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Research Notes: Google search ranking flux

Written by David Harry   
Monday, 03 November 2008 07:58

What role do rankings play in modern SEO?

Is Google’s personalized search the SERP killer that many believe it to be? Yes and… well… no. There is a great deal of flux in the rankings these days, but not enough to take (targeted) rankings out of the key indicator designation.

A while ago we conducted some preliminary research into Google’s re-ranking anomalies in an effort to establish how important ranking reports were in modern search engine optimization.  From what we’ve learned so far, there is still a place for them, simply more of a moving target than in the past.

Google Personalized Search report

The goods on Google re-ranking

For starters it is worth noting that we looked at a small set of related informational queries; there is more testing to be done. That being said, here are a few initial findings;

No 2 SERPs the same; of interest is that there was a constant state of flux and regardless of the searchers location (within the US) each set of results were unique.

No SERP unrest; with the above in mind, there wasn’t massive movement. It was often more re-ranking of the top 10 results than having totally different sets of urls in each.

Top dogs; while there was movement, the top 3-4 results were often very consistent with minor re-rankings. The 5-10 positions were far more likely to have larger re-ranking anomalies. 

Personalization is a kitten; not a dragon. Another interesting finding is that personalization wasn’t having as much of an affect as many have felt it would. Yes, there was evvidence of high levels of re-ranking, but the re-rankings with PS off weren’t greatly different from those with it turned on. This will obviously vary on different query types, but from what we saw, it wasn’t the SEO killer that some have feared.


Factors not established;

Data Center Targeting; while we did have some participants from the same state, and all the data analyzed were from the US, our next round will focus on a single Google data center.

Query Deserves Freshness; the terms we used were informational queries that are highly unlikely to be affected by temporal flux such as the so-called QDF factors (so called by Google actually ;0)

Query types; we only looked at informational queries, it is highly likely that transactional and geographic triggers are subject to greater re-rankings – this will be in the next round of testing.

Query Analysis; the terms used should, theoretically trigger potential query refinement re-rankings and this could certainly play into the anomalies we noted.

Technical aspects; while we did establish OS and browser types, we did not dig into other Google services nor Google ToolBar installations. Our next round will be addressing these issues as well.


What it means to you

Ultimately you can’t assign a definitive ranking:traffic:conversions scenario in your SEO efforts, but that has been the case for a while now. Sure, you can safely say that a top 10 ranking is a top 10 for a geographically targeted area, but not that you will have a steady ranking such as 5th spot = X traffic etc…

When it comes to informational term targeting we can safely say that;

  • Top 1-4 spots are safest
  • Top 5-10 are secondary targets
  • Check multiple geo-targeted data centers for rank checking
  • Rankings to traffic ratios are ineffective
  • Consider query revisions when targeting (Analytics/Google suggest anyone?)
  • Over-all search traffic growth is a more important metric than rankings (as always)

If I had to make an early assessment, it seems that query analysis and geo-location are as active in re-ranking as personalized search is. Yes, the personalized results had a slightly higher tendency for inclusion of results outside the top 10, but even the results with personalized search off showed consistent re-ranking.  

The next round of research should start in a week or so and we’ll see what happens with other query types. To take part simply get in touch to be added to the list

Or download; the Google Personalized Search and Ranking Report

Related posts;
Guide to Google Personalized Search
Google using Query analysis




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