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Tracking Rankings With Google’s Referrer URL

Earlier this year I wrote about the problem of diminishing keyword data and offered a number of solutions to overcome this problem. Today I will highlight one specific method of keyword and position mining – server log files.

These days there is no such thing as an absolute ranking position. Different users will see you on different positions in search result based on any number of factors including algorithm variations, user location, device/platform and personalisation. This means that scraping Google from the same machine and measuring your search visibility isn’t the ideal method.

Let me illustrate what I mean by showing you our own ranking data from two different sources for keyword “SEO” in Google Australia:

SERPs: Referrer vs Scraped

The above is a comparison chart of scraped Google results (red) and the raw server log files (green) and is a great example of the difference between what you think is happening and what is actually happening in Google’s search results.

It’s Not All Lost

Most Google searches today are encrypted, however there is still a chunk of non-encrypted search traffic you can mine for data. This includes Internet Explorer users who are not signed into any Google services and Chrome/Firefox users who type in http://www.google.com and search from that point on (without logging in).

Try this query and copy the URL on the first result:


Paste it into a text file and you will see something like this:


Interesting parts of this URL are:

  • q=seo%20dejan (search query “seo dejan”)
  • cd=1 (ranking position “1”)

Now switch this to https:// search and observe what happens to the URL:


The ranking position is still there (cd=1) but the search query (q) is now gone.

Now that we understand the mechanism let’s reflect on what’s actually available and where it sits.

Getting the Data

Most servers are configured to collect raw access log files and some will allow you to easily access this data. Here’s how to find it in Cpanel for example (Raw Access Logs):

Cpanel Log File

Here’s an example from our own log file:

109.149.xx.xx - - [19/Apr/2013:22:49:41 +1000] "GET /google-link-disavow-complete-guide/ HTTP/1.1" 200 17115 "http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=where+to+download+google+disavow+doc&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CEgQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fdejanmarketing.com%2Fgoogle-link-disavow-complete-guide%2F&ei=Nj1xUbbwD4nIPKT8gMAC&usg=AFQjCNHdfYgDAS2DT9MvV-Y7Hz1VZomYAg&sig2=YjxMevNdGpOcODRBcH57hQ" "Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X 10_8_3) AppleWebKit/536.28.10 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/6.0.3 Safari/536.28.10" 351593

In the above example we can see that somebody searched google.co.uk for “where to download google disavow doc” and found this page on position 3.

Like I said earlier, you’re not always blessed with a combination of search phrase and the position, but when you do get them together you need to save that data and consider it in your phrase research and keyword performance tracking.

Naturally you don’t want to be doing this manually for every detected keyword/position combination so it might be a good idea to put together a script which automates the process and compiles the data for you in a format that you can use (e.g. CSV or XML).

We use our own tool which does this for us on a daily basis and are able to track keyword performance through Google’s own search referral URLs:

Keyword Rankings

Additionally we’ve introduced a range of filters (by search engine, keyword, date range…etc):


What I like about it is that it’s completely fresh data and I get to see it soon after the referrer string was added to the log file.

Data Accuracy

Our development team is currently working on combining server log file data with Google Webmaster Tools keyword reports in order to improve accuracy of search visibility and keyword performance. This will be done without acquiring ranking data in ‘traditional ways’ (read: SERP scraping).

Another interesting way of dealing with the disappearing keyword data was proposed by Alistair Lattimore and is based on attributing keywords to encrypted traffic based on page content. We’re considering this option as well, though it will probably involve creation and maintenance of a ‘mini index’ for each website we wish to track.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and and experience with keyword performance tracking and how you measure search visibility.

Dan Petrovic, the managing director of DEJAN, is Australia’s best-known name in the field of search engine optimisation. Dan is a web author, innovator and a highly regarded search industry event speaker.

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