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Can We Know When SEO Causes Ranking Changes?

In what ways is SEO affecting ranking?
What are the indicators that SEO is affecting ranking?

During the most recent Google Office Hour Hangout, two people mentioned they each made changes to their website and their search rankings dropped. Both people undid their changes and their rankings returned. Mueller at Google said that this was not cause and effect.

These unrelated experiences discussed in the same office hours hangout with John Mueller suggest that learning how something ranks or does not rank is more complex than what is easily observable. Based on what happened at the Google office-hours hangout, it seems that the causal relationship isn’t as straightforward as it seems. An advertiser asked if Google favours content above the fold.

They asked because after changing the location of their content, they noticed a radical improvement in rankings. When asked about Google’s ranking, John Mueller said that the position of content above the fold is not a strong preference. However, the publisher decided to update the site to show more content above the fold, and their rankings dropped.

Google’s ranking:

In a Google Office Hours hangout this week, another man experienced the same drop in rankings after starting a Google Ads campaign, and asked if the redesign that put content above the fold caused the drop. They went on to claim that when the Google Ads campaign was stopped, it was ranked the same as before. John Mueller explained to each case that the ranking changes had no relation to perceived causes of the changes.

There is a possibility that a particular activity might not have caused a change in ranking with certainty. During an office hours hangout the previous week, a publisher told John Mueller that a competitor updated their site to move their content above the fold and experienced dramatic rankings improvements.

Content above the fold and Google:

 A clear pattern emerged as a result of the website update and the subsequent improvement in rankings. They, therefore, asked John Mueller whether Google gives preference to pages with more content above the fold. He responded that Google did not favour content above the fold on pages.

The publisher was sceptical because they updated their website to emphasize content above the fold. In the next few days, the publisher’s website dropped from the top number one position to the second. The publisher, realizing the competitor had an advantage, pushed their content closer to the top of the page in an effort to close that gap. After they removed the banner and improved their website, the keyword dropped from the number one position to the number two position. Instead of gaining rankings, the web page lost ranking position.

As a result, the publisher was back at the Google hangout asking if the change they made led to the drop in rankings. Mueller added that the changes made were not particularly dramatic enough to cause the observed change in rankings. “I think if you make that kind of design change on your website, where suddenly the content moves up or suddenly the content moves down, you would generally see that as a fairly soft change, like a very small change.…I don’t think you would be able to… tie it back to that change.”

When he was told what the change in ranking was, Mueller reassured the publisher that the ranking drop was not tied to the design changes and that this was just normal day to day ranking changes.

“That feels like… a subtle, normal change in search that can always happen, that a site moves from position one to position two or position three and then to position two and then position one. These kinds of changes are fairly common.”

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