I’ve spent the past several weeks testing out every rank tracking tool that I could find. It’s 2020, and there are a lot of them.
This article is the first in a series that I’m calling tactical buyers guides.
My goal is to give you the full story — ranging from how the technology works, to who it’s for, and most importantly, what you should use it for. The first section is largely philosophical and instructional. I’m going to make the case for why you should sign up for a rank tracker today, and then I’m going to tell you how to use it in ways that will make you better at SEO.
The second part is going to be offering thoughts on individual tools, in light of the prescribed strategies.
This is a living, breathing document and will be updated and enhanced over time.
Why you should use a rank tracker
Organic traffic is an inherently competitive, zero sum game. To get traffic from a particular niche, you have to carve it out and win those visits over other sites that are currently getting it.
If you’re looking at the same data and following the same strategic playbook as your competitors, it’s likely that the differentiating (i.e. winning) factor is either age (doing it longer), investment (doing more of it, or faster), or luck.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You can learn to generate your own insights, and write your own strategies.
Being a great SEO means being great at reading and interpreting data. More than that, to develop an edge, you’ve got to be adept at designing, collecting, and interpreting your own data.
Giving Data Context
Data is inert — it’s only valuable when it leads to execution. In most cases, we don’t need more data. What we need is a way to surface better, actionable insights from the data we already have.
That’s true for nearly anything with marketing, but to be specific to this use case: knowing where we rank for various keywords doesn’t really provide any meaningful benefit unless there’s a process by which you can influence the numbers.
You should sit down and figure out what you’re trying to learn, and then define the data points you’ll need to tell the story.
The benefits of doing this are twofold:
- With SEO, there are outsized rewards for discovering strategies and tactics that aren’t common knowledge.
- Not all sites are created equally, so getting specific information about how your site responds to efforts can better inform future investment.
For this, we’ll use a web based rank tracking platform. I’ve used open source and desktop programs in the past, but the truth is that maintaining your own proxies and infrastructure just isn’t a good fit for most people.
How I use rank trackers to get better results
I don’t think you should take every keyword you care about and throw them into a rank tracker.
Instead, put yourself into a campaign mindset. Here’s an example:
Go review your Google Search Console performance report and look at a few of your better performing pages. Grab a list of keywords that your page is NOT optimized for that you rank between positions 8-20.
Spend some time grouping the list into new buckets. The end result that we’re after is a list of new pages to build that are better targeted for these queries, that can supplant the other non-optimized page, and stick in the top 5.
The reason we want to load these into a rank tracker is because it saves us a tremendous amount of time. It would be painful to check GSC every few days to see when Google decides to swap the older page for the new, targeted page. It’d also be painful to keep checking back as we add internal links into the new page in order to push it up the results.
Another example of something I’ve done is tested adding in videos to pages ranking 6-10 for good queries. It’s really easy to compare these pages with the non-video pages in a rank tracker that allows us to create content groups.
In short, by using a good rank tracker, we can annotate and evaluate our performance within the context of our actions.
A word on methodology
This is not a rigorous, scientific process. I’m going to give you my general thoughts on the state of rank trackers, what they should be used for, and what features I think they should have (and why).
These reviews are not meant to be in-depth for each product. I signed up for each, loaded up some example urls and keywords and took it for a spin. I spent some time configuring and testing out each feature that was interesting to me. What you’ll see below are just my notes and observations as I used the product, followed by a quick takeaway on whether or not I think you should try it.
I have no financial interest in any of these products, but I do know a few people who work on them. I haven’t let that impact my opinion.
The state of the market
In general, there appear to be two types of tools — those with a real team behind them, and those without. The former is something that’s important. Rank tracking technology has to be maintained, and I’d have real concerns about the long-term, or even mid-term accuracy and reliability of the dozens of tools I found offering suspiciously cheap lifetime deals.
Most tools aren’t running their own scrapers to collect data from the search engines. Instead, they rely on a handful of APIs: DataForSEO is one, Vertifire is another. I was also recently told about Traject Data. Some services may not be using these data providers, but they’re probably still using residential proxy providers like Luminati or OxyLabs.
I mention this because one of the first things you think about is, “how accurate are rank trackers?”
The answer is mostly pretty accurate, and that’s probably because they’re using similar technology (or in several cases, the exact same data set) to deliver your data.
One of my pet peeves with SaaS products is that once the market matures and fills with competition the tools have a tendency to move away from the core utility. I’m critical of platforms that branch out and try to do 10 things to make comparison difficult, and high prices seem sane.
I don’t need a wifi toaster, and I certainly don’t need my rank tracking tool do backlink management, crawl reporting, content scoring, or anything else.
Here’s what I do need:
- Track my rankings (daily preferred, weekly acceptable, bonus points if I can choose which)
- Show me rankings over time
- Show me gained/lost
- Bonus points for allowing me to create keyword groups to organize my targets
- Bonus points for allowing me to create url patterns (to view site sections across keywords, i.e. /blog*)
- Track my competitors on a keyword basis
- Allow me to annotate major events to bring context to the graphs
- Google, Bing, Yahoo
- These are a bonus: Baidu, Yandex, DuckDuckGo, Youtube, Amazon
- Filter by:
- Country & Language (city, state could be essential for some)
- Report on serp features
- Knowledge panel
- Featured snippets
- Local map pack
- News, Twitter, video carousels, etc
- Email (with configurable cadence, bonus points for configurable format)
- On demand for various types
- Past 30 days (or any time period based reporting)
- Competitor Analysis (me vs my competitors)
What about Google Search Console?
I’ve been using GSC every single day for as long as I can remember (and webmaster tools before that).
One of my favorite tactics is finding queries that I rank for but have a low CTR. These have always been a great opportunity for optimization and nearly every time I improve the CTR with a new title + snippet, the page starts creeping up the serps.
GSC also has unrivaled indexing information directly from the horses mouth. There’s serious utility here, but there’s also actionable information that just isn’t available.
In particular, you don’t have any information about competitors, serp features, or (obviously) other search engines. Google’s important, but sometimes I also care about Youtube, or Amazon.
Signing up for these tools was largely uneventful. Rank tracking tools, as a market, have had plenty of time to mature. Each tool I selected had a free trial, live chat (mostly proactive), and required a quick email click in order to validate my account.
The first observation was that many of the tools attempt to provide a sensible default — meaning, they try to present you with a way to add keywords to your project very quickly.
This is more interesting than it sounds. None of the tools chose the same keywords, and the results were often longtail, or surprising for a variety of reasons.
I can only suspect that what’s happening here is that these are the keywords that other users are tracking. It would make sense from an engineering perspective to just grab all of the results you’re checking for a client and add them to a database. That way if you have two clients sign up who are tracking the same keywords you only have to pull it once.
This is also the reason that I suggest you don’t pay extra for competitor tracking. They’re pulling the results for you, it doesn’t require another query to see if your competitor was in them.
So what this means is that by looking at these suggested keywords you can kind of ferret out which competitors might be using the same tool, and which keywords are important to them. More specifically, you may be able to ascertain which keywords your competitors are targeting that you have overlap on.
One area for improvement that was shared by most of the tools was that once you enter your initial keyword list, you’re left wondering when they’ll update. In most cases, the answer is, “it’s happening right now,” but there is never any visual feedback or indication.
After a few minutes you’ll normally be able to refresh and see your initial results.
Having Bing, Yahoo, et al, isn’t the most actionable thing. Despite trying, I’ve rarely been able to do something to directly target DuckDuckGo, or Bing, that wasn’t already a best practice for Google. However, I still view these alternative engines as necessary (if available) because I think my reports (and awareness) are better for it.
Many tools show CPC, which is normally based on estimated Google Ads cost per click. I don’t think that’s all that useful during the rank tracking phase — but could be during keyword research.
Volume is a helpful addition, especially if you have fairly large keyword sets you’re tracking, but remember that volume is not nearly as important as commercial intent. I’ve had keywords with 720 queries per month produce 10x the sales of queries with 7,200 queries per month.
Traffic estimates are present on many, but are largely useless. I don’t really understand why these are provided, as they are attempting to estimate what your current traffic is based on click distribution for the current ranking position. Since you’re currently ranking there, you’ll know what the traffic amounts to.
Most tools have entry level subscriptions starting at $25-$40 per month for 200-300 keywords updated daily. I recommend monthly pricing, even with the substantial discounts available for yearly commitments. Rank tracking is not trivial and requires maintenance, so the better tools of today could become abandoned and become bad tools very quickly.
Note that most tools count each keyword + device + search engine as a unique combination, meaning that if you want to track [blue widgets] on bing, google, duckduckgo, that is 3 credits — 6 if you want both desktop and mobile.
Best Rank Trackers
Below are my four favorite rank trackers. Each one is outstanding, and I’d be happy using any of them on the day-to-day.
Click into any listing for a full review.
Below are the honorable mentions - they aren’t the best, but they’re still viable options for many people.
Click into any listing for a full review.
Below are the rank trackers that I’d avoid. There are so many good rank trackers out there that I really can’t find a reason to use one of these.
Click into any listing for a full review.