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Why do search rankings fluctuate?

Many website owners feel angst about where their sites appear in the search rankings.

Even more confusing for some is why the rankings fluctuate from time to time. In most cases its temporary, but we investigate why this happens and what you can do about it.

Before we get into it, you should know that you should not try and work out your own rankings by Googling your target keywords to see if you are on the first page. Google personalises your search results so this will give you a false impression of where your site sits.

If you don't have search ranking software, Google Search Console (formally Webmaster Tools) will tell you where you appear for certain phrases.

Before you worry too much, it is normal for search rankings to fluctuate. Known as the Google SERP 'Flux' (sometimes referred to as the Google 'dance') it is due to the constantly changing search landscape and the mechanisms that calculate where your site ranks.

New sites and major rebuilds

If you make any major structural changes to your site, or redesign an existing one, then expect a drop in rankings for a while, even if the new site has better SEO.

Make sure you put 301 redirects in for all your old pages to the appropriate new page if your URLs are changing.

Moving to SSL (Securing your site)

Many site owners report fluctuations after moving to secure their site with an SSL certificate but these should be temporary.

Ensure proper 301 redirects are in place to redirect the http version of pages to the https version

Bad backlinks

If you've fallen prey to the cheap SEO salesman you may have earned a manual penalty because Google detects that your link profile is 'unnatural' – usually from buying links or participating in link schemes.

But this will cause a big drop in all your rankings, not just periodic fluctuations.

If this is the case there will be a message in your Google Search Console account. You can use Google's disavow tool if you have no control over the source of these backlinks and where they come from.

Try and diversify your anchor text (ie don't just use one keyword phrase) and build links to other pages rather than just your homepage if you can, and avoid cheap, get-rankings-fast-and-easy schemes.

These three can cause ranking fluctuations but they tend to be one-offs. Ongoing minor ranking flux is most likely to be for the following reasons

Competition

If you are in a competitive industry, particularly if you have a lot of other players bigger than you, chances are that it's what they are doing better than you that is impacting your rankings.

After all, if one site's ranking goes up, someone has to go down to make room.

This is likely because they've added content, keep getting social shares or quality banklinks at a rate that you aren't matching.

Search Algorithm updates

Google makes about 400 algorithmic changes a year, some small and some large.

The (in)famous Panda update penalised a lot of 'content' farms but a lot of legitimate websites saw their rankings suffer as well.

Most algorithm updates are meant to improve the quality of the user experience so target thin content, dodgy backlink practises, over use of advertising and the like.

Changes to the algorithm also reflect the changes in user behaviours, for example the increased use of social media and sharing of good relevant content means social signals now play a part.

Stale, thin content

Google likes fresh, quality content so if you don't update your site regularly this is not helping your rankings. You may get a rankings bump after you add some content but you need to keep at it.

If you are trying to rank for multiple keyword phrases you will need to focus on adding quality content on a page dedicated to each phrase, and make sure other pages aren't competing for the same phrase.

Alternatively if you change the keywords you are trying to rank for or add to the list, you'll need to add content targeting these phrases – you won't rank just because you want to.

See 20 ideas for website content

Lack of Engagement

If you see large increases your bounce rate, or decreases in time on site you may also see a decrease in your rankings.

Google can't see your bounce rate but they can calculate how fast a searcher returns from your site to the search results (known as Dwell Time) – and if its short, then it implies that the searcher didn't find what they were looking for.

Low click through rates on the search results page can also reflect in your rankings so make sure your page descriptions are accurate and compelling.

See post How engaging is your website and why should you care

So as you can see there are many reasons why your search rankings are fluctuating and could be considered normal - but at the end of the day, it's not the ranking that is important but the amount of quality search traffic you get to the site – if it's increasing, you are on the right path.

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