We’ve all been there.
A piece of content you’ve been trying to rank for months finally hits the first page of Google. Your traffic stats are climbing. The leads are pouring in. And you’re getting giddy waiting for them to turn into sales.
Then, one day, you check your rankings and the article has dropped to bottom of the first page. Or worse, to the no man’s land of the second page.
So, you proceed with the most natural course of action: You freak out and send an anxiety-ridden email to your team or agency.
Then, two days later, the article is back at its rightful position again, and you release a massive sigh of relief. However, at the back of your mind, you’re wishing you could just stay at the top of the first page permanently.
Unfortunately, you can’t.
Keyword Ranking fluctuations like these are a natural part of SEO. Just like changing weather conditions, if you monitor almost any keyword over a period of days, weeks, and (most certainly) months, you will see the results constantly adjusting and changing.
In this article, I’m going to teach you why keyword rankings fluctuate like this, what to expect, and when it is actually time to freak out and take a new course of action.
Let’s get started:
Why Do Search Engine Rankings Change and Fluctuate?
Everything Google does is in accordance with its ultimate goal:
To provide the best results to the searcher.
Why is this their goal? Because it entices more people to use their search engine, which in turn maximizes their advertising revenue (which totaled 24.6 billion in 2016). Google makes most of their income from search advertising, so search result quality is one of the company’s top priorities.
To continually improve its search results, Google’s ranking algorithm is constantly adjusting to meet this goal, and Google engineers are always adjusting the algorithm itself, as well. This leads to almost constant fluctuations in the search results based on a host of factors getting more complex as time goes on.
Now, this might sound scary to you. If Google is constantly changing their results, how can you ever hope to hold a first page position?
Fortunately, most of these fluctuations are small adjustments. You might drop a few spots, maybe a page, then bump back up again in a day or two. You might rise a few spots and drop back down again as well. And if you checked your traffic stats, the change would be marginal. Over a month or two, it would be averaged out.
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This is Google’s algorithm trying to find the most optimal ranking order for that search term.
However, it’s also a way for Google to mess with webmaster’s heads a bit.
Google sometimes plays games like these to induce you to make a mistake — to build risky links and potentially uncover yourself as someone who games the algorithm. That way, they can remove you from the rankings and not have to worry about you anymore.
So, when you notice a ranking change, it’s important not to make a rash decision. Many factors could have caused this change.
The Factors That Can Cause Keyword Ranking Fluctuations
Google uses over 200 factors to determine a page’s rank in the search results. However, not all of them cause the temporary fluctuations you may notice over a few days or weeks.
Here are a few that do:
Note: Assume that each of these are discussed with all other factors being equal.
#1. Site Age
The older your website is, the more Google trusts it relative to newer websites. Newer websites are also put into the “Google sandbox.”
While in the sandbox, a website’s rankings are usually held back or fluctuate at a greater rate than they otherwise would. (The sandbox usually lasts anywhere from three to nine months after the site was created.)
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#2. Age of the Page
Similar to site age, Google trusts specific pages which have been around longer than other pages. So, if your page is newer, expect it to fluctuate more if the pages around it are a lot older.
#3. News Content (Temporal)
News, or temporal, content fluctuates more than any type of content. If you’re producing news content, expect your rankings and traffic to shift considerably.
#4. Types of Links Built
If you’ve built mostly white hat links, your rankings probably won’t fluctuate as much, but can still jump around a good bit.
#5. How Long You Have Been on the First Page
The time you have been on the first page is also a fluctuation factor. Newer first page rankings will typically experience more fluctuation than pages that have been on the first page for months or years.
#6. Your Position on the First Page
Finally, the top 3 to 5 results experience less fluctuation than the bottom 5 to 7. This is yet another incentive to try to reach those coveted top spots.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of factors that can cause temporary changes in your rankings, but they are some of the most common. In these cases, your ranking shifts are normal and are nothing to worry about.
Continue with your usual SEO activities and they will most likely readjust after a few days or a week or two. Although sometimes it can take longer.
However, there are certain cases when it is definitely time to freak out and change your course of action.
When Should You Freak Out After a Ranking Fluctuation?
Put simply, you should freak out if your rankings look like the following (and stay like this for two or more weeks):
This website’s overall rankings dropped from a first page average to below the tenth page (practically invisible).
This is a tell-tale sign of a Google algorithmic penalty. Small ranking fluctuations are normal, especially on a page by page basis. But large, site-wide ranking drops like this are not.
This webmaster has made a mistake with their link building practices or site architecture, and it’s time to identify the mistake and rectify it.
What to Do If You Believe It’s an Abnormal Fluctuation
If you’re working with an SEO agency, the first thing you should do is get in touch with them. A reputable agency will know how to identify what caused the penalty and how to go about fixing it.
They will also be able to tell you if your worries are unfounded. That is, if it’s just a fluctuation, not a penalty. So, if you are ever worried, the best thing to do is contact your agency first.
If you’re doing your own SEO, you need to determine whether it’s an algorithmic or manual penalty. Algorithmic penalties lead to ranking drops (like in the example above), but your pages are still in the search results. With manual penalties, your website is removed from the SERPs completely.
Manual penalties require you to fix the issue Google found and reapply to be indexed again. Algorithmic penalties are a bit more obscure, as you won’t know exactly what you did wrong.
The most common case I come across these days is over-optimized anchor text, but you can’t know for sure until you start cleaning up your backlink profile and monitor what happens to your rankings.
Summing It All Up
Temporary keyword ranking fluctuations are a natural part of SEO. So, there’s no need to freak out in these cases, especially if it’s on a page by page basis.
However, if your entire website drops in the SERPs, you know that something went wrong and it’s time to make a change in your SEO practices.