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The Way You Track Rank is Antiquated! Rank Tracking in 2019 & Beyond


Rank tracking is one of the most basic elements of SEO performance monitoring and reporting. Yet, as much as we've talked about how the world of SEO has evolved into what it is today, we still think of rank tracking as well... rank tracking. However, if SEO has moved past a linear look at "the keyword" then why do we still undertake a monolithic approach to rank tracking? 

That's why I'm going to show how the situation on the Google SERP has changed and why it means a new approach to rank tracking is needed!  


Antiquated Rank Tracking Banner





What's Changed on the Google SERP? 



You can't tell the story of the keywords and sites on the SERP without understanding what's changed. Now, I could simply tell you what's changed in a matter of fact manner and move on. That's not really my style. Instead, let's take a bit of a deeper look at two major ways the Google SERP has evolved and then we can talk about how these changes directly impact the way we should go about tracking rank. 


Rank is Extremely Volatile



Rank is far more volatile than it once was. "Of course it is," you might say, "haven't you seen all of these Google updates, they're massive." However... I am not making some sort of generic anecdotal statement! I'm not saying that rank is more volatile based on a "general sense of things." I'm not acting on a whim based on seeing some blockbuster Google updates. Rather, I'm going on a deep set of data which shows that between 2016 and 2018: 

  • The average "fluctuation" went from consisting of a two position "move" to a 3.5 position move. 
  • There has been a 70% increase in rank diversity 
  • Having the top 5 results for a keyword match (same URLs in the same position) from month to month decreased by 60%


Average Position Change

The average number of positions sites move when fluctuating has greatly increased over time


Rank is legitimately more unstable. Not only that, but that instability goes beyond your big time Google updates. Fluctuations on the SERP has become the norm! 

[For more data on rank volatility read our study: Just How Stable is Rank These Days?



SERP Features Dominate a SERP 



Before we get to what a normally volatile SERP means for rank tracking, indulge me by letting me expound upon a second "problem" facing search marketers in this, the modern era of SEO... SERP features. 

There are really two sides to the "SERP feature coin" that has increasingly dominated the search marketing conversation:

1) The number of SERP features on the results page 
2) The highly targeted use of SERP features when meeting multiple intents 

The two sides of this complex problem, of course, go hand in hand. Google often places multiple SERP features on the page so as to target multiple user intents simultaneously. Take the keyword french cuisine


French Cuisine SERP



In this instance, Google uses its SERP features to target users who want to learn more about this genre of food as well as those who may be looking to sample some local French delicacies. Google does so by initially offering a Featured Snippet that presents the basics of French cuisine's history. Interestingly, and to highlight how far Google's SERP features can go, the Explore Panel to the right of the organic results shows the exact same copy as the Featured Snippet. To target local intent, Google inserted a Local Pack followed by the Discover More Places feature (i.e, multiple SERP features that target multiple user intents). 

Now, for problem #2. Let's have a look at the keyword how to change wheel bearing




On this mobile SERP, we have a Featured Snippet that makes use of a bulleted list format. Notice, however, that a bubble filter carousel exists at the bottom of the zero position box. The first option targets users who wish to view video content in place of written instructions. More than that, the filter targets specific users who want to see how to change bearings on specific vehicles and vehicle types (i.e., on a trailer) - one SERP feature targeting multiple users!

Any way you slice this, Google is far more energetic in how it uses its SERP features which means more and more users will find their needs met by Google properties (and not via organic results). 

  

Ranking Above the Fold 



You're probably thinking, "I already know that SERP features have become a competitive force on the SERP." Great! However, what many of us don't realize is that this often means just one or two results appear above the fold. In fact, would you believe that at times no sites rank above the fold on the SERP! 

Actually, it's not that hard to do. Many sports queries, for example, don't show any organic results above the fold:  


No Above the Fold Organic Results


Even if your site ranks above the fold amidst the myriad of SERP features you have to think about how that actually looks. I mean that quite literally. How does your organic result fare visually on a SERP dominated by Google's various features? 


One Organic Result Above the Fold

Though an organic result appears on the SERP above the fold it is visually overtaken by numerous SERP features 



In the above example, just one organic result for disney.com appears above the fold. However, even though initially within a user's purview, the organic result here is visually overtaken by the multiple SERP features. More, due to the depth of the content offered, there is a high chance that the result is rendered all but irrelevant. 




The Problem with Tracking Rank for Your Keywords  



At the risk of stating what might be obvious at this point, let me lay out the problem with going about rank tracking much the way we have been for the last number of years. As you might have guessed each problem highlighted above aligns to a  unique difficulty in thinking about rank tracking in the traditional sense. I know, so surprising, right?! 


Rank Tracking Problem #1 - Knowing Where You Rank Is Not Enough Anymore 



If rank is highly volatile, and the results are constantly changing, then does it really help you to know where you rank on the SERP per se? Not only that, but if sites tend to fluctuate up and down the SERP not only more often but to greater extents, i.e., with more positions moved per "fluctuation," does knowing your rank provide actionable information? 

In other words, without being qualified from a volatility perspective, rank tracking, when done in isolation, runs the risk of being a vanity metric. Sure, you may rank #5 on the SERP at any given moment, but how consistent is your ranking for that keyword? Is there an increase in volatility (i.e., are you dropping down to say position 20 for the keyword often, or more often)? Does this keyword, which you may rely on for a significant portion of your site's traffic, present a risk? Is it becoming increasingly less reliable over time? 

The converse is true as well. Are you closer to top of the SERP rankings for keywords that might be serious potential traffic drivers? Sites fluctuate both down and up the SERP. There is potential within an increase in rank fluctuations. If your URL ranks 20th on the SERP but is increasingly being tested on page one can traditional rank tracking tell you that? Outside of recording your daily rankings for each and every one of your keywords would you know that Google is testing your site consistently for higher placement on the SERP? That's a rhetorical question by the way. 

Can traditional rank tracking answer any of these questions and provide you with actionable information? 

If rank is being dominated by fluctuations then keyword rank tracking needs to be able to adequately align to that narrative. Simply knowing where you rank on any given day without knowing the keyword/ranking trends is quite logically insufficient. 

Ranking trends from a volatility perspective is a prerequisite for understanding your ranking behavior and is the impetus towards increased site traffic (and thereby conversions - all things being equal).   


Rank Tracking Problem #2 - Not All Top Rankings are Equal 



As time goes on, rank position per se is becoming exponentially less important. Unqualified rank position metrics are in many ways meaningless. That may sound extreme, even hyperbolic, but it's the truth.  

How valuable is ranking #2 or even #1 on a SERP with a Featured Snippet and Related Questions box above your URL and a Knowledge Panel to the side of it? 


Avocado SERP


In the above, healthline.com ranks #1 for the keyword are avocados healthy. What a win, right? I mean a user is obviously likely to ignore the detailed Featured Snippet along with the Knowledge Panel that outlines the nutritional value of 146 grams of Avacado goodness! (I'm being sarcastic.) 

What is the true competition level on the SERP? Gone are the days where you can say that you've beat out the competition by raking above them! Competition on the SERP is no longer limited to organic competition by any stretch of the imagination. 

In this case, if you're simply looking at rank position, if you're simply taking an "old school" rank tracking approach, you've got yourself a nice win for a high volume keyword here! But we all know that's not the truth, is it?! 


Above the Fold - Because You Have to Be Seen to Be Heard



We can talk all day long about how competitive a given SERP really is and what the true traffic potential of that SERP subsequentially looks like. However, that conversation is pretty much irrelevant if you can't be seen on the SERP. In my mind, there's not an immense difference between being on page two of the SERP and being below the fold. As I showed you above, it is possible to rank #1 and still appear below the fold. 

From a classic rank tracking perspective, what's the problem here? You're #1 on the SERP! What else matters because what else do you know from this data? In this instance, even knowing what SERP features are on the page doesn't really help you since you don't know if they have or have not pushed your URL below the fold. 

Again, rank data in isolation fails to provide an accurate representation of your success on the SERP.


Rankings Must Be Qualified



It should be pretty evident at this point, but I'm going to say it anyway... rankings - pure rank data - must be qualified. Knowing where you rank and knowing the value of those rankings are two different things altogether. I'm not advocating that rank tracking is futile (let's be honest, I work for a company that tracks rank!). Rather, I'm proposing that whereas rank tracking used to be a "bottom funnel metric" that is no longer the case. Knowing where you rank on the Google SERP (or Bing, or DuckDuckGo, etc.) is the base data needed to engage in a deeper look at your site's SEO performance. Rank data is the building blocks with which an actual understanding of what your SERP performance looks like. 

The question is, how is such an understanding then formed? What are the next steps beyond tracking rank? How can you qualify your rankings? 





How to Track Rank in Today's World - Actionable Rank Tracking



If keyword rank tracking metrics in isolation, as a monolithic piece of data, won't cut it, what does? Well, it's a bit complicated, rather, more complicated than it used to be... way more. I would argue that you need to qualify your rank data in three ways... which coincidently align to the three essential problems I outlined above... what are the chances of that happening? 

Conceptually, what traditional rank tracking lacks is a degree of actionability. It's hard to take any action from a pure piece of ranking data. If the goal of knowing where you rank is simply to monitor where you are on the SERP, then this data is fine. However, without qualifying that data it's not possible to take action and to both improve upon your site's situation and ensure that you can maintain it. 

This is why "actionable" rank tracking just makes so much more sense. What is "actionable" rank tracking? Let me show you. (Along the way, I'm going to use Rank Ranger's various Rank Insights Reports to show you what this might look like.)


#1: Determine Your Ranking Trends & Keyword Volatility 



As mentioned, "rank" doesn't tell you much about your keywords. To me, it's all about how you're trending, not about how you're ranking. In other words, your goal is not vanity. Sure, it's nice to see you're "winning." However, what you really want is to see what needs fixing, what's working, and what needs attention. 

What's more important, to know a keyword is #7 on the SERP or to know over the past 30-days it has slid down the SERP from position #2? The first qualification of a keyword's "rank" is to determine if any trends exist and what the trends are. 

Take the image below as an example. From a pure ranking perspective, the site is within the "page one ballpark." However, the trends show what is an alarming devaluing of the page's ranking for the given keyword. Whereas the page used to rank among the top three on the SERP it now hovers closer to page two, if not on page two. 


Rank Loss Trend

The Rank Behavior and Fluctuation report shows a keyword's subtle, yet significant, ranking losses over time



From here it's easy to take that step into "action." In either instance, whether the trend is upwards or downwards, you can work with the data. Should a keyword's trend be towards the top of the SERP a page analysis and perhaps replication of the strategy behind the page would be in order. If you're seeing ranking losses, then obviously the course of action is to try to determine what might be the cause and to work to counteract its downwards slope. 


Have a look below. The upward trend may indicate that there is something about the page that Google, for lack of a better word, is "fond" of. An impressive climb up the SERP from out of nowhere is an excellent signal of what might be working with the search engine and presents you with an opportunity for further improvement and even better rankings. 


Rank Trend Improving

Moving into the top 50 results on the SERP, the page highlighted above has continued on an upwards ranking trend



Finding Keyword Opportunities & Preventing Serious Ranking Losses 



Still, we can go one step beyond identifying ranking trajectories by analyzing keyword volatility vs. keyword stability. This speaks directly to my earlier point regarding just how much more volatile rank is now relative to the past. Perhaps more important (in certain cases) than looking at a keyword's ranking trends is looking at its volatility trends. If you see a top ranking keyword plunging down to page two or page three with regular inconsistency (meaning, the keyword is regularly inconsistent), wouldn't that be cause for concern? Just like with Featured Snippet URLs, Google loves testing to see if different URLs work better for its purposes than other URLs. Regular steep drops could very well indicate that Google is preparing or at least thinking about hitting your URL hard and pushing it down the SERP. Such instances would be a good time to "shore up" your page. 


At Risk Keyword

Sudden and consistent ranking losses may indicate Google is preparing to demote your URL from page one of the SERP


The inverse works just the same. While you might be ignoring a keyword that currently places your URL #45 on the SERP, maybe you shouldn't be?! Again, if we were to simply relate to rank tracking the way we did in 2010 a page ranking #45 would not be your top priority. However, in a rank tracking model that focuses on volatility, that might just be your top priority as crazy as that sounds. Just like a keyword might have your URL dropping far off the page one SERP, volatility may have your lowly URL spring up to the #9 spot on the SERP! In other words, your keyword could either be the URL Google wants to replace or it could be the URL Google wants to use as a replacement! 



Keyword Opportunity

Ranking increases that place your URL on page one of the SERP present true ranking opportunities for your site 


Becoming intimately familiar with the volatility trends behind your rankings is the difference between sitting comfortably with a keyword that places you at the top of the SERP and knowing that this major source of your traffic is about to become extinct unless you act quickly. No pressure. 



#2: Determining the True Traffic Potential of a SERP 



Aside from conducting a "volatility audit" of your rankings, one of the most important things you can do is determine the genuine level of competition on the SERP. Understanding the competition context that your top ranking URLs reside within is the only way to accurately gauge the traffic impact of those rankings. As I said earlier, ranking #1 without a Featured Snippet on the page is not the same thing as ranking #1 with a Featured Snippet at the top of the SERP. 

For an actual illustration, we have to look no further than the popular movie site Fandango. Though ranking well for some seriously high volume keywords, the site faces stiff competition from SERP features that may give users what they need without the need to click. For example, for the keyword movie times the site competes with a Local Pack that harbors local movie theaters. Keep in mind, in this instance, a click on a theater within the Local Pack will lead the user to the Local Finder and the theater's business listing. There, a user can see movie times at the theater without ever heading over to the Fandango site. 

SERP Feature Ranking Competition

Despite top rankings, the site Fandango.com faces stiff competition from a plethora of SERP features 


With the SERP feature "environment" being what it is, I highly recommend taking the keywords that provide you with page one rankings and surveying the SERP feature field for those search terms. Doing so will do a few things for you: 

1) It will help you refine your SERP feature strategy. If you rank well for a vital keyword that sits amidst numerous SERP features, this may certainly be a keyword where you can try to capture a SERP feature win. If your site is competing with a video carousel, you may want to get your video within it. If there's a Featured Snippet within reach, you may want to reach out and grab it in such an instance. Knowing which of your ranking wins is being minimized by SERP features can help you discover and determine which SERP features you need to win big with. 

2) It will help you refine your SEO strategy. You may think you have the best keywords for optimal traffic targeted. Your strong rankings may seem to confirm this. However, by going beyond organic competition on the SERP and looking at Google's SERP features from a competitive angle you may decide to take your keyword strategy in new directions. For example, when seeing all of the competition from Google's SERP features... you may decide to target more long tail keywords and to compliment your current set of target search terms.  

3) It will help you know which keywords to focus on altogether. There are going to be times where you might just have to walk away, where it's more profitable to focus on other keywords that have more traffic potential. Don't waste your time trying to rank #1 for a keyword that is just not worth ranking #1 for. Knowing how stiff all of the competition on the SERP is may mean your efforts are better spent elsewhere. There's no shame in being smart and efficient. 



#3: Determining Your True Visibility 



Part of auditing your ranking keywords vis-a-vis SERP feature competition should be identifying how visible your URLs are. That is, do you rank above or below the fold? This, of course, is particularly pertinent to your top ranking pages. A page ranking #9 on the SERP is not showing above the fold. However, just as we "assume" a site in the 9th ranking position is below the fold we tend to think those ranking in the 3rd position and up all rank above the fold. I'm not trying to beat a dead horse here, but that is just not true anymore.

You might think you have a big win with the top spot on the SERP for a high volume keyword in your pocket. You might even be OK with the SERP feature showing on the page (because I assume you've followed my recommendations from step #2). But would you still be "OK" with things if you don't rank above the fold and all the user initially sees are ads and other features? I assume not. Ranking #1 above the fold and ranking #1 below the fold is not the same thing. 


Top Rankings Below the Fold

A site with eight pages ranking #1 on the SERP only appears above the fold in three instances (as hard as that is to believe)


I saved this for last because identifying when you do and don't rank above the fold can be the most important thing you do to combat antiquated rank tracking practices. Nothing screams success like ranking #1 or even #2 on a SERP, at least according to our a priori notions of what rank tracking data tells us. This "mirage" is the very reason why I strongly feel that knowing if you are above the fold for these keywords is so important. Obviously, this is not equally applicable to all sets of keywords. If you're tracking a ton of obscure long tail keywords and you rank #1 on the SERP you're above the fold (in all likelihood). That said, don't get too comfortable because what you thought was safe may not or may no longer be at some undisclosed future date. 




Stepping Out of Rank 




Jumping Snail Race


It's uncomfortable. I get it. Rank was simple. It was uncomplicated. The most involved it got was looking at your month-to-month or quarterly changes. However, that won't tell you if during the month your URLs are shooting up and down the SERP, not unless the timing is perfect. What I've proposed above is a lot more involved than what many of us have done to date where tracking rank is concerned. I understand there's a certain resistance to changing approaches...  but that doesn't mean we shouldn't. 

Despite all of the talking we do about how SEO has changed so drastically, I don't hear much of anyone discussing how that impacts the way we track rank. Does it make any sense to say search is a new beast and rank tracking practices don't need to evolve with it? Of course, not. 

With search marketing what it is, it's time to step out of our comfort zones and start to think about rank tracking a bit more creatively! Are you with me? 




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