Do certain keyword rankings in Google’s results match what everyone else sees or are they artificially personalised? Read on to see how to check Google’s rankings properly…
Why keyword rankings still matter
It’s easy to get obsessed with keyword rankings as they strongly influence the amount of free search engine traffic a website receives each day. Naturally search engine users tend to click on the results higher up more often than results down the page. Some studies have shown that on average the first result in Google can get more than TWICE the number of clicks than the second position, so every position makes a difference.
Luckily long-tail keywords are being used more often as time goes by as people get more savvy with search engines. Long tail keywords are basically longer worded search queries and are known to be higher converting as the search is more precise and further down the imaginary “sales funnel” analogy. Ten years ago, someone looking for a new bike online may have just typed in the generic keyword “bikes” but nowadays they are more likely to type a precise keyword such as “men’s carbon road bikes”.
Newer search features such as auto-complete, voice search and conversational searches also bring up additional long-tail keyword searches. This means that generic keyword rankings are becoming less and less important, but they still are a clear indicator of how a website is performing in general.
Which keyword rankings to monitor
A majority of website owners focus on the amount of traffic their website receives which isn’t the most important metric to focus on. We often say to our new clients “What would you rather have; more visitors or more sales/leads?” when traffic is the main focus. Getting more visitors is great but getting more of the right TYPE of visitors should be key.
The keywords therefore to focus on are the ones which bring in the right visitors, the one’s which match up to what you have on offer. You can use goal or event tracking to get a good idea of which current keywords are currently bringing in converting visitors. Also you can just think really carefully about which keywords could work best for you and check them on Google’s Keyword Planner for more ideas and to see monthly traffic levels (there is no point chasing a keyword which no-one searches for!).
Generic keywords are incorrectly focused on by many people. If you sold bikes for example, then optimising for the generic keyword “bikes” is not only going to be one huge uphill struggle against some big competition, but you’ll also find that traffic from generic keywords converts at a significantly lower rate than more precise long tail keywords.
Personalised keyword rankings
Many keyword rankings have a touch of personalisation, i.e. the results are adjusted to reflect your location, search & click history and social connections. If you are logged into a Google account (for example through Gmail) whilst searching then you will see a lot more personalised results than if you were signed out. Even whilst signed out, Google still does some personalisation by using your specific IP address, this is reflected within search results and even online advertising.
If you often search Google for a similar keyword and click on the same result again and again then that result will start unnaturally appearing at the top of the results. This can lead you to think that a website is number one for a keyword when it’s really number four to a fresh user for example.
Location is a huge personalisation factor, it’s very important for a lot of search results to show local businesses or local attractions to make them more useful. If you try searching Google for the generic keyword “plumber” for example you should see only your local plumbers appear in the results. Google decides whether search results should be localised or not and usually shows map results if they are. It makes sense that you would see local results for something local such as “indian restaurants” but national results for something online only such as “car insurance”. If your target keywords are localised keywords then you are only likely to show up for your main keywords within your local area or if the area is included in the keyword, for example “SEO Nottingham” for Hallam.
Keyword rankings are not set in stone, Google often “mixes” up the results a little for testing purposes. New web pages may get a day or two on the first page of results, then to fall back down to page two or three if they don’t perform well. If many websites are competing for the same keyword, Google may switch listings around now and then to measure the number of bounces from each result to see which one is best (the number of people who enter a website and then press the back button to try another result in Google). You could very well be seeing one of these tests when performing a search so even when removing all personalisation you could still be misled!
How to check your own website’s keyword rankings properly
So we have gone through why rankings still matter, which keywords to monitor and the perils of personalised results.
The official and most accurate way to check your own website’s rankings is through Google’s Webmaster Tools (or Bing’s Webmaster Tools for Bing’s search results). If you haven’t setup Google Webmaster Tools then it’s the first thing you should check for any SEO issues and how Google technically sees your website – see our guide here for WMT setup.
Go to the [Search Traffic -> Search Queries] report and you can see all the major keyword rankings from here. You can select a date range up to the previous three months of data and separate out ranking data on different devices or from different locations.
Looking at individual keyword rankings, such as the example above, shows which positions the keyword appeared in, how many impressions it got and how many clicks it got in each position.
How to check competitor’s keyword rankings properly
Unfortunately you cannot check the Webmaster Tools account of a domain you don’t have control over so you cannot see the rankings of a competitor 100% clearly.
You can however use private browsing to remove a lot of personalised results but you will still be using the same IP address, from the same location so it won’t be 100% accurate:
Another method is to use proxy services to use Google.co.uk from a different computer somewhere in the world. There are free proxies and paid proxy services but be extra careful as some of these proxy websites contain banner ads towards malware and scams.
Keyword rankings still matter, but search engine users are becoming more savvy and will use a large number of different specific keywords making generic keywords less and less important. It’s best to only focus on keywords that actually matter to your website, i.e. the ones which bring in the leads or sales, not just keywords with thousands of potential visitors per day.
When looking at Google or Bing’s search engine results there are a number of factors which can make the results personalised to your history or location, and also the results may hop around a little. Using Webmaster Tools is the best way to see your own rankings and private browsing or a free/paid proxy service is best to see competitor rankings.