Should Number One Rankings Be Your Only Goal in SEO?

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For most applications, it’s best to think of search engine optimization (SEO) as a competition. There’s a finite amount of ranking space available in search engine results pages (SERPs), and there are thousands of other companies like yours, all desiring the same space. The ultimate goal, of course, is to attain the highest position possible for as many keyword and phrase targets as possible — but the new era of SEO may be reshaping that priority.

Are number-one rankings as important as they used to be?

Old-School Thinking

The number one position for any search term used to be the most worthwhile priority, for purely statistical reasons. The first position of a given SERP received about 32.5 percent of the search traffic, with the second position receiving 17.6 percent, and the third position receiving 11.4 percent.

Assuming all pages had equal traffic, it would therefore be about as good to get one number-one ranking as two number-two rankings or three number-three rankings. Below position three, search traffic starts dropping to negligible numbers. Accordingly, if you’re already ranked at position two for a given query, it’s worth the extra effort to get to number one, even if it means sacrificing the possibility of ranking elsewhere. For especially valuable terms, this dichotomy is even more important to consider.

Why Number One Rankings Have Fallen in Importance

The thing is, number one rankings have fallen in importance to search optimizers, and for several independent reasons:

1. Rank one is no longer rank one. The last time you asked Google a question or tried to find a relevant local business for one of your needs, did you click on the first organic ranking? Chances are, you saw something different in the SERPs; you might have seen the local 3-pack, a collection of the three most relevant local companies for your query, a Knowledge Graph box, or a rich answer set apart from the organic search results. These new types of search entries are weakening organic number one rankings, albeit slightly.

2. Keywords are harder to target. Keyword targeting used to be the most important preliminary factor in determining your SEO success; if you could find a selection of keywords with high traffic and low competition, you could put all your resources into them and comfortably rest at position one. Today, keywords are still important, but thanks to the onset of semantic search, relationships between keywords and phrases are fuzzier. It’s harder to selectively target one important phrase, since Google tries to match user queries with the most relevant content — rather than the content with the most exact text matches.

3. A rising tide. Semantic search has another important effect on the search world. Let’s say you’ve written a lengthy piece of content about how to fix a broken bicycle, and it’s getting lots of links. Those links are going to greatly increase your site’s authority, which will make it easier for you to rank for almost any keyword. In addition, the diverse conversational phrasing of your work will likely optimize the page for several keyword phrases you weren’t intentionally targeting (in addition to any phrases you did target). In effect, so long as you produce great content, you’ll rank incidentally for tons of relevant phrases without even targeting them.

4. CTR can affect ranking value. Click-through rates (CTRs) have an interesting relationship with search rank. There’s a correlation between higher rankings and CTRs, but there’s a mutually beneficial effect here; the higher you rank, the more likely you’ll be to receive clicks, but the more clicks you receive, the more relevant you’ll appear, and the higher you’ll rank. But aside from that, there’s no guarantee that your first-ranked position will guarantee you a high CTR; your chosen query may receive tons of traffic, but if your second-ranked competitor has a more attractive offer, they may get a disproportionate number of clicks. Accordingly, you need to optimize your site — and metadata to appeal to users.

5. Visitor value varies. Rankings and traffic are important metrics, but at the end of the day, the value of your SEO campaign is tied directly to the value of a user on your site. If, for example, the majority of incoming visitors end up bouncing before they take any meaningful actions with your brand, it won’t matter how many number one rankings you’re able to achieve. Obviously, this depends on several non-SEO strategies, including conversion optimization, successful branding, and high-quality user-focused design, but without these components in place, your SEO strategy won’t hold any useful value to you. Allocate resources to achieve a balance between the value and quantity of your incoming visitors.

What’s the Best Strategy?

Does this mean you should throw out your old strategy to get to rank one, no matter the cost? No; these points are just an illustration of how the landscape of SEO has changed over the past several years. For some companies in some niches, there will be valuable keyword terms worth targeting as a number one position. For others, it’s possible to enjoy a great deal of success without ever crossing the second position.

Your best path forward here isn’t a specific strategy, but rather an approach that considers all possible strategies, and highlights a few of the most relevant or appropriate ones for your brand. Success in SEO these days requires big-picture thinking, and an understanding of the intricacies of the strategy.

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