Several years ago, the typical SEO plan of an agency would look something like this:
1. Undertake keyword research using the Google Keyword Planner
2. Write content and build links
3. Track Google rankings
4. Rinse and repeat!
Now though, the landscape is very different, with Google no longer providing keyword data through Analytics (and recently restricting keyword data through AdWords to those users who use the software a certain amount.) Furthermore, with personalisation, the ever-rapid evolution of the Search Results pages (the traditional “10 blue links” are rarely seen now) and local searches, rank tracking is no longer the same all-important metric that it used to be.
Google Webmaster Tools will provide a certain amount of ranking data (or, keywords which your domain appears for in search) for free, although relying on this data as anything more than a rough guideline can be risky, chiefly because the data is only available for the last 90 days. Furthermore, the Webmaster Tools interface does not easily lend itself to analysis, with regular Excel exports therefore being a (not ideal!) solution.
Does that mean that rank tracking is now useless? We like to think that it isn’t, mainly because of the following:
Voice search isn’t there yet
Despite the much-vaunted progress of voice search, analytics for natural language queries hasn’t yet taken off, and given the lack of a reliable way of measuring users who use voice search, rank tracking seems the best option. The below graph from Searchengineland shows that whilst mobile searches are indeed now ahead of desktop, the combined desktop searches and text-based mobile searches still account for a large proportion of overall searches (as recently as May 2016, only 20% of searches on mobiles were conducted through voice search.)
Tracking competitors and industry trends
Stepping back from self-analysis for a moment, rank tracking can be a powerful tool for competitive analysis – although it’s possible to use services such as SEMrush to check up on competitor organic traffic, regularly scheduled ranking checks for common industry keywords can serve as an important benchmark for your domain, and can alert you to competitor gains or losses in certain areas.
Tracking progress, problems, and KPI usage
Non-personalised, non-local (or specifically local, depending on the query) ranking positions provide an important measure of a given domain’s popularity, and can be measured against new content initiatives, domain migrations, and so on to report on successes. Rankings have long been a traditional KPI and although their importance has diminished, we don’t see any reason to stop using them as a measurement metric.
Most modern rank trackers now have tagging features, where groups of keywords can be grouped topically – ideal for the age of semantic search, with ‘clusters’ of keywords and phrases now classed as more important.
Mobile first indexing
When the Google Mobile-first index hits, keeping an eye on mobile-specific rankings will be an important consideration for many site owners, and as mentioned previously, the value of keeping track of industry trends could be an invaluable resource to determine the impact of the algorithm shift. (Depending on industry, the impact of mobile-first indexing may vary considerably.)
With the massive growth of local, ‘near me’ searches, this is one area in which rank trackers can shine in highlighting the development of profitable keywords and topics. Without keeping track of the local volumes and visibility of these increasingly popular searches, optimisation can be difficult.
Which rank tracking software should I use?
When setting up rank tracking it’s important to use the right software, particularly given Google’s recent curtailing of access to AdWords (which many keyword tools previously used as their main source of data).
As far as an affordable, effective solution, we find Rank Tracker from the guys at SEOpowersuite to be a great tool, chiefly because:
- It lets you accurately track an unlimited number of domains (including multiple competitors) and keywords at a low fixed cost
- It has options for mobile or local only rank checks
- 571 search engines are included, making it very useful for international clients
- Automatically scheduled checks, report templates and email reports make it much easier to keep data up to date and present it to clients
- It can also integrate with Google Analytics and AdWords
Important Note: if you are checking a large number of keyword rankings, proxies may be required. Make sure they are sourced from a reputable supplier, as there are a lot of less reputable ones in the market.
Over the last few years, there has been a large amount of debate as to whether rankings are even necessary anymore. For what it’s worth we think that they are – in addition to all the factors above, the main Google.com search architecture is unlikely to change substantially within the next few years, meaning that typed search queries will continue to be prevalent even with the growth of voice search.