We often hear about SEO companies that are making extensive use of tools like Firefox’s Rank Checker plugin, usually hot on the heels of an enquiry about what sort of rank checking we do. Some marketers will spend untold hours of their day painstakingly checking the Google ranks for their list of however many hundred keywords they like to work on, but there are several very good reasons why this is a) a complete waste of everyone’s time, and b) can actually be damaging to your marketing in the medium to long term.
Firstly, anyone who knows anything at all about modern search engines should be well aware that there is no such thing as an absolute rank on Google, Bing or anyone else. All rankings are subjective, modified by everything from past websites visited to geographical location to stored cookies and much else. This is why many forward-thinking SEO companies tear their hair out when a client tells them “I want to be number one on Google for…” – it is a genuinely impossible request. You can do rank checking if you really want to – preferably on a clean browser with no search history, but even that will still be influenced by location – but the figures you get from it are largely meaningless.
Secondly, and far more importantly, constant rank checking can have very serious implications for your long term online marketing. First there’s the short term logistical problems – most rank checkers work by sending a stream of requests to Google (or whoever) one after another. This gets flagged up by Google’s servers as robot activity or spam, which results in a block being thrown up against your IP address. No more searching for you – or anyone else unfortunate enough to share an office and IP with you – until a few hours have passed and the search engine deems your location to be safe again.
Now let’s talk about the long term implications. This requires more of an understanding of how modern search engines list and rank their results, and is the most common reason why SEOs will weep into their coffee when approached with demands for ranking.
Let’s say you type a search phrase like “red bananas” into Google. Google does several things before it displays your big page of search results. It consults its database of indexed sites, compares their relevance and authority for the term “red bananas.” Then – this is the critical part – it has a quick peek into your computer. It sees where you are in the world – if you’re in the UK, you’re less likely to be interested in an Australian website, even if it is the best website on red bananas in the world. It looks at past sites you have visited, how long you spent there, and whether you “bounced” from the site. Visit Wikipedia a lot and spend hours browsing? You’ll probably see the wiki entry for red bananas high on your search results. Only after considering all these highly personalised factors and its own index of websites will it provide the results – all tailored, just for you. Isn’t Google sweet?
Where things get tricky is that Google will also take into account everyone else who has ever searched for “red bananas” and where they went – plus how long they spent there, using this data to further tailor your search results for you. This means that sites with a high bounce rate (where people land on them, realise the content isn’t relevant and “bounce” back to the search results) often get downgraded. Most critically, sites which have a low clickthrough rate – meaning they appear a lot in search results but are not clicked on by anyone – also get a downgrade. So if you run your rank checker twice a day, every day for a hundred keywords, that’s two hundred people a day (as far as Google is concerned) who have said your site is not any good for those keywords – because your site showed up, but wasn’t visited. Even if you’re only doing this for five working days each week, that still adds up to 52,000 “people” (as rank checkers are perceived by search engines - they look like normal users) who are essentially voting your website down for its main keywords every year by refusing to click onto it when it shows up! Google accordingly deems your site less relevant, and so your average position across everyone’s search results will slip.
Shocking, eh? So next time you’re about to boot up rank checker, stop – remember you’re not just wasting your time because absolute search ranks are meaningless, you’re also wasting your search marketer’s work and – especially for those who outsource their SEO – your company’s money. Put the rank checker away and log into webmaster tools to view your average positions and clickthrough rates – those are far more meaningful metrics anyway, and most importantly you’re not actually harming your web marketing by looking at them.