Why a high Google rank is becoming ‘worthless’

Google now personalizes search results based on location, content type, and more. How and why you must adjust your strategy to reflect the new model.

If your company is fixated on its search rank, its approach to search engine optimization (SEO) is dangerously out of date.

I stress “dangerously” because while rankings have been a poor barometer of SEO effectiveness for a while, they have now devolved to nearly worthless.

Monitoring rankings will no longer get you closer to more traffic.

Why rankings don’t cut it

There was a time when search rankings were a healthy obsession; when landing on the first page really meant something.

Long ago in a world far away, everybody saw the same thing: Google search engine results pages (SERPs) displayed a universal and consistent set of results for a given search term. Moving from page 10 to page one could make the difference between no organic traffic and thousands of hits per day.

Today, several factors have obliterated this model:

  • Localization: Usually, Google knows where you are and offers results based on your geographic location.
  • Personalization: If you are logged into Google, your SERPs take your browsing history and social network connections into account.
  • Segmentation: Users have the ability to search for specific types of content such as video, news stories, social media content, and images.
  • Semantic search: Google is getting smarter about understanding the searcher’s intent. It can match multiple variations of a specific keyword page to a query. This means the SEO value of a specific phrase is less important than its context.

Put all of this together, and what do you have? An environment where your rank for a particular keyword phrase tells you very little about your search visibility.

  • Local variation. The results I see in Chicago in a search for “good Italian restaurants” will be drastically different from what a San Franciscan sees for the same search. (If it weren’t, neither of us would use Google for long!)
  • Personalized variation. If you log into Google and do a personalized search, you’ll see different results than when your personalization is turned off. Your results will also be different from what other personalized searchers see.
  • Segment variation. If I’m looking for a particular style of wallet, I might jump right to an image search and bypass your keyword-optimized text page altogether.
  • Semantic variation. If you search for “buy tri-fold wallet,” you might see results from e-commerce Web pages optimized for a variety of phrases because Google knows you’re shopping.

Where to put the SEO focus

The rallying cry “We’re number one!” still works for football, but SEO marketers need a new one. My suggestion: “We have awesome search placement!” relating SEO activities back to the four areas I’ve been talking about.

  • For localization: It’s essential for any local or regional business to use local optimization best practices. You want to make sure Google places your content well, not just in a standard search, but in Google+ local and credible local search directories.
  • For personalization: Engage with and build relevant social media connections to build influence and visibility. Use rel=author links to achieve broader placement through the Google authorship initiative.
  • For segmentation: Create and optimize a variety of content forms. The most important ones are images, infographics, video, news items, and original social media content.
  • For semantic variation: Put the focus where it belongs—on useful, relevant and authoritative content. Google will place content that delivers value to searchers better than content that attempts to manipulate its algorithm.

Today, anybody focused on rankings is a rank amateur. How do you approach SEO these days?

Brad Shorr is director of content and social media for Straight North, and writes frequently on industry-leading blogs about content marketing and SEO strategy. Follow Brad on Twitter @bradshorr. A version of this article originally appeared on Spin Sucks.

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