- Rank tracking, although considered to be an “industry standard” for SEO reporting, is highly flawed, and you shouldn’t rely upon these reports for making decisions or quantifying results for your presence on Google Search and Maps.
- Often the results on a ranking report aren’t a reflection of reality and can mislead you into believing your business is performing better (or worse) in the real world.
- Use first-party data instead of third-party data if you want a more transparent and trustworthy outlook on your business’s performance on Google Search and Maps.
What’s wrong with rank tracking?
Map Labs was founded out of frustration with reporting local SEO results to my customers. Before starting Map Labs, I used tools like Bright Local and SEMRush (then later Local Viking, Local Falcon/DBA platform and others), but they all did practically the same thing when it came to reporting: track rankings.
Unfortunately, despite my best efforts to quantify and justify my work with these reports, none of my clients ever truly understood the impact that my service was having on their business. Frankly, even I had a hard time explaining them to myself! I never actually knew if any rank tracking report I sent to my clients correlated to any real-world outcomes for them. Deep down, I knew my work was helping their business but I could never directly correlate my impact to a real-world outcome.
Ranking reports simply fell short in so many ways of helping my clients understand the value they were getting from my services. As a result, I experienced a lot of churn because clients would never fully understand the results I was presenting to them.
Then, in 2014, Google announced Google My Business. I still remember the first time I saw the dashboard and its insights. Hallelujah! I immediately knew this was a better way to explain to clients how their business performed on search. If I simplified how I communicated results to my clients, I could easily justify their investment in my services.
So, instead of focusing on rankings, backlinks, citations, alt tags, metadata, and on-page SEO – all complicated things that the average business does not truly understand – I focused on the indicators and features Google My Business offered natively. In other words, the things my customers could understand, quantify and feel the impact of on their business:
- Direction Requests
- Phone Calls
- Website Visits
Despite my perspective that this was a superior method of tracking results and inputs for businesses, most SEO and marketing agencies in 2023 still bundle Google Business Profile (GBP) with the rest of their SEO and local directory packages while reporting through “ranking tools and reports.”
That’s because just about every platform in our industry has a rank tracking or geo-grid tracking feature. In fact, I can’t find any Local SEO tool without one, except for Map Labs. So it’s understandable that people ask for this “industry standard” feature.
But despite the overwhelming number of requests we get for it, I refuse to build this feature!!
If you are actually trying to generate more traffic to your Google Business Profile and generate more revenue for your business, where you rank is only one small part of the puzzle. Neil Patel says pretty much the same thing in his article “Why You Shouldn’t Try to Rank #1 on Google”.
Don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try or want to be the first result on a Google result page. Of course, you should work towards that.
However, “rankings” do not reflect your actual, real-world performance on search engines. What matters most is whether or not more people (not bots) are seeing your brand and visiting your business online or offline.
The problem is rank tracking cannot report on real people seeing your business. You also can’t close this gap with Google Analytics, Search Console, and Looker Studio. GBP insights contain information that is only found on GBP.
With that said, here are five reasons why you shouldn’t trust rank tracking tools and reports and should consider ditching them altogether.
1. Ranking tools are bots
In a best-case scenario, ranking reports are a simulation, but they are far from reality.
For example, here is a comparison between Bright Local’s ranking report and a keyword report in Map Labs for the keyword “hotels”.
As you can see, Map Labs shows we have 24,153 unique impressions in Q1-2023 on the “hotels” keyword, whereas Bright Local shows we were off Page 1 nearly everywhere.
To generate one impression on Google search results via Google Business Profile, we have to be on page one for these insights to appear in our dashboard. So these are really “first page” keywords and impressions for this one business location.
We know people are looking for this business in areas that are outside of the immediate, local market; therefore, the geo-grid ranking report is not helpful and misleading. Clearly, we are being found for the keyword “hotels.” If we sent this Ranking report to the business, they would probably freak out or cancel.
So, how is it possible to rank 21+ everywhere on Bright Local (except at the business location) yet receive 24,153 unique impressions in the first quarter of this year? Plus, this was the business’s best keyword by impression volume!
It’s because Rank Tracking is flawed! It doesn’t match reality. It’s just a very narrow simulation of one search from one location from one device (IP address). See Reason #2 below.
Even Google disapproves of most rank tracking tools because Google isn’t a big fan of bots. Although some tools use Google’s APIs to gather data, many rely on bots to mimic searches and locate where a business appears on the search result page. They do this by searching for and collecting information about the business name or URL from a live search result.
Even top Local SEOs, like Joy Hawkins, have reported ranking tools polluting their search console impression data (not cool!).
Once again, ranking tools are bots, not people.
They do not capture the entirety of what actually happens in the real world. They are merely a simulation and should not be relied upon for any meaningful analysis of a business’s performance or outcomes on Google search.
2. Rankings are dynamic, not static
Rankings can fluctuate based on the time of day, a user’s location, the device they’re using, personal search history, etc.
For example, if you’re travelling in a car and searching on your phone (hopefully NOT driving), you are searching from multiple locations throughout your journey, not one!
Ranking grids do not account for that motion. Nor do they account for personalization.
Since ranking tools are bots searching generically on Google with no real history, the results may be different from what you see as a real person with a real search history and actual behavioral signals tied to your profile.
A user who has physically visited Mexican restaurants in their city will see different results for the keyword “mexican restaurants” over someone who has never been there before or who is searching for that keyword for the first time.
Google also tries to match similar businesses based on past visits with “Similar to” in your search result. On most search results for restaurants, it will show a % match indicator that is based on your history. Bots won’t have that history and, therefore, will see a different result than real people.
Another example of the dynamic nature of search is from a tire chain that uses Map Labs. They have diminished visibility and activity on Sundays when they are closed, but competitors are open. If we tracked rankings during a time of day or day of the week that they are not open, the reports would not accurately reflect when they are open. Again, Rankings are dynamic, not static.
Every Sunday, they lose 50% of their impressions, 25% of their views and 95% of their actions. Every. Single. Sunday.
If we accidentally tracked rankings on Sundays or during times of the day they are closed, but competitors are open, it would alter the results dramatically. We’d be way off Page 1 because simply being open is actually a ranking factor. No one talks about this!
Every Sunday, Google shows competitors above our business and then on Monday, we’re right back at the top.
Most businesses expect to be #1 all the time, regardless of this reality. You can’t be #1 if there is a business more relevant than yours at that time of day, that day of the week, and that location for that individual user.
So even with just that one nuance of when you are open compared to the competition, it shows that it is literally impossible to track where you rank “all the time.” You’d have to spend a lot of money and time to do this more accurately, and it would still be a complete waste of money and time because you’d probably be tracking the wrong thing anyway because…
3. Everyone searches for the same thing differently
Google says 15% of all searches are unique and have never been searched before.
Although some keyword queries certainly are more popular and frequent than others, the reality is that for each keyword query, there are usually hundreds or thousands of close variants of that keyword query.
For example, have a look at the real-world results for this restaurant in Philadelphia:
Out of the 8,766 keywords, 3,080 contained the term “restaurant”:
Even keywords with low impression volume can have extremely high intent comparable to the top-level keyword “restaurant”:
Only tracking “restaurant” wouldn’t be representative of all the other similar keywords and close variants that the business is actually found for.
This is a problem because in order to generate one impression on Google search results via GBP, we would have to be on page one for these insights to appear in our dashboard. So these are really 8,766 “first page” keywords and impressions for this one business location.
To track the average position for each of these searches, which would then represent an actual average of our positioning on Google, we would need the latitude and longitude of every single location of each impression that was registered on our business profile. That means that we need 639,103 unique latitude and longitude data points in order for us to approximate where our business ranks for that search term.
As you already know, privacy is a pretty big deal these days, and I don’t think Google is about to turn over to marketers the latitude and longitude of every user who found a business’s profile on their search results.
Location of the user aside, the point here is that too many organizations are tracking the wrong keywords and missing the big picture.
4. You choose the keywords that you are tracking
This is a HUGE problem because you are not your customer. You are actually tracking your own expectations of yourself. More often than not, it’s more about ego than anything regarding ranking reports.
As shown above, if you were tracking only a small handful of keywords, you would have missed out on the reality that you actually are being found for thousands of them instead.
There is no possible way that you could track all of the potential keywords a user might type into Google to find your business. Most Rank tracking tools only allow you to track up to 50 keywords at once. So for this business, we would need to have 175 reports in order for us to track all of the keywords that this business actually appears for.
And even if we were able to do that, we still would not know the actual location of our users, so the ranking grid is still a terrible solution to determining when and where you rank for a specific keyword.
5. Not everyone searches for a business from a nearby location
This is super important if you are using a geo-grid or a local grid to quantify your results on search. Why? Because you assume automatically that every person searching for your business is located within a certain distance of your location.
In the example above, we’re looking at a restaurant (which is an easy one to call this out for), but not everyone who is going to visit a restaurant in Washington DC is searching from within Washington DC.
So a geo-grid or a local grid ranking report fails to include these types of users who will be searching for your business from outside the market. Depending on your business, this will be a big deal or not at all.
I’m willing to wager that for most businesses, a meaningful percentage of searches originate from outside of the grid that you are tracking. This is especially true for businesses in Hospitality and Healthcare.
Not all businesses rank for thousands of unique keywords each month. However, most businesses will show a few hundred or at least a few dozen unique keywords each month.
Therefore, with most ranking tools, you may be tracking only a few search terms for which your business is relevant. This means that when you only track 5-10 “master keywords,” you’re missing out on the big picture. More importantly, what you think you should rank for may be totally different than what you are relevant for.
Check your Google Business Profile insights to see all the different ways your business is showing on search. The results might surprise you and let you sleep better at night.
Google Business Profile Performance Insights: better than rank tracking
Why are GBP performance insights better? For starters, they more accurately represent your business’s real-world performance and visibility.
Starting with keyword reports via GBP, as outlined above in Reason #1, a hotel that is clearly being found for the search term “Hotels” in the GBP insights isn’t reflected on the ranking report we ran for them via Bright Local. Rankings simply don’t accurately represent the real-world outcome for this business.
Unfortunately, this is the case for most businesses, not just this one hotel.
Keywords on GBP insights will reveal all of the ways that people are actually finding your business on Maps and Search.
Natively, you will be able to see the last 6 months of keyword insights. Every verified business profile has access to these insights directly on GBP. You can use these native reports to quickly see all the different keywords you are being found for on Google Maps and Search.
With a tool like Map Labs however, you can see the last 18+ months, including comparisons (by impression count).
By evaluating impressions and search terms together, you’ll have a clearer picture of your business’s performance in the real world. Remember, you can only generate an impression on your GBP listing if a real user is finding you on Page 1. So using impressions is the best way to ensure you are accurately tracking whether or not more people (not bots) are finding your business profile.
Here’s an example of our keyword reports using a YOY comparison of impressions for keywords that are available through GBP insights on Map Labs:
As you can see, this is much more comprehensive than a ranking tool. There are more keywords than you could have imagined, but it also reveals the truth about what keywords you are showing up for and how many times.
Customer actions like direction requests, phone calls, and website visits are even more important than measuring your keywords through GBP. For businesses like restaurants, you can go one step further and see things like Bookings (reservations via integration partners), Food Orders (via integration partners) and menu views. If your business has messages enabled, you can also see those actions in GBP insights.
Even if you are a service area business without an address (no direction request data), you can still correlate the activity on GBP insights with your business’s real-world outcomes.
Below are a few examples of performance insights for a restaurant group throughout Q1-2023. You should notice how the data makes sense when compared to the business’s real-world outcomes.
Saturdays are the peak of activity because, by volume, most people eat out on the weekends. Each peak on these charts is a Saturday, with the exception of February 14th (Valentine’s Day), which also makes sense.
We have countless examples for business in other industries like Automotive, Healthcare, Commercial Real Estate, Lawyers, Dentists, etc where the GBP insights data aligns with their real-world outcomes and trends.
For more advanced marketers, Map Labs offers comparison reports, which will help you quickly visualize and explain the growth in the channel to the businesses stakeholders. Here’s an example from Q1-2023 for one of our Healthcare clients.
Every business will have slightly different patterns and trends, but no matter what business you are in, the GBP insights will actually align with your business’s real-world performance.
If you’re an agency, your clients will trust your data because it will make sense to them. If you’ve ever shown a client a ranking report and they rolled their eyes, it’s because they don’t see how that data aligns with their business performance.
However, if you start showing them data that actually makes sense and aligns with their business, they will be more likely to give your agency more attention and, potentially, budget to help to drive results in this channel.
If you’re a small business or even an enterprise, this means that you can more reliably track your business’s performance and detect changes in your visibility without using a third-party tool for benchmarking and reporting. Say goodbye to the hard-to-answer questions from your boss when grilling you on a specific keyword that they couldn’t find one of your business’s listings ranking for on their Monday morning spot check.
With all of that being said, we’re not saying to go cold turkey. Perhaps in some cases, the ranking reports will be more accurate than in our examples, but regardless, you’re likely missing out on key performance indicators for your business if you aren’t using Google Business Profile Performance Insights as the bottom-line for determining whether or not your business is or is not increasing reach on Google Maps and Search. If your ranking report is up and your business profile performance is down, then that means that there is a disconnect between those metrics. This can go in both directions, like in the examples provided above.
Ranking tools are simply too flawed to paint an accurate and relevant picture of your business’s performance in the real world.
We challenge you to re-evaluate your ranking tool of choice and compare how your business looks when taking a closer, more comprehensive look at your business insights on GBP.