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In Case You Missed It: Your Rank Tracking Reports Are Now Useless

May 3, 2012   //   by Lukas   //   SEO Blog  //  36 Comments

Truth be told, I was never a big fan of keyword ranking reports. Sure, seeing your website in that sweet #1 spot is a nice ego boost, and a lot of clients fixate on the precise position of keywords that they deem most important to their business, but these reports often obfuscate metrics that actually matter. After all, attaining that much sought-after top spot is virtually meaningless if it doesn’t translate into qualified visitors, leads, and/or sales.

That said, pending some major, fundamental change in the way people search for information online, it doesn’t look like keyword ranking reports are going away anytime soon, so the least you can do is make sure you’re using a software package capable of producing reports that are accurate.

There are quite a few options on this front, some better than others. I’ve had success using rank tracking software produced by SEOmoz and Link-Assistant.com, but no solution is perfect, and you should do your own due diligence, especially if you’re opting for a paid package.

Still, courtesy of the Google Venice update, if you’re currently in the market for rank tracking software, you might want to save your money, at least for the near future. Here’s why:

In February, Google announced that it was releasing a major update to its ranking algorithm. Dubbed “Venice”, the update was developed to improve “the triggering of Local Universal results by relying more on the ranking of our main search results as a signal.” That’s a handful, so here’s a ten-second primer.

Prior to the update, if you searched for a keyword like “bagels”, you’d generally be presented with two sets of results. At the top would be Google Places listings, i.e. local bakeries, as determined by your location, which Google can detect automatically. Underneath would be national organic results, e.g. Wikipedia links, blogs with bagel recipes, etc.

In other words, local content was limited to the Places listings at the top. If you wanted to have organic presence, you’d literally have to optimize for the keyword “bagel” and beat out major brands like Einstein Bros Bagels and Dunkin’ Donuts.

With Venice, things have changed. Just take a look at the screenshot below:

Google Search Results Page

What you see are depersonalized results for the term “seo” with my location set to Tampa, FL.

Carefully look through the organic results, specifically #3. See that? An organic result for an SEO training company that’s based in Tampa, Florida! Notice that we didn’t search for “Tampa SEO”. In fact, we didn’t include any sort of geographic modifier in our search query, and yet a small company is holding #3 spot for what would normally be an uber-competitive term.

Now let’s try changing the location to Miami, FL.

Google Search Engine Results Page

Again, take a look at result #5: Royal Internet Marketing, a marketing company that provides SEO services and that’s based in Miami, Florida.

Essentially, Google got a lot better at recognizing when there might be local intent behind the query, and is displaying organic results that change based on your location. Let’s try setting our location to USA. It was hard to take a screenshot of the entire search results page, but the results are what you were probably already expecting: all of the relevant local listings disappeared!

If you haven’t put the pieces together yet, this change profoundly impacts the way we measure rankings. Virtually all popular rank tracking packages check results that have been fully depersonalized, i.e. the location is set to USA. What does this mean in practice?

Say that your client is a divorce attorney in Chicago, IL. For demonstration purposes only, let’s assume that the client’s website URL is www.divorce-lawyers-chicago.com (disclosure: I have no connection or affiliation with this website, it’s being used here only as a relevant example). As part of your monthly report, you look at where your client ranks for the keyword “Chicago divorce attorney”. This is the set of search results that most rank tracking software packages would be working with to determine where you stand:

Google Search Results Page

As you can see, within the organic results, you hold position #3, not bad (first two organic results are not shown). But not all people think in terms of the keyword + city paradigm. In fact, even my own primitive research with a few AdWords Express campaigns has shown that people regularly search without geographical modifiers.

Let’s look at what happens if we change the location to Chicago, IL and do a query for “divorce attorney” (same query as before, just removing the “Chicago” modifier).

Google Search Results Page

WOW! Suddenly, we’ve moved up, and are now #1 in the organic results, even above majority of the Google Places listings that follow.

Here’s the thing, though. Because most rank trackers work with the depersonalized results where the location is set to USA, you’d never be able to make and report this discovery unless you had performed the ranking checks manually.

In other words, if you’re currently relying on ranking packages like those of SEOmoz and Link-Assistant.com, your reports are largely incomplete! These tools simply don’t have the option of emulating local search behavior, at least not yet.

There is some glimmer of hope. According to the head of customer support at Brightlocal, the company is actively working to implement this feature in the next roll-out of their web-based rank checking software, but no information yet on just how soon that’ll happen.

I can only presume that the awesome folks over at SEOmoz and Link-Assistant.com are also aware of this problem and are working to update their own rank trackers, but to the best of my knowledge, there have been no details released yet of the when and how. My coding knowledge is pitiful, so I unfortunately can’t comment on how difficult of an undertaking this is.

The lesson here is pretty simple, but important: checking rankings manually is boring and burdensome, especially if you’re working with a large keyword set, but if you want to get an understanding of where you truly stand, it might be time to ditch the automation tools and get busy.

What rank tracking solution do YOU use? How has the Google Venice update affected your keyword rank monitoring strategy? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Lukas

Lukas Pleva is an SEO intern at Webhead Interactive, a full-service online marketing firm based in Tampa, Florida. When he’s not a student at The University of Chicago, he likes to dabble in SEO, social media marketing, and web design. He currently oversees marketing campaigns for St. Pete Bagel Co., an online merchant specializing in the sale of mail order bagels, bialys, and high-end coffee.

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