Tracking how your client's site ranks for a given keyword or a given list of keywords is (and likely will remain) one of the most effective ways to demonstrate the progress of an SEO campaign. There's no wonder so many SEOs use rank as one of their main KPIs! Unfortunately, reporting keyword ranking data isn't as straightforward as it may seem.
Every SEO has had to answer the question "Why does your report show me ranked X for this keyword when I clearly see myself ranked Y?". One of the most basic problems with reporting keyword ranking data is that all search results are not created equal. In other words, the search results you see at any given moment are tailored specifically to you and the context of your search. Changes to Google's search algorithm in recent years have prioritized personalized search results, meaning that each user will see slight variations in search engine results pages (more commonly known as SERPs). Factors such as a user's search history, whether they are logged into a Google account, their geographic location, the device they're searching from, and more can all affect the rankings you see when you perform a given search.
Why My Search Results Are Different Than Yours
Personalized Search Results
It's no secret that your action's can be easily tracked online. What most people don't know is that most major content providers now utilize this data to personalize your experience across the web, not just in search engines. Google, in particular, leverages the wealth of user data at their disposal to heavily customize the results they show in the SERPs, so even if two people perform the same search from the same location, they'll likely see different results.
Most users find that personalized SERPs provide more useful results; however, it's easy to see how this could become an issue if a client notices that the rank displayed in the Keyword Ranking Report differs from what they see when they search Google. The best way to minimize the effects of personalized search results is to clear your browsing data and always use incognito mode (Ctrl+Shift+N) in Google Chrome. Google will still track your IP address to determine your geographic location, but your search history will not play a role as it would if you searched in a normal browser window.
In recent years, there has been a strong push towards localizing SERPs in order to return the most relevant information to each unique user. The main way that Google and other sites track your physical location is through your IP-address. By tracking your IP-address, Google is able to determine the most appropriate geographic region and modify the rankings accordingly.
If you and your client aren't located in the same geographic region, this can make communicating rankings somewhat difficult. Using Chrome, you can scroll to the bottom of the SERPs to see the current region. A VPN can sometimes mask your true IP-address, but your IP-address is only one potential way that Google can track your location, so it isn't a foolproof solution.
SERPs are not static by any means. Google and other search engines constantly update their indexes, so new information is consistently being added and assimilated into the list of potential search results. Consequently, if you perform a given search in the morning and perform that same search later in the day, you may receive completely different results.
Local Pack, Knowledge Graph, and Other Special Circumstances
Google frequently adds new features to the SERPs in an effort to make their service more useful. SERP elements like the local 3 pack and the knowledge graph panel provide relevant information for certain queries, but may not appear for other queries. In fact, these elements likely won't appear for every user, depending on their search history and their location.
Relative Ranking Change Is Key
When tracking keyword ranking data, the relative changes in your ranking are more important than your ranking for a given keyword at any one time. Because there are many factors that influence the search results that a particular user sees, your rank may fluctuate on an hour-to-hour or even a search-by-search basis. This makes looking at relative changes across months or weeks more effective when reporting back to your client.
Our Keyword Ranking Report scrapes for rank data using a generic user-agent (essentially, we utilize a bot that performs a given query and reports the rank data it finds). This allows us to get a general view of a how a particular site is ranking overall for a given keyword; however, since our user-agent cannot take into account every possible variation of the SERPs, the rankings we report may not always correspond directly to what you or your client sees. Although clients may question why our Keyword Ranking Report shows them ranked lower or higher than what they actually see in the SERPs, you should feel confident in explaining that by using the same generic user-agent each time data is scraped, our Report creates a consistent baseline from which you can accurately track the relative ranking growth for a given keyword over time.
In addition, you can explain to your client that the Keyword Ranking Report does not update in real-time (it's simply not possible when you take into account the speed at which Google indexes new content) and thus will not always correspond to the search results you see in one particular moment. It's always best to take at least 24 hours to evaluate whether a given discrepancy can be explained.
These types of discrepancies occur no matter what keyword tracking tool you use. Here are a few additional resources from across the web that speak to potential discrepancies in keyword ranking data: