Every once in a while, ‘rank tracking‘ will enter the SEO conversation in a serious way. It can be some sort of study that relates to rank position or one of Google’s many changes but whatever the catalyst, rank tracking is one of those SEO topics that rears its head with some regularity. The problem with rank tracking is that we tend to relate to it as an entirely automated process. So, leave it to the guy who works for an automated rank tracking tool to show why and how tracking rank properly means looking beyond automation per se.
Why Is Rank Tracking so Gosh Darn Complicated?
It should be simple. You throw your keywords into a rank tracker (such as Rank Ranger – the best rank tracker in the world… nay, universe) and you track your damn rank. If you rank #1 you’re the best. If you rank #2 you’re the second-best. If you rank #1,009,671 you have no organic traffic from that keyword. Why are we even having this conversation?
Well, because rank tracking is actually insanely complex. (OK, “insanely” might be a bit hyperbolic, but I love the drama.)
Why is rank tracking complex? There a few culprits and despite having talked about rank tracking complexity in the past, I’ll briefly rehash it here as well.
SERP Features: Google’s properties have famously been a bit of a sore point to those hoping to steer some organic traffic to their sites. Google’s features have gotten significantly more complex with the addition of all sorts of bells and whistles. To make matters even worse, Google is flooding the SERP with all sorts of features. Meaning, you’re not just competing with a single SERP feature, oftentimes you share the SERP with an army of the little critters. Just by way of example, per a study I conducted, your average desktop Featured Snippet shares the SERP with an ad, a People Also Ask box, and a video carousel about 30% of the time. That’s a pretty packed SERP and we haven’t even talked about the organic results yet (which is kind of my point).
The SERP for the keyword ‘yankees’ produces a SERP with a very limited number of organic results, particularly towards the top of the page
Now, Google’s Danny Sullivan has pushed back at this by saying URLs exist in many of Google’s SERP features. Meaning, Google seems to consider many SERP features as ‘organic’.
I think there are a few problems with such a notion:
1) Not all sites have the same sort of access to Google’s SERP features. For example, if you don’t provide original news reporting, good luck getting showcased inside the Top Stories carousel. Are you Wikipedia? No? Well, then good luck having your URL show up inside the Knowledge Panel.
2) There’s no place like home. There is nothing like bringing a user into your own ecosystem. So while SERP features like the video carousel do put forward content you may have created, Google’s video platform is not your website. When a user heads over to your site you can control the narrative. Even if a user clicks on your Twitter box or your video inside Google’s video box… they are heading to ecosystems that you have very little control over. It’s hard to say that SERP features that point users to someone else’s platform are organic.
3) Even when your content is showcased and your URL offered, it does not mean it’s getting clicks… in fact, at times it can mean the opposite. Take Featured Snippets. Another study I ran in the summer of 2019 showed that the length of Featured Snippets has changed. In specific, paragraph Featured Snippets are shorter while list Featured Snippets are longer than they once were. The common denominator between the length changes of both formats is that it makes the Featured Snippet a bit less click-worthy. Longer lists mean users feel they have the full content while shorter paragraphs offer more focused and precise answers. In other words, just because Google is featuring your URL in its SERP features doesn’t mean you have a “traffic winner” on your hands. It all depends on the context (though, from this perspective, such instances are often a win – I will say that).
Rank Volatility: The other factor that can make rank tracking a hard endeavor is the nature of consistency as it pertains to rank position. If you’re not careful you’ll start popping champagne bottles without realizing how inconsistent your rankings are. Ever since Google released machine learning into the algorithm, rank has become far more volatile. Not only that, but since the advent of the core updates (at least as we know them now) the extent of a given fluctuation is significantly greater. That is, when Google moves a site up/down the SERP it is now doing so to a greater extent.
What I’m trying to say is, what was a ranking win one day may not be the next and it may not be a super-large Google update that does it. Not only that, but Google tests sites in top spots on the SERP all the time. So when you see you’re ranking #1 on the SERP, keep a humble heart because that may not be the case the next day. If you’re not tracking how volatile your rankings are you are not tracking rank properly.
Going Next Level with Your Rank Tracking
Rank tracking is complicated, we get it. And to meet the surge in complexity the industry has moved to adopt a higher standard of rank tracking. For example, one of our favorite little tools tells you if you rank above the fold or not. Super-helpful! However, as much as I love the metric, it’s still not enough. No metric is. It doesn’t exist.
So if you want to be a rank tracking pro, what should you do? (I’m sorry for how cliched that sentence sounded, I truly am.)
#1 Analyze Your Rankings Relative to Intent
When is 5 really 1 and 1 nothing at all? The SERP. Welcome to the rabbit hole. I should probably explain what the heck it is that I mean.
Let’s run this through by supposing you are in the hunt for a new car insurance policy. You know what you want, you’ve had insurance for years, you’re an insurance pro. You don’t need to do any research, you just need to find a company. Accordingly, you head to the SERP and search for buy car insurance and you get:
The only two organic results shown here relate to the information process that takes place before buying an insurance policy. Assuming you don’t trust ads, do the organic results above the fold help you? No.
What do you do now? Scroll.
Here’s what happens when you scroll to the very next organic result:
Well, wouldn’t you know? It’s allstate.com, a fine place to possibly buy a policy!
Let me ask you, for a user that wants to buy a car insurance policy, what is the ranking of All-State’s website? Did you say #3? If you did, I think you’d be wrong. For a commerce focused user All-State ranks #1.
When looking at rank it’s imperative to know where you rank relative to the user intent! In this very case, your site could be ranking #1 or #2 and it would be pretty much a vanity metric. In terms of driving traffic, let alone a conversion, the first and second positions for a user looking to make a purchase are relatively worthless (all things being equal). And vice versa, here the third result is really the very first result of any relevance to the user who is set on making a transaction.
Again, you really have to qualify your rank on a per intent basis. Looking at position per se without understanding the intent landscape can be extremely misleading, especially for verticals like complex commerce where Google shows a large mix of commerce and informational sites.
Look at the results on the SERP, categorize the results by the intent, and make some sort of notation of your rank relative to intent when appropriate.
#2 Survey Sites Qualitatively
Similar to what I mentioned above, you should most definitely survey the pages you’re competing against qualitatively. Let’s say you rank #4 on the SERP and all of the results above you speak to the same user intent, they can still be garbage. As crazy as it sounds, Google doesn’t always get it right. (By the way, the expectation that Google should be perfect and God-like is a bit fantastical.) Depending on the type of keyword, it is quite possible that the top sites will not be the most relevant or of the highest quality. In such a case, ranking below these sites isn’t really ranking below these sites. For users looking for a solid site to visit, yours could be the top result despite it not ranking #1.
That’s a good distinction now that I think about it… ranking #1 and being the top result are not the same thing. A site can rank #1 on the SERP and not be high-quality and not be relevant… it’s hard to call such sites the “top” result.
Sounds far-fetched? It’s easier than you think. There are many keyword categories that can fall prey to showing unrelated results. One area that stands out to me are keywords related to developing topics. I’m writing this post at the height of the COVID-19 breakout. Here are the results I got when searching for fun things to do when you have coronavirus:
Let’s leave aside the News Box for a second. The first result (which is actually the first card in the Top Stories carousel as well) is all about going out and having fun despite the coronavirus pandemic (but without coming into too much contact with people). However, despite the wonderful ideas in the article, if you have the virus you are supposed to be in isolation, not “embarking on a lighthouse sightseeing tour.” This is an irrelevant result. Vis-a-vis the query it’s a bad result. It should not be on the SERP. However, as Google (at the time of this writing) is still getting a grip on this topic, it does show up on the SERP in the #1 ranking position.
In this particular instance, the 2nd and 3rd results are a bit more relevant. Really though, I think the fifth result is the most click-worthy for this query. If it were me, I would bypass both the CDC and Harvard when looking to keep things fun and light when in quarantine as “fun” might be a bit off-brand when thinking of these two institutions.
#3 Evaluate the Content within SERP Features
Not everything inside of a SERP feature is truly competitive. Google, more often than you think, plops a SERP feature on the SERP in an attempt to cover a wide net of user intents. Just because Google chose something to showcase in a SERP feature doesn’t mean that piece of content is competitive. Far from it.
Common perception is that ranking amidst a myriad of SERP features means death to all organic traffic. However, that’s not always the case. If a keyword is important to you and it brings up some SERP features it behooves you to qualify exactly what’s in those SERP features. To simply assume that a SERP feature will automatically steal your traffic… well you know what they say about assumptions.
If you really want to qualify your rankings and really understand what the position of your URL means you need to know what content is in the SERP features you share the page with. You could be giving up on a keyword because of the presence of features for no good reason.
Look back at the Top Stories carousel in the previous section. Are any of those results relevant to someone looking to pass the time while in quarantine? No. Google likely threw the News Box onto that SERP due to the sheer newsworthiness of anything and everything COVID-19 at the height of the outbreak.
The Video Box is another Google property that may draw dread as it appears in proximity to your top-ranked URLs. However, this culprit commonly shows content that is all but unrelated to the main thrust of the query as the format here is what Google is going for. In other words, often enough Google places the Video Box on the SERP to offer a visual companion to the results themselves. Since the format per se (visual content) is the intent Google aims for, at times the specific content found within the box can be off-kilter.
Take the keyword what does a flower girl do. You’d expect some sort of video outlining the finer points of being a flower girl. But that’s not what you get. Instead, you get some over-generalized videos showcasing just how cute flower girls are:
Even though video is generally a very attractive content proposition the videos here don’t stack up to the organic results, even the ones that rank towards the bottom of the page. Worrying about the Video Box in this instance would be very much jumping the gun. But unless you’re delving into the content within the features Google is showing you’d be making much to do about nothing.
Without qualifying the actual content within SERP features you have no way of knowing what the power of your rankings actually is.
That’s One Giant Leap for Understanding Your Rankings
It’s not rocket science. Like a lot of things in both life and SEO it’s a matter of mindset, but it’s a mindset that can really take your rank tracking to a different place. Asking what you’re rankings mean and the willingness to get into the nitty-gritty of what is on the SERP gives you both the ability to qualify the power of rankings and to better allocate time and resources.
Best of all, it doesn’t have to be hard. It’s quite possible to get a look at the SERP without having to leave your rank tracking platform and run queries manually. For example, our SERP Snapshot not only gives you a look at the titles and descriptions of the organic results but also a look at the SERP features on the page and what content is in them!
The SERP Snapshot that accompanies many reports within Rank Ranger showing the video titles that make up a Video Carousel on the SERP
I’m not saying this (just) to plug Rank Ranger. I’m saying to point out how (relatively) easy it can be to go deep into qualifying your rankings. If it’s not entirely complicated and with the right tools it’s not entirely a total pain… then what are we waiting for? Of course, you can’t do this for every keyword. Target the keywords that matter most to you and start understanding what in the heck your rankings really mean!