When search engine optimization (SEO) used to be just about ranking, ranking monitoring tools used to be an important service from SEM firms. Now that Google shows organic click-through-rates (CTRs) and conversion has become the main SEO metric, is there still a market for such services? When it comes to monitoring your link profile, Google has opened up its data as well.
Here are a few ways you can use monitoring tools (mainly for link building purposes).
Drawbacks of Available Data
Relying on Google for your own SEO data isn't by definition a bad thing. Incoming link and ranking numbers shown in Google Webmaster Central are quite accurate. When links aren't shown there it indicates unnatural or less effective link types in a link profile.
You shouldn't be too dependant on Google for this data. Search engines have always manipulated these types of data and discontinued much functionality just when you become dependant on it.
Only recently, Yahoo discontinued filtering in "linkdomain:domain.com -site:domain.com" (because the Bing engine runs Yahoo results now) and only shows limited data from Yahoo Site Explorer (tip: use non-U.S. Yahoo versions until those are using Bing too).
The main drawback in Google Webmaster Central is that it only shows data from your own website.
Why Monitor Ranking and Inlinks?
You can use many tools for researching the current situation of your customers and their competitors. However, this research needs to be triggered by current goals or an alert of some kind.
Monitoring data over time can alert you of changes and indicate what you should investigate in more detail. This is why research and monitoring require different tool functionality.
Old school rank monitoring tools do what Google already shows, and lack the ability to alert bigger ranking changes for competitors. Big ranking changes for a single competitor could indicate two things: either they've been very active in SEO efforts recently, or the search engine is valuing some factor differently. Having recent and historical data from their link profile should help you rule out either one.
How to Use Monitoring Tools
You can use tools that send you e-mail alerts for bigger ranking shifts (after they've settled and personalization has been ruled out). Because of the large amount of direct and indirect clients you can monitor, this enables you to detect algorithm changes early and verify a specific cause.
For individual clients, monitoring enables them to mimic successful strategies from their competitors and it helps them stay away from unsuccessful ones. It also alerts them when quick reaction is needed to keep their current positions. Most of the time this comes down to link building and it offers a chance to learn from their competitors.
Sometimes the competitor did nothing but hard work. This is why SEM companies should keep track of their client's competition as well. You could show them that they need additional services from you to stay on top.
When competitors drop out of the top 10, this provides great opportunities. It doesn't matter what caused the drop, but it always indicates that the domain will be worth much less than it used to. Just a small check shows if the link value can be revived after taking over the domain. These potential takeovers are then much cheaper than they used to be.
Clients with seasonal shifts or lifecycle based search term focus depend heavily on monitoring their competitors. When should you change focus from summer to winter holidays? Or when should you start your campaign for a new mobile phone? You can easily monitor overall search term activity by looking at ranking and link growth.
Your best bet for reliable results: use a combination of tools, together with Yahoo, and double check results with a custom engine. For example, Majestic data suffices, but only with a double-check system, because it shows outdated links. I'm still waiting for someone to build a public version for that. "Dixon, add one to your service!"
Most publicly available ranking monitoring services are too focused on your own ranking. They should have the ability to monitor competitors and integrate alert services.
If you know of any, leave a note in the comments. I currently use functionality custom build for a client, but I might be able to convince aggregate.nl to create a retail version from it.
Ranking monitoring definitely isn't dead. It just requires a different skill set to use this data correctly.
The way search firms educate their clients and manage expectations is key in all of this. Rather than having a nervous client who calls you with every ranking change, you could have a client who knows his industry and grabs every available chance for optimization.