SERP tracking in a post-privacy world: How Google knows your location virtually at all times

We’ve mentioned on many occasions how every search result you get on Google is geo targeted and personalized. Before Google can give you those tailor-made search results, it first needs to know where the search is originating from. So, today we will explore the methods Google uses for geo targeting, how to find out what they know about you, and if being tracked can even be avoided. We’ll also show you the most accurate and reliable way to track your SEO campaigns in an era where privacy is dying and everyone sees different search results.

Let’s start with the basics: How do they track us?

When searching from desktop

Part of the way your location is determined is through your public IP address. Your ISP provides you with your IP address, which corresponds to your general geographic location. These addresses are assigned by huge registries that make that location data public, and that allows anyone (not just Google) to easily determine your  general location. But, that still doesn’t answer how Google knows the exact building the search is being performed from, and this is where it gets a little unsettling. If your PC uses a router that provides your place with WiFi, it will come in contact with a GPS-enabled device at least once at some point. That device (most commonly a smartphone) will take note of the MAC addresses of your router, and will send that information back to Google’s databases (if you’re on Android), along with the phone’s location. After that, your router’s physical location can be linked to your unique IP address, and it will thereafter be known to Google. Do you want to try sending your router to your aunt across the ocean to dupe Google? Let us save you some trouble. The second she turns the device on and a smartphone comes in contact with it, the information will be instantly updated in their database.

When searching from mobile

Google’s geo-location abilities for mobile users are even more extreme and precise than for desktop. Mobile devices, in general, have dozens of unique methods of knowing where you are — GPS being just one of them. They’re programmed by design to know your location and track you at any given moment, and they use any means that are technologically available to do that. This includes assisted GPS, synthetic GPS, cell ID, WiFi (even while it’s off), the phone’s inertial sensors, the phone’s barometer, bluetooth beacons, accelerometers, and others. New methods of determining a phone’s location emerge all the time and are quickly adapted by Android and Apple devices. The newer your smartphone, the more precisely geo located it will be. Location data is always being sent to Google, which is how they know your location even if you turn your GPS off and aren’t connected to any wireless network. The advancements of ‘the internet of things’ will likely only add to that.

Tailoring the SERP based on location

Once the search location has been established, the Google search results will be tailored to that location. Meaning, people from different cities will see different search results. Sometimes being in a different neighborhood is enough to get a unique SERP. This geo location is designed to give us higher-quality search results that are more relevant and pinpointed to our needs. The most basic example of it is that when you search for pizza delivery, Google will strive to show you businesses that are in your area.

Important SEO note! Until recently, it was possible to see the general SERP of a certain country by simply using Google with the country’s ccTDL, but Google changed that and it’s no longer effective. Now the results from your physical location are shown, regardless of what ccTDL you use. More about that here:

Why Google’s latest change is another nail in the coffin for manual rank checking

Tailoring the SERP based on whether you use desktop or mobile

Google knows what device you’re using and shows unique SERPs with unique ranks to mobile users. Websites that are mobile friendly and follow Google’s guidelines (the AMP protocol, for example) will be ranked higher than those who don’t. These search results will also be matched to your physical location. You can try it right now and see for yourself that certain searches will yield a different SERP for desktop vs. mobile, even though you’re in the same location. Google even nails down the type of device you used to populate your SERP. It’s all part of their mobile-first approach, which you should read more about if you are not familiar with it already:

The correct way to track your Google ranks in the face of geo targeting

So, let’s say you want to manually track your ranks. Even if you browse incognito or use a VPN, your router’s MAC address is still listed in your exact location. You can turn off your router altogether, connect directly with a LAN device, and use a proxy, but then you will get the search results tailored to the information Google has on that IP address. This makes manual rank checking utterly ineffective. There’s no escaping personalization, and the only accurate and professional way to track ranks today is with a certified, industry-standard SERP tracker. Here are the 5 features a rank tracker MUST have in order to properly check your ranks:

  • The ability to track Snack Pack and Google Maps top 100 results
    Snack Pack is the SERP feature you see that shows the top 3 map results in the user’s vicinity:

    Expanding the search will show the top 100 results in their vicinity. These results are influenced almost entirely by location. They are a distinctive SERP feature and have their own inner ranking which is different than the organic results people get. Having your business show up on Google Maps is a lucrative way to drive physical traffic to you, impress clients, and even outshine websites that are ranked higher than you in organic search results. More on why you should be focusing on Snack Pack:

    PRT’s SnackTrack and Local Finder: The ideal tools for Snack Pack SEO rank tracking
  • High ranktracking resolution (RTR)
    A rank tracker needs to be able to show how your website ranks on Google from many different locations on the planet. The more locations the SERP tracker can get, the higher the rank-tracking resolution. Local businesses need local SEO and to know the local ranks relevant to them. A barbershop in Queens, New York, for example, will only need to know how it ranks organically and on Snack Pack for users in Queens. Some rank trackers will only be able to show an estimated general rank for the entire US, which would simply be inaccurate for that barbershop.
    PRT has the highest RTR on the market and can even track ranks down to neighborhood levels!

    RTR is a very important subject to know about for rank tracking. We explain it in more detail in our full article about the subject, so you should give it a read:

    Rank Tracking Resolution (RTR): one of the most important SEO topics to know about
  • The ability to track all the ranking factors used by Google
    Besides location, the device being used and the Google UI language are additional factors that determine a user’s search results. To know the full rank of a website, you need to define the location, the device type (Desktop/Android phone, Android tablet, iPhone, iPad, Windows phone, or Windows tablet), and the Without them, you will only get a semi-accurate rank.
  • Compare multiple terms with a graph
    Since ideally every website should be optimized for desktop and mobile, you need to see how your mobile ranks compare to your desktop ranks. The best way to track this and see the progress of ranks is by comparing them in a single graph. With PRT, you can easily compare any of the terms you track. This is how it looks:

    Ranking difference between mobile and desktop for the same keyword

  • High rank update frequency
    Google updates their search index all the time. To always know your current ranks, you need a rank tracker that will update your data on at least a daily basis. PRT can update your ranking data up to 3 times a day on demand!

So far, we’ve discussed the features you need for managing geo-targeted SERP tracking. SEO and rank tracking involve more than that, though. You should also read up on the other industry-standard features, which are just as important to know about for SEO in 2018:

Why you should be keeping an eye on your page’s title in the SERP and why your CTR depends on it

Not every SERP tracker will be on par with industry standards and have these features. If you use one that doesn’t follow these guidelines, you might as well be doing manual checks.

The rise of Surveillance Capitalism

Cell towers – providing you with cell phone signal and help your phone transmit your latest Starbucks visit to Google.

You might be wondering if it’s always like that, or if there are moments where Google ‘lets you off the hook’ and doesn’t track your location and every move. Can being geo-located be ‘turned off’ somehow, if we ask them nicely? Well, the answers may unsettling. While you can ‘officially’ turn off location services on your phone, several controversies recently suggest that privacy has become nothing more than an illusion, and the biggest culprits of undermining your privacy are Google, Apple and Facebook. Big Brother, as it turns out, is not an eye connected to a single entity that watches you, but a collective of countless eyes from different sources all collecting and sharing information in order to sell to you more effectively and keep you as dependent as possible on the services they provide. An investigation by Quartz revealed Google has been tracking users while their GPS and location services are turned off. After being exposed, Google promised it would stop this practice by November 2017. A more recent and even more troubling investigation by Fox revealed that Google can track your precise location even with no SIM card in your phone and while set to airplane mode (no GPS and no WiFi). This is all for the sake of analyzing our behavior so they can build more detailed user profiles to drive targeted ads.

Even without any deception, the process of opting out is often so hidden within the phone’s settings that most people won’t even bother to do it after researching how. Most of us won’t care or even desire to opt out to begin with, since it’s a requirement for so many services and apps. It’s just part of modern reality now. The really scary part is that we probably consent to a lot more than we bother to check by agreeing to the convoluted scroll known as the End User License Agreement. Technological advancements and conveniences have come at a price. Every move is tracked and logged, our dopamine and adrenaline systems are being hijacked and manipulated by ads, and we are encouraged to outsource human thinking processes to machines.

Before we finish, here is a little piece of trivia for you: Google dropped their famous “don’t be evil” slogan when they turned into Alphabet. What does that mean for the future? Only time will tell.

On a more positive note, if you liked this article, you might be interested to know some of the awesome facts and mind-blowing numbers behind Google. Check it out!

Google by the numbers: Amazing Google stats and facts

In a post-privacy SEO environment, the only way to track your Google ranks is with a reliable SERP tracker. PRT is an industry-standard SERP tracker with over 50k users who enjoy all the features mentioned above, and much more. We track all the major search engines (Google, Yahoo!, Bing, YouTube, Amazon, Yandex) with 100% accuracy and have the best price-per-tracked-term on the market. Take the first step to the next level by taking us for a spin for free right now (no credit cards required).

Know of any SEO experts that need to upgrade their SERP tracker to one that can handle Google’s personalized ranks? Refer them to us through our amazing affiliate program, and we can benefit together!

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