You sit there like panicked Bud Fox in Wall Street, chain-smoking your way through the week. Your stocks (keywords) are on another roller coaster ride. Just yesterday you were making a killing (on page one), but now you’re seeing your shares plummet (i.e., you’re on page seven) on the open market. It’s only a matter of time until Hal Holbrook strolls in and fires you, bringing to bear his prescient warning months before: Kid, you’re on a roll. Enjoy it while it lasts, ’cause it never does.
Before you pack up your SERP spreadsheets, cancel your keyword-tracking software, and start selling hot dogs out of a windowless van (nod to 30 Rock), you, like Bud Fox, need to focus on the fundamentals instead of the constant ups and downs of the market (the market being Google).
The SEO rankings game is a lot like watching the stock market because it’s filled with grey areas and imperfect data. It’s full of speculators and prognosticators, and only a very few know the truth.
Let’s start with the whys so we have a basis for our fluctuation fretting.
First, do you think Google wants you to figure out their algorithm? Of course not. But there are some smart people out there who could potentially do just that if Google didn’t make changes all the time. So yes, Google wants to show relevant results to searchers, but they’ve got to change things up to keep the playing field level and keep the SEOs guessing (and employed).
SEO was, is, and always will be a moving target. We’re not dealing with a static environment where one input equals two outputs every single time—we’re dealing with a dynamic environment that teeters on the 200-plus variables in Google’s algorithm.
If you want more cold water thrown on your face, try this on for size: Even Google Webmaster Tools doesn’t provide you with a 100-percent-accurate view of your site or how Google sees it. Google likes to give you some direction, but not the answer key to the test.
Let’s get back to explaining why ranking results vary so much. Here are a handful of reasons why:
Signed in or signed out of your Google account: Google will use your profile (Did you know you have one with Google? You do, check it out.) and past search habits to serve up what they consider to be the most relevant results for your searches. This is why you’ll often see your own website ranked higher than what reporting tells you: you tend to visit your site a lot!
So many servers, so few positions: It may be common knowledge to some people, but some people don’t realize Google has several server locations around the world. Search results are pulled from them all. So the search results I see in Los Angeles can vary from those seen in Indianapolis. You can change your settings to get a better picture of what local results are, but that’s a laborious task to do manual searches for your hundreds or thousands of keywords, and it still doesn’t guarantee you’ll see the results people in the local market see because Google knows your IP address.
Imperfect data in means imperfect data out: So, you say, I’ll just rely on my trusty reporting tools from Mega SEO Dominator King. This can be helpful so you don’t have to keep doing manual searches, but realize third-party tools that have access to Google’s API (application programming interface, a fancy way of saying Google’s backend) are not accessing 100 percent consistent, accurate data either.
It would be great to just go scrape the data (in other words, find a way to do live searches en masse and pull the information directly from the SERP), but that will anger Google since it’s against their policies.
Local rules!: You’ve probably noticed that on some searches, only six or seven true listings appear because of Google’s emphasis on local listings. Two, three, sometimes even four listings can get pushed to the second page. So your sweet number-eight ranking may actually be on page two – though your pricey reporting tool might still say you’re on page one. Awesome!
Oh, please allow me to squash your last granule of hope for ranking predictability by reminding you about Panda and Penguin updates happening all the time.
It’s not time to discount rankings altogether, or call up your clients and tell them it doesn’t matter anymore. Instead, keep an eye on ranking, use it as directional information, and focus on metrics that matter, like site traffic and conversions.
If there’s a silver lining in this topic, just think: You might be on page one somewhere in the world and not even know it.