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Ranking on Google: What SEOs need to know

There are plenty of companies out there that promise to rank your page at #1 on Google. Can they do it? Perhaps, but more than likely it’s a scam that won’t result in any real-world rankings or conversions. If you optimize your content for an obscure, long-tail keyword like “saltwater pool artists and sourdough bread bakers,” and Google Search Console may show a ranking impression of 1 for that keyword. Easy, right?

That begs the question: are there any real human users actually searching for that keyword? I type that into the search bar on my computer to perform a live search and check that my site ranks, and I’m a human, right? One impression under the belt, get ready to bank your millions in online cash!

The problem is that Google is trying to provide the best results for actual human users who are searching for actual information. Also, one impression does not a ranking make, unfortunately.

Rankings are irrelevant, except when they aren’t

It would be much easier if we could just tell clients the truth: “Rankings aren’t real. They’re different for everyone, so don’t worry about ranking.” However, you need to show clients definitive signs of improvement so you can get paid. There is a middle road here. Educate yourself and your clients and then set reachable goals.

To understand what is important about rankings, and how to manage client expectations when talking about improving SEO, you need to understand how Google determines rank, and more importantly, how Google individualizes those rankings.

How does Google determine your Rankings?

When you look at your keyword rankings in Search Console, Google provides you with a number they call Daily Average Rank (DAR). To find this number, Google takes your top impressions each day and averages them. They then take all of those numbers and average them.

For your site to receive an impression, your listing has to be viewable by the human eyes. So, if your site is listed on page 5 and your user only views results to page 2, you do not receive an impression, and that listing won’t affect your DAR.

Why is Search Console ranking confusing?

Because what Google reports in your Daily Average Rank in Search Console can be much different than what you and your client sees when you search for your site in a keyword search on the Google SERP.

It’s important to look at your ranking, but also at the number of impressions you’re receiving and the click through rate (CTR). Because Google is working in averages, an average of 1 is 1. This means that if your site impressed highest for a particular keyword, but that keyword was only searched for one time, your data is skewed. This is often the case with those obscure keywords that no one is searching for. Look at the high and mid-impression keywords to know where you’re doing well and where you can improve your content marketing.

But, when I look up my keywords in Incognito Mode, I still don’t see the same rankings!

You’re right. Even when you’re in Incognito Mode, Google uses the algorithm to determine what you see on the results page. This is because every single search is individualized based on the search algorithm.

Location, device type, mobile or desktop, quality of content and the user’s search history all go into the algorithm, plus almost 200 other factors. This means that when I look up the keyword string “best plumber” on my desktop, I am probably going to see variation in the results from what shows when I look up “best plumber” on my phone, even from the same location. If I drove one town over and looked up “best plumber” on my phone, the results would likely be vastly different than my previous searches.

To make matters even more confusing, if you looked up “best plumber” from your desktop or mobile device, you would likely receive different results than I received in any of my searches, whether you were sitting right next to me or halfway around the world.

This is why Google (and most marketers who are looking for a good approximation of what their ranking is) suggest you look at the Daily Average ranking as the closest you can come to a definitive ranking.

What about SERP tracking software?

SERP tracking software that purports to give you “live” or “scraped” results, are problematic for a couple of reasons:

  1. They don’t follow Google’s (and pretty much all other search engines’) terms of service. This means they may be doing something shady in the first place. It also means that the companies providing your results are doing some fancy footwork to hide their servers and actions from the search engines.
  2. Robots, not humans, are conducting these searches. While a computer program (the robot) is not necessarily the worst approximation of human behavior, the issue arises when these robots conduct multiple searches, building a search history of their own, and that search history becomes a factor in your live results. A robot can perform millions of queries a day, from content marketing to dog food canning, which means their search history hardly runs the same lines as normal human behavior.

What does all of this mean?

Most of all, knowing what Daily Average Rank does and does not indicate about a site can help you and your clients manage expectations. There are hundreds (thousands?) of companies that will claim that they can get your site to Page 1 or #1 on Google. These folks just may have figured out some “secret formula,” but probably not. The fact remains that good content and quality links are the key to higher rankings and good traffic. It also means that you and your clients should do some keyword research to find the middle ground between obscure long-tail keywords that will never impress, and highly competitive keywords that don’t give you a chance.

Want to know more about rankings, or how you can build traffic on your site? Contact me, and let’s talk!

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