Rank Tracking; Is It Useful in Modern SEO?

Over the last few years there’s been a fair bit of contention around the value and uses of rank tracking in the modern world of SEO. I went into the trenches to see what others thought and how they were using these applications themselves. And while it might seem self-serving to write about it here on AuthorityLabs, that’s not how I roll. I don’t pander to the publication.

Here’s what I found…

Rank-Tracking-2016

All About the Vanity

When it comes to rank tracking, it’s certainly evolved over the years. Many of us remember back when SEO companies used to boldly state on their websites, “We got our client over 200 top rankings!”. Which of course sounds awesome at first glance. The problem of course was that it was usually on uber long-tail keywords that brought little, if any traffic (and even fewer conversions).

On the other hand, we had clients that wanted, and ate up, monthly tracking reports. While that still exists today, often times it was still not really a great way to justify yourself in an ongoing basis. It’s not always how many top rankings we obtain, but which ones and how well they drove traffic and converted.

In other instances, we’d see clients chasing vanity terms, that weren’t always logical in terms of revenues and profits. As a consultant, I still see those to this day.

When to Track and What to Track

All of this begs the question; should be be using rank tracking in modern SEO? Obviously, given where I am writing, the answer is – YES. From my own experience, and talking to my peers across my many channels, here’s some of the ways that people are using them today;

Revenues & margins – straight away, one of the more important uses is to set out the terms that matter. Which ones are the most popular products? Which drive the greatest revenues? Which have the top margins? These are the kinds of questions you should be asking yourselves and then set up rank tracking for those. With AuthorityLabs, I also use the tagging system to annotate the differences so that I can watch what matters, generalized keywords that don’t pay the bills, are meaningless to me.

Competitors – one of the more popular uses these days is using rank tracking applications to monitor where we stand in comparison to our competitors. We are looking for changes in the landscape against the top common competitors. If we’re gaining ground; why? Are there SEO changes that we’ve made? Offline marketing? Changes in social strategy? Success does not mean that we don’t analyze.

If one of them has started to gain ground, but not others, then we also want to know why. Have they made changes to their site? To their content program? We’re looking to establish what they’ve done so that we can address our own potential needs for change.

Algorithmic changes – another reason, attached to the above, is that we’re also looking for changes across various query spaces. This often means that Google is doing something differently. You should always bear in mind that changes that Google makes, often have a different affect in different markets. Not all algorithm changes are created equal. By watching rankings across a market and set of query classifications, can often show hints as to what changes Google might be making in the space.

Low hanging fruit – another approach is to cross reference ranking data with SERP CTR data and look for under-performing terms that either have a poor SERP CTR, or are sitting on the outside looking in (below the fold). By making some slight changes to the TITLE or Meta-description elements, we can often increase both, with the least amount of work. Rank tracking in these instances, can be useful in establishing what’s working, and what isn’t. Google’s “Avg Ranking” data, really doesn’t cut it.

Universal opportunities – one area that’s often underutilized, is targeting the universal elements (images, news, video etc..). We’ve found that trying to grind from page 3 to above the fold on page one, is far more of a struggle than getting a universal into the space. While we’re working our way up, we’ve already dropped a page 1 (often above the fold) video universal, in no time at all. Some applications (such as Authority Labs) has the ability to track these, which can be invaluable to your strategy.

Informational over commercial – even if your site is in an ecommerce world, often times there is also going to be a content strategy in place as well. When tracking rankings, you should also be segmenting these. From the informational side of things, we can look at not only which content elements we rank for, but also the associated traffic it’s driving. This helps to better target content in the future.

It’s a Mobile World

Another area that is paramount these days is to get a grasp of the geo-locational and mobile landscapes. This is somewhere that a good rank tracking application can be golden. Some of the uses we look at include;

Side-by-side – when you enable mobile tracking with Authority Labs, you can see a side-by-side comparison of rankings for a term in the desktop vs. mobile environments. This can then be compared against mobile/desktop traffic data in analytics. This can help drive over-all strategy as well as watching to see what a given change you’ve made reacted in the SERP landscape. If your rank tracking application doesn’t do this? Hehe… time for a change maybe huh? It’s damned handy at-a-glance report.

Changes to mobile strategy – as with the above, we can look at changes we make to the site and what effects they’re having. If it’s a new responsive design, speed improvements or going tot AMP, tracking mobile rankings and analytics data, can help to show an actual cost benefit to what you’ve been doing. Which is always popular with the boss or C-level types.

The other obvious issue is going to be localized rankings. What ranks at the top in NYC, is often not what is ranking there in LA. That’s certainly another important aspect that a good rank tracking application can help with, when you’re serving and targeting multiple national geo-regions.

At the end of the day, I would add the geo/mobile considerations to the other points mentioned earlier, as it’s where Google wants to go, and where we want to be. That’s definitely another area that I have found (good) rank tracking applications to be invaluable.

A Case for Forensics

Another area that I do a lot of consulting in is the world of forensic SEO. Essentially that is when you are trying to figure out where traffic losses come from. It could be due to a penalty, but other times it’s actually caused by changes at Google.

Here’s a great example in the local world, where the rank tracking helped establish where losses came from:

LOcal-Losses

In the ‘Pre-losses’ section, the website in question was in a local pack at the top of the SERP, and also had positions 3-6 below that (domain crowding). When we look at the post-losses, we can see that Google completely changed how they were treating that space, as far as localization was concerned as well as core rankings. Instead of showing local results for the query, they switched to a more branded Audi SERP display. They also dropped the site well down in the standard rankings as well (due to changes in localization).

Obviously, this is going to give a fairly significant traffic loss. But without tracking data like this, it would normally be harder to identify what happened, and explain that to the client (ie; Google changes, not your fault lol). Try figuring that out by merely having analytic data… I think not.

And so, the question remains….

Is rank tracking useless in 2016?

Nope.

To be honest, it even goes beyond some of the ideas I’ve given you. What if there are small or even wholesale changes made to the site? Are you merely going to watch traffic levels and the very limited query data from Google to establish what worked and what didn’t? This is another great use for rank tracking applications. Just create a segmented report for those pages/terms and add to the mix with your other data sources.

In the modern world of personalization, I don’t find straight-up rank tracking and reporting to be nearly as valuable as it once was, but that doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bath water, right?

Ultimately, like any SEO tool, you need to establish your own needs. I don’t like most tools ‘out of the box‘ to be honest. We want to go beyond the obvious and look for ways that it can be truly valuable, not just another data source.

Please do hit the comments and let me know how you use rank tracking in your modern world of SEO…

About David Harry

David is an SEO consultant with Verve Developments with over 18 years experience in the industry. He’s also the founder of the SEO Training Dojo, a leading SEO community founded in 2010.

Filed under: Strategy

11 Comments

Scott

I am not sure that rank tracking will ever go extinct for a few reasons. Even it it was totally useless, clients will probably always demand it. No matter how you train them to see conversions and traffic etc as a more important metric, they will always go back to “Am I #1?”

I have yet to uncover a ranking platform that is 100% accurate. It is impossible! There are two many factors in determining rank that can not be taken into effect by a bot. But this does not mean it doesn’t have its place.

You can fake location and a few other things, but search history, personalization, and so much more impact the results. Tracking can give one a good general idea of where the client likely ranks for the majority of searches +/- a couple spots. It can give a good general idea if SEO strategies are succeeding. It can help troubleshoot / pinpoint traffic losses or gains. For this, it has its place, and will likely always be of value. Maybe not as important as it was a decade ago, but useful never the less.

I doubt it will ever drop to the point of complete uselessness.

David Harry

Yea, and again, it’s more about what one is tracking to me. Random terms of little or no value, seem a bit pointless and can even start to train the client in thinking about the wrong things. I agree that accuracy can be a bit of an issue, but again, it’s not really the ranking itself that I am most interested in.

Earl Grey

Yes and no. If you are doing large scale agency work for lots of clients a resounding yes. If you just have a few of your own sites maybe Google console is enough to just keep an eye on them.

David Harry

Hey Earl, long time no see brother. While a smaller biz might not need it as much, there still probably some benefit to be had. I guess the price point of the tool might come into play at that point as far as value is concerned.

Randy

Yup. Matters for realistic and relevant keywords. Good post.

I presently use MOZ (tried Positionly as well for a year ) but I’m always looking for other tools to suss out competitive info. Keywords are one, inbound links are another. On occasion, I’ll dig up a few link competitor farms and report ’em to Google.

Matt B

Great post, David.

The unfortunate reality is most people associate SEO with keyword rankings first and foremost, so as much as we’d all love to get away from the “where are we for -” discussions, it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Therefore the onus is on the agency/consultant to ensure rankings do not become a metric for success (or not, as the case may be), and present them as part of a much bigger picture. It’s a matter of educating clients through good reporting and communication, and ultimately getting them excited about the “so what” factor, and not the position of a keyword on a page.

Tools such as Authority Labs can be very useful, so long as a degree of common sense is applied to the numbers – we covered this subject on our blog a while back http://www.browsermedia.co.uk/2016/01/25/what-is-the-value-of-seo-tools-like-moz-com/

Rank checking definitely has a place in modern SEO, so long as it’s alongside metrics that actually matter, like traffic and conversions.

David Harry

I completely agree Matt. Tools themselves are often a crutch for SEOs. I prefer to decide what data I need to drive the strategy and measure it, then find the tools to give me that information. Not the inverse, which is often the case.

As for training clients… well said. I understand a lot of clients still want ranking reports, I just prefer to focus them on the types of traffic and associated revenues they’re driving. People ask me how I do keyword research and I tend to (1/2 tongue in cheek) say that the first thing I do is ask about what we’re selling. What are the most popular, which ones suit our USP, which ones have the best margins. Those are the terms I am most interested in targeting.

James

Definately Yes, When you are working on some multiple projects at the same time you need to keep an eye on your ranking signals. Otherwise, Its very to difficult to make an some killer strategy and that is how I like to work 🙂

lee

Definitely still relevant, although not the be all and end all of an SEO campaign by any means! Keyword data can play a vital role in understanding SEO efforts, cross referencing rankings with traffic increases and conversions can give you a better understanding of how rankings are affecting your overall campaign efforts.

Also, if you are documenting every SEO change/activity on your site, you can again cross reference the impact on where your site is/was positioned in the SERPS on the day you made the change, which is valuable! ie “20th April Changed page title, 21st April dropped 3 pages” ok it’s only a basic example but you get the idea!

In the current climate of SEO, there will always be a need for this type of reporting for clients too, while most are not as obsessed with number 1/ page 1 spots etc, it can help put their mind at ease if they are seeing strong correlation between online success and rankings.

The more data we can analyze the better for all involved on a campaign.

Rakesh Ojha

I’d say tracking the rankings is also important from the point where drop in ranking means something is wrong or one needs to work little harder.

Clients do like to see their ranking progress as one of the signs in the campaign as most of us sell or pitch SEO clients that way and above all we we are obsessed with rankings as a way to satisfy ego.

Steven van Vessum

Great post David, as long as SEO matters rankings will matter as well. Of course it’s important to look beyond just positions as you write this article, but the core of it all is about rankings. That’s the starting point for the rest of the analyses.

Comments are closed.