One of the challenges of any SEO’s job is to accurately report the results of his or her work. If you can measure it, you can improve it, right? Traffic, site usage, and online conversion metrics are easy. My 15 year old cousin with Google Analytics can handle that before breakfast and still have time left over to sign in to Facebook and play his bingo on Scrabulous (I still win…usually).
What about organic search rankings? Those are a little harder to nail down. But as SEO’s, isn’t that what we you contracted to improve? How can you show off your SEO prowess without a basic rankings report? Consider the increasing number of variables that are factored into search engine results pages (SERPs) and the frequency of algorithm updates and you might begin to understand why my results might look different than yours for the same keyword on the same engine. Just off the top of my head, my results could be different than yours due to one or more of these reasons:
- Geographic differences in our IP addresses
- Whether or not one of us is logged in to a search engine account
- Different search histories
- Search preferences such as # of results per page, profanity filters, etc
- We hit different data centers (server farms) that are in different stages up nearly constant updates
- Random SERP and algorithm testing conducted by the engines
As if that wasn’t enough, reporting a ranking for one keyword on one engine at one particular point in time is misleading because it represents just one data point without much context. Who knows if that particular ranking is better or worse than an average ranking? What we really like to see are trends and rolling averages. It’s the only clear way to assess an SEO campaign’s impact on rankings over time.
Automated Rank Checker Basics
So, how does a smart SEO repeatedly track rankings for multiple keywords across many different search engines without manually searching, counting, and storing the data in a spreadsheet? I prefer to use automated tracking software. There are several different products on the market, but they all basically do the same thing: simulate a search and parse the source code of the resulting SERP to look for your site’s rank. This is usually called “scraping” or “data mining” and is typically frowned upon or blocked by the search engines because it consumes server capacity in much greater quantities than a human would. Consider that a human usually spends several seconds scanning a single SERP and analyzing the results. A scraper can search several pages per second, which significantly adds to the search engine’s server load. Enough scrapers running at the same time could slow the server to a crawl and degrade human users’ experience.
A smart SEO should be responsible and set their scraper to crawl at more reasonable rates (1 request every 3-10 seconds) and from different IP addresses if possible. Proxy servers work well for this if you have access to them. This will lessen the load on the search engine and reduce the risk of your IP address being flagged and potentially banned from the engine for a while.
Interpreting the Results
Once you have selected a rank checker, run the same keywords on the same engines at least once a month. Plot your keyword rankings (y-axis) against time (x-axis) on a graph if your program doesn’t do this for you. Do you see rankings generally improving over time? Congratulations. Your SEO efforts might be doing the trick.
If your rankings are flatlined or headed downhill, re-evaluate your strategies and tactics. Are your keywords too competitive? Are you focusing too much on on-site or external factors? Are your tactics in line with the engines’ guidelines? Most of all, give it time. Depending on how frequently your site is crawled, updates or new links can take weeks or months to impact your rankings.
Lastly, check your site analytics and referral logs to see if there is a corresponding fluctuation in traffic from your targeted keywords. It may be helpful to overlay your SEO tactics on the x-axis to look for patterns. Remember, correlation doesn’t necessarily indicate causality, but if you see repeated instances of rankings changing after you make changes to the site, it might be a good indicator that you are doing something right. There might also be some lag time as previously mentioned.
Getting the Client on Board
Educating a client to understand that rankings can (and frequently do) change overnight is just one of the things that makes SEO such a hard sell sometimes. Just like other metrics, it is wise to review rankings data as a trendline rather than fixed data points. Compare the data to last week, last month, or last year to look for improvements. Overlay your SEO campaign history on the graph to isolate the impact of your tactics.
Most of all, learn from your past successes and failures. Learning what DOESN’T work is just as important as learning what DOES work.