Why SEO Rank Checking Tools Are Useless (And What to Use Instead)

Why SEO Rank Checking Tools Are Useless (And What to Use Instead)

August 11, 2014
Megan Marrs

What is a Rank Checking Tool?

There is an abundance of SEO rank checking tools on the web, each promising to deliver results on where your site ranks on Google for your chosen keywords.

how to check seo web rankings

For most keyword rank checking tools, all you need to do is type in a keyword, and the tool’s bot will scrape data from Google and spit out a number showing where you rank in Google for your key phrase.

Sounds like a dream come true? Well, sure. But a dream is all it is. In truth, keyword rank checking tools are pretty useless.

MORE: SEO Basics

The Ranking Myth: There’s No Such Thing as Ranking

There was a time, years ago, where SEO rank checking tools were fairly accurate and could provide a decent assessment of how your site was performing and allow you to check website SEO rankings.

google rank checking tools

But those days are over, and this is no longer possible. Google has grown increasingly more sophisticated with its ranking algorithm, and has added a host of new variables that affect how your site ranks in an individual’s Google search results page. We now encounter variables such as:

  • Search History: A user’s search results page can vary depending on what websites they’ve visited in the past.
  • Geography/Local Results: Google will show different SERPs depending on the current location of an individual and where they live.
  • Social Media: If a user’s friends have +1ed a page, Google gives preference to the endorsement of friends.
  • Device: SERPs can vary depending on the device you are using to search.

For Android users, even more personalization occurs with Google Now, which takes into account your favorite hangouts IRL and your daily commute.

These variable factors mean that it’s simply impossible for a SEO rank checking tool to determine how your site ranks because every individual users’ results will look different. One user may see your site appear in the 1st, 3rd, or 5th spot in Google’s SERPs, while another user may not see your page show up at all.

keyword rank checking tools

Would you really even trust this site? Looks sketch to me.

Gone are the days where users searched Google with a clean browser, no cookies, and no search history. Today web users search while logged into their personalized Google accounts, which means Google continuously tracks a user’s choices and decisions, and will alter search results based on their actions (and that’s scary for reasons beyond proving the ineffectiveness of keyword rank checking tools).

Rank Checking Tools Put Blinders On You

A single site can rank on thousands of different keywords and their synonyms. Even if you could get an accurate reading on where your site ranks for a pre-selected keyword, it’d be pretty insignificant taking the big picture into account. What about the hundreds of other keywords people are using to find your site?

Getting too preoccupied with a few single keywords can have the blinder affect. Attention and focus is horded by a few keywords, when really you should be examining the other, less obvious keyword opportunities.

Better Than Rank Checking: Google Analytics & Webmaster Tools

I know, you’re sad. You came here looking for keyword rank checking tools and now I’ve rained all over your SEO parade. Well fear not, we won’t cast you upriver without a paddle or two.

Marketers want to use SEO rank checking tools in order to get a measure on site performance. Both Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools can help you do just that, plus a ton of other awesome stuff no keyword rank checker could ever do.

seo rank checker

  • Visiting the Acquisition > Keyword > Organic will show you the keywords bringing visitors to your website.
  • Behavior > Site Content > All Pages shows you your most popular website pages, helping you get a broad sense of what subjects are popular on your site. Use this info to generate ideas about what new, related keywords you could target.

Google Webmaster Tools provides ample data as well.

  • Search Traffic > Search Queries shows keyword queries bringing users to your site, as well as the number of impressions, clicks, and CTR you’re getting for each keyword. You can even see your average position for keywords (yes, this is showing your keyword ranking, but don’t forget, it’s an average and can vary a lot across different users).

check google ranking

In Webmaster Tools you can also see external links to your website, internal links, how Google is indexing your site, and tons more.

Rank Checking is so Last Year

SEO is changing, and it’s changing fast. It’s time to abandon outdated tools and old-school SEO dogma. Online marketing will only work for those willing to stay ahead of the game and adopt new, emerging strategies and best practices. Even with Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools, it’s important to not get too entrenched in the ranking game and avoid becoming fixated on a few obvious keywords.

Keyword rank checking tools aren’t inherently bad (besides the fact that most don’t work). The problem is that they foster the mindset that all that matters is the keyword. This is dangerous thinking as Google continues to refine its algorithm and tries to purposefully break apart the pre-existing keyword ranking traditions.

The truth, although admittedly it sounds as corny as a Disney movie’s happy ever after, is that successful online marketing today (and therefore, successful SEO), is all about delivering quality content and not being afraid to think creatively. SEOs need to understand their audience’s intent and hone in on it like a first class sniper. Do that, and you’ll have no problem seeing yourself rise to the tops of the Google SERPs, no ranking tools required.


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Aug 11, 2014

You're oversimplifying the purposes of rank tracking software, while also advocating rank tracking data that's worse (the Google Analytics keyword report, which is a dystopian data ghetto, and Google Webmaster Tools). Google Webmaster Tools data is all over the place. It's a worthwhile data point, and definitely an essential tool, but as with any rank tracking software it comes with a long list of caveats.Personally, I still think using a rank index (see this post from AJ Kohn) is still a valuable way to track rankings + if you couple an index with some kind of visibility level (e.g., position + search volume for a given keyword), then you have a really nice way to track campaign performance. Second, rank tracking software is extremely helpful for experiments.  

Megan Marrs
Aug 18, 2014

Thanks for the input Jay. We might have to agree to disagree, but I get where you're coming from. 

Dave Schneider
Aug 11, 2014

Hey Megan,Great alternatives listed, thanks.Cheers!Dave at NinjaOutreach

Aug 11, 2014

"Visiting the Acquisition > Keyword > Organic will show you the keywords bringing visitors to your website."Hilarious.... Most of what you see there is "Not Provided". If you think a tool like SEM Rush isn't worth it then you have no clue. 

Megan Marrs
Aug 18, 2014

SEM Rush offers a lot more than simple SEO rank checking, of course it's a valuable tool.Yup, having a lot of your keyword data hidden behind the "not provided" result stinks, but at least what you find there is accurate.

Aug 11, 2014

Most of the things that you have stated are right. Ranking in Google is totally different nowadays. You cannot trust on g for organic traffic.  

Michael Fever
Aug 12, 2014

Thank you for that Captain Obvious!  Although for the most part, rank checking tools still give accurate results :P  

Aug 12, 2014

Really great, I found it really easy to understand. Thanks for sharing it.

Megan Marrs
Aug 18, 2014

You're welcome Stephen!

Andrew Solomon
Aug 12, 2014

Thanks for the good read this morning. Google Analytics is an awesome way to see the natural or organic keywords that are finding you site. I find it incredibly interesting to see the "unthought of" keywords that people are using to find my pages. Really helps to too see what pages are receiving the most impressions, where those pages are ranking and how many clicks throught to that page are actually happening. This is a great way to make some adjustments to those pages and get them to rank higher and attract more clicks.

Megan Marrs
Aug 18, 2014

I agree Andrew - it's all about capturing those less obvious keywords that are driving traffic to your site.

Steve Kirstein
Aug 12, 2014

With increased use of keyword encryption, I'm seeing fewer and fewer of the actual keywords that drive traffic to my site.Over 80% of my organic searches now in Google are "not provided". Puts somewhat of a crimp in that aspect of things. 

Aug 13, 2014

Google Analytics no longer show organic search terms. Use Webmaster tools to see what people are searching for when they find you.

Aug 13, 2014

Hi,u explained it clearly,thanks for your information,keep on post such a informative article

Aug 15, 2014

Very interesting and informative.If search results now are custom to each individual user then how would I,on my home computer, do a google search and let my  assistant know to run the same search on the office computerso she can bring up the same results and do XYZ activity for me.

Tony Whittam
Aug 15, 2014

Google is very vague on a lot of data, it's handy as a rough guide but it doesn't give true exact data, on the other hand, many of the rank checking programmes around today can be just as vague.I like to use several software programmes and Google's data combined to get a rough estimate of where I'm at, as long as I can tell whether I'm improving  or not that's all I need. 

Megan Marrs
Aug 18, 2014

Sounds like you have a good strategy Tony. No doubt combining information from several different sources would be helpful. 

Aug 19, 2014

Good read. To identify the "not provided data" or "user ip address" i used to see the statcounter stats, and Awstats

Sep 13, 2014

Very informative. In the end I think its safe that most would agree you need a suite of tools that will give you data about the sitevs the particular job you want to perform - baseline analysis, overal traffic improvement, specific page ranking, etc..No tool is perfect and the best that can be hoped for is that by using a number of different tools, looking at thetask from a number of different angles, and watching the change over time, that you can find the rightcombination for your SEO task. IMHO page ranking tools are still a part of the SEO toolbox.And Jay, I love that term "Dystopian Data Ghetto". I'm gonna steal it.  

Oct 12, 2014

Hey MeganThis Morning I was searching for some Knowledge on SEO tips and tricks that can be used to Increase traffic on my E-commerce Portal, and I came across your post. It was really helpful to learn things about seo tools and for what they can be used. As a beginner i have a little knowledge of SEO, but thanks to you i will try and Learn this thing out :) Cheers And Keep up the Good WorkThanks Puneet

Aske Højer
Feb 12, 2015

Hi, good to know. I get loads of hits for a specific keyword but I can't find it myself (top 1000) on Google. Im getting pretty annoyed but think it most be my own search history that influenzes that.
Thanks for the info.

Learn Quran Online
Feb 26, 2015

Thanks for this nice article. Keep it up. :)

Arvid Linde
Mar 18, 2015

Sooo, Google Analytics & Webmaster Tools gives you a complete picture of your niche, including competitors? And it doesn't use encryption so you can see all your keywords, right?

Hmm, this is what happens when PPC experts (and damn good ones) try to write SEO articles.

Yeah, ok, variables do affect the rankings but even if you're using the worst rank checker out there and concentrate on a particular niche, it's highly likely that your competitors are affected by the same variables (since you're in the same niche). Rank checker toos are crucial and vital to SEO - otherwise you'll miss out on competitive intelligence.

Emanuel Hochstädt
Apr 12, 2015

A long time ago we knew that Google uses many data centers, each updated at a different time and never synchronized, and it is a matter of pure chance which data center is automatically chosen to present its search results (by their particular descending order of relevance) to the manual or machine search. Moreover, a number identifying the data center was at that time (and no longer) included in the SERP's URL, so you could force Google to show always results from the same data center for manual searches.

As this fact was not included in your list of what makes rank checking tools useless, I wonder whether the different data centers explanation is still valid.

By the way, some three years ago we asked the same search phrase simultaneously from two PCs in the same room, both connected by an internal network to the same IP, and after erasing all cookies and personal search history, and we got slightly different rankings.

May 07, 2015

Excellent article and awesome information regards about SEO.

Torben Grue
May 26, 2015

I agree that search ranking tools are not perfect, but they will give you an identification in what direction (especially when you are tracking a big keyword set) you are moving and combined with other metrics give you a pretty good idea on how you are doing SEO wise.

Jul 05, 2015

I use whatsmyserp and it always seems pretty accurate, I stopped using the Firefox one as it couldn't see keywords that was on page 1 for some reason

Patrick Chadwell
Aug 22, 2015

After spending a month creating a niche website, it was launched in the beginning of this month. With basic meta understanding from the old days, I was able to see my site get listed in the top 10 pages of Google when searching for club related topics. The value of the domain name is very important. As you can see, my site focuses on EDM clubs and it's easy to get in the top 10 with just the domain name plus some meta description. But to drive audiences into discovering what you are all about, takes us into the Social Networking market. And this is where SEO tools can help businesses key in on what has happened and what needs to happen in trying to build loyal audiences. Our niche site is Socially connected. Since last week, the site had to undergo several upgrades to improve speed and deliver content via Global CDN. And to cap it all off, there are many free online SEO tools to get an idea of how your site is performing. My favorite tools are Google PageSpeed Insights, SEO SiteCheckup, GTMetrix, WebCEO, and SEOwebpageanalyzer.

Charles M
Sep 01, 2015

Thank you I'm new to all this, it was very helpful!!

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