All your clients want to get on Google’s first page, or at the very least, see that they’re moving up in the rankings. This process is known as rank tracking, i.e., tracking how a website ranks for specific keywords by monitoring search engine results pages (SERPs) over time.
Whether it’s done over days, weeks, months, or years, rank tracking is one of the most important SEO services that agencies can do for clients, and it’s also one of the best ways for agencies to show off how much value their SEO efforts are bringing to their clients.
In this article, we’ll go over the importance of SEO tracking, the pros and cons of rank tracking tools, how personalization factors affect your search results (even more than you probably thought), and the pros and cons of some of the most popular ranking tools currently on the market.
The Foundations of an SEO Ranking Tool
It's practically impossible for anyone to get useful data when running a manual search for rank tracking purposes. That’s because Google (and other search engines) do their best to personalize these search results based on the person-or at least the computer-doing the search.
While these personalized results are helpful if you're searching for information, a translation, or a pizza shop, they are not meant for agencies trying to understand how their clients’ websites rank.
Google also doesn't tell you how personalized your search results are, which only adds to the problem. While some SERPs might be almost identical across different users and locations, others can vary dramatically.
This is why so many agencies use SEO tools like rank tracking software to get around the personalization factors in order to get a better understanding of how their client’s websites rank. Plus, of course, the manual task of checking the ranking for hundreds of client keywords would become quite time-consuming.
What Makes a Great Ranking Tool?
The best rank trackers help you get around all those personalization factors that skew your search results and show you what the ‘average searcher’ would see.
Here are a few of the most common personalization factors affecting your search results:
Depending on how these different factors combine, the same website can rank in a different position (even when using the exact same keyword!).
The most effective rank trackers (like the AgencyAnalytics Rank Tracker) give you a clearer view of what the average user would see when searching for the exact keyword you've specified, from the location you've specified, with results in the language you've specified.
This information is extremely difficult to find by any other means since all of your search results are automatically personalized. In a way, rank trackers are like Incognito Mode on steroids.
Personalization Factors Influence Rankings Much More Than You Think
Let’s dig deeper into each of the personalization factors that could be impacting native search results.
Personalization: Location-Based Rankings
This one should be the most obvious, and it helps illustrate some of the SERP personalization that search engines do.
Search engines show different results based on your location. So, if you search for the word "pizza" in New York City, the SERPs will show you pizza shops in New York City. Search for the same thing in L.A., and you'll see pizza shops in L.A.
Search engines can also interpret your search differently depending on location (and depending on other factors as well). For example, a search for "chips" in Canada returns only one image of fries (since in Canada, ‘chips’ usually refers to potato chips).
However, searching for "chips" in Australia shows fries in 8 out of 12 images, because they use ‘chips’ in a similar way to the British (as in “Fish and Chips”).
Both of these examples illustrate how Google is always trying to show you what it thinks you want to see.
Personalization: Other Key Factors
As well as your location, search engines can use many other factors to personalize the SERPs you see. This can include your web browsing behavior, search history, social factors, language, and anything else the search engine knows about you.
A search engine can know a lot about you, especially if you're using other products/services that the search engine offers (in the case of Google, this can be services like Google Chrome, YouTube, Google Maps, Gmail, Google Calendar, Search Console, etc).
Google is an advertising business, not a search business (in 2020 Google made $146 billion USD from advertising), and therefore they spend a lot of money and effort trying to understand exactly who they're advertising to.
All of this is used to build a personalized SERP for you. For example, if you've frequently visited a website in the past, Google will often show that website higher on the SERPs.
If you search for "pizza", you'll likely see a small map of your exact local area at the top of the SERP (and the most relevant results in the 3-pack). If you search for "cerveza" when your computer/browser language is English, the first thing Google usually does is translate that word for you.
Often all of these things happen at the same time for a single search: You can get "cerveza" translated, plus a map of your local beer stores, plus web pages you've visited in the past, and other personalized content.
Personalization: Why VPNs and Incognito Mode Don’t Help
Some users will try to hide their identity from Google via a VPN and/or incognito mode. However, this does not completely block a search engine (or any other website) from identifying you.
Although you may be able to trick Google into showing you results for the set location, your digital identity is not as hidden as you might think (due to your unique fingerprint), so all of the other personalization factors can still affect what you see.
For an example of this, check your browser fingerprint at amiunique.org. Next, check it again using a VPN or incognito mode: you'll see that there are dozens of unique variables that don't change at all.
These are some of the unique variables that websites use to determine who you are, and just some of this information is enough to make an extremely educated guess. Even when using a different browser completely, many of the variables can stay the same.
So if you want search results that aren’t affected by these variables, it’s clear that you’ll need something that goes beyond using a VPN or Incognito Mode, and that’s where rank trackers come in.
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How to Prioritize the Keywords to Track in Your Ranking Tool
Now that we know why rank trackers are used to overcome all of those different personalization factors, it’s time to pick the keywords you want to track. But there are often so many to choose from, so you’ll have to prioritize them.
Prioritizing keywords is a critical part of any SEO-driven content strategy and it depends on a mix of factors including:
Relevance: First and foremost, the keyword must be relevant to your clients and what they do. So think about your client’s target market, and ask yourself if the keyword is something they care about and if your client can help them with it.
Search volume: How many searches does the keyword get per month? Is that volume trending up or down?
Difficulty (or competition): How difficult is it to rank for this keyword? The more competition there is for a keyword, the more difficult it will be to rank for it.
Click-through Rate (CTR): CTR tells you how many people actually click on a search result for the keyword
Keywords that are highly relevant to your client’s businesses, with high search volume and click-through rates, and low competition, are the ones that should be prioritized.
Agency Tip: For top priority keywords, you should check the current SERP results to make sure there is at least one site in the Top 10 that your agency can bump out of the results.
Don’t Forget About Search Intent
Also, when prioritizing keywords, don’t forget about search intent! There are four main kinds of intent when it comes to searches:
Informational: As the name implies, this type of search is when you’re looking for data and information to learn more about a subject.
Navigational: This type of search is when the user knows exactly where they want to go. For example, if you wanted to check out if there were any deals at Best Buy, you’d simply search “Best Buy” to get to their webpage.
Transactional: This kind of search occurs when you intend to complete a transaction, purchase, or order.
Knowing the intent behind the search will go a long way in ensuring your keywords are relevant and get a high CTR.
Should I Use a Free Ranking Tool?
As discussed earlier, when manually searching for a keyword (for example, running a search on google.com), your results are personalized. There's no way around this, even when using a VPN and/or Incognito Mode.
But free rank trackers can also suffer from the same problems as manual searches because many will link you to the search engine to load your results live (and when those results load in your browser, the search engine can personalize them).
An example is the free BrightLocal rank checker: You can get results to load for a specific location, but they link you to Google to view the results, and if Google recognizes you, it will personalize the results, which defeats the purpose of using the rank tracking software in the first place.
In addition, free ranking tools often lack the automation and other capabilities of paid ranking tools, which means they’re not only more labor-intensive and time-consuming to use, but they also yield more basic results without as many actionable insights.
Despite these limitations, free ranking tools do offer some core benefits, which is why they remain popular amongst bloggers, smaller businesses and websites, and startup agencies working under tight budgets. But anyone who is truly interested in scaling will eventually need to invest in a paid ranking tool.
Overview of Top Rank Tracking Tools (Paid)
Now that we’ve gone over the frugal appeal of free rank trackerd, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of a few of the most popular paid options, which include:
SEMrush is often touted as the All-in-One SEO tool, and its rank tracker is a breeze to set up. From the Position Tracker section, simply enter your client’s domain name and keyword and voila– it will start tracking your client’s website ranking. You can also track on a per-country basis, which is very helpful if your clients operate globally.
Over time, you’ll get a good idea of how your client’s website is doing against the competition.
If you really want to see how your client stacks up, just follow the same steps in the Position Tracker section, except this time, enter the competition’s domain name and SEMrush will start tracking that, too!
A few cons of SEMrush are its singular focus on data from Google at the expense of other search engines and its lack of mobile optimization. SEMrush is also a very complex platform, which can be good for an agency that lives and breathes SEO, but overwhelming for a client.
SEMrush starts at $119.95/mo but you need to be prepared to pay an extra $45 per month for every team member within your agency who needs to access the platform on a regular basis.
One of the things that makes Moz stand out is that it offers two different rank tracking tools– its regular rank tracker and an ‘on-demand’ rank tracker. Moz’s regular rank tracker is comparable to both SEMrush and Ahrefs, while the ‘on-demand’ tracker aims to show you the ranking at that particular moment in time.
Although Moz is a very robust SEO tool, it can also be too much for clients - both from a complexity and a cost standpoint, sort of like using a jackhammer to hang a picture hook.
Moz has a lower-tier package that starts at $99/month but only includes 3 campaigns and 300 keywords. Similar to SEMrush, this only includes 1 user, and the cost for any additional seats is $49/month.
Ahref’s rank tracking software functions in much the same way as SEMrush (except instead of SEMrush’s Position Tracker, Ahrefs calls it ‘Rank Tracker’) where you enter a domain name and the keywords you want to track.
Ahrefs also allows you to track on a per-country basis, but it goes one step further than SEMrush and allows you to track by city/town as well. That means with Ahrefs, you can track your client’s websites at the local, national, and even the global level. And unlike SEMrush, Ahrefs provides data from up to 10 different search engines.
If you upgrade to Ahref’s Rank Tracker Pro, you can even get daily, weekly, or monthly updates on your client’s rankings via email.
A few cons of Ahrefs are its lack of a free trial plan and no mobile app. The user interface of Ahrefs is also much less user-friendly, especially for your less technically-included clients.
Aherfs pricing starts at $99/month and includes up to 750 keywords in their lowest tier plan. However, this plan only accommodates a single “power user” and has multiple add-on options for different user levels ranging from $20/mo extra per seat to $50/mo extra per seat.
Similar to SEMrush, Majestic’s rank tracker is limited to Google data, and it also allows you to track on a per-country basis. But one thing that makes Majestic stand out is its backlink checker and link-building capabilities.
Compared to more established rank tracking tools such as SEMrush and Ahrefs, Majestic is rather limited as it is quite new, but on the plus side, that means Majestic is one of the least expensive options on this list, making it a great option for the budget-conscious.
The entry-level Majestic product starts at $49.99/month and includes 1 user and 60 “report units” which includes keyword lists.
The AgencyAnalytics white labeled keyword rank tracking tool runs a real live search each time it checks rankings (it does not pull rankings from a search engine's API).
Each rank is specific to the exact keyword, location, and language that the user has selected.
The rankings are obtained via proxies running the searches, which stops the personalization factors from getting in the way.
Our powerful SEO reporting tool gives you data-driven SEO ranking reports without the guesswork. Try it out for free for 14 days.
A benefit of our rank tracker is that for full transparency, we capture a snapshot of the entire SERP each time we check a keyword. This is saved at our end, allowing users to see the exact SERP the search engine delivered at the time of the rank check. We keep the most recent SERP snapshot for each keyword.
However, one of the biggest benefits of the AgencyAnalytics rank tracker is how it works in tandem with over 70 other marketing platforms to bring all of your client’s marketing data under one roof - and it’s the only tool on this list that has that capability.
While the other tools focus on organic search and do a fine job at it, AgencyAnalytics looks at organic search as a part of the overall marketing strategy you are running for your clients.
This means that you can review organic rankings and then–with a few mouse clicks– compare those trends with what is happening in Google Ads, Facebook Ads, email campaigns, and so much more.
Plus, the interface is perfect for creating client dashboards and reports that are intuitive and visually appealing.
The AgencyAnalytics Rank Tracker can be added to all AgencyAnalytics plans for $50/mo per 500 keywords. The Freelancer plan starts at $12/mo with 5 staff accounts, meanwhile the Agency and Enterprise plans offer unlimited staff accounts.
Why Agencies Often Use Multiple Rank Trackers
One of the biggest reasons why agencies use multiple rank trackers is to fill in the limitation gaps of individual ranking tools. From our overview of the paid rank tracker’s pros and cons, you can see what they do best, but also their gaps and limitations, so it makes sense that some agencies would use multiple ranking tools to make up for the individual drawbacks of the specific ranking tools.
Agencies also use multiple rank tracking tools to validate the data from different crawls and data centers. For example, by comparing Ahrefs tracking data to another tool such as SEOlium, you see the differences between tools and data centers that can cause fluctuations in ranking results. While crawling is fairly straightforward (it’s the process in which search engines send out web crawlers AKA search engine bots AKA spiders to find new and updated content), data centers are a bit more complicated.
What Are Data Centers?
In essence, data centers are critical to search engines like Google because they house the hardware that manages and maintains all of the info and data that allows them to provide their services.
Google alone has dozens of data centers located around the world, and your SERP often depends on the particular data center that processes your search query.
How Data Centers & Algorithm Updates Influence Rankings
Search engines are endlessly updating a phenomenal amount of data.
For a search to work, the search engine needs to keep a record of every single word it finds on every single web page it indexes (Google indexes hundreds of billions of pages). In the case of Google, this amounts to over 100,000,000 gigabytes of data.
The data also needs to stay up-to-date: There are hundreds of thousands of new web pages appearing (and disappearing) each week, and, since web pages can change anytime, search engines are also constantly rescanning the pages that are already indexed.
So the 100,000,000+ gigabytes of data is constantly growing and changing.
It's impossible to transfer such large amounts of data instantly, so the data centers are always exchanging data to keep that 100,000,000+ gigabytes of information as synchronized as possible.
That's why there is no way for the data to be 100% up-to-date across each data center. This point is extremely important when it comes to the SERPs you see because a SERP can be very different depending on the state of that particular index. There's no way to choose which data center processes a search, and there's no way to tell how much this affects a keyword ranking or website.
There's another issue with having so much data: It requires extremely complex algorithms to use it effectively. Google makes small updates to its many algorithms each day, and makes very large updates a few times per year. Google even runs experiments with live search results (in 2020 they ran 600,000 live experiments on the results they showed to searchers).
All of this means that the SERPs are constantly changing, and there's never one "true" index or rank.
Types of Rank Tracking Settings
Now that you have a better understanding of the complexity of native searches, it’s time to dig into the rank trackers to find out how to get the clearest view of your client’s current search rankings.
Most rank trackers allow you to set the parameters of what they track to ensure that it’s doing what you want it to do. But before you start tinkering with the settings, we suggest reviewing your SEO KPIs for a quick refresh on your most important SEO metrics.
Once that’s done, you’re ready to start tailoring the settings to your specific needs, and the most common settings for rank tracking tools are:
Search engines: While Google is the most dominant search engine, it’s not the only one out there. Some ranking tools only focus on Google, and others let you track data from multiple search engines such as Bing, Yahoo, Baidu, AOL, and DuckDuckGo. Bing might only receive 7.6% of search market share–but it’s a significant amount to just ignore if your clients are an enterprise.
Location: It’s super easy if you’re tracking keywords locally, but if you need to track globally or in different countries, towns, and cities, most rank tracking software lets you do at least some of those. Some rank trackers can monitor local SEO for multiple locations!
Competitors: This one is important because you want to see how your client’s websites are doing compared to the competition.
Troubleshooting Rank Tracking Issues
Will all of these personalizations, data centers, algorithms, and rank tracker settings, it’s not uncommon for an agency to see data that simply does not align with what they were expecting–or what they are seeing between various tools.
If you need to validate the ranking results, here are some common issues that can lead to data errors.
Check the date range of the report in question
Review tags and filters to make sure it’s not limiting the results
Confirm the campaign URL– adding a folder path (domain.com/blog) can alter the results
Review the location and language settings to make sure they match your client’s target audience (not your agency location)
Check keyword spelling
Watch future crawls, as these irregularities often correct themselves within a few days
Using a Dashboard To Combine All of Your SEO Data in One Place
Once you’ve got your rank trackers up and running, the data will start pouring in, and depending on how many keywords, locations, and competitors you’re tracking, it can be a lot. It’s up to agencies to make sense of the numbers for their clients, especially if they’re using multiple rank tracking tools.
And if agencies are struggling with how to visualize the data, it’s going to be even harder for your clients. But what can you do?
The best way to address these issues is with an SEO dashboard that unifies all of the data from your client’s website rankings, organic traffic, conversions, and more into one place. Not only that, SEO dashboards make it easy to visualize the data with powerful widgets to create beautiful graphs and charts to bring the data to life, making SEO reporting a breeze.
Simple reports, dashboards, templates, and automated reporting with all integrations are what many agencies dream about, and AgencyAnalytics has made that a reality with our intuitive white label analytics dashboards.
Putting It All Together
There are algorithms, data centers, personalization, location/language, Google experiments, and more all influencing how a SERP is displayed at any particular point in time.
From all of this, it's quite clear that rankings can fluctuate drastically from one search to the next. Even when there are no major updates to algorithms, SERPs can be volatile.
So how do marketing agencies overcome this?
By using rank trackers (sometimes more than one) and looking at longer-term trends, rather than getting worried about short-term changes. At the end of the day, rank tracking is about monitoring trends over weeks, months, and years. Ask yourself: do your clients want to see every single detail or a tracking method that shows upward trends over time?
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