In Search of a Reliable Rank Tracker

by on March 7, 2011

AWR logoSummary: We’ve recently been trialling a whole host of keyword rank tracking applications. While far from perfect, we’ve found that Advanced Web Ranking is most definitely the best of the bunch, for our criteria and requirements.

Full review: If you’re involved in online marketing at any level, it’s likely that tracking the rankings of your target keywords in at least one of the major search engines is an aspect of your workflow.

(It goes without saying that while rankings are important, they’re not an end in themselves. That eventual end is business growth, right?)

In any case, rank tracking has become fraught with difficulties of late, particularly with Google. Personalisation, local results, site links, multiple data centre lag and regular alterations to the layout of search results pages, have all changed the game.

It’s become trickier to get reliable, consistent results, even if all you can realistically hope for are ballpark rankings, for like-for-like historical comparison.

Other folks have ranted about this elsewhere, so we don’t have to.

Market Samurai was great for a while…

Here at Woof, we’ve been using Market Samurai as our primary rank tracker for a couple of years now. However, recently, the results have been sketchy at best; downright infuriating at worst.

For many, many months now, we’ve been cutting the app some slack while the developers have had a mad scramble on their hands to keep up with changes to Google’s results page layout.

The problem is that lately, however much slack we cut, Market Samurai has become highly unreliable, nay useless, for reliable rank tracking.

The search for a new rank tracker

We’ve therefore been on the trail of a new rank tracking solution.

  1. I’m not going to exhaustively review each and every application we’ve tested. Suffice it to say, I’d be surprised if you could tell me about a rank tracking application we’ve not trialled over these last few weeks; web-based or desktop.

  2. I haven’t made detailed notes about the pros or cons of each app we trialled. If it fell short, for whatever reason, we moved on, without documenting the reasons why. Life’s too short. If you want an objective, scientific review, you’re out of luck here.

  3. This isn’t a step-by-step ‘how to’. It’s a review, not an instruction manual.

One thing to make clear though: at Woof, we’re all Mac through and through. If it ain’t Mac-based or web-based, it’s a non-contender from the start.

Ding Ding! Do we have a winner?

Long story short: yes. We’ve chosen the multi-platform desktop-based Advanced Web Ranking (or AWR for short).

Current Rank report screenshot from Advanced Web Ranking

We’ve put the standard version of AWR through its pace with a full 30 day trial and we’re now using it as our full time rank tracker. Here’s why:

1. Consistency of results

Results are consistent each time we run an update report, which corresponds closely enough with the results we’re seeing manually in Google (signed out of our personal Google account, of course).

The same most certainly cannot be said of Market Samurai, nor of a few others we tried.

2. Categorisation

You can easily categorise and group keywords, using a variety of manual or ‘smart’ criteria. This is very useful indeed. We use this feature to track related and long-tail keywords together, which makes analysis and spotting patterns a doddle.

Pretty much most other applications offer only a flat list of keywords (though notably, Market Samurai does handle categorising pretty well, albeit not nearly as usefully as AWR).

3. Ability to run multiple, unlimited projects

We only have a small roster of clients plus a few ongoing internal projects. However, we ideally want to avoid being limited by number of projects or keywords.

Web-based rank tracking applications particularly tend to limit the number of projects (or websites in some cases) you can track, usually allowing access to more projects/sites at additional cost.

4. Ability to track large number of keywords

We don’t track large numbers of keywords for the sake of it. We usually choose to track just a small number of important terms. Traffic stats let us know which long-tails (or otherwise) are delivering traffic.

Having said that, it’s nice to have a potentially unlimited number of keywords we’re able to keep track of.

Most web-based services limit the number of keywords you can track by price and subscription account level.

5. Multiple search engines

AWR carries a HUGE list of search engine to choose from. For us, the choice is total overkill, but it is good to be able to track as many different search providers and geographical variations as you need, as determined by the project.

Most of the web-based rank tracking applications were limited in this respect. One of them only allowed tracking of, and! Not very useful.

6. Run reports whenever you like

The ability to initiate a site ranking update at will, even just on specific keywords, is great. All the web-based apps we trialled updated rankings on their own schedule, some only once a week.

We don’t obsessively check rankings every day. Far from it in fact: we focus on what’s truly important (targeted traffic, conversion, growth, etc.). However, it’s nice to quickly run an update at will, should we need to.

7. Price

Price is probably the least important factor, because in many cases, you usually get what you pay for. However, AWR is definitely a nice price, especially at just $99 for the standard version, which offers pretty much all we need.

(The other, more expensive versions give you the facility to create nice reports, a keyword research tool, etc.)

There are optional annual maintenance plans available, to cover you for updates after the initial 12 months following first purchase of the app. However, this still works out a good deal cheaper than many of the current web-based alternatives.

All of these charge an ongoing monthly fee which would cost at least 3 times more than AWR over a full year, and that’s not taking into account costs for subsequent years.

A few downsides…

That’s not to say all is rosy in the park. While Advanced Web Ranking turned out to be the best of the bunch for our purposes, there are some things we’d change:

1. Ugly UI

The UI is plain ugly and unintuitive, especially compared to most of the rank tracking apps we trialled.

The main problem is visual clutter, plus unintuitive icons and menu systems. It’s not so bad once you know what to press to get the job done, but there are just so many ways of achieving the same goal.

Expect a fair bit of head-scratching to start with, until things become familiar.

I’ve found that over time, I’ve just learnt to ignore what I don’t need, so it’s not really a problem. The app scores highly enough in other areas to counter this. However, I think it’s fair to say that the UI is due for a much-needed overhaul.

Update: I hear from a reliable source that a brand new version of the app is about to be released with a new UI, much easier to use. Hurray! I have a chance to get onto the beta tester list, so will definitely be looking into it further.

2. Slow updates

We’ve found the time it takes to update keyword rankings is really slow. What takes around 5 minutes in Market Samurai can take 5 hours in AWR!

I understand why: the app takes great pains to emulate human visitors when scraping SERPs and so builds pauses into the ranking update process.

Sure, you can tweak or even remove these delays in the app’s settings. We’ve done that, but updates are still slower than we’re used to.

However: while update speed is a criticism, I’ll take ‘slow and correct’ over ‘fast and totally off the mark’ any day! And in any case, you can schedule rank updates (a nice feature) so they can be starting and completing without intervention anyway.

To clarify: the actual running of the app itself isn’t slow at all. It runs absolutely fine on our dual-core late-2007 Macbook Pros.

3. Desktop-based

The app is desktop-based. Is this a problem? Not really, but it would be nice to have the app and its data available in the cloud, accessible from anywhere.

Sure, there’s a server version that allows for multiple computers to access the one instance of the app running on a centralised database. However, it’s a solution that feels a bit ‘last century’ in today’s Web 2.0 world of hosted web apps. It’s also really designed for LAN set-ups, rather than for access across the internet.

It’s not a deal breaker. There are only 2 of us at Woof anyway, and it’s not imperative we both have access to the same data. We tend to separately manage the day-to-day running of our own projects anyway.

Round up

For us, as long as we mentally filter out the excess fluff we don’t need and accept some limitations, Advanced Web Ranking is still the best rank tracking application out there. The app is ultra-reliable, provides a solid feature set and the pricing is great.

Importantly, I’ve had a couple of encounters with the AWR support team and on both occasions they were quick to respond, very friendly and extremely helpful.

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