Part of the fun of my job (for me, at least) is finding ways to explain complicated concepts in layman’s terms. One of the questions I find hardest to answer succinctly is “Why do search engine rankings change so much?” Ultimately, I’ll argue that rankings don’t matter but it’s hard to convince people of that when their competitors are outranking them for a prized keyword.
In the interest of brevity I’ve narrowed the list down to 4 main reasons why search rankings change:
1. Ranking Algorithms Change
Search engines use sophisticated algorithms (a set of rules and/or formulas) to determine the ordering of search results. Within milliseconds after a search engine user types in a query and clicks the “search” button, the ranking algorithms evaluate hundreds of variables related to your website, your competitors’ sites, the searcher’s previous behaviors, and a wide variety of other “signals” related to keywords searched.
Fluctuations in search rankings can occur when the algorithms change, which happens almost every day. Search engineers (the brains behind the machines) are constantly testing the addition and removal of different variables and changing how they prioritize them. By observing the resulting ranking changes and user behaviors, the engineers can fine-tune the search results with an eye towards improving relevance.
Key Takeaway: Don’t worry about “chasing the algorithm” because you can’t keep up. Instead, focus on creating value for your visitors with useful, relevant content. What’s good for users is good for search. Here’s a good recap of the Google algorithm changes over time from SEOmoz.org. (cartoon credit)
2. Changes to Your Website
Whether you are actively incorporating Search Engine Optimization best practices into your website or not, any changes to your site’s content or structure can impact your search engine rankings. Adding new content or internal links might increase your visibility in search results for new keywords. A site redesign or transition to a new domain or web server can also have significant ramifications for search visibility.
This may seem obvious, but not all of the changes to your site are initiated by you. Consider the implications for search engine rankings if your site gains or loses links from other websites. If you host any user generated content such as photo/video uploads, blog comments or user profile pages, your visitors’ activities could alter your site’s relevance for particular keywords.
Key Takeaway: When planning website changes, consider SEO early and often. Don’t assume that it can wait until right before launch (or even worse, after). By then it may be too late to get the full benefit.
3. Competitor Activity
Your competitors are making changes to their website as well. They may or may not be knowingly practicing SEO but any changes they make to their site’s content, structure or link counts are going to impact their visibility in search results. Here are 7 signs that your competitors hired an SEO.
Any gains or losses that they make can cause your website to move up or down in the search results.
Key Takeaway: It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on the competition, but don’t fall into the reactionary mindset where you feel like you have to mimic everything they do. Stick to your plan, remain proactive and focus on improving the accessibility, relevance and credibility of your own site.
4. Searcher Behavior
Finally, individual users can influence their own search results in a variety of ways. Search engines are increasingly personalizing search results for each user based on previous search and browsing behaviors. For example, if I search for a lot of car-related keywords and type in “jaguar”, Google will skew the results towards the automotive brand. However, if I search for a lot of animal or nature stuff, Google might show me more results related to the wild cat.
The same concept applies to geographic targeting. Search engines can use your computer’s IP address to determine your approximate location and show you more geographically-relevant search results.
Key Takeaway: The search results that you see are likely different than the search results that I see, even if we search for the same keyword at the same time. Additionally, the search results you see from your work computer are likely different than the results you see at home, especially if your home computer is used by other people with differing interests.
So, Rankings Don’t Matter!!
But traffic and conversions do. Don’t get hung up if a competitor outranks you on one or two “prized” keywords. This type of small thinking can distract you from seeing the bigger picture and focusing on improving your site’s accessibility, relevance and credibility. You’ll be better off in the long run if you think big.
Use your web analytics software to track your overall organic search engine traffic. Look at trends over time instead of focusing on one particular day or data point. If your search traffic is rising, chances are you’re doing something right.