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Ever noticed your Google search rankings vary from day to day, computer to computer, or browser to browser? These are common problems which can be quite frustrating when trying to put yourself at the top of Google search rankings—it sure frustrates us. How are we supposed to perform website optimization when the results change in a seemingly random manner? Fortunately, in most cases, these differences can be explained.
First, let’s discuss how the Google search rankings are determined. As the SEO community learns more and more about the Google Algorithm, they also become more and more perplexed. Udi Manber, a Vice President of Engineering and “Search Guru” at Google, stated, “Last year we made over 450 improvements to the algorithm.” 450 Changes? How are we supposed to keep up with that? Well, often times it isn’t possible—especially since Google doesn’t even tell us what has been changed.
But what is the Google algorithm broadly based on? Of course there are many factors, but most importantly: A relevant page title and URL, the presence of keywords in meta-data and content, and links to your data from within your site as well as from other sites. Any changes to this information will likely change your Google search rankings (the same goes for your competitors). If you see your page rankings change, it could be due to the addition of relevant content on your website, or changes in your competitors’ keyword “density” or content.
Often times, varying search results don’t seem to be so sensible. For example, it’s not uncommon to see differences in Google search rankings between two different computers or two different internet browsers.
The other day, I was performing a keyword search for “book” and I found that I would have different results depending on if I was using Google Chrome or Internet Explorer 7. Why is this? It sure wasn’t because in the 5 seconds it took me to switch browsers someone changed their meta-data. Fortunately, there are potential explanations. First off, it could be because of a difference in Google’s SafeSearch preferences or even language preferences between the two browsers. This makes sense, but honestly there are very few cases (especially on the first page) that searching for “book” would bring up explicit content, so I knew this wasn’t the case.
Well, what else could cause it? Believe it or not, Cookies. Once I deleted my cookies from each of the web browsers, I obtained the same result on each browser. This is truly a pain when trying to determine a websites Page Rank, but fortunately it’s a relatively easy fix.
Another common issue or complaint is that people obtain different results based on where they are located. This, too, can be explained. All over the world, Google has different “datacenters” from which information is taken. Although Google is very secretive about its datacenter locations, we are aware of between 30-40 datacenters around the world and 12-15 here in the United States (Miller 2008). When a search is done in two different locations around the world, the search results may be taken from two different datacenters, resulting in different search results. Fortunately, not every datacenter will vary from another, but it isn’t uncommon to see differences (Callen 2005).
As is well highlighted in a recent SiteProNews article, many of these seemingly random changes in search results may be due to yet another change in the Google Algorithm. Of course, Google won’t tell us this, and we are left wondering what on earth is going on. Earlier this month, when a Google forum user (Teaman) complained how his Google Page Rank had randomly decreased from 2 to 0, a Google employee (JohnMu) responded saying “as far as I can tell, it looks like the change in [Google] Page Rank for your site is only due to some technical quirk and not something you need to worry about”. I checked his Page Rank today (2 weeks after he posted on the forum) and unfortunately for him, his Page Rank is still 0. I wonder if this is indeed a technical quirk, or a change in the Google Algorithm? If you would like to view this forum discussion, click here.
So, how do we know if Google search rankings are an accurate representation of your site’s visibility? As we find ourselves faced with varying search results, we are often stuck here mystified as to whether varied search rankings are the result of a Google Algorithm change, these “technical quirks”, or the result of the use of a different datacenter. While the SEO community is in unrest as to these issues (especially recently), I guess all we can do is sit back and wait for Google to straighten things out, await every algorithm update, delete our cookies and double check our preferences.
Good luck with your Google searches,
Miller, Rich. Google Data Center FAQ, Datacenterknowledge.com. 27 March 2008.
Callen, Brad. SEO Questions: Why do I see different Google results than my clients?, ArticleAlley.com. 13 December 2005. http://www.articlealley.com/article_19530_6.html, 14 July 2009.
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