Search Rankings are Dead: Long Live Search Placements

It’s a new year. Somebody needs to declare something dead.

These ranking reports are dead Jim

Recently, I gave a presentation on Google’s Search+ in which I said ranking reports no longer matter because there is no such thing as consistent Google rankings.

What you see in the Google search results and what I see, for the exact same query, are likely to be two different sets of results, thanks to:

  • Personalized search results based on our own search history
  • Influenced search results based on our friends’ search histories
  • Local search results
  • Brand mentions in social media and on web pages
  • Query deserves images, video, products, news or other types of search results
  • Query deserves freshness
  • Query deserves diversity
  • Brand mentions on social media and the web
  • Over 500 algorithm changes a year

In addition to all the other factors that Google rolls into its integrated universal search model, the link based uniform rankings as we once knew are long dead.

As Google Web search and Search+ evolves the results you and I see are more likely to be different. Useful ranking reports depend on consistency. Consistency is dead. We no longer have search engine rankings. We have search engine placements.

Okay, I am not really declaring ranking reports DOA. In fact, Google and Bing provide nice ranking reports in their respective webmaster tools.


Google webmaster tools ranking report


Bing webmaster tools ranking report

On the plus side, these reports show counts for impressions and clicks, average rankings, and up or down movement. For a one-look rankings report, I like this format and wish I could pull the data with an API.

But I pull data from web analytics too, including:

  • Exact match visits by each target keyword
  • Phrase match visits by each target keyword
  • Number of unique visitors from organic or non-paid search
  • Number of keywords from organic or non-paid search

The problem with these webmaster tools and analytics reports is that they do not explain how different keywords appear in the search results or why without a lot of cross-referencing, checking short date ranges and looking at search results.

See for yourself. Search Google for coffee house:

Search I am confident you will see local results with area cafes.

Google local search results for coffee house

Now run this search: Did your results change? The pws=0 turns-off personalized results. If you are signed into Google, you should also visit and remove then pause your Web history. I run all my searches with history turned-off and pws=0.

Change the city to Troy, NY. Are any of the first page results the same?

Change the location to United States. Did the local listings and map disappear? Are you seeing different types of sites?

Differences in the search results because of a changing location are easy to understand even if they are not always easy to isolate. Some search marketing firms have even setup web proxies hosted in different cities to help them see the same results as people living in those communities.

The Social Network Impact

If your Google+ network or friends on other social media communities influence rankings, that’s more difficult to figure out.

If your next door neighbor links to a website from Google+ that may impact a handful of people, but what happens if AdAge or Lady Gaga mentions your brand or links to your site? What influence will that have and how do you find out?

One way is to look for activity on different social media sites.

Search for brands and keywords then click on the results to get a feel for the conversations. The more massive the conversation and the more influential the writers, the more impact social is likely to have on search engine rankings.

Ask yourself how people discuss brands and keywords. Which brands get mentioned and linked to alongside keywords and why? Understanding the conversation will help you to plan your participation and inform your content on your social media accounts and on your website. This type of research may even help you with link building.

Another place to look for social media influence is in your web analytics. If links in social media are affecting search rankings, it is also likely that people are clicking on those links to visit your site. Search for referrals from all of the major social media sites.

If you cannot get this information from your analytics package, use the server logs for the website.

This is soft research. Visit the pages people are arriving from. Look for clues, not so much causes or correlations. The larger takeaway is that the old days of just looking at ranking reports and backlinks are over.

As search engines incorporate social media factors and collective intelligence more deeply into their ranking algorithms, awareness and understanding of different conversations becomes just as important as who is linking to whom.

Now over to you. How are you responding to Search+ and personalized results? How do you look for influences on the rankings? How are you using this information?

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO


About The Author: operates Schmitz Marketing, an Internet Marketing consultancy helping brands succeed at Inbound Marketing, Social Media and SEO. You can read more from Tom at Hitchhiker's Guide to Traffic.

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  • Tony

    For a long time I’ve thought reporting based on organic position is highly inaccurate and can be misleading because of all the other components in a search result page.

    I’ve started to report based on estimated clicks, which take into account all the universal search components, size, position etc.

    It’s still only a rough estimate and as you point out, looking at actual impressions/clicks is the best data when you can get it.

  • Marciano Bantiling

    I always clear my Google history and turn off my pws=0 to find the exact rankings and be accurate on the Google result page.

  • Tony


    That’s part of the problem. As an anonymous user you will not see what others see. You also can’t be all people, in all places, on all devices at all times and get a single result that is true.

    the best is you get a rough idea that you can compare to previous readings.

  • Tom Schmitz

    Exactly Tony, and with Search+ it is less likelier than ever you will see the same results others see.

  • John Clark

    If I have a new mantra it would be 99% People and 1% SEO.

    I will rarely be checking my own rankings if at all and only be focusing on traffic reports.

    I also am getting my video hat back on after years of not editing/doing special effects to attempt crowd sourcing lifestyle programming.



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