Using Search Engine Exposure to Monitoring SEO Performance in 2020 & Beyond

SEO | 10 minute read

Keyword ranking reports are dead!

Well, at least as a KPI for SEO performance.

I know that isn’t like declaring that SEO is dead (I doubt it ever will be), but simply using rankings to monitor your SEO efforts is a thing of the past.

That being said, I continue to provide clients with rankings reports. That’s because they either ask for them, or the reports are part of an overall account review.

Here’s the truth about ranking reports…They are now a trending tool

While an increase in rankings is obviously a good trend, a decrease isn’t as obvious.

Back when the SERPs were pretty much static until the next update, rankings were all we needed to measure SEO.

That was then…

Today, the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages) look much different:



1. Rank Brain
Rank Brain is an AI component of Google’s core algorithm. It’s widely believed that Rank Brain uses an interpretation model to determine search intent by using factors such as location, personalization, and the words in the query.
2. Featured Snippets
Featured Snippets (Rank 0) are search results that are selected and featured above Google’s organic results, including position 1. These are typically a paragraph, list or table.
3. Knowledge Panel 
The Knowledge Panel is the data which appears in the panels with information about people, companies, and other popular searched queries gathered from a variety of sources.

4. The Local Pack
The Local Pack consists of the three local results under the map for a given query. This is created by a separate Local Search Algorithm.
5. People Also Ask
People Also Ask is a list of questions, and their answers, that other people have asked and that Google believes are relevant to the current search query.
6. Up to 4 Ad Units
Up to 4 Ad Unites at the top of the SERPs pushes organic listing down further and are also an opportunity for more search real estate.


With so many possible spots for your result to show on a SERP, and with Google striving to personalize results for an improved experience, keywords rankings reports are not as valuable as they once were.

If you are still using ranking reports exclusively to monitor your SEO results, you are not seeing the entire picture. Today, you need to monitor your search engine exposure.

Search Engine Exposure – The number of times a webpage is displayed in the SERPs. 

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Keywords Rankings on SERPs

keyword-iconRankings and keywords are still important.

Between new features, feature updates, and algorithm changes, Google’s SERPS are evolving more often than ever before.

Think about this…

On any given day, Google might update its algorithm multiple times within that day. Most of the 500 – 600 updates made every year are minor updates that go unnoticed.

However, several times a year, Google rolls out a major update to the core algorithm that can affect your rankings and organic traffic numbers.

With this in mind, tracking keywords is still important when monitoring an overall SEO strategy. But a change in rankings is only an alarm indicating something is either working or not.

That is because we aren’t only dealing with major updates any longer. Now, we are dealing with Rank Brain, SERP layout, & features, etc.


Why Search Engine Exposure? 

Now that Google’s SERPS are dynamic SERPs, rankings just don’t do it for us.

Search engine exposure takes the dynamic aspect of the SERPS into account, which is why it can help you monitor your SEO strategy. 

When your search exposure increases, the increase in organic traffic is due in part to three aspects of SEO 

  1. Increased rankings
  2. Ranking for new keyword terms
  3. More links in the SERPs

That third one is the important one.

Because of the SERP layout and features that I mentioned above, your website could have multiple links.



In the example, PIC has 3 links and 3 impressions on the first page of Google’s SERPs for a targeted local keyword:

  • First 2 organic positions
  • A listing in the Local Pack (Map Section)
  • Directory listing under the Local Pack
The result below the local pack is a directory listing. While that doesn’t show in rankings reports, it is a secondary type of search exposure and helps increase PIC’s real estate on the first page.

 A ranking’s report WILL NOT show you this.


How I Monitor Search Exposure

Let me clarify one thing…

When I say Search Engine Exposure, I am talking about Google.

With that in mind, I use the data from Search Console – specifically the Performance Reports. This is where you can find clicks, impressions, CTR, and average position for not only keywords, but specific pages of your website.

search console

Here’s the thing about Search Engine Console…

It is probably one of the most useful SEO tools!

My favorite application for Search Console is finding how exact keywords and individual pages are ranking in the SERPs.

What am I looking for when it comes to search exposure?

I am not really looking at the average position (rank). I am actually more interested in Impressions than anything else

Seeing an increase or decrease in overall search impressions, especially for a specific page, or a group of urls like a content strategy, tells me whether everything is working or if something might need some attention. 

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Why don’t I consider rank? 

total-impressionsBecause of how rank is calculated:

  1. Shows average rank over a time period
  2. Can be affected by personalization (location, search history, etc.).
  3. Includes all search result elements (traditional listing, carousels, featured snippets, Knowledge Graph cards, etc.).

 When your SEO strategy is hitting on all cylinders, you are picking up more and more longtail keywords or showing up for a term that no one ever searched before.

Most of the time, the new keywords that you gained are not on the first page of Google—they are page 3, 5, 8..

These new keywords that you gained are a great sign that the SEO strategy is working, but, because these rankings are not ideal, your rank usually suffers. 

In my option, Total Impressions is by far the best metric when evaluating your SEO and content strategies. 


Why Impressions over Rank?

Why are total impressions more valuable to me than rank or clicks?

I have already covered why rank, or Average Position, is unreliable as a KPI.

When it comes to clicks, you have to understand that Google doesn’t provide you with accurate data. The discrepancy is due to many reasons, including privacy.

I have to admit one thing here:

Understanding how Impressions metrics in GSC are calculated can be a little confusing. Here is how it’s explained in Search Engine Land’s article, Demystifying Google’s guide to clicks, impressions and position in Google Search Console:

Impressions. For standard organic listings (10 blue links), an impression is recorded even when it hasn’t been scrolled into view. So, in the 10 blue links, if your listing is #9 and below the fold, it still counts as an impression if the search result page was loaded. This confuses some people based on how Google treats carousels (more on that soon.) Also, a link must receive an impression for its position to be recorded. That sounds obvious, but worth noting.

Monitoring SEO is all about trends—namely finding the right ones. Google still provides the best information about your site’s performance in their search engine.

The truth is that impressions provide us with a better sense of what is going on than clicks or position metrics in GSC.


The best way to explain this is with an example.

For a client of ours, Precision Sign and Awning, we updated a page by adding valuable content for the targeted visitor and redesigning the layout to ensure that visitors could find the information important to them.

These changes were made during the day of December 22. On January 17, I viewed the search metrics for this page, and this is what I saw.


  • If you solely look at the page’s Average Position, it looks like the updates tanked the page.
  • If you look at Clicks, it looks like the changes didn’t help
  • If you look at Total Impressions, something definitely improved.

Now that we see that impressions are up, we need to dig in a bit deeper and see why the impressions went up.

Once we look at the Queries report for that url, we can see that we are finally ranking for the targeted keyword!


The most obvious improvement for the keyword phrase above is that this page wasn’t previously ranking for this targeted keyword. So, ranking 89 is very welcomed news!

But when you look at the impressions, you really get to see more of the big picture.

Generally, I wouldn’t expect 219 impressions for any keywords ranking on page 9 of the SERPs. But now that we know position is the average rank among all search result elements, we can safely assume that this page is not ranking solely on page 9.

If we look at the keyword phrase “channel letter sign installation,” you can see that the keyword had a massive drop in positions (35.7 to 78.7) but had an 3x increase in impressions.


Again, this actually points to a positive result in SEO efforts because you are most likely showing up in other search result elements more often than the traditional search listing.

How do you find those search elements?

Considering the personalization of the SERPs, that isn’t completely possible. However, you can manually search for the features or use a tool like SEMRush to get an idea.

That being said, SEMRush isn’t perfect, either. 

According to the ranking report, my client’s site doesn’t rank at all for this term for any search result that SEMRush tracks.


Improving Your SEO

Pic-icons-ArrowSearch engine exposure gives you that top-level view of your SEO strategy.

Using GSC, along with some other tools, you can take your SEO to the next level by taking a bigger dive into the data.

 This data can be a treasure trove when it comes to improving your SEO and overall content strategy.

  • Further optimize your on-page SEO using relevant keywords in the content, headlines, and/or meta title.
  • Support a page’s SEO effort and increase relevant traffic by creating new pages/blog posts around relevant secondary keywords for which this page is ranking.
  • If you lose ranking for some secondary keywords, you can create new pages and blog posts around those keywords that this page used to rank or feel are still relevant and useful.
  • Use a tool like SEMRush to monitor search result elements and optimize accordingly.


Paid Search Exposure

paid-searchI love paid search advertising and recommend it for almost every client.  

Here’s the thing about paid search…

It’s increases your exposure with the flip of a switch.

And, when you are ranking on the first page, your ad increases the real estate that your company has on page 1 and improves the chances of receiving a click to your website.

That being all said, your on-page SEO efforts can also improve your paid search traffic and conversions.

This is because Google Ads uses a metric called Quality Score that measures how relevant your ads and landing pages are to your targeted keywords.  

Because of this, a side effect of improving your on-page SEO is that you might also increase Quality Score. Typically, when you improve your Quality Scores, your ads will be better positioned, and you will pay less per click.


Final Points on Monitoring SEO Performance

It’s obvious that the traditional keyword ranking report is no longer as valuable as it once was.

  • With so many search result features available for your website and its pages in the SERPs, traditional keyword reports are no longer a sufficient way to monitor SEO Performance.
  • Today’s dynamic SERPs require you to look at your entire search engine exposure to for a top-level overview of your SEO strategy.
  • Impressions give you a better understanding of your SEO performance than rank.
  • Monitoring your search engine exposure will reveal opportunities to improve your pages and content strategy.

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Brad Gerlach

A Baldwin High School and IUP graduate, Brad joined Pittsburgh Internet Consulting as an Inbound Marketing Consultant in November 2015 after working as an independent consultant. Brad's work experience covers a full range of website design & development to local and organic SEO.