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I am in a new job following an internship and I have been given the position of SEO Analyst. I have zero experience with SEO before this, I have some development experience which hopefully will stand to me but right now things feel very dicey. I am reading everything I can get my hands on but I was kinda stumped today and I was hoping someone here could perhaps clear or confirm my insanity.

I was asked to do a quick check on the keyword ranking for a customer, sounds simple enough but it has taken me the best part of 4 hours (half of that researching what keyword ranking tools are available/any good). I checked the keyword rankings using Rank Checker then SEO Power Suite and then manually searching and counting. The problem is I got three different results from each tool so now I'm confused.

I know local searches have an effect and I can accept thats why Rank Checker was so so far off as it was searching on google.com rather than my national TLD. Taking this into account SEO PowerSuite and a manual check should have been the same (as I manually set SEO PowerSuite to search on my TLD and my browser redirects to the TLD for Google).

I am utterly baffled as to how the hell an allegedly abstract neutral metric can change from tool to tool? If Google ranks a domain result on the SERP at three it should stay at three no matter what tool I use to search for it - no? Or am I just insane to expect consistency when it comes to all things Google and SEO?

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3 Answers

For one, as you said "local" does play a large part in it. But that goes further than just what TLD of Google you're using. It will often take your city or region into account as well. So even if two different tools are both using google.ca for example, if one's on the West coast of Canada and the other's on the East coast of Canada, they could produce quite different results (depending on the type of query).

As for your manual results, if you are logged into Google (Gmail) Google+ can influence the results you see as well. If you've ever +1'd a site, or even your friends have +1'd a site, that can have a huge influence on that pages rankings.

Then you also have the fact that Google maintains many data centers with the same data propagating to all of them, but that process can take time. Sometimes a query hits one data center that has "newer" data, and the results can be very different from one data center who's cache hasn't yet been updated.

In short, you are insane for expecting consistency :) Google Webmaster Tools is probably going to be your best bet. Their data is aggregated over a longer period of time, so you see longer term trends, as opposed to just a "spot check". Also, it's a free Google product, so their results are going to be more accurate than most "outside" tools. That, or ask your colleagues which tool they prefer, and stick with that one.

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Google shows different results all the time based on:

  • Searcher location - local businesses rank higher
  • Searcher history and cookies
  • Searcher social network - links that friends like rank higher
  • Browser - especially mobile vs desktop
  • Searcher preferences such as
    • Verbatim search
    • Safe search
  • For random experiments - Google is often testing sites at various positions to judge how useful searchers find them higher or lower in the SERPs.
  • Different data - Google maintains many server farms which may not all have exactly the same view of the web at any given time

In addition, different tools may measure position differently

  • If a site has the top 3 slots, is that position 1 or average position of 2?
  • If there is a map at the top of the page with 10 results on the map, is the first organic result in position 1, 2 (counting the map as 1), or 11?
  • Do the number of sponsored links in the SERPs change the ranking of the first organic result?

Measuring position in SERPs is an inherently inexact science. I have found that tracking SERP positions is not an activity that is useful or actionable.

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For local testing of results, I always use a clean (freshly reset) browser. Of course, don't use you default browser for this or you'll forever be deleting all your cookies and logins.

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