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There’s been a fair bit of chatter recently about the value of tracking ranks after Google started its crusade against various marketing tools scraping it’s search results. They seem to be using the Ad-words API as a leverage, removing access to those who continue to scrape results.

It’s put a lot of providers in a tough spot, forcing them to choose between authorised Google data and scraped data. Now, before we go any further I’d like to make my personal stance clear:

I believe ranking positions are often overused when reporting for SEO campaigns. They don’t paint the whole picture and yet many SEOs use them solely for reporting. Organic traffic and ultimately new customers from search engines should be used as well.

I’ve seen a lot of “ranks are dead” and “Rankings don’t tell you anything other than you rank for a particular term” recently and I don’t fully buy into it.

Traffic (Even Organic Keyword Traffic) Isn’t 100% Reliable

tl;dr The main point is –  keyword traffic movement isn’t reliable enough on its own. Even if you carefully filter out all non-search engine traffic there are many reasons why your traffic can change without your ranks changing.

Sure, ranks are dynamic, personalised and localised but it’s hard to argue that a significant drop or rise in ranks isn’t linked to SEO efforts. If you’re serious about effectively tracking the progress of an SEO campaign, you should probably be tracking ranks as well.

Keyword Search Volume Fluctuates

If you’re traffic is up for a keyword, it doesn’t necessarily mean your SEO is actually working. It’s a good sign, but it’s not the whole picture.

Keyword search volumes fluctuate all the time and comparing yearly like for like isn’t enough. How many more people are just shopping online compared to last year? What if a brick and mortar retailer went bust over summer and Christmas demand is up online? Your traffic might be up but it’s not because of your SEO campaign.

All of these external, uncontrollable and intangible factors mean you can’t solely rely on keyword traffic data for reporting SEO improvements.

[not provided] Is Going to Grow

[not provided] are the two irritating words you see in your organic keyword report in analytics. They stem from the fact that Google stopped providing keyword data for users logged in to Google. Whilst you can of course still track the traffic increase/decrease for keywords that are visible, there is now a huge chunk of data missing and it’s probably only going to get worse. I’ve personally seen sites with 30%+  traffic coming through as “not provided”.

Google+ is growing as are other Google services, and as more and more people use these and stay logged in, more keyword data is going to vanish. This makes drawing scientific conclusions from organic traffic less reliable, especially for keywords where overall volumes aren’t that high anyway.

Click Through Rates Change

You might also see an increase/decrease in your click through rates, affecting keyword traffic stats. How many times have you skipped the first few results (and ads) after seeing a recognisable brand a little lower?  What if you (or a competitor) changes your title? Wouldn’t that surely result in more or less click throughs? Again the point is, other factors influence traffic from search engines. You cannot solely rely on traffic to prove or disprove an SEO campaign.

The Boss Still Wants It

Whilst a terrible reason for tracking ranks, it’s a harsh reality. People have been reporting and using rank tracking data as a metric for some time now and that’s what the management are use to. It’s also what a lot of clients request; “I want to be #1 for dog waistcoats” sound familiar?

You can (and should) of course spend time re-educating them, explaining that they should look at increase in business and traffic. However, outright refusing to provide ranks will likely just result in unhappy management or lost clients in the short term so play it carefully.

Summary/Disclaimer

Obviously as JetRank provides rank tracking data I’m hardly impartial, but I hope the few arguments for tracking ranks above are as fair as I could make them. I still use rank tracking data to measure the effectiveness of SEO efforts, combined with traffic data and conversions and I don’t plan on stopping. I know a lot of other SEOs still swear by their ranks and I personally can’t see many people stopping so I wanted to put forward a few reasons why you might still want to track ranks should you be considering stopping.

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About

James is the founder of JetRank. He blogs about SEO, inbound marketing and business.

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