Google Has Changed What Being Number 1 Means

I want to be #1 on Google!

A noble goal. There is no better place to be seen that at the top of the most important list on the Internet. Anytime a user searches or asks a question to Google, the closer you are to being the first  (and, therefore, best) answer, the better.

It used to be simple – there was one list for each term, and whoever had the best site won.

Times, however, have changed. Where there was once one list per term, there are now thousands – each looking for something different than the other and each being served different results.

What changed?

The Power of Personal Search


Personalized Search

In brief, Google changed from trying to serve the best answer, to trying to serve the best answer for the person searching.

If I do a search on my phone, and you do a search from your computer, we will receive different search results. I may have more ads, you may have a map, and we both will have a different order of sites. It’s all going back to what Google thinks is my best answer, and mine may be different than yours.

Mobile searches get different results than desktop searches. A search on the East Side of Evansville will produce different results than one in Indianapolis, or even the West Side. Your career, your hobbies, your interests, and even your kids all play a part in determining how Google serves you answers.

All of these things make the “traditional” method of search engine optimization obsolete. In order to make sense of a world where everyone is getting different search results, we need to separate out what we can’t control and focus on what we can.

Things You Can’t Control

User history

Anyone with a Google account signs an agreement that gives Google the ability to use information to alter your search experience. Since many people use Google for their web browser, email provider, calendar, amongst other services, this gives the search engine a trove of information about you. All of that information is fair game for search results.

(If this is alarming, or news to you, then I suggest taking the time to read the Terms of Service before you sign up for something.)


Before GPS tracking, adding “[insert city here]” was how you did local SEO. Now, we’ve gotten to the point where what side of town you’re searching from influences which results show up. If you are trying to compete with competitors in different zip codes, you will be at a disadvantage when a search comes in from a computer in that zip code.

Take everything in the previous paragraph and double it for mobile searches. With GPS access down to the street level, hyper-local searches and conversational search make the idea of “one search, one list” impossible to reconcile.

The Google Machine

You may have heard that there is a group currently suing Google for, it claims, “knowingly degrading” search results to boost Google+ over third-party services. Always consider the source, because the suit is originating from Yelp which is very salty about not ranking better, but there is merit here to consider.

At the end of the day, Google is our benevolent dictator. Mobile-friendly websites? Google ruled on the matter, and now not having one can be crippling. HTTPS everywhere? The engineers in Mountain View have made it clear that is going to happen. Google+? Still a thing that exists and seems to contribute to ranking. We don’t know Google’s master plan; we can only anticipate and adapt.

Things You Can Control

All is certainly not lost, but the focus has shifted. Instead of trying to be #1 for a specific topic, SEO is now focusing on providing the best and clearest experience for users, and letting Google know everything that your site can provide the answers to. To that end, there are still many things you can do to improve your stock in Google’s results:

Because everyone has different factors influencing their searches, using keyword rankings to measure success is an unattainable target. Instead, focus on driving conversions and providing the best possible experience for your visitors. Doing that will make your website better, and it will also show Google you’ve moved on and care about what matters.