A users search history and all pages you subsequently clicked on give Google an idea what you are interested in. This information allows the search engine to further shape SERPs in a way which is most relevant to you. A really important consideration in tracking results for SEO is to understand that part of Google’s algorithm involves adjusting the search results to give the best experience possible for every query.
Sounds great in theory but we need to keep in mind what this means for reporting of how our keywords that we’re going after are ranking. My #1 is not necessarily going to be your #1.
How much personalization occurs changes query to query, and it does tend to be more about the top of the results than the results further down the page, but understanding the factors that can personalize rankings is important. You don’t want to be making marketing decisions based on incorrect data, or data that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Hopefully, you’re aware of these things call ranking factors which help Google work out how to sequence the search results. They help Google decide in general what the rankings should look like, but when an individual person does a search they also consider these personalization factors… broadly, Location, User History and Device.
Let’s face it… Google knows both where you’ve been and where you are now. If you didn’t already know that I’ll give you a second to move into the 21st century. They definitely know where you are right now. That gives them some opportunities to give you a better experience on their search results though. When you run a search, physical businesses near you are displayed both in the local pack and sometimes in the regular organic listings getting a bump as well. You can also get personalized results based on places you’ve been before, or places near places that you frequent all the time like your home or the office.
If you’re tracking a rank for a keyword and using a place like Melbourne, that’s fine but keep in mind that every place name like that has a specific latitude and longitude, usually right in the middle of downtown, whereas a user is more likely to be somewhere else in the city with another specific latitude and longitude. So with rank tracking, it can be helpful to think more than just the centre of the CBD – where are your actual customers? And consider tracking more than one location in the same city if you can. We’ve obviously got tools that can do this for you.
Google knows what you’ve searched for previously, what you chose to click on, what you chose to skip over, whether you came back to the search results looking for more information after clicking on a result, how many times you’ve searched for something, the list goes on and on. They also probably know sites you go to without using Google, if you’re using Chrome on your desktop or your phone. So, they can use that information to push the result you’re expecting to find higher in the results. The Google organic team want to help you achieve your goal as quickly as possible and if skewing the results in this way makes you happy to keep using Google more often and clicking ads… well, you can see the game. Keep that in mind especially if you’re constantly on your own website or maybe one of your competitor sites clicking around and then checking up on how you’re ranking. You can’t trust that those results you’re seeing are objective.
To a lesser extent, you should keep in mind that Google has (either explicitly or implicitly), a tonne of demographic and interest data about each user. They can use this data to show results more likely to fit your intention. One hilarious example is the keyword ‘pig pen’. Google would be within their rights to generalize that a searcher in a rural area that’s been to stock feed websites might be more interested in an enclosure for pigs… but an inner-city student who is on Instagram a lot and likes cute animals might want stationary adorned with a cute pig face. Google has said they don’t do much of this kind of thing, but keep in mind that it is possible.
Google won’t always know what’s best for each user, instead, the algorithm makes an educated guess based on the trove of metadata it has on each user’’s search history.
One thing most people are aware of now is that mobile and desktop results can obviously be different. This can be for a few different reasons. First, the regular Google algorithm takes mobile usability and speed of a website into account in it’s a decision about site rank. But also, different devices can have a different inferred search intent. Someone on their phone is more likely to be out and about and want faster answers than a user on their desktop that might be more able to consume in-depth content. If Google starts to find that mobile users are repeatedly jumping back to the search results because the site they got directed to isn’t fitting their intent, over time the results for that person will change.
Test it for yourself
You can test some of these things by running a search for the same thing in a logged in the browser which has all the history of you, where you’ve been, what sites you like and so on… versus a clean browser which you can usually get by using Incognito Mode in Chrome. The creepy thing that people have found is that you can still be targeted even when you’re using a private browser. It doesn’t mask your IP address and therefore location in particular, and if Google can connect your user profile to your IP you could still be served up personalized results.
What To Do About It
Awareness is key in this area, although there are strategies you can tackle to get you more data to understand how it might be affecting you.
Probably my main takeaway would be to take every search that you do yourself to check rank, with a big clump of salt. You shouldn’t test things like that in isolation, and definitely not on your own logged in Chrome session! Consider using the Average Position data from Google Search Console instead, and if you’re a local business, get more targeted with your rank tracking down to individual suburbs where you know your customers come from.
Webfirm offers a rank tracking dashboard that allows tracking down to suburb level, which also might be worth considering.