If you’ve ever spent time optimizing a website for search engines via search engine optimization (SEO), you’ve likely felt the pain of seeing your rankings plummet after an unexpected update. Even if you’ve never heard of SEO, you’ve likely conducted an identical search query on multiple occasions and gotten strangely different results.

The goal of Google search (and other search engines) is to provide you with the best possible results on the web for a given query. So is it reasonable to think that the “best possible” website for your query changes on a regular basis?

Maybe—but let’s take a deeper look at what makes search engine rankings so volatile.

The Basics: How Search Rankings Are Calculated

To understand why search rankings are volatile, you first have to understand how search rankings are calculated. Google works much like other search engines, and it’s the dominant competitor in the search engine market, so we’ll use it as our main example.

Google starts by putting together an index of websites and pages throughout the web. If the internet is every book ever written, the index is a kind of properly organized library, where the correct book and correct page can be found relatively easily.

When a user inputs a query, Google attempts to bring that user the best possible results in its search engine results pages (SERPs). To do that, it needs to provide results that are both contextually relevant and trustworthy.

Contextually relevant content is chosen based on the type of content it is and its relationship to the initial query. For example, if you search for something like “tech startups,” you’ll want to find actual tech startups or articles about them, rather than content about hot dog stands or water balloons. This seems obvious, but coding a machine to determine relevance is more complex than it first appears.

To be trustworthy, a website needs to prove that it’s a reliable resource for others. The easiest way to do this is to earn many high-quality links from other trusted publishers; the number and quality of links you have will directly increase your authority, helping you rank higher. This is why so many brands rely on an outside link building service for SEO to increase their authority and climb the ranks.

With this understanding, why is it that search rankings change so frequently?

There are many explanations.

Search Engine Algorithm Updates

First, you have to think about search engine algorithm updates. Google’s ranking algorithm isn’t a stagnant swath of code; it’s something that evolves on a regular basis.

Throughout Google’s first decade of existence, the algorithm went through some massive changes. Webmasters and content creators were quick to try and game the system, manipulating their content and spamming links as black hat tactics to improve their rankings. To combat this, Google refined its parameters for what it considered to be “quality” content. In the early 2010s, a series of major updates named after animals (Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird, to be exact) helped establish better standards for content evaluation, link evaluation, and query interpretation, respectively.

Since then, Google has introduced a high number of smaller, yet impactful updates. In fact, there were thousands of micro-updates in 2018 alone. Google is notoriously tight-lipped about these updates and how they function; in fact, sometimes it denies having issued an update at all. However, through data analysis, search optimizers can figure out the gist of the new update.

New updates can do a lot of things. They can refine how Google evaluates content; if your best content suddenly doesn’t look so impressive, you might fall in rankings. They can refine how Google evaluates links; if any of your inbound links are considered to have higher or lower authority, it can impact your site’s overall authority. They can also change how they analyze user queries, affecting your likelihood of being deemed “relevant” to your customers. They can even add new features, changing what an SERP looks like, or introducing new content entries that compete with yours.

Almost any change, even a minor one, can affect the global landscape of search rankings. And because updates are so frequent, it’s only natural that search rankings get shaken up on a regular basis. Fortunately, most updates are small, and many of them only impact certain industries or types of sites, so it’s not a total free-for-all.

Content Updates

Search rankings also change because the content on the web is changing. Remember, if you’re constantly updating your site with technical changes, new content, and new inbound links, there are likely thousands, if not millions of people like you doing the same things.

The internet is a complex tapestry that’s constantly changing. Every time someone enters a new search query, Google is forced to consider a completely new set of circumstances. Did a link from a new, high-authority source finally push your competitor past you in terms of authority? Did you come out with a new blog post that’s more interesting or more relevant than the content that came before it?

When combined with the sheer frequency of updates to Google’s search algorithm, it’s plain to see why there are so many disruptions in search rankings.

Other Factors to Consider

Updates and new content aren’t the only factors to consider when it comes to search engine volatility, of course. There’s also:

  •         Personalization. Google has increasingly dedicated attention to personalizing its search results, using factors like demographic information, location information, and previous searches to tailor its search results. Accordingly, if you conduct two identical searches at different times of day, or in different places, you might end up with surprisingly different results.
  •         Machine learning. Some of Google’s latest updates, including RankBrain, have machine learning elements that help them “learn” and automatically update on their own. RankBrain, for example, is constantly learning how people search, so it can better understand the context for long user queries. Google isn’t manually pushing updates here, so it’s only natural that it’s responsible for sudden and frequent changes—especially for long-tail keyword queries.
  •         New features. Google’s updates sometimes introduce new features that change the layout of SERPs. For example, you might have noticed that Google often answers your queries directly with “rich answers,” helping you forgo the need to click a link to find the answer yourself.
  •         Index updates. The index Google uses to rank queries is also frequently refreshing. New content isn’t instantly added to the index; it typically takes time to become available.

How to Reduce Volatility

If you’re interested in ranking higher in search engines, you’ll likely be interested in reducing volatility. Is there a way to keep your rankings more consistent?

The short answer is no. It’s important to update your site regularly, adhering to new technological standards and introducing new content for your visitors, and those changes alone will impact how you rank. Even if you kept everything completely consistent, the sites you’re competing with would be adding new content and making changes daily, and Google would constantly be refining how it considers and ranks search results.

That said, you can rest assured that Google’s motivations—to give users the best possible online experience—will remain consistent. As long as you’re making a genuine effort to make user experiences better, and provide them with the content they want to see, you should be capable of steadily increasing your rankings.

The Future of Volatility in Search Rankings

Google has gone from introducing occasional, major overhauls to its search algorithm to releasing a constant stream of smaller tweaks as updates. Accordingly, we can assume Google is satisfied with the way its algorithm works, and the future will be mostly geared toward making small, gradual improvements. Volatility in the future will likely be less extreme, but more common; search rankings will change constantly, but the major boosts and plummets will all but disappear.

Some volatility is a good thing for search engines, since it means users are getting a more up-to-date, more carefully considered list of results. And with the current state of Google search and user expectations, volatility seems to be in a good place. 

Nate Nead

Nate Nead is the CEO & Managing Member of Nead, LLC, a consulting company that provides strategic advisory services across multiple disciplines including finance, marketing and software development. For over a decade Nate had provided strategic guidance on M&A, capital procurement, technology and marketing solutions for some of the most well-known online brands. He and his team advise Fortune 500 and SMB clients alike. The team is based in Seattle, Washington; El Paso, Texas and West Palm Beach, Florida.