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Modern Rank Tracking 101
What, how (and why) you need to track in 2017

By: Masha Maksimava
September 27th, 2016

Over the last couple of years, we've seen lots of discussion around the value of rank tracking in the modern era of SEO. Some say search results have become too personalized for SEOs to be able to accurately track rankings; others are convinced keywords no longer matter for SEO in the age of semantic search.

I have to admit, these ideas aren't coming from nowhere. It really has gotten harder to track rankings accurately (the concept of accuracy itself has become somewhat vague, with rankings being increasingly influenced by location), and Google is indeed getting better at deciphering the meaning behind queries instead of looking for exact keyword matches in pages' content.

That said, none of that undermines the value of rank tracking in any way — rather, it implies that our rank tracking goals and the way we track rankings have to change substantially. In this guide, I'll look at the most important modern uses for rank tracking, along with the problems we are facing with rank tracking these days — and how to solve them.

What do you need rank tracking for?

Gone are the days when everyone was tracking rankings with a single goal in mind — to see how well our SEO efforts translate into rankings and continue doing the things that work best to keep the progress growing. Although this use for rank tracking remains important today (and I'll dwell on it in a moment), there are also other goals that make rank tracking crucial for businesses in 2017.

1. See how your SEO efforts translate into rankings.

Although this idea is old as the world, it hasn't got any less important over time. You absolutely need to track the impact of changes you make (on- and off-site) on your rankings. That includes changes of all kinds, from switching to HTTPs and going mobile to tweaking your titles and descriptions. Seeing the correlation between your rankings and your SEO efforts will let you easily see which changes have a positive effect (so you can focus more on these areas) and which may have a negative impact (so that you can revert these changes early).

How-to: To make your ranking reports actionable, it's a good idea to record important changes on your site in your rank tracking tool so that you can easily attribute those to fluctuations in rankings. Doing this is very easy with SEO PowerSuite's Rank Tracker: the tool lets you add events right to your ranking progress graph.

1. Just in case you haven't done it yet, download Rank Tracker's free version and install it on your computer.
2. Run the tool and create a project for your site by entering its URL and your target keywords.
3. Once your project has been created, go to Preferences > Events. Click Add to create an event, specify the date when it occurred, and briefly describe the event in the Name field.

The event you've just created will appear on your progress graph as a dashed line, so you can easily see how it affects your rankings as you continue to track them.

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2. See which pages and keywords bring the most traffic.

This aspect of rank tracking is important for a number of reasons. First, understanding which type of queries are bringing targeted traffic to your site is an important step in further keyword research — it can help you find new keywords based on the number of terms that are performing best, and start targeting these keywords with your site's pages.

Second, it can help you prioritize your SEO efforts and focus them on the more valuable keywords and pages.

How-to: A good starting point is identifying your high-traffic keywords and starting to track those keywords so you can see how they perform in the long term.

1. Go to your Google Search Console account and navigate to Search Traffic > Search Analytics. Scroll down to the bottom of your keyword list, and click Download to export the list.

2. Next, open your Rank Tracker project, go to File > Import Keywords, and select the CSV file you just downloaded from Google Search Console.

3. You may want to add tags to these keywords by selecting them, right-clicking the selection, and hitting Add tags to selected records. This way, you'll be able to easily see how that particular batch is performing as you check your rankings (as opposed to all keywords in your project).

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3. Understand what's causing changes in traffic and sales.

If your site's sales or visits go up or down, you can't afford to not try and trace down the reasons. A ranking change is among the possible many; by routinely checking how you are performing in organic search, you may even be able to prevent losses in traffic and conversions if you spot ranking drops early.

How-to: Rank Tracker lets you sync your Google Analytics account to the app so you can see how organic visits to your site correlate with rankings.

1. Start Rank Tracker and open your project.
2. In your project, select all your keywords and click Update Visits.
3. At this point, you'll need to specify your Google Analytics credentials so that Rank Tracker can collect the data from your account. Hit Click to enter Account Settings and specify your Analytics login and password. Finally, click Allow to let Rank Tracker view your traffic data.

4. Select the Google Analytics property you'd like to get data for, and click OK. Your visits will start updating immediately after that.

5. Finally, have a look at the Organic Traffic graph in Rank Tracker's lower screen. Below, you can switch between Keyword visits (the traffic that the selected keyword has brought to your site through all search engines), Website visits (all organic visits to your site through all search engines), and Total website visits from… (organic traffic to your site through a selected search engine).

6. Make sure to compare these graphs to your Rank Progress graph to see how changes in positions correspond to your site's visits.

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4. Identify and improve little-effort pages.

Rank tracking is a great way to find low-effort ways to get more traffic. One approach is to look for pages that are already ranking for high-demand keywords, but those rankings aren't too high. Say, if a page ranks #10 for a term with a high search volume, imagine how much traffic you can get if it ranks in the top 3.

With a little effort, you can push those pages higher up the SERP.

How-to: Remember how you imported your Google Search Console keywords to Rank Tracker? It's time to see which of these you rank relatively well for.

1. In your Rank Tracker project, select your keywords and hit Check Rankings. Select the search engine you'll be checking ranks in, and hit Next.
2. When the ranking check is complete, click Update KEI to check each keyword's search volume and competition. (To collect that data, you'll need to connect your Google AdWords account to Rank Tracker, just like you did with Google Analytics before. Note that if you don't have any PPC budget in your account, Google will only show keywords' relative search volume broadly, e.g., "1K — 10K". )
3. Now, we'll need to create a custom workspace where you'll see those low-hanging fruit — the pages that need a little extra effort to be ranked higher for popular keywords. To do that, click the + button next to the tabs in your Rank Tracker workspace.

4. Give your custom workspace a name and create the first filter by clicking the + button. Then, select Google Rank (or your rank in any other target search engine), less than, and the lowest rank you want the workspace to show. For instance, you can type in 21 if you want to see keywords for which you're ranking on the first two search results pages.

Now, click the + button once more to add another filter to specify the maximum ranking you want the workspace to show. Say, if you want to see keywords for which you rank in positions 6 to 20 in Google, you'll need to create the following condition:

Finally, add the last filter to only include keywords whose search volume is above a certain threshold. You should end up with something like this:

Now you can select the columns to be included in your workspace from the list of available columns on the left. Make sure to add the Google Rank column and the Ranking Page column. When you're done, click OK.

Here you are — in your custom workspace, you'll now see the pages that need a little extra effort to be taken up in the SERP.

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5. Stay aware of competitors' rankings.

Rank tracking is a great way to monitor where you stand in comparison to competitors. If competitors are gaining rankings, you'll need to reverse-engineer their strategies and find out what makes them rank higher. It's also important to look out for new competitors that enter the SERP.

How-to: In Rank Tracker, you can automatically identify the top competitors for your target keywords and track their positions along with yours.

1. In your Rank Tracker project, go to Preferences > Competitors and click Suggest.

2. Now, enter the target keywords to find competitors for. By default, Rank Tracker will use the keywords you already have in your workspace.
3. Finally, select the search engine to look for competitors in, and hang on a sec while Rank Tracker is digging through the SERPs.
4. Rank Tracker will now give you a list of 30 sites the highest across all keywords you'v entered. Select the ones you'd like to add to your project, and click Finish. This way, your competitors will be added to your project, and their ranks will be tracked along with yours. You can show or hide competitors from your workspace anytime by clicking on Show Competitors.

5. Another useful feature that'll help you monitor competition (and especially stay alert of new competitors that enter the SERPs) is SERP History. To start using it, go to SERP Analysis in Rank Tracker's lower screen, and switch to SERP History. Click on Record SERP Data, and for every subsequent check you run, all the top 30 search results will be saved here.

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6. Spot algorithm changes early.

Another reason rank tracking remains important is because it lets you spot search engine algorithm updates and SERP shakeups across various queries. Often, this means that you can react to the change instantly and adapt your SEO strategy to a given algorithm change so that you a) don't go down in the search results, and even b) climb higher in the SERP. It is especially useful to monitor smaller changes that only affect our industry or niche, apart from the more generic updates like Panda or Penguin.

How-to: In Rank Tracker, along with your own and competitors' rankings, you can also track changes in the SERP in your industry and across your target keywords.

1. To start tracking SERP fluctuations, go to SERP Analysis in Rank Tracker's lower screen, and switch to Fluctuation Graph. To start recording SERP fluctuations, click on Record SERP Data if you haven't done it yet.
2. From now on, every time you check your rankings, the SERP fluctuation value will be recorded and displayed on the graph so you can see how much the SERP has changed since the last check. Broadly, an average daily fluctuation across all industries is around 6.3%.

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The problems of modern rank tracking

1. Personalization

Personalization is a relatively old concept in SEO. Simply put, it is the tweaking of search results by search engines based on what they know about the searcher, e.g., their previous searches and browsing history. But on average, personalization doesn't change ranking that much.

For rank tracking, it's best to discard this kind of personalization to get unbiased, realistic results.

The solution: De-personalized tracking

Rank Tracker will check your rankings in a de-personalized way by default, so there's no need to set up any extra prefs to enable this.

If you're looking to check positions in your browser, all you need to do is make sure you're using your browser's Incognito/InPrivate mode so that your history does not affect the results you get.

2. Location

For Google, localization is a huge influence on search results, especially the local pack. It can have such a big impact that searchers in different parts of one town may well be seeing different results.

While that doesn't make rank tracking any less useful, it does mean that you need to track ranks for each of the locations you target separately.

The solution: Geo-specific tracking

In Rank Tracker, you can create as many custom locations as you want to track rankings for.

To do that, go to Preferences > Preferred Search Engines and click the Add Custom link next to your Google (if you're outside the US, make sure to select your country's version of Google: e.g., for the UK and for Germany).

After that, you will see an Advanced Settings window. All you need to do here is enter the name of the city, district, or the exact street address, and click Apply. You'll then see the map below adjusted to show the location you've specified.

After creating your custom local search engine, switch back to your Rank Tracker workspace and right-click on the name of any column to enter the workspace editing mode. Add the newly created search engine to your active columns, and go on and check your rankings.

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3. Different rankings across devices

Mobile SERPs are increasingly different from desktop SERPs, especially with Google. The Mobile algo update has removed pages not optimized for smartphones from the search results completely (or at least down-ranked them significantly), while pushing mobile-friendly pages higher up in the SERPs.

The solution: Tracking mobile and desktop ranks separately

The mobile versions of search engines (and Google especially) have in fact turned into separate search engines that look at different factors to rank pages. That's why you need to be tracking your mobile rankings and your desktop rankings separately.

With Rank Tracker, you can easily set this up by adding Google, Bing, or Yahoo mobile to your target search engines under Preferences > Preferred Search Engines.

After that, just like you did for your custom rank tracking locations, right-click the name of any column back in your Rank Tracker workspace. Add the Mobile search engines to your active columns, and they'll appear in your main view.

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Those were my top tips for rank tracking in 2017. Do you have your own uses for rank tracking in modern SEO? Any problems you are facing that you aren't sure how to solve?

As always, I'm looking forward to your thoughts and questions in the comments.

By: Masha Maksimava