The mysterious Case of Google rankings

A couple of months ago there were rumours from the USA of case sensitivity in Google ranking results. This week I saw the first evidence of it in the UK results for one of my clients. What I saw initially was fairly dramatic (I won’t show the actual keywords but just the pattern) on a query which consisted of two keywords and a placename:

keyword keyword place – position 22
keyword keyword Place – position 14
Keyword Keyword Place – position 124

The following day the variation was rather less severe but there were still noticeable differences, as indeed there were with other clients’ results. It may take a while for the variations to settle down and we see the real picture, but if this is going to be a permanent feature of the rankings then it has considerable consequences for both clients and SEO practitioners.

For one thing we need to try to work out what the average user would type in when making a search. Personally I’ve always used all lower case in the past, and I suspect many others do the same, but where a town or city or proper name is included some people (possibly older people) may automatically capitalise the first letter of that word only, whereas younger people used to text-speak may not. Then there are acronyms – would you search for “UEFA Cup results”, or “uefa cup results” when looking for European football scores?

Most SEOs agree that the content of headings within your text content helps tell the search engines what the following paragraphs are about and thus helps the page rank for the terms within it. Is your house style to use “Title Case For Headings” or “Title case for headings” or are you following the fashion for “title case for heading”? What if your preferred style clashes with the way people search so that you rank better for “Purple Widgets” but everyone searches for “purple widgets”? It could be we just opened a Pandoras Box and pulled out a minefield.

Another problem will be what to report to clients. Now by coincidence I followed a discussion on Sphinn this morning where a number of SEOs argued that we shouldn’t report ranking positions to clients at all – that it is traffic and sales that matter and that with personalised search, geographical biasing, and variations in datacentres it all varies too much anyway. That would be great, I’m all in favour of stressing the end result as the important factor, but in practice most clients are pretty much hung up on their ranking positions and follow them themselves in a rather unscientific and ad-hoc way all the time. Who hasn’t had a call from a client who sees a fall of a few places on a search term and immediately wants an explanation? (Which version of the search engine were you using, UK-only or world-wide results, were you logged into an account, what other searches did you run today, 10 results per page or 100, are you wearing blue socks or brown, (wouldn’t you just love to say that?!) etc. etc.)

The fact is many of them don’t understand SEO and are desperate for any sort of number to cling on to in order to be sure that they haven’t hired a snake oil salesman who will bleed them dry without any benefit to their bottom-line. They insist on reports. And if they don’t then their Managing Director does.

But you can’t report on all the variations of multi-word search phrases – for every three-word term you’d have to check at least five alternatives – as the extra overhead in doing so would be enormous and would probably get your IP address banned for doing too many queries or doing automated queries. So if case-sensitivity has come to stay we’ll have to discuss with the clients which terms are the ones that they want monitored. That’ll be fun! What’s the betting everyone stops reporting on MSN results!!

One thing about SEO, it’s never dull!


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