, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Would you rather be #1 or secure more search traffic and conversions? Clearly, being #1 isn’t everything.
Do you want more traffic, more leads, and a greater return on your investment in online marketing? With a comprehensive marketing strategy and transparent communication, 417 Marketing can help. Contact us today to request a free marketing audit and find out what we can do for your company.