Scraping Google to Build Massive Datasets

Scraping Google for keyword rankings is a tricky business, they don’t want you to do it, and have gone as far as calling applications that do it “Black Hat”.

Let’s not forget, they’ve also said which ones they perceive to be accurate, so lets ignore the Black Hat bit and build our own!

(sorry Google).

It would be interesting to hear other people’s opinions on this, so don’t forget to leave a comment below and let me know whether you think its black hat, whether you care, and if you’d like more of these posts (that Google may not appreciate!).

The first thing we need to prepare, is a large amount of keyword ranking data, everything we build from here on in will be based on this data:

 

What use is Keyword Data?

This is the beauty, there’s hundreds of uses for SERP data, from the most obvious – tracking your site performance, all the way up to building a complete index of the keywords you’re interested in to build interactive rank models, or find new business opportunity.

Over the years I’ve found dozens of ways to manipulate this data for quick and easy wins, many of which we’ll cover in future posts, but to get started the first thing you’re going to need is a reliable source of all the SERP data you can grab.

What do you mean by “All SERP Data”?

Most tools only provide you with the rankings your site is in, not the rankings for everyone else across your keyword set.

This might seem like a level of data thats not relevant to you, after all, why should you care where other people rank?

Well, there’s plenty of application in being able to track other companies performance, not least being able to quickly see winners and losers during major google updates.

Imagine owning the data, relevant to your industry, that you wait a week to read in blog posts by SearchMetrics or SEMrush.

That’s potentially a major advantage, and I’m staggered more companies don’t take advantage of.

How can I get me some?

As with everything in life, there’s choices, but first lets recap the normal paths to keyword data:

1) Search Console / Google Webmaster Tools:
This gives you a couple of thousand keywords your site ranks for, that receive impressions.

The problems here are that you don’t get to decide which keywords are selected, you may have many more than are displayed, and if a keyword isn’t receiving impressions, you don’t get the data.  You also only see your rank, not who ranks around you.

For the purposes we’re looking at today, essentially useless.

 

2) SaaS Rank Trackers (Software as a Subscription rank checkers, typically paid by way of a subscription)
This is the most commonly used source of keyword data today.  Advantages are chiefly that you don’t need to spend time building scrapers, keeping them up to date (this is a bigger issue than most people realize), acquiring IP blocks to scrape with and so on.

Basically, SaaS rank trackers take all the hard work in SERP tracking, and provide you with just the data.  If that’s what you’re looking for, then GetSTAT have a great reputation, Advanced Web Ranking is one of my long term go-to favorites, and plenty of other tools offer both keyword tracking and multifunctioned tool sets (Again, SearchMetrics or SEMrush are great examples of enterprise and SMB platforms).

Note: other SaaS tools are available, lots of them.  These are just the ones I personally recommend.

The drawback, to me at least, of SaaS services though is twofold:  Firstly all of these services charge you for usage – which in itself is fine, but I often go on “fishing expeditions” where I might scrape hundreds of thousands of keywords results looking for potential evidence of algorithm updates.  Scale that up over a month, and I might scrape 3 or 4 million keywords.

These tools can do this, but it could get expensive quickly – and often these scrapes don’t reveal anything.

Secondly, because you’re requesting a job be processed, there can be delays in getting back your data.  This is of course true albeit to a lesser extent, of scraping results yourself, but at least then they are on your local machine, not at a remote server.

 

3) Locally Installed Rank Check Software:
This is where we’ll be concentrating for the rest of this post – and is my personal choice for obtaining large datasets of SERP data.

Having a local rank tracking solution allows you to scrape results at no additional cost, regardless of how many keywords you choose to grab.

The only limitations are how much data you can reliably scrape with your IP address, but this is mitigated with cheap VPN access allowing you to scale up almost infinitely.

It’s not going to be a “set and forget” solution though, if you want ultimate reliability then the SaaS option may be more appropriate, if like me however you don’t mind the occasional hassle then this is how I build indexes of the web.

Assuming you wish to use this in place of your SaaS tools, I strongly recommend you check daily whether its working correctly.

My current weapon of choice to scrape google is Link Assistant’s Rank Tracker:

Adapting Link Tracker to Export All Data

Unfortunately, Rank Tracker doesn’t perform all the steps necessary right out of the box, but the team over at Link Assistant have provided me with a hacked together custom report, which DOES do exactly what we are looking for!

Instructions:

1) Download and install Rank Tracker

2) Scrape your keyword set, its important to have a complete a picture as possible here (this will be covered in more detail later this week)

3) In Rank Tracker, simply choose “File>Export” and just click through with the default options enabled until you reach the “Preview / Code” screen (just press Next 4 times)

4) In the Code / Preview screen, select the Code entry area, and delete all its contents.  Replace them with:

<[DEFINE name="dateFormat" value="exportData.createDateFormat('MM-dd-yyyy')"/]>
<[DEFINE name="keywords" value="exportData.keywords"/]>
<[DEFINE name="searchEngines" value="exportData.searchEngines"/]>
<[DEFINE name="index" value="0"/]>
<[DEFINE name="historyIndex" value="0"/]>
#,Keyword,<[FOR_EACH name="searchEngines" id="searchEngineType"]><[ECHO text="searchEngineType.getName()"/]> CheckDate,<[ECHO text="searchEngineType.getName()"/]> Position,<[ECHO text="searchEngineType.getName()"/]> URL,<[/FOR_EACH]>
<[FOR_EACH name="keywords" id="keyword"]>

<[DEFINE name="maxRecords" value="0"/]>
<[FOR_EACH name="searchEngines" id="searchEngineType"]>
<[DEFINE name="serpHistory" value="keyword.getSerpHistory(searchEngineType)"/]>
<[IF condition="serpHistory != null"]>
<[THEN]>
<[DEFINE name="serpHistoryMap" value="serpHistory.getHistoryRecordsMap()"/]>
<[DEFINE name="lastSerpHistoryEntry" value="serpHistoryMap.entrySet().iterator().next()"/]>
<[DEFINE name="date" value="lastSerpHistoryEntry.getKey()"/]>
<[DEFINE name="records" value="lastSerpHistoryEntry.getValue()"/]>
<[EXECUTE expression="maxRecords = Math.max(maxRecords, records.length)"/]>
<[/THEN]>
<[/IF]>
<[/FOR_EACH]>

<[FOR id="position" from="0" to="maxRecords"]><[ECHO text="index+1" formatType="CSV"/]>,<[ECHO text="keyword.query" suppressEncoding="true" formatType="CSV" formatedTextType="String"/]>,<[FOR_EACH name="searchEngines" id="searchEngineType"]><[DEFINE name="serpHistory" value="keyword.getSerpHistory(searchEngineType)"/]><[IF condition="serpHistory != null"]><[THEN]><[DEFINE name="serpHistoryMap" value="serpHistory.getHistoryRecordsMap()"/]><[DEFINE name="lastSerpHistoryEntry" value="serpHistoryMap.lastEntry()"/]><[DEFINE name="date" value="lastSerpHistoryEntry.getKey()"/]><[DEFINE name="records" value="java.util.Arrays.asList(lastSerpHistoryEntry.getValue())"/]><[IF condition="records.size() > positionCounter"]><[THEN]><[DEFINE name="record" value="records.get(positionCounter)"/]><[ECHO text="dateFormat.format(date)" suppressEncoding="true" formatType="CSV" formatedTextType="Date"/]>,<[ECHO text="positionCounter+1" formatType="CSV"/]>,<[DEFINE name="urls" value="record.getFoundUrls()"/]><[IF condition="urls.length > 0"]><[THEN]><[ECHO text="urls[0]" suppressEncoding="true" formatType="CSV" formatedTextType="String"/]><[/THEN]><[/IF]>,<[/THEN]><[ELSE]>,,,<[/ELSE]><[/IF]><[/THEN]><[ELSE]>,,,<[/ELSE]><[/IF]><[/FOR_EACH]>
<[EXECUTE expression="index++"/]>
<[/FOR]>

<[/FOR_EACH]>

5) Now when you hit Export, assuming you’ve followed all the instructions above, your export will look something like this:

As you can see, what we have now is all the sites that rank in the top 10 positions for my first three keywords.

Each SERP position has a landing page, and from here we can start building out the rest of our dataset and start analyzing things like the specific ranking factors needed for our own industries!

Whats next?

Every day this week I’m publishing another post, with further ideas and instructions on how you can use this data to better inform your marketing strategy.

While every day we’ll be looking at a different use case, all of them will be based on this format of keyword data, so if you don’t already have a decent SERP datasource, go ahead and get yours built right now!

 

Martin MacDonald
Previously: Head of SEO, Omnicom. Inbound Marketing Director, Expedia. Head of Content & SEO, Orbitz. Currently: Marketing Consultant to Fortune 500's and High Growth Startups locally in Silicon Valley. Retired BlackHat & Current Tech SEO Geek.
Martin MacDonald

@searchmartin

Fortune 500's Digital Marketing Consultant. Former Head of Content & SEO for Expedia / Orbitz / Omnicom. English & Español
@leehill73 ping me a DM if you want me to check anything in particular mate (also, just looked at your agency site,… https://t.co/zPXamWy6iT - 6 hours ago
5 Comments

Comments are closed.

  1. IrishWonder 3 months ago

    Interesting post Martin, a few observations/questions though:
    1. Considering that every decent, technical enough SEO practitioner and team, agency or inhouse, likely does this sort of scraping to accumulate and analyse data (e.g. I had custom developed solutions in the two inhouse teams I was running and use multiple external tools now that I’m a freelancer; I know quite a few teams and individuals who do the same), and you have to credibly pass for a human to be able to scrape successfully, how much do you think this accumulated activity skews the keyword search volume data, search suggestions etc.?

    2. The above certainly rules out defining the activity as “white hat” but actually who cares 🙂 you know how I think there is no whitehat at all if you do anything to make your site move up the rankings.

    3. If you keep running a tool on a local machine, even via proxies, wonder how badly personalised the results get over time? (Hence me being in favour of using several different tools just to double check but for large data sets this surely gets expensive quickly)

    4. Catching scrapers and punishing sites for their owners doing it – what a fun idea 🙂 set up a bunch of trackers to run regular scrapes of huge sets of keywords using your competitor’s brand name or something else identifiable as pertaining to their site uniquely – what will happen?

    5. I’m just going to leave this notion here without expanding on it: SERP tracking for reputation management projects (I’ve yet to see a tool doing this perfectly btw but there’s a lot of fun to be had and a lot of interesting data to extract and interesting conclusions to make)

    • Author
      Martin MacDonald 3 months ago

      Thanks for the great thoughts IrishWonder – good seeing you 🙂

      1) “how much do you think this accumulated activity skews the keyword search volume data, search suggestions etc.?” more than anyone at the search engines are willing to talk about at this point in time, but I guess over the next year or two we’ll see a lot of change in the way things are reported industry wide.

      2), yeah, we’re on the same page here

      3) With rank data across different enterprise tools (from the big providers, I won’t name them) the rankings are surprisingly different side by side. All of the data should be looked at in scale rather than specific rankings.

      4) You’re evil 🙂

      5) hadn’t thought about that one, but the point in this post was to setup a number of others using the data gathered from this, in that format…. so worth thinking about!

  2. Thomas Schulz 3 months ago

    Could one not argue like EU that the way Google scrapes and uses data themselves is a bit questionable at times? 🙂

    Anyhow, I am NOT a lawyer, but to take the “mildest” case of scraping: If you slowly scrape a limited amount of data that relates to your own websites and only use the data yourself – I believe it is:
    1) Ethical completely fine
    2) Fully within fair use

    On the flip side – I can understand why Google may not want e.g. competing search engines (or backlink monitoring services for that matter) base their results on crawling Google search results on regular basis.

    • Author
      Martin MacDonald 3 months ago

      Hey Thomas!

      Thanks for leaving the comment, just a quick note: it was in my spam folder so your address must be flagged at kismet or something….

      Agree on your points, I guess the truth here is, with total visibility into rankings over time, you can potentially reverse engineer the ranking model. Without that data it would be utterly impossible, so if they cut you off at that point, then there is no need to worry further down the line.

      cheers!
      Martin

      • Thomas Schulz 3 months ago

        Thanks for the heads up. I don’t usually have problems commenting, but will keep an eye on it 🙂

        I personally think Google should stop labeling -limited scraping- as black hat. Google scrape themselves and I am even quite sure they have at least one prominent person in “webspam” team who for many years offered a tool (which by any common perception would be pure white-hat) that could seed its crawl of websites by retrieving a list of already indexed pages in Google…

        But sometimes I guess one just has to give up 🙂

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