Google Universal is Messing Up My Ranking Reports
Ranking reports are a staple of any search engine optimization effort. That isn't to say that rankings are the most important success metric, but rather they serve as an easy-to-understand and objective measure of how changes to a site are perceived by search engines. And so whether you're tracking 10 keywords or 1000 keywords, you want your ranking reports to accurately reflect reality.
Unfortunately, Google's recent move to include non-traditional listings (e.g. maps) as part of the first 10 search results means that some ranking reports produced by tools such as Advanced Web Ranking or Agent Web Ranking could be inaccurate. At this time the scope of the problem is small and in my case only affects location-based searches such as new york city hotels. From my computer this search returns 3 map listings and 7 additional text listings for a total of 10. In the past, there were always 10 text listings even if there were maps listings (for a potential total of 13 results).
So the problem is what rank does the first text listing get? Is it #4 because it is preceded by 3 maps listings? Is it #1 because maps listings aren't organic? And if you group rankings by the page they are on, does text listing #8 get classified as a page 1 ranking (where it would be if there were no maps listing) or as a page 2 ranking (where it actually is)?
I recently exchanged a few e-mails with one of the developers of one of the more popular rank checking software packages on this very topic. His opinion is that the maps listings shouldn't be treated as natural listings and so they should be excluded from ranking reports. I, on the other hand, think they should be included because of the space they occupy on the results page. There are optimization techniques for getting prominent placement in maps listings and such efforts should be noted in ranking reports. And from a company's perspective, obtaining the a #1 ranking in the maps results could be important and therefore something I would want to show as part of an SEO campaign's activities. My guess is that opinions will fall on both sides of the argument and so the only solution I could think of to keep everyone happy was an option (i.e. a toggle) to either count or ignore maps listings. I have no idea how much work such a toggle would be from a development perspective.
In the meantime, I suggest manually annotating ranking reports. Anything that might trigger a maps listing (or any other non-text listing) will need to be checked manually and the results somehow incorporated in to the automated report results. An extra step I suppose, but one worth doing for businesses with a strong local presence.