Search Engine Rankings Rollercoaster

Yesterday I was working on linkbuilding for a new website, just launched over the weekend. They’re in competition with their own old website, which was up for some years. Google hasn’t been over to visit their homepage since they launched, but even so they’re number two at Google this morning (also number three, actually — they have one of those nice secondary insets,to a useful page I linked to here yesterday). They should be number one by the end of the week, easy.

search engine results

This is how it’s supposed to work. When you try to rank for keywords for which you deserve to rank, the search engines will cooperate with you and your rankings will improve.

What do I mean by “you deserve to rank”? The key thing to keep in mind here is that the search engines aren’t working for you. Their goal isn’t to make your business visible. Their goal is to give searchers the most useful pages. That keeps searchers coming back to them and helps the search engines sell ads, so that makes sense. Therefore, you should choose keywords that your customers — the people who actually want to find you — would use to search for you. Your business name, the main thing you do, the community where you do it, the subject for which you’re really a useful source. Then you just point out to the search engines that you exist, by requesting links at relevant sites and so forth, and in a week or two the search engines cheerfully serve you up on the front page above the fold.

This is how it normally goes.

Not every single time, though. Right now one of my clients, a Fargo web development firm, is riding the rankings rollercoaster.

This is Fargo, North Dakota, that we’re talking about here. They’ve had a flood followed by a freak blizzard, and even on normal days they have temperatures that sound to me as though they belong on some other planet, and now they have to cope with volatile search engine rankings, too? Doesn’t seem fair.

They began as we’d expect and want them to begin, moving up within a couple of weeks for most of their keywords. But look at the bouncing around after that. This is a graph showing their rankings at Google, and the ones for Yahoo and MSN are just as volatile — but completely different.

rankings graph

What’s going on?

The first possibility is that they don’t actually deserve those keywords. A quick rise followed by sinking is something you can see when somebody manipulates results and tricks Google temporarily, giving the site rankings it doesn’t deserve. That’s not the case here. This firm is not only a bona fide Fargo web design firm, they are a very good one.

The second possibility is that their competitors are working very hard on SEO, and only an equally hard push back will keep them in their proper place on the search engine results page. I’ve seen this before, with an e-card company that struggled constantly for top rankings, and always will, because the top players in that industry are always fighting for those rankings. This kind of situation reminds me of MMORPG rankings — you just can’t treat that as though it were a normal ranking situation.

The third possibility is that they’ve confused the search engines. There are signs of overall success, after all, along with the volatility. First off, the chart shows that their rankings have improved in the two months we’ve been tracking, and it’s early. What’s more, the client gets traffic with keywords like “SEO,” “web development,” and “web design.”

Let me clarify that, because it’s important. I’m saying that people type in “SEO” and “web design” at Google and end up at this client’s website. Not “Fargo SEO” or “North Dakota web design,” though of course those are common routes as well. Visitors have just typed in the bare term “SEO” and reached the client’s website. “Web development” is actually one of the top ten keywords. These are extremely difficult keywords for a small company to rank for, and I wish I had people visiting me by typing in “SEO,” let me tell you. I’m totally impressed.

The client also has been getting increases in the percentage of traffic that reaches the website through search, and specifically through search for relevant terms — except while his town was evacuated, during which time the traffic went down a bit. So it doesn’t look as though our SEO efforts have been unsuccessful. There have been a number of changes made to the web site in the time we’ve been tracking, the very word “Fargo” has been online a lot in other contexts, and there may just be settling going on.

The question is, what do you do about volatile rankings?

  • Rethink your strategy and make changes. The experts over at SEOMoz.org caution against this. On the other hand, I’m going to recommend a couple of things for the client to consider. Making changes which are generally positive can be worth doing, if you don’t overreact. At the very least, it makes sense to re-examine your strategy and make sure you’re not making errors. I had the privilege of rehearsing under a conductor from the National Symphony Orchestra last week, and he said kindly to the brasses, “Always consider the possibility that you’re wrong.” He was talking about mismatches in pitch, but it sounds like good life advice.
  • Get creative. I don’t start with creative linkbuilding. Most websites will rank well for the keywords they deserve to rank for just with onsite optimization and basic linkbuilding. You can spend a lot on the more fun and interesting stuff and end up just where you would have had you waited a while. If you’re in a very competitive field, though, and particularly if you’re in a field like web services in which there is a lot of manipulation of search engines going on (include the hospitality industry and pharmaceuticals in that category, too), then it can make sense to do some heavier work in social media, to set up some extra websites with useful content and links back to you, or to work on some linkbait and ask your friends to Digg you.
  • Relax about it. Sometimes it’s not necessary to hit #1 at Google in order to meet your business goals. You have to have number one for your business name, of course, and the client I’m telling you about does have that. But sometimes you can have good results without #1 rankings. For example, I’m not #1 for “SEO Fayetteville AR” yet. My website isn’t even above the fold. But look at the results for that query (on a signed-out search in my town):SEO Fayetteville AR

Do you think I have a problem? I don’t think so. The whole page is full of my name. It doesn’t really matter that my website isn’t yet #1. Will I be happy when it is? Of course. But until then, I plan to relax.

We’d all rather have top rankings that stay that way. But the rankings rollercoaster is a fact of life in some businesses. Just watch out for the results shown in this cartoon.

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