We consistently receive one excellent question from almost every one of our clients: "Why are my Google rankings going up and down?" There are many forces at play here, but let's take a deeper look to explain Google rankings (and how to influence it).
Out of Your Control: Google Algorithm Changes
Ah yes, the "algorithm." According to trusted sources (thanks Moz), it can change between 500-600 times each year. That means about twice a day, the way Google ranks and displays search engine results changes. Sometimes in very minor ways, sometimes in very major ways.
As companies and as marketers, we have no control over these algorithm updates. They are meant to give searchers the best possible results, and therefore, Google does not publish the secret sauce for how to rank #1.
Here are just a few of the changes we've seen recently:
- Sites being ranked higher for being mobile-friendly, fast to load, secure and usable
- Ads being removed from the sidebar, and migrating to the top and bottom of search results
- Adding more non-traditional search results like quick answers, maps, recipes, and products
- Low-value content dropping significantly in rankings with the newest Fred algorithm update this month
All of these constant changes affect how your organization's keywords are ranking.
In Your Control (Mostly): How Does Google Decide to Rank You?
Google's Ranking Factors
The next mysterious part of the puzzle: how does Google determine where you stand in search results? The answer is what we call ranking factors. These are the parts that make up the sum of the "algorithm." There are plenty of great resources that have steadfastly attempted to track these factors, including Moz, SearchEngineLand, and SearchEngineJournal. Here are the most important ones:
- Content - quality, depth, length, uniqueness
- Links - quality incoming links from trusted sources (you can influence this through proper link building campaigns)
- Page Quality - things like load speed, page security (HTTPS), structured data, etc.
There are certainly more factors, but these are generally accepted as the most critical ones. But let's not also forget, a high-ranking website starts with a good design and properly set up structure (sitemaps, meta tags, open graph data, oh my!)
Avoiding Google Penalties
There are many things that you can do to positively influence your search engine rankings, but there also factors that can harm your position.
- Bad/harmful/toxic links – Guilty by association. It's like hanging around with the "bad kids" in high school. Google can penalize sites that have too many inbound links from low-quality/"spammy" sites. It's a good practice to evaluate inbound links to your site and limit the number of low-quality links coming in. Not all lower-quality links are bad, however. If they are relevant to your industry and provide context around the link then it's still a valuable link to have.
- Bad content - There's a term in the search world called "pogo sticking." Like the image in your head, it's when a searcher clicks a link, views the page, realizes the content isn't what they were looking for, and "pogo" right back to the search results. Simple solution: make sure you have high-quality content that is useful to the searcher and matches your page title and page description.
- Bad usability - One of the more recent offenders is the interstitial (also known as the big popup that appears in the middle of the screen when the page loads). Things like this, slow page load time, legibility issues, or poor design can harm your place in the rankings world as well.
Understanding natural "rankings" movement
Due to all of the factors above, you can now understand that it's not uncommon for search results to shuffle around even on a daily basis. Sometimes these shifts are minor (like moving a spot up or down), and sometimes they’re major (like moving up or down several pages in the rankings).
Here are some recommendations to help cope with the ever-changing rankings landscape:
- Be Patient - We recently wrote an article about how long it takes to rank, and the general consensus is between a few months to a year or more, especially for brand new content. As the article recommends, looking for positive momentum over time and focusing on deeper metrics is a better approach.
- Be Consistent - Focusing on a specific set of keywords or pages for a period of time and then hoping they retain their prime position in search results can be risky business. Maintaining strong rankings requires consistent content production, link building, and search engine optimization.
- Stay Current - Because of the massive rate of change in how Google ranks, it’s important to stay up to date with ranking factors, or work with an excellent partner who can do this for you. SEO isn’t a 3-month project. It’s constant, and as such requires constant attention.
It's also important to remember that Google truly tries to personalize results. This means your previous search history and current location among other factors come into play as well, which means you and your coworker can search the same phrase with different results. If you want to see truly unbiased search results, open up an Incognito window in Google Chrome.
If you’re ready to better understand where your website is ranking, how you stack up against your competitors, and how to uncover opportunities to drive more leads through search, we’d love to show you with our web assessment!