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Keyword Rank Tracking: Why It’s Nearly Useless in 2017

Once upon a time, everyone saw the same results for the same search. That is obviously no longer the case, the simple days of search engines are behind us. Today, Google’s extremely sophisticated algorithm is able to personalize your search results based on your location, how you interact on the web, and many other ways that might even make you question your privacy online. Search Engine Land wrote a great article that sums it up very nicely, so we won’t rehash it here.

In this post we wanted to completely rethink about how we look at keyword rankings and how they are affected by personalization. “Rankings” is quite the buzzword in our industry and is one of the most popular metrics used to judge performance. There are countless rank tracking tools out there, the most popular being SEMrush, BrightEdge, and Moz. It’s safe to say that most search marketers have at least one of these tools bookmarked and are using them on a daily basis. A quick look at national rankings (the default setting) for these tools, is how most SEO efforts are measured. But do these rankings we are seeing translate into actual traffic?

A recent client project really got me thinking about this question. I was performing a general audit of the site, trying to get a gage of current keyword rankings and actual organic traffic when I noticed a disconnect between the two. The organic CTR curve estimates that the 1st organic position will get about 30% of the clicks, 2nd – 10%, 3rd – 5%, and so on. Granted, that’s just an estimate, but when comparing the SEMrush keyword rankings with the limited, but more reliable keyword data you can gather from Google Analytics, this is not at all what I was seeing. On SEMrush, for a keyword said to be in the 1st position, with 1,300 searches a month, analytics was saying that the term was actually averaging in the 4th position getting only 4% of the clicks. I saw this same scenario play out across a majority of the keywords we were tracking. What’s is the cause for all this?


In my opinion, national rankings are almost useless in 2017. It might serve as a starting point for your research, but definitely shouldn’t be something given much value. Most of these tools do have options to track on a local basis, which should paint a better picture of actual performance, but you can’t watch every keyword in every city. Even locally, there will always be discrepancies, as it’s impossible to accurately track rankings when SERP’s are customized for everyone, even in the same locations. A better metric to look at would be average position, like the one you can fine in the search anlytics report in Search Console. Even then, Google won’t give out a complete view of search and query data, so there still might be some holes in your data. 

SEO is getting ever more difficult as search engines become more complex and privacy becomes more of a hot topic. We are forced to accept the data these tools give us because there isn’t currently a better alternative out there with a more accurate depiction of rankings. If anything, I hope this article makes you rethink rankings as a metric and has you questioning those #1 spots you thought you had. Sure, it might be in the 1st spot for some, but off the first page for others.