Rankings have long been a valued metric in search marketing. After all, it’s easy to monitor and seems like a really important measure. However, if you really want to measure the effectiveness of your SEO campaign, stop obsessing about rankings.
Proactively changing the focus of your company’s expectations from rankings on a single trophy term to metrics that matter more will help. Search engine rankings remain a useful diagnostic tool and should be tracked as a metric, but rankings are not the most telling measure of SEO success. See my articles on setting SEO goals and measuring SEO success for more detail.
Rankings Can Be Different for Each Searcher
In fact, rankings for the same term on the same engine can be different for each searcher. In reality, the giant success or dismal failure that a particular ecommerce merchant perceives may be isolated to his or her search results. Understanding this phenomenon is one of the most effective ways of helping your team focus on the measures that really matter, and halting obsessive rank checking.
The following factors all influence the search results for individual users.
Personalization. Search engines use what they know about your online behaviors to tailor search results specifically for you. This factor alone means that the more products you use from an engine, the more customized your results are likely to be. Unless you have the same online habits as your colleague (unlikely), you will see different results than he or she does. Take, for example, Google: Gmail, iGoogle and Google Toolbar all collect information about your search behavior and online habits, not to mention all the other Google products (Chrome, AdSense, Google Analytics, YouTube, and Picasa). Google knows a lot about you, and it uses that information to present your search results. Google allows you to manually remove personalization from results by appending &pws=0 to the query string. For example: http://www.google.com/search?q=seo+rankings&pws=0. Note that you have to add &pws=0 every time you change the search query, and opinion is divided as to whether it works if you’re signed in to any of your Google accounts.
Number of Results Displayed. Search results will also be different based on the number of results you choose to display. The default is 10, of course, but you can manually increase that to any number up to 100. Engines will display the second result from the same domain as an indented result, artificially promoting the result for usability purposes. If your CEO is displaying 10 results and you’re looking at 100, she may see her trophy term in position #3, but you may see it at position #3 and #4 as an indented result. The indented result actually ranked at #67, but because you’re viewing 100 results that #67 was displayed indented as #4. Google allows you to manually change the number of results displayed by appending &num=100 to the query string. The value can be any number up to 100. For example: http://www.google.com/search?q=seo+rankings&num=100.
Data Centers. The major engines have systems of data centers strategically located around the world to serve results more quickly and allow them to release updates more gradually into the wild. Each data center can have different URLs indexed and different algorithms, some of which are new or experimental. Which data center you hit typically depends on where you’re located, but traffic volumes at individual data centers and other factors may come into play as well. The Google Data Center Research Tool provides a quick snapshot of the complexity that data centers introduce into search-engine-results tracking.
Geographic Location. Your location (and the location of your IP address) matters as well. Not only will your location affect the data center you hit when you search, but it can also affect the personalized content in the results. If your colleague is at a conference in London, his or her results will be different than yours in the Seattle office. He or she will see more local content, more content from .co.uk domains and from sites hosted in the U.K. Even different locations in the same country (Seattle versus Chicago) can have different search results. To see a side-by-side example of different results in different countries, check out the Google Dance Tool.