Google SEO: Can We Really Know If SEO Is Causing A Change In Rankings?
Google SEO can be quite a challenging affair, with even the top Google SEO experts struggling to figure out why their search rankings suddenly drop. In a recent Google Office Hours hangout, two SEOs reported making changes that negatively affected their search rankings. When they undid those changes, their rankings returned, but John Mueller said that it was not necessarily a matter of cause and effect.
The two unrelated events brought up in the same office hours hangout imply that understanding why something ranks or does not rank is more complicated than it seems.
Relevance Between Actions And Ranking Changes
The strange incident in the Google Office Hours hangout may make people think that SEO is mostly straightforward; if there is a cause, there is an effect. For instance, many people believe that a link builder may build links and ideally improve their rankings, but it is not that straightforward.
Above The Fold Content And Ranking Changes
In another Google Office Hours Hangout, a person asked Mueller if Google gives preference to websites that have above the fold content. They asked the question because after seeing their competitor move content to the top of the web page, it resulted in a significant boost in rankings.
Mueller replied that placing content above the fold does not have any “magical” benefits on search rankings.
Still, the publisher ignored Mueller’s comments and made changes to their site’s design to put more content above the fold. They also removed their image banner, which was initially placed at the top of their website. The result was a significant drop in their rankings, kicking them out of the number one position to number two.
This week, the same publisher returned and asked if changing their website design caused the drop in their rankings.
Google Ads and Perceived Impact On Rankings
Another publisher shared their experience in the Google Office Hours hangout this week, saying that they started a Google Ads campaign, which caused their site rankings to disappear from the search engine results pages (SERPs).
When they stopped their Google Ads campaign, their website returned to the SERPs, ranking the same as before.
Mueller’s reply to both cases was that both actions were completely unrelated to those changes in the SERPs.
How Does One Know That Google Responded To A Change?
Both ranking related events may give people the impression that they cannot ensure whether a particular action causes negative changes in rankings.
This is most common in link building, where SEOs create links and watch as their rankings improve. But in some cases, there are no instant results, and SEOs have to wait for months to see improvements.
In both cases, one would agree that it was caused by the links, but there is more to it than meets the eye.
Apophenia – Perceiving Meaningful Connections
The human brain is designed to see patterns or uncover meaningful connections between two things as a survival mechanism. Without meaning-making, humans cannot predict things necessary for survival and reproduction. When this pattern-recognition system backfires, though, people become too cautious or self-deceptive.
In other words, people think they see patterns or connect the dots even when they do not exist; this is referred to as apophenia.
Going back to the first publisher who changed their website design to accommodate more content above the fold, Mueller said that making that kind of design change was a “fairly soft change” – so small that it would not cause anything huge to the website’s ranking.
The publisher then told Mueller that their rankings dropped from position one to position two, which was a huge effect. Still, Mueller replied that these changes in rankings are not tied to the site design, and what happened was just normal as site rankings change daily.
Still, there is no way of knowing for sure if an action or a change in a website affected Google’s algorithms. Because of this, people compare Google’s algorithm to a black box where the inputs and outputs can be seen, but the way they were processed and computed is not visible or totally clear. No one really knows what is happening inside the box.
For instance, one can put links and content into the “black box” and watch as the rankings come out on the other end. However, they have no way of seeing what is really happening inside the black box, meaning no one knows why a website is ranking.
SEO Cannot Be Definitively Attributed To Results
Since no one can tell what’s exactly happening inside the box, no one knows if the links contributed to the boost in ranking, or if some of the links helped, or if none of it helped and the content alone positively affected the rankings.
All these are patterns that the human brains are wired up to see; patterns that the brain automatically connects to create meanings.
In SEO, many aspects exist just because the convincing brain shows patterns that do not necessarily have a relationship between things.
By making people understand this way of thinking, they can become more self-aware about our natural tendency to see patterns that do not exist. And this can help everyone be more open to other factors that cause rankings to rise or drop.
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