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 post 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?
Aim for one to four keywords around a single topic per page. Use those keywords and their reworded variations in your content and header tags. It’s easier for pages to rank if they focus on one topic because there is limited space in the title and meta description tags, and you won’t be able to fit all of 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’ve worked with a major news publishing site that often ranks 1st for extremely high-volume keywords due to its 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, and 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.
AHREFS also has a standalone rank tracker were you can add any keywords, including that one ambitious keyword.
Thanks for the tip, Max! The SEO team here just recently switched to Ahrefs from another tool, so I’m still learning all its capabilities.
Wow, these numbers or lower than I’d expect. I track 1,000+ for pretty much every client. Is that too much?
One thing this post doesn’t mention is that by starting with landing pages and applying keywords to them you don’t then create new pages to target pages.
My concern with tracking that many keywords per client is whether or not you can usefully report on them all. If you and your client can understand that data in a useful way (such as by looking at average rankings by topic), then 1,000+ seems alright!
And yes, creating new landing pages is important for some sites! In that case, you would add new keywords to your tracking for the new landing pages.
We use Ahrefs, too… but sometimes (this sounds crazy, I know), it makes it easy to track too many of the *wrong* keywords.
We tend to focus our keyword ranking on “transactional” queries for our clients, and not just “informational” ones. For us, web traffic alone isn’t the goal- but leads. Since our business are service-area businesses without a national presence, that help clear up the most important targets for us.
That’s not crazy at all! One of the reasons I recommend limiting your tracked keywords is exactly that: so you’re not tracking the wrong ones.
Transactional is absolutely the way to go for service-area businesses. Leads are what it’s all about!
no is this not possible
Thank you for this!
Really struggled to find a decent answer to this question elsewhere.
Watched a whole Ahrefs tutorial on keyword research and how to build a list of quality keywords, but then it didn’t even specify how long the list should be!
So was really hard to picture the end goal.
Big thanks and big thumbs up