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How to determine your real search engine rankings 

Over the last few months, I've been getting quite a few emails from people confused about what seems to be happening with their Google rankings.

The scenarios usually are one person will see one rank for a particular keyword and another person will see another ranking. The same person might also see different rankings when using different systems. Differences can also appear in Google's results when logged into a Gmail account compared to when logged out.

This apparent ranking mayhem has a reason - personalization. Google has been increasingly presenting results to users based on their browsing history and other factors. It's all part of Google's quest to tailor results that they believe users want.
  

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Whether it's working or not or a good or a not-so-good thing I won't get into here; but for businesses trying to keep a bit of an eye on their rankings, the situation can be quite confusing and stressful - and they often communicate that confusion and frustration to whomever it is that is looking after their SEO efforts :).

How to view "real" search engine rankings

If you're still in the dark about how to see the "real" results; i.e. the rankings without personalization applied; thankfully, it's very easy. It's just a matter of switching on the private browsing function now available in most browsing software applications. Private browsing prevents the browser from storing data about your browsing session. This includes cookies, temporary Internet files, history and other data. 

Here's how to do it in various browsers.

  • In Internet Explorer's "Tools" menu, select "InPrivate Browsing"
     
  • In Firefox's "Tools" menu, select "Private Browsing"
  • In Google Chrome, click on the spanner icon in the top right hand corner of Google Chrome and select "New Icognito Window".
  • In Safari on the cog icon in the top right hand corner of Safari and select "Private Browsing".

That's it - no messing around with manually dumping cookies or clearing history. Once in private/incognito mode, then just type the search query in the browser address bar (assuming your browser settings have Google as the default search engine) and you'll see the "clean" results.

Using Google Webmaster Tools

If you're concerned about how many people might be seeing personalized results that put your site lower in the rankings and what effect it is having; the best thing you can do is to set up an account with Google Webmaster Tools. Google Webmaster Tools provides you with detailed reports about your pages' visibility on Google.

Once your account is set up, head to the "Search queries" report under "Your site on the web". Choose a date range and other filters such as region and you'll be presented with the keywords that have driven traffic to your site. Take note of the "Avg. Position" figures for those keywords - it shows you where on average your site is ranking for a particular keyword set. 

Defeating personalized results

Another question I'm asked is how to get around the issue of a user's results being personalized which can cause your site to seemingly rank lower. 

The answer is - you don't. The best thing you can do is to ensure you don't have too much focus on any key term and ensure your page content also contains a lot of related terms; plus geographical information if that's important. For example, if your target group lives in a specific area; give those terms a little more attention.

In the time ahead, where you are ranked will lose a little of its importance and what you do with the traffic that arrives on your site is what will really start to count. 

Also, with Google Preview now rolled out, it might be that a site above you in the rankings looks terrible in preview mode and visitors choose your site instead.. or vice versa. However, Google Preview is relatively new and it's still unknown how much of an impact it will have.

I'm hoping the above information will help reduce the incidences of heart attacks among site owners and ulcers in SEO folks, along with preventing panicked calls to those in the SEO industry at 2am in the morning from hysterical clients :)

Related:

SEO tips and tutorials

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
Web Marketing, Internet Development & Ecommerce Resources
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In the interests of transparency and disclosure, please note that the owner of Taming the Beast.net often receives goods and services mentioned in reviews for free, or may receive payments or affiliate commissions for advertising or referring others to merchants of products and services reviewed.

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