This week’s Ask An SEO question is from Geoff in Birmingham, UK:
“Are search engine ranking tools any use when Google results are now so personalized? What are the alternatives to find out where a site ranks for a given search term/keyword?”
Are rankings even relevant anymore?
This has been a raging debate in the SEO community for well over a decade.
As the major search engines began providing results that varied based on who you are, SEO professionals have wondered if the rankings you see are actually the rankings you get.
And then there’s the ever-changing layout of the SERPs.
When you look at a SERP, what do you consider the top result?
Is it the Shopping results?
Is it the result in the maps?
What about the Knowledge Panel?
The definition of the top result is not very clear-cut these days.
Tracking rankings is not very clear cut, in most cases.
The variation in the SERP layout makes it impossible to know what the true top position is without some sort of additional analysis.
How Modern Rank Tracking Tools Work
Many of the tools that track rankings have settings to understand the parts of each SERP that appear under a specific query.
But even then, tracking rankings isn’t as easy as looking at a simple chart anymore.
Rankings, however, are still important to track.
Even with the proliferation of personalized results, anecdotally I can say that the SERPs for the majority of queries appear static.
That means most people are seeing the same results you see when they perform a query.
So you can track rankings in the majority of queries.
The more informational a query is, the more likely the rankings in the SERP will be static.
The Importance of Rank Tracking
As I said above, rankings are important to track.
Rankings should rarely be a key performance indicator for a search engine optimization program.
But all too frequently, they are.
Many prospects come to us hyper-focused on rankings.
The prevailing thought is, if I could just rank for [insert keyword here], all of my digital marketing troubles will be over.
This is rarely the case.
In fact, in many cases, we’ve seen rankings for certain keywords bring in useless traffic that never converts.
Keyword research is absolutely a pre-requisite for tracking rankings.
In the past, rankings were something that SEO professionals showed their clients because, frankly, it was easy for them to understand and showed the progress that was being made.
Today, creating goals for ranking a specific keyword is absolutely useless without going further and analyzing the traffic that is generated by the ranking.
It is imperative that any rank tracking be tied to additional goals.
This can be difficult in today’s “(not provided)” world.
It’s difficult to know the path of a consumer that comes in from a specific keyword.
However, by understanding how your overall organic traffic is converting, you can make somewhat accurate estimates of how rankings are affecting leads or sales.
Ranking tools can’t accurately provide data on the sales that happen from specific keyword queries.
And in many cases, informational or top-of-funnel queries don’t convert for a little while.
There may be 3-5 visits to a site before a top-of-funnel prospect turns into a lead.
This is where your most valuable SEO tool comes in.
Your most valuable SEO tool is your brain.
You must work to make the logical leap of how changes in rankings on the SERPs affect your traffic and monetization.
Using Search Engine Ranking Tools the Right Way
Back to original questions – are search engine ranking tools of any use today?
The answer is yes.
However, it’s important to understand that any tool that is not between your ears is merely a tool.
A man with a hammer thinks everything is a nail.
And an SEO professional with a ranking tool thinks that success happens in the SERPs.
In reality, success happens on the site.
Editor’s note: Ask an SEO is a weekly SEO advice column written by some of the industry’s top SEO experts, who have been hand-picked by Search Engine Journal. Got a question about SEO? Fill out our form. You might see your answer in the next #AskanSEO post!