We have a problem with reporting on keyword rankings.
On the one hand, SEOs have grown accustomed to monitoring their rankings, and using those metrics to determine success. On the other, SERPs have changed so much, that reporting on just the keyword rank doesn't reveal the full impact of SEO on the company's bottom line.
So, how do you create an SEO rank report, then? What do you include to make the data valuable and actionable for the key stakeholders?
That's what I'm about to tell you. But let me ask you something first:
Do you remember the ten blue links? The "old" SERPs made monitoring keyword rankings so easy. Few other things competed for the user’s attention in the search results, after all. As a result, achieving top positions almost always brought great traffic.
Today, Google SERPs are no longer a static list of results. New elements like the video carousel, featured snippets or PLAs have changed the value of rankings.
Top positions no longer guarantee to attract user attention, a solid click-through rate or even, the traffic. In some markets, the first position web result appears below the fold!
How, then, can you evaluate your organization’s rankings or assess the value of the SERP positions you have?
Well, let's start at the beginning.
The Flaw with Traditional Rank Tracking Today
Consider how you currently track rankings. You set up a rank tracker to do one thing - assess where your domain is on the SERP for a given keyword.
Side note: Of course, an advanced rank checker would deliver more insights than just the rank. It tells you what other search listing types it found on the page, and additional information about those insights as well.
Rank Intelligence is a great example of the latter. It allows an SEO team to dive deeper into the search features triggered by their keywords. In doing so, SEOs can evaluate their rankings and the search visibility potential better.
(Universal Rank Types report in seoClarity.)
You do so to identify the exact position your content appears for a given keyword. Unfortunately, assessing that today is proving more and more difficult.
For one, search results differ between users. Google personalizes them to a person's location, search history and other factors, after all. Then, there's the whole issue of mobile vs. desktop rankings.
SERP dynamics are different too.
The search engine expands their search results constantly, after all. To see it, consider the two examples below. One represents above the fold search results from 2017. The other shows the same SERP page in January 2019.
2017 view of the Google SERP on the term "shoes".
Today's 2019 view of the Google SERP on the term "shoes".
A stark difference, isn’t it?
Two years ago, top of the page included organic listings only. A brand achieving high rankings there would, most likely, enjoy significant traffic from the keyword.
Today, there are no organic results there at all. As a matter of fact, the first blue link starts far down the page, below the top fold of results.
In short, with all the various SERP elements – video carousel, ads, featured snippets and so on - ranking on position one doesn’t guarantee achieving strong search visibility.
As a Result, The Value of Rankings Has Changed
Since search rankings change between two users, their computers, and locations, it's almost impossible to confirm with any certainty what is the one true keyword ranking of a page.
What's more, a page can rank for tens or hundreds of phrases now, many of which you haven't even thought of when optimizing it.
All in all, in the past, we could associate ranking at the top of SERPs with almost guaranteed increase in organic traffic. Today, however, we can never be that certain about it.
Unfortunately, there’s even more bad news for SERP chasers.
This New Dynamic in SERPs Affects More Than Rankings
Such reduced visibility results in lower engagement. As a result, fewer users are noticing your listing.
The above, in turn, could translate in a smaller click-through rate, traffic, and results.
Let me prove it to you.
In the early years of eye tracking for SERPs, studies observed what was called a "golden triangle" or F pattern, where searchers would glance first at the top organic results, then over to the ads in the right sidebar, and then to a lesser extent, back down to a few more organic results.
Then in 2014 a white paper from Mediative called “The Evolution of Google’s Search Results Pages & Effects on User Behavior” outlined a new search pattern among searchers.
The study showed that by 2014 users were following a more vertical pattern. This is largely due to Google introducing other search listing types in various sections of the page such as moving the top three or four ads to the top of the main column. Plus, mobile devices that have changed the way we interact with the search results.
(Screenshot from Mediative’s white paper showing the new search pattern.)
More recently, a November 2019 study by the Nielsen Norman Group that reveals with the growth of search features the searchers have shifted to what they call a "pinball pattern" where they're attention bounces all over the SERP. We might dub it the "ooh shiny!" tendency.
All these changes result in Google’s users no longer choosing the top-most result by default. Instead, they scan the page, looking for listings that promise the exact information they seek.
Does It Make Sense to Track Keyword Rankings At All, Then?
Absolutely, although, you need to be more conscious of all the factors I referenced above when doing it.
Rankings play a significant role in SEO still.
- They still indicate SEO success, although, without the precision they once had.
- Rankings will indicate potential problems with SEO too. Sudden shifts in keyword positions might suggest algorithmic or other change affecting your site's visibility.
That said, I recommend a new approach to SEO rank reporting.
How to Overcome New Search Visibility Challenges
What can you do to eliminate the negative effect of lower rankings?
I recommend the following three strategies (plus a new, revolutionary way to evaluate your visibility).
1. Aim for a good rank, rather than a top one.
Historically, an SEO’s goal was to reach the top of the SERPs. Enjoying the first position guaranteed the highest click-through rate, visibility, and user engagement, after all.
But, as we’ve already discussed, that’s no longer the case.
Today, top ranking doesn’t automatically translate into traffic. Fortunately, the new way users interact with the search results also suggests that the opposite is true:
A lower ranking position might generate engagement too. The only requirement for it to happen is that users notice your listing.
So, instead of putting all effort into reaching the top spot, focus on optimizing your listing for engagement.
In short, ensure that it stands out from other domains you compete with on the page.
Using Content Fusion, analyze the top-ranking sites’ metadata. Look for patterns or any key terms they all use and evaluate their listing structure. Similarly, check which of the most converting words your competitors use (and which ones they don’t) to spot opportunities to attract your audience’s attention.
For example, when optimizing a page for “best pizza in Chicago,” I can use Content Fusion to see what meta-titles and descriptions the other domains have. Based on that, I can write metadata that stands out but also, includes the most critical on-page elements.
(Meta Data report in Content Fusion.)
2. Compete for the other SERP features, too.
You cannot stop other SERP elements from pushing your listings down the page.
But you can recover some of that lost visibility by positioning your domain in those search listing types as well.
For example, identify which of your keywords trigger the Answer Box. And then, target it by writing content optimized to appear there.
(The Answer Box report in seoClarity.)
Similarly, if your brand produces videos regularly, optimize them to rank in the search results as well.
3. Increase your page’s relevance to rank it for more keywords.
Finally, update the content to ensure Google understands what the page is about better and ranks it for more relevant phrases.
Use Content Fusion to research what additional information to include on the page. The tool will evaluate the top-ranking content and deliver insights on:
- Keywords and semantic phrases to add:
- Other topics users search for about your main keyword:
- Additional content ideas based on pages ranking for the term:
With even simple content tweaks, you’ll create a page that’s more relevant to what your audience is looking for, position it as a more authoritative resource and increase the number of search phrases it will rank for.
There is one more thing we must address regarding your rankings.
Accounting for Those Changes in Search Visibility in a Rankings Report
We’ve already established a flaw with the traditional rank reporting. You know that rank position does not always correspond with your actual search visibility.
But, what can you do to report on it? Is there another approach to reveal the true value of your rankings?
As a matter of fact, there is another approach here.
Doing so, however, requires using a different way to evaluate the SERPs. Instead of counting ranking position, you must turn to measure the pixel height of every element on the SERP to evaluate how far down is your listing. We could call this Share of Visibility.
By approaching rankings this way, you establish whether your listing is visible when the page loads or if a user has to scroll to reach it. Plus, it tells you how many scrolls it takes.
Analyzing the pixel height delivers another critical insight. It tells you how much real estate you have on the page for your keyword. Because, depending on the type of a listing, your domain may appear as a small listing or a box-sized result.
This would be nice to have in a ranking tool, right? We have a surprise for you: Share of Visibility is coming to seoClarity soon! Click here to sign up for early access.
Google SERPs are no longer a static list of results we’ve known for so long. All the new elements – the video carousel, featured snippets or PLAs – have changed the value of rankings. As a result, top positions no longer guarantee the user attention, a solid click-through rate or traffic.
Rather than be discouraged by these changes, it's time to reevaluate your rankings and think about the SERP differently. You must evaluate the SERP real estate that your domain actually covers. By doing this, you increase the value of the rankings you already hold.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in January 2019 and has been updated to reflect the most up-to-date information in the SEO industry.