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Search Engine Rankings Becoming More Unpredictable

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Search engine rankings for high authority pages have gone from being largely predictable over many years to being more unpredictable. Abrupt changes are replacing gradual ones.

Consider a page with unique, highly targeted information that grabs the top spot in Google search results for 10 years straight. The content is so unique that the page has no competition.

Suddenly, it drops down to the bottom of the first page in Google search results and stays there for months. There is nothing to indicate why the drop took place.

In its place, a bunch of big brand pages take over with content that is less relevant. Think of it this way: Anyone who used to search on “large red widget” would get a page about large red widgets. Then out of the blue, they started getting pages about large widgets. The reds are gone.

This behavior was not isolated to a single page. Anecdotally, quite a few other publishers have reported the same problem on webmaster forums.

A year later, the page pops back up to the top position in Google after languishing in SEO purgatory (SEO purgatory is a ranking that is below the top three positions that get 95 percent of the clicks.)

But other pages like this one that used to have top rankings don’t pop back up. It is becoming clear that factors other than relevance are becoming more important.

One of those factors is brand. But many others come into play. Some sources claim that Google search now has more than 200 algorythmic factors.

What Does This Mean for SEO?

In such an environment, search engine optimization is less dominant as an art, craft and science. Unpredictability means that anyone who optimizes a site or article for Google in particular must know that the effort may produce good or bad results and good or bad days, months or even years.

Still, the wild behavior on the part of Google organic search results is not a reason to give up on SEO. It only means that publishers and writers need to lower their expectations.

Keep in mind as well that SEO is more predictable with Bing and other search engines, although they don’t have nearly the massive market share of Google.

Why Are Google Rankings Unpredictable?

Webmasters speculate exhaustively about Google strategy and intentions. In truth, no one outside of Google knows for sure the details of the company’s search algorithms. They can only speculate. But logic and facts lead to some possible explanations.

The online advertising growth rate has slowed to about 10 percent a year, according to recent research. Google’s advertising growth rate has slowed as well compared to early years in the company, according to the company’s quarterly financial reports.

It means that Google can no longer take as much market share from traditional, offline advertising. Instead, it must fight for more money from two sources: 1) its competitors, and 2) advertising for its own site visitors.

The company can squeeze more money from visitors by making changes in the presentation and even organic search results. It can encourage more visitors to click on the ads and fewer on the organic results. It also can shift money from its AdSense partner network.

Companies that need to increase their profit, revenue and stock prices will sometimes sacrifice market share to improve those numbers. Google has plenty of market share to sacrifice.

In response, online publishers must rely a bit less on search engine rankings and more on advertising, social sites and other means of attracting site visitors. But they still should work on search engine optimization. One day, some of those sinking search rankings may pop back to the top again.

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