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!

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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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  • Ileane
    Twitter:
    says:

    Hi Lucas, all I can say is Wow! I never heard of the Venice update but I did have some clue about this problem with checking for rank. Most people will not know to turn off personalization or add any location information. In fact most users might not even have Google accounts or be logged in to them when they search. This is a game changer for sure. I use Market Samurai but I don’t depend on it nearly as much as I did 6 months ago. Thanks for sharing the case study.

    • Lukas Pleva
      Twitter:
      says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Ileane! I agree, Venice and personalization more generally are a game changer. Guess we’ll have to wait and see if it’s something that consumers take to ;-)

  • Adeline
    Twitter:
    says:

    Looks like the walls of the SEO industry are falling apart brick by brick… I don’t use rank trackers but this is surely going to leave a lot of people frustrated and Google’s going to be the bad guy.

    • Lukas Pleva
      Twitter:
      says:

      Hmmm, I am not sure if I’d go as far as to say that the “SEO industry are falling apart brick by brick”, but the game has definitely changed. SEO is no longer what it used to be. And yes, for better or worse, Google’s going to end up looking like the bad guy. Hopefully, some of the software packages that I mentioned will catch up to incorporate regional searches.

  • kacirs says:

    for real? Oh man! I just made a report :(

  • Mariaa says:

    I think you have provided very vital information from the seo point of view. I really like your comparision.

  • Brien27 says:

    This kind of info. will surely provide huge awareness to all the blogger in order to set every certain things worth effective….

  • Linda Buquet says:

    Actually Places Scout is the only one I know of that does local emulation. I linked my name to a review I did about it. I’m a beta tester and consultant, advising on new updates, features, etc.

    When I 1st asked Mark to add local emulation it was more for the Places results so you could simulate a patient in Denver searching for Dentist (with no city modifier.) But now it’s really helpful for Venice as well. You can set the local emulation to city or even to specific zip to see how your client ranks in that specific area.

    The other REALLY cool thing about Scout is that it shows you whether it’s a 7 pack, blended or organic ranking which is critical if you do local SEO. I don’t think any other software does this.

    Linda

  • jeff selig says:

    Funny, but I wrote about this a year ago in an article Goodbye SERP’s Hello SMERP’s http://www.bostonmediadomain.com/goodbye-serps-hello-smerps/ SERP reports should have been considered dead a long time ago not only because of personalized search, but in addition to suggest, social, location, etc……

  • Jane says:

    I’m not very keen on tracking ranks. But this seems to be a good move by Google in terms of projecting location based spotting in the search results. This will be favorable for many.

  • Thomas says:

    very beautifully arranged article. thank you very much all the best

  • Olli says:

    Thanks. PS: Fireshot is great for taking complete SERPs in for a screenshot – fast and easy :)

  • Debbie says:

    Google Venice gets me on my nerves. I saw changes in my page rank several hours ago, but I didn’t know what caused it. Google is not the only one who’s made changes. I don’t know for sure, but I think Alexa made some changes as well in ranking websites.

  • Sandra92 says:

    This post was truly indeed, thanks for sharing this with us and I do love to pin it with my friends…

  • Chris says:

    Really deep post, I think everybody can learn from it, maybe I can cure my new problems with my PR.

  • Charis says:

    You might also be applying for a job that requires a significant employment history..Google is not the only one who’s made changes.

  • [...] In Case You Missed It: Your Rank Tracking Reports Are Now Useless – 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. [...]

  • Nick
    Twitter:
    says:

    BrightLocal offers some great tools for local SEO, especially their ranking reports and citation finder. There’s another piece of software that we use quite a bit called PlacesScout and it does allow you to build local ranking reports based on location. Definitely worth checking it out if you do a lot of local stuff.

  • Jennifer Alvasin says:

    Hey ..its a really helpful post .. people can lean from it …

    thanks for sharing this …

  • Very interesting post. Not really thought of that issue before. I guess if you do your ranking reports manually, then hopefully the results will show up better than when using the software where the results are depersonalized. Something for me to bear in mind when I’m trying to rank for keywords that are country and location specific. Thanks.

  • Julian Black says:

    Thanks a lot for this blog .. it was truly helpful..

  • Paul Profitt
    Twitter:
    says:

    Hi Lukas

    I have never heard of this Venice update. But what I do know is… that if you are logged into your Google account. And you do a search to see where a particular blog post that you have written is ranked.

    You will get a false ranking. Because of the way that Google saves your search information. What you will usually see is a website that you have visited before for the same search term, ranked in the top 3 positions.

  • jennifer says:

    Great post, it was truly indeed and can surely bring a huge help to all…

  • dagnyjbarber says:

    great information shared. I must say. Yes I agree with your statement. These tools are really nice and helpful. And Also I like the simplicity of the article. Words are very simple and clear to understand. Thankful for such a great post.

  • Niki says:

    Well, the way I see it tracking softwares have to step up to the game and the big ones will in time. And by the way there is something pretty useful in the Google Webmaster Tools. We can check our average position for a given date or period of time for many keywords. So I say we use it :).

  • Jonathan says:

    Nice post lukas,
    I have to say that i think you might be exaggerating. Google is constantly updating its algorithms,and the rank trackers that can keep up are the ones that survive. I am using rankranger and their results have been accurate throughout Venice and all of the other updates. Also, there are first time searchers who personalization is much less significant for, and for them regular optimization and tracking still remain relevant.

  • Lee says:

    Hi Lucas, Thanks for the fantastic post. Even though I have a deep understanding in SEO and even offering it as a service I didn’t realise you could set a location. It’s certainly a game changer but in most cases I actually see it as a benefit if more people start to use it. Especially for local clients.

  • did you notice google tries to includes its products on top on most of the search results?

  • Marc says:

    Is there ever going to be a day when we will return to reading things because they are interesting, and in turn writing things because people care about them? Bloggers have become pleasers of people instead of the original intention which was to speak our minds. Now the intention is to speak your mind, but only in a way that will drive people to your sight and using the words needed to do so. I would rather have one person read my blog for its content than read it because they mistakenly punched in a keyword and were guided there. Thanks but I will stick to writing for the love of what I am saying.

  • Nick Davison says:

    Ranktracker have recently included the ability to manually correct the rankings in a workspace so I can only presume that this is a concession related to Venice. Nice to have this feature but I think many SEO’s will still find it useless since they are working with companies across the county and don’t necessarily have access to the location specific results anyway.