The dangers of ranking No. 1 on Google

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I have been in the SEO business for more than six years, and I always chuckle when a client or colleague says, "Oh, so you're an old dog in the SEO biz, huh?" While many recognized names in SEO have been at it for years longer than me, I've been around long enough to see the landscape of my profession revolutionized again and again. But one client question has remained constant since the beginning, and that is, "Can you get me to rank No. 1 on Google?"

Usually, this question is brought about by another -- sometimes unspoken -- question, which is "How much traffic can I expect from a No. 1 Google ranking?" It's a fair question, but historically it has been tough to answer, not just because there are a ton of variables, like keyword variations and seasonal business factors, but also because up until recently, we could only guess. But until moving forward with any client, I try to get to the root of these questions because the truth is that ranking No. 1 on Google for many types of keywords is not all it's cracked up to be.

You see, traffic by keyword position is not something that the search engines really wanted us to know about. It's tough to say why they kept it a secret for all of these years. The cynic in me says that it's because they wanted to sell more paid search (PPC) inventory because the metrics for PPC have razor-sharp precision compared to SEO. My inner optimist tells me that it's because the search engines were more interested in optimizing their algorithms for relevant search results than being marketing tools.

But of course, we all know that organic search, and search engines themselves, are nothing if not marketing tools. Whatever the reason for the secrecy, the fact remained that we SEOs had to at least attempt to answer the rank/traffic question for our clients. I think that we, as an industry, did a pretty good job of estimating what could be expected assuming that our client worked closely with us and gave us access to their analytics.

One cool hack was the Wikipedia traffic stats hack. Let's say your client is trying to rank for the keyword term "Dwayne Johnson." A Google search reveals that The Rock's Wikipedia page ranks second for that search term. The Wikipedia traffic stats application shows that the English version of this page was viewed approximately 227,000 times in June of 2010.

This is hardly perfect data because we only have the total number of page views, not the number that came from Google. But it's a starting point. In March 2008, Search Engine Land wrote a great piece on how to use Wikipedia to reveal traffic stats.

Also, in late 2006, AOL accidentally leaked click data percentages based on ranking position. As you might imagine, this was one of the biggest pieces of news in the history of the SEO game. We finally had solid evidence to back up many of the claims we were making. No longer were we depending on our clients to believe only our professional expertise and hypotheses. We now had numbers, directly from one of the search engines.

Understandably, the SEO blogosphere exploded with countless extrapolations of this data, like this one from SEO Black Hat. And using publicly available market share data (what percentage of total searches belong to each search engine), we could estimate traffic, by ranking position, across the major search engines.

With all due respect to AOL (how else was my grandmother supposed to have an email address?), it's not exactly a big gun in the search engine lineup. SEOs wanted Google data, and we wanted it bad. About six months ago, our wish was granted. Google, inside of Webmaster Tools, added data on rank, impressions, clicks, and click-through rate for common keyword queries. To get to this data, log into your Webmaster Tools account, expand the "Your site on the web" menu in the side bar, and click on "Search queries."

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Ramsay Crooks
Ramsay Crooks August 31, 2010 at 11:54 PM


Thanks for the article. I think you make some great points on keyword selection and SEO focus, as well as what's important/feasible to rank number one--or at least in the top three positions within the major SEs. I don't fully agree, however, once high value terms are identified, if ranking number one shouldn't be among your top goals. I'm also not sure if there is a danger there, as long as we properly assess the effort to goal. If a term performs for you (branded or not), it would seem you should do your best to rank there if--within your budget and competitive landscape--it is feasible. Afterall, why give that coveted spot to your competitors when you are just as deserving (if you work hard enough)?

I'm not saying that chasing the dragon of #1 rankings is a good idea for any term that pops into a marketer's or C-level exec's head. But when you weigh out the the benefits of traffic/conversion/brand awareness that top rankings for non-branded terms bring, along with the obvious benefits top ranking for branded search brings, there is a good reason everyone wants to be on top.

I agree with your points about a well-crafted long-tail strategy and leveraging high value, lower pressure terms within a niche, as well as leveraging local, image, video, news and the other blended results verticals to reach objectives. But there are still a lot of people clicking on traditional web results at the top of page one in the navigational, informational, and transactional segments. That's hard to argue against.

I read Aaron Wall's blog post and noticed a discrepancy in your numbers: Aaron mentions ranking at *six or seven* for the term 'SEO' with 74,000 impressions per month, *not number one*, which better explains the 1,600 clicks got for that term, as reported by GWT. Currently I see them at position #9. If he were number one, I'd be willing to bet that number would be approaching, if not north of 15k. Is that kind of traffic worth the effort? Well it clearly depends on the strength of the competitive set and if it's feasible to conquer that top spot, but if I could reasonably reach and maintain the position, I'd be happy to bask in the extra 180,000+ free, targeted visitors per year.

I think it takes a well rounded, reasonable keyword strategy, to be sure... but I think securing top positions for high value keywords should be a part of that strategy, even if the traffic numbers from our favorite keyword tools tends to be a bit inflated...

Thanks again for a great article.