If you are an SEO and digital marketing consultant you must certainly know that Google’s search results can vary from one person to another, using the same search term. But probably not all of your clients are aware of that. Recently a client of mine saw his website on the first page of Google when actually his website wasn’t even in the top 50 for this keyword.
Another very common situation I regularly run into, is when a client asks why the search engine rankings report that I’ve provided, doesn’t match with the rankings he actually sees on Google.
That’s why it’s important to explain, at the begging of every SEO project, how Google’s mysterious search algorithm works, and why Google displays different results to different users.
Why Google displays different results to different users?
Google’s main goal is to provide the user with the most relevant and useful search results possible. This translates not only in the way how Google ranks webpages for different search terms but also in the way Google adapts search results from one user to another.
There are many factors that affect the search results you see on Google and the search results I see on Google.
- The type of device used for the search (desktop, laptop, phone, tablet),
- Your personal search history
- Whether you are logged in to a Google Account while searching
- Your geographic location
- What browser you are using
- The number of Google-generated ads on the page
- What type of search you are doing
Google’s algorithm uses multiple factors to personalize search results and to deliver the best results for individual users. This article speaks of the main personalization factors and explains why Google search results may vary from one user to another.
Google rankings are based on your geographic location
Google is able to automatically detect a user’s location and to provide every user-customized results based on his location. The auto-detection could be based on your IP address, or on the preferred location that you shared on Google (if you use the Location feature, of course). This means that your Google search results will generally reflect the location settings on the device you are using.
For example, if you search for “hair-dresser” from a location near London, you’ll probably see very different results from someone who’s searching for the same keyword from Paris. In fact, the first listings you see will most likely be hair salons close to you.
Google search results are based on the device you’re using for searching
This factor mainly affects how websites perform on mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. If you have a great website without a mobile alternative or a responsive design, your Google ranking will more than likely vary from device to device, and not in your favor on mobile devices.
However, the importance of this factor in the search ranking may decrease in the future, because of the Mobile-first index.
Google search results are based on your previous searches and clicked links
Maybe the most important factor that affects Google’s search results is the user’s search and navigation history. Google personalizes everyone’s search results, based on the searches you’ve done and pages you’ve clicked on in the past.
Even if you’re not signed in your Google account, Google remembers all the searches that you’ve done (at least up until the last time you cleared your browser cache and cookies).
In theory, this means that if you often click on links from CNN that appear in Google’s SERPs, Google will “suggest” that CNN is one of your preferable websites, and it will start to rank CNN’s web pages on higher positions than the web pages of other media websites.
Over time, the ranking boost that Google grants to your favorite websites could really deflect the real rankings of this website. For example, if you often use Google to check the rankings of your own website and you often click on your links, you could actually see yourself in a top position.
Google rankings could vary depending on the data center
Google has multiple data centers in order to help return you a quicker response to your search query. This also enables them to roll out different indexes and algorithm updates slowly and to select users. For that reason, Google’s data centers may have different sets of indexed pages or slightly different algorithms running on each data center. As you can imagine, this will affect the search results that the search engine returns for your specific search
How to disable search rankings personalization?
If you want to get a more accurate idea of your website’s performance in the SERPs, there are some ways to attempt to de-personalize your Google results. Below, I’ve listed the most popular means to minimize the personalization factors in SERPS.
Nevertheless, it’s not really possible to de-personalize your Google results.
Clear browser cookies or use a different browser
As we said, Google uses the data from the browser you are using to personalize the search results. That’s why the first step would be to clear your browser’s activity by removing any cookies in each browser. Without cookies, there is nothing to connect your new search sessions with any previous sessions.
This however doesn’t exclude any personalization factors that come from the search history of your Google account and it will delete a lot of information, stored in your browser that is useful for you (passwords, website history, etc.). I personally avoid deleting browser cookies.
Log out of any Google account
Another easy measure is simply to sign out of your Google account. Unfortunately, this simple step won’t disable all personalization factors.
Append the pws=0 parameter to your query URL
In the SEO world, the “pws=0” is known as the de-personalization parameter. By adding it to the end of a Google query URL (“&pws=0”), you can theoretically remove history-based personalization.
Use the private browsing (“incognito”) option in your browser
If you want to get a more accurate idea of your website’s performance in the SERP’s, you could simply enable the private browsing option of your web browser. Most browsers have a built-in “incognito” mode that removes any traces of your browsing activity, such as cookies or search history.
So by using the private (“incognito”) browsing mode, you minimize the “historical” factors that Google uses to display your search results. For example in private browsing mode, Google won’t take into consideration your previous searches.
To do that you could use the following shortcuts:
- For Google Chrome: Ctrl + Shift + N
- For Mozilla Firefox: Ctrl + Shift + P
- For Internet Explorer: Ctrl + Shift + P
According to this MOZ article, logging out of a Google account and performing an incognito search seems to be the most effective ways to de-personalize search results. But Google uses so many pieces of data from different places that even in incognito mode it’s virtually impossible to entirely remove personalization.
Use a keyword tracking tool
The most reliable and de-personalized rankings tracking is provided by third-party tracking tools.
There are a number of online tools that provide regularly updated information on search rankings for specific keyword phrases. Costs and functionality can vary based on the given service provider and the number of keywords you want to explore and track.
Your SEO specialist will be able to advise you on the most adapted keyword tracking tools for your business and your specific needs.