It’s an old story – Boy meets Girl, Girl promises top rankings, rankings finally arrive, and Boy suddenly realizes he has no traffic. Wait, that’s not quite it. Replace “Girl” with “SEO company” and “Boy” with “client” – yeah, there we go. In SEO, nothing is quite as frustrating as pouring time and money into your chosen keyword and finally breaking into the Top 10, only find that you still have no visitors.
There are a number of possible causes for ranking without traffic – I’m going to divide them up into 3 groups:
- You’re Not Really Ranking
- Your Keywords Don’t Deliver
- Your Results Don’t Get Clicked
Isolating the problem is the best first step toward a solution and to making sure that your SEO efforts haven’t been wasted.
(1) You’re Not Really Ranking
Now that search results are increasingly being personalized, localized, saturated with ads, and otherwise moving away from the idea of one SERP for everyone, the most common issue with rankings not delivering is that everyone else isn’t seeing what you’re seeing. It’s great for the ego to see yourself in the #1 spot, but it’s not good for much more than ego if that ranking is an illusion. Here are a few reasons your ranking may not be what you think it is:
Your Rankings Are Personalized
Although personalization still only impacts a small amount of search results, it’s always smart to do a sanity check. Unfortunately, shutting off personalization isn’t as easy or reliable as it used to be, but there are a few steps you can take:
- Log out of your Google account
- Use the “pws=0” parameter to shut off (some) personalization
- Use a different browser (that you don’t normally use)
- Use a 3rd-party rank-tracker, like our own Web App or Rank Tracker
Your Rankings Are Localized
Technically, you could call this a form of personalization, but the local SEO portion of the algorithm is definitely a unique beast. If you have any business that’s locally operated or where the search query has a local flavor, make sure to check that you’re ranking outside of your region.
There are a couple of ways to sanity-check your local results. One is to tell Google you’re somewhere else, using the “Change Location” feature on the left of search results:
Another option is on the analytics side. If your search traffic isn’t up to your expectations, try segmenting it by country or city (as appropriate) to see what’s really going on. For example, in Google Analytics, once you’ve selected your desired search traffic data, click on the second dimension pulldown (it should say “None”), select “Geographic”, and you’ll get a full list of options, including City:
Of course, internationalization can also come into play. If you did your keyword research against Google.com, but you’re only ranking on Google.be (sorry, Belgium), then you’ve probably overestimated the size of your target market.
Your Results Are Crowded Out
The days of the 10-listing SERP are gone, and there’s an increasing issue on Google and Bing where the prevalence of paid search, local search, image results, video results, real-time results, news results, and other listings outside of the top 10 means that “pure” organic listings can be all but crowded out. Consider this sample search for “pizza place” here in my home-town of Chicago:
The purple line represents the “fold” on my 1280×1024 screen setting. Notice where the top 3 organic results are? If you’re not ranking locally on this SERP, you’ve got nothing.
(2) Your Keywords Don’t Deliver
The next most likely culprit is that you just didn’t do your keyword research very well, or those numbers turned out not to be very reliable. There are a couple of variations of this problem:
Your Keyword Volume Is Low
Assuming you did your homework, the unfortunate truth is that most keyword research tools rely on Google’s numbers, and Google’s numbers aren’t always accurate, especially as you dive into the long tail. Even worse, the numbers can say different things depending on how you slice and dice them.
For example, I have a site that ranks pretty well for “website checklist”. If I looked at Google’s numbers, I’d see 8,100 total monthly searches (global). Most of this is broad-match, though – looking at exact-match cuts that to less than 10% of the traffic:
So, if I had expected ranking on this exact phrase to be a traffic boon, I might’ve been disappointed. Many more people are searching for variants or longer-tail phrases that contain those keywords.
Your Keyword Doesn’t Match Intent
This issue cuts a bit into section (3) below, but I consider it first and foremost a keyword-research problem. Let’s say that, by some miracle, you manage to rank in the Top 3 for “apple” and that you’re an online store that sells bulk fruit. While some people who query “apple” may be looking to buy apples, most of them are looking for Apple the company, Apple products, Apple Vacations, etc. If that ranking “victory” had cost you thousands (or millions) of dollars, you wouldn’t feel so victorious when no one searching that phrase actually wanted to buy apples. You could’ve done a lot more for less with some action-oriented 2-word and 3-word phrases (like “buy apples online”).
(3) Your Results Don’t Get Clicked
Finally, it’s important to remember that ranking is just the first part of getting search traffic. People have to actually click on your search listing. It’s traditionally tough to get click-through data on organic SERPs, other than relying on gross stats on CTR by ranking. Fortunately, Google Webmaster Tools is starting to provide more of that data (under “Your site on the web” “Search queries”):
So, what could make an otherwise perfectly good search result unclickable? There are a couple of major culprits (in addition to the searcher intent issue mentioned earlier):
Your Listing Just Looks Spammy
You’ve tried so hard to rank, that you forgot about the human element, and you ended up with a search results that looks something like this (generated with the Snippet Optimization Tool):
Would you click on that? Ranking is only half the battle.
Your Competitors Are Winning
This is a topic that gets discussed much more on the PPC side, but sometimes you’re just getting outclassed. Maybe you’re ranking, but the rest of the Top 10 is being dominated by big brands, great copywriting, great offers, etc. Make sure to know what you’re up against.
Similarly, be aware of any ORM issues. For example, let’s say you rank #1 for your chosen keyword, but the #2 spot is “Your Brand Scam” or something to that effect. Even if that listing is below you, it’s going to make people think twice about your company and your link. Search rankings aren’t isolated and people make decisions based on cues from the rest of the SERP.
So, Now What Do You Do?
While it’s good to be aware of these issues, ranking without getting the traffic you expected isn’t usually a lost cause. It’s time to regroup, dig deep, and really find out why the numbers don’t match up. You may learn a lesson in where your real audience is and what they’re searching for, and you can use that to improve your overall SEO strategy. In many cases, ranking for one term is going to boost your chances to rank for related terms (you’ve still got good content and links), so you may just need a slight shift in strategy. Figure out exactly what went wrong, and take it as a learning experience.