Keywords are a seemingly inescapable aspect of the SEO world. SEO professionals (myself included) encourage clients to focus on more meaningful metrics besides the humble keyword ranking, but the fact remains that ranking well in Google for keywords with significant search volume will (usually) result in traffic to your site.
Of course, keeping track of keywords isn’t free. Whether you spend your time manually checking rankings or your money on a keyword rank tracking solution, you have to limit how many keywords you track per page and per website. So, that begs the question, “how many keywords should you track?”
Are you ready for this one? It wouldn’t be an SEO article if it didn’t have the following sentence:
Start With Keyword Research
Unfortunately, keywords don’t materialize out of thin air or come to us in a vision. Even more, you can’t just assume you know what keywords people use to search and what you should be ranking for. That’s why you should always start with keyword research.
There’s plenty of information out there on how to perform keyword research successfully, but I’ll outline some of my preferred steps and best practices below.
Which Pages Rank for What?
I’m not the first Portentite to recommend starting keyword research by looking at what you already rank for. I like to go straight to Google Search Console (GSC) as soon as I get my hands on it. Despite the evidence that Search Console data is quite unreliable, it does come straight from the search giant itself, so we can’t ignore it.
Hop into your site’s GSC Performance section to see a table of queries that domain ranks for.
Conveniently, this section defaults to show which queries got your site the most clicks over the past three months. This gives you a great idea of what Google thinks your site deserves to rank for, and if you click the Pages tab, which pages are ranking.
From this starting point, go forth and research keywords! Again, I’m not going to break down that process in this post, but I can point you to a couple of great resources we already created. Our CEO, Ian Lurie, wrote this timeless guide for doing keyword research that doesn’t suck. Want more help with Search Console? How about a walkthrough from former Portentite George Freitag? Finally, check out this recent post from Senior SEO Strategist Zac Heinrichs on how to take your keyword research to the next level.
Choose Landing Pages
Once you’ve identified the keywords you want to rank highly for, assign them to appropriate landing pages. In all likelihood, you will have already identified your target pages while performing the keyword research.
The number of target organic landing pages will directly influence the answer to our main question about the appropriate number of keywords to track.
How Many Keywords Should You Track?
You’ve decided which of your pages you want to optimize as organic landing pages, but how many keywords should you optimize each page for?
At the bare minimum, one; some pages may have a singular focus that answers only one query. It’s easier for pages to rank if they focus on one topic, so you should focus on two or three primary keywords per page that are reworded variations. Targeting four or more keywords is difficult because there is limited space in the title and meta description tags to target them. With a range of keywords per page determined, we can estimate how many keywords we’ll track.
- Take the number of organic landing pages you’ve chosen
- Multiply that number by the range of keywords per page (1-4) to get your range, or
- Multiply the number of organic landing pages by 2.5, the average of the range.
For example, let’s say you’re working on a services site with five unique offerings and three blog posts that you want to target as landing pages. Between these pages and your homepage, you should expect to track 9-36 or about 22 keywords on average.
Of course, rules of thumb are meant to be broken. We work with a manufacturing client that offers ten unique manufacturing products. Without including their blog-focused keywords, we’re tracking 62 keywords for their site.
Other sites might not be as cut and dried. We work with a major news publishing site which often ranks 1st for extremely high-volume keywords due to their backlink profile and industry authority. We actively track over 200 keywords for them, most of which don’t directly correspond to a static landing page such as a product or service page.
Or, if you’re dealing with a site for a 20-year-old digital marketing agency run by some of the biggest nerds in the industry, you might end up with nearly 500 keywords on your tracking list so you can keep an eye on all the various blog posts you’ve published over the years.
How To Track Keyword Rankings
Although I did mention it as a possibility, you’re probably not going to want to manually track keyword rankings by doing a Google search every day (from the same machine, using a private browsing window, at the same time of day, etc.) and looking for your site.
Fortunately, there are plenty of options available for keyword tracking.
We love our Vancouver neighbo(u)rs to the north! Their robust tool allows you to set up keyword tracking for desktop and mobile, specific locations, different languages, and tons of other features. They also archive HTML snapshots of the SERPs for the keywords you track so you can see how your site and your competitors showed up in Google results.
Another favorite of ours is Ahrefs, a true Swiss army knife for digital marketers. Rather than specifying which keywords you’d like to actively track, Ahrefs updates daily with all keywords that your tracked sites rank for. You may not be able to keep tabs on that ambitious keyword you’d like to rank for but never have, but it’s still incredibly comprehensive.
Google Search Console
This is a great free option, but you get what you pay for. We already saw how you can use Search Console to identify what you’re already ranking for in Google search. However, the platform only shows your average ranking for a given keyword over a period of time. That means if you spent weeks ranking 80th for a term, but suddenly jumped to 2nd, your 28-day average ranking will be in the 70s.
There are, of course, dozens of options out there; these are just the few that I recommend.
What to Watch for in Rank tracking
You’ve done your keyword research, assigned terms to target landing pages, signed up for a monthly subscription to your tool of choice… so now what? Should you sweat over every movement in the rankings, no matter how small? (No.) Should you be worried if all the keywords a single page ranks for plummet 50 positions? (Probably.)
The easiest way to stay on top of your rank changes and have peace of mind for your site(s) is to set up position change alerts. For example, STAT allows you to create custom alerts based on position movement. My most used alert is “If the number of keywords in the top-ten falls by 5%”. The difference between a first- and second-page result is significant.
Still, alerts aren’t going to catch everything. We SEO practitioners here at Portent check in on our clients’ keyword rankings at least once a week, making sure nothing has fallen precipitously and celebrating with our clients when we see a huge win.
Of course, fluctuations are to be expected. Google is notoriously capricious, and you may find your rankings undergoing a single-day jump or a back and forth oscillation.
Find Your Goldilocks Number
I’ve given you a framework for estimating how many keywords to track, but anyone in digital marketing can tell you that our rules aren’t so much set in stone as they are written in chalk until someone comes along and hoses down the sidewalk.
You may find that you prefer to track far more or far fewer keywords than I’m recommending. Maybe you don’t bother tracking rankings at all! As long as the tracking that you do is valuable to you and your client, the exact number doesn’t matter.