Semantic SEO and Why Rankings Are Terrible Metrics

Semantic SEO looks at the broader meaning of keywords, which is why rankings alone are insufficient. There are better KPIs to measure SEO.

Written by Michel Fortin. Originally published on

After Google introduced the Hummingbird algorithm in 2013, it signalled the beginning of the end of traditional SEO. Since then, hackneyed forms of SEO based on keywords are dying. SEO is becoming more about relevancy than it is about keywords.

The problem is, even when we switch our approach to this model and achieve remarkable results from it, many people still focus on keywords in how they measure the performance of their SEO.

More specifically, they only focus on the rankings of those keywords.

This approach, while still valid, is myopic.

SEO may have changed, but we still look at rankings as the single most important metric. It shouldn’t be the only one — nor the main one, for that matter. Rankings alone do not tell the full picture, and there are far better ways to measure how effective SEO efforts are.

What is semantic SEO?

“Create quality content” was Google’s mantra for many years. But this turned SEO into a tightrope balancing act, attempting to write for both search engines and users. We would try to sprinkle enough keywords throughout the content but not too much so as to not lower the content’s quality.

Fortunately, search engines have become more sophisticated. In an effort to offer results that are more relevant, their algorithms have improved to the point where they can process and understand human language. So now, they measure relevancy not on keywords or keyword density but on topicality, intent, and meaning.

The Internet is topical. We search for, consume information on, and create content around topics. Relationships between sites, pages, and content pieces are topical. We base the value and relevancy of a piece of content on its topicality.

Giving users what they’re looking for is key, but understanding why they’re searching for it has become just as important. Because if we know not only what they’re looking for but also why, then we can create content that truly meets their needs.

That’s where “semantic SEO” comes in. It’s about the broader meaning of what people search for and the intent of the searcher. In other words, it’s about matching the meaning of the query and not just the words.

Think of it this way: if we search for “car,” does that mean that “automobile” and “vehicle” should be ignored? What about different makes and models? What about the intent behind the search: is it to buy a car? Rent a car? Sell a car? Get driving directions?

So it makes perfect sense that topicality is just as important as keywords if not more so, and to consider the semantic relationships between keywords (such as parent topics, subtopics, and related topics). This is more than just synonyms, variations, misspellings, or alternatives — although semantic SEO may include those.

Today’s SEO is less about using keywords that will hopefully attract visitors. It’s about answering questions people ask and doing a better job than your competitors. Content that’s the most proficient in answering those questions as specifically and thoroughly as possible will be more visible on the search engines.

That’s semantic SEO.

The semantics of rankings

The drawbacks of focusing on keywords are many. We fail to consider a huge chunk of potential traffic interested in the topic and not just in the keyword. When one keyword is dropping in rankings, the same page may be ranking well for many others.

As the saying goes, we trip over dollars picking up pennies. More importantly, we limit ourselves in how we measure success. The way we define, track, and report on our SEO efforts is often done through keyword rankings.

It makes sense. After all, the higher the rankings are, the better the SEO is. Right? While that may be true, rankings are not and should never be the only yardstick. If it is, we run the risk of ignoring the bigger picture and even come to the wrong conclusions.

For example, when most people lose rankings, they tend to focus on the losses. The default inclination is to optimize and stuff the content with more of the same keywords.

But losing rankings is not always an indicator of a drop in rankings — let alone of the site doing poorly. It’s often the result of competitors with content that better meets the needs of the user, or the result of a change in how Google interprets and matches the search intent.

Does this mean that the content is bad? What if the same page ranks above competitors on other keywords? What if another page outperforms the same competitor? What if a page, which may have lost rankings for a specific keyword, has gained or outperformed competitors on 20 other keywords?

So rankings alone are not enough.

Keyword rankings are like snapshots taken from a rearview mirror.
Keyword rankings are like snapshots taken from a rearview mirror.

The business impact of SEO

When clients hire us to improve their rankings, some come to us with two erroneous ideas: they think that SEO is a one-time effort and that it’s all about rankings. The former is far from the truth. The latter is misleading because it’s incomplete.

While SEO may involve a lot of foundational work at the beginning, it will require less work over time. But it is still a perpetual process that needs to be tended to, much like a garden. It’s not permanent, either. Sometimes, after a period of time, it may require an overhaul — just as search algorithms and search behaviours change, one’s SEO strategy may need to change, too.

Search engines are volatile and rankings fluctuate the same way stock prices do. Think of it this way: stock prices are based on supply and demand. A company’s value is based largely on how well it meets the needs of its market. Rankings are no different.

Rankings are metrics. For some people, they’re vanity metrics. But vanity metrics are a terrible indicator of how well your website is doing on the search engines. Rankings, like stock prices, are only a slice of a much, much larger pie.

Yesterday, a member of our SEO team shared a slide presentation. It was discussing what to do when your rankings are tanking as a result of being hit by an algorithm update. In it, one of the slides struck me:

“Check the business impact.”

I love this statement because this is what clients pay us for. Clients do not buy SEO to get keyword rankings — not in a real sense. What they want is more business. What they want are more sales. And what they want is more traffic that turns into those sales.

To do that, they need more visibility to drive that traffic.

Visibility is truly the best indicator of an SEO strategy’s success. There’s nothing wrong with vanity metrics. But vanity metrics do not a productive SEO strategy make. SEO is about gaining visibility that drives traffic and generates business. Keyword rankings are only one small part of the equation.

Leading and lagging indicators

For simplicity, let’s understand what a metric is.

A metric is a standard of measurement. A keyword ranking in position “X” is a metric. But the result of that measurement is an indicator. It’s what that metric means, in other words. Not all indicators are important. We want performance indicators. And the ones we want to focus on are key performance indicators or KPIs.

For the purpose of measuring the success of your SEO, KPIs are far more valuable than simply looking at metrics like rankings. But not all KPIs are created equal. Some are leading indicators and others are lagging ones. Let’s look at the difference.

A “lagging” indicator is a reflection of past performance. It’s the end-result impact on the business or organization after SEO’s work is done. There are three lagging indicators:

  1. Business growth
  2. Organic traffic
  3. Search visibility

“Business growth” is based on the number of leads, sales, conversions, etc a website gets from SEO. Obviously, that’s the ultimate goal for a client who hires an agency like ours. You want to grow your business, and for that, you need to grow your traffic.

“Organic traffic” is based on the number of visitors from organic search results. You want more visitors, especially visitors that convert into those leads and sales. While growth is a business’ goal, organic traffic is the topmost KPI for an SEO specialist.

“Search visibility” is based on the number of times people see a website in search results. Higher search visibility equals higher organic traffic. You want more pages showing up more often and higher up in the search results so they can get more impressions and clicks.

Regardless if your keywords are ranking well or not, the above three are better indicators. Is the website gaining visibility? Is that visibility improving organic traffic? And above all, is that traffic generating more leads and sales?

If yes, then SEO is doing a good job.

Google Search Console and 112% growth in visibility.
Google Search Console and 112% growth in visibility, even during a pandemic.

KPIs that move the needle

The above indicators are considered “lagging indicators” because they are influenced by other factors, or “leading indicators.” The leading indicators are what we focus on, from an SEO perspective, because they drive the rest. Leading indicators are:

  1. Impressions and clicks
  2. Pages and keywords
  3. Rankings and performance

The objective of any SEO strategy is to increase the number of search impressions and clicks that a website receives. Using a tool like Google’s Search Console can provide this information, and even compare results from previous timeframes.

When there’s a Google algorithm update, for example, this KPI is a better indicator as it will give the bigger picture. A page may have lost a few keywords rankings but it might have gained in search impressions and clicks, which is a far better measurement.

Speaking of which, to generate more impressions and clicks, it’s important to know how many pages and keywords are indexed in the search engine. The greater the number is, the higher the chances of the website getting more impressions and clicks will be.

Finally, the third in order of priority and the one most people focus on (and paradoxically, the last of all KPIs) is keyword rankings and performance. This is still an important KPI but not in the way most people think it’s measured.

It’s to look at rankings overall based on how many right-intent keywords are ranking well, particularly on the first page of Google. And then, it’s to look at the momentum to see if rankings, in general, are successfully moving upwards.

The tendency for most people is to focus on a specific ranking. For example, you might say, “I want to be #1 on Google for ‘best widget maker Toronto’.” But this is only a small part of the last indicator. It’s misleading to think that one keyword is indicative of a website’s SEO success in the search engine.

Leading and lagging indicators are all important in SEO. Rankings are important, too. But they are only metrics and not KPIs in and of themselves. How keywords are performing and their rankings are moving upwards, over time, is the KPI we want to focus on.

Which SEO tracking tools are best?

So how do you check your SEO?

In my experience, my first go-to tool of choice is Google Search Console. Analytics are great for lagging indicators because they track what’s happening on the site. But they’re observational. They measure what happens after the fact.

GSC, on the other hand, is from “the horse’s mouth,” so to speak. It’s the ultimate indicator of how a website is performing with all three leading indicators. If you haven’t registered your website with Google Search Console yet, do so. Never rely on your analytics only.

Analytics is the second tool I use and a great indicator of how a site is performing overall — from how much organic traffic it’s getting (remember, Google is not the only search engine in the world) to how many conversions it’s producing.

These are the lagging indicators I want to know about and the needles I want to move. If some rankings are going down but organic traffic and conversions from that traffic are going up, you can see how focusing on rankings alone can be misleading.

Finally, keyword ranking trackers is the last tool I use — one I almost ever use or rely on, to be honest. The reason is simple: they are poor indicators of a site’s performance and visibility. Unless I need to know how one specific set of keywords are doing, I never rely on them.

Why? Because trackers are inaccurate.

They fail to consider a website appearing in search features and not just in blue links: such as in map packs, side panels, featured snippets, rich media, people also asked, etc. Some trackers do, but many of them use proxy databases that pull results from a fraction of Google’s entire database — making their information both partial and secondhand.

The worse thing to do is to use Google for checking on a keyword. Results are often location-centric, personalized, and based on your own search history. Moreover, rankings fluctuate hourly, so checking rankings manually may shift positions the moment you leave.

Some ranking trackers provide results from various IP addresses, making the information more generic and accurate. But what if your SEO is local? What if you have multiple locations? What if your website is trying to capture a market with a certain search behaviour?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: rankings are not enough.

The business impact of SEO
Also consider organic traffic and the business impact of SEO.

Don’t get caught up in the semantics

When measuring the SEO efforts in your business, understand that keyword rankings, while important, are not the end-all, be-all in your efforts. Consider all the indicators, both leading and lagging ones, to truly understand the bigger picture.

More importantly, consider semantic search — not only in your SEO efforts but also in how you measure them. Because specific keyword rankings will not give you the full picture when other semantically related keywords are ranking, too, and perhaps outperforming the ones you are tracking.Semantic SEO is where you help Google connect the dots between your content and keywords in order to give them meaning. It helps search engines disambiguate queries and reconcile entities with the keywords it finds in your content by giving them context.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

But an entity is worth a thousand keywords.

There are a number of ways to optimize for semantic search: from covering topics and subtopics thoroughly; internal linking to show relationships between keywords; adding supporting visuals and structured data to the pages; and using on-page best practices such as incorporating headings throughout.

At the end of the line, it makes no sense to try to optimize your website for a certain keyword if that keyword is vague and, lacking context, can match a search intent for which you don’t fulfill and that won’t move the needles you want.

There’s a saying that goes, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” In SEO, it’s no different. Optimize for what you mean (and just not for the keywords you want to rank for), and give meaning to what you optimize for. If you do, you will increase your visibility, your traffic, and ultimately, your business.

Avatar of Michel Fortin

By Michel Fortin

Michel Fortin is a digital marketing advisor specializing in SEO, communications, and strategy. For over 30 years, he helped hundreds of thousands of clients increase their visibility and their revenue. He is also the VP of Digital Marketing at Musora, the company behind award-winning platforms Drumeo and Pianote. He is the author of the More Traffic Memo™ SEO email newsletter.