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Can We Know When SEO Causes Ranking Changes?



Can We Know When SEO Causes Ranking Changes?

A curious thing happened in the most recent Google Office Hours Hangout. Two people reported doing something and their search rankings dropped. Both people undid the changes and their rankings returned. It looked like cause and effect but Google’s Mueller said it was not.

These unrelated events discussed in the same office hours hangout with John Mueller suggests that understanding why something ranks or does not rank is more complex than what is easily observable.

Are Actions Followed by Ranking Changes Causally Related?

Causally Related means when an action causes a reaction, where there is an actual cause and effect relationship.

In SEO a link builder may build links and ideally rankings improve. Pretty straightforward, right?

What happened in the Google office hours hangout suggests that the perceived causal relationship is not that straightforward.

Above the Fold Content and Ranking Changes

Last week a publisher asked if Google gave preference to sites with above the fold content. They asked because a competitor moved the location of their content and afterward experienced a dramatic improvement in rankings.

Google’s John Mueller Answering Ranking Change Question

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller discussing reasons for ranking changes
Google’s John Mueller answering question about changes in ranking

John Mueller said that the position of the content above the fold is not a strong preference.

The publisher went ahead anyway and updated their site to show more content above the fold and their rankings dropped.

This week he returned to share to ask if the design change to push content above the fold caused the drop in ranking.


Google Ads and Perceived Impact on Rankings

In the same Google Office Hours hangout this week, someone else said that the moment they started a Google Ads campaign their site rankings disappeared from the search engine results pages (SERPs).

They next recounted that when they stopped the Google Ads campaign the site returned to the SERPs and was ranking the same as before (Citation: Rankings Collapsed After Buying Google Ads?).

John Mueller’s response to both cases was to note that the ranking changes were unrelated to the perceived causes of those changes.

In other words, there was no causal relationship between the two events (an action and the ranking changes).

How Can One Know that Google Responded to a Change?

Both ranking related events raise the possibility that one cannot know with certainty that a particular activity is responsible for a change in rankings.

We see this in link building where links are created and rankings improve. But sometimes nothing happens then three months later the rankings improve.

In both cases everyone agrees it was the links. But was it?

Apophenia – Why Humans See Patterns

It turns out that the human brain is wired to see patterns. It’s said to be a survival mechanism that favors those who can see patterns even when they don’t exist because in nature it can prove fatal to fail to see a pattern where a pattern exists.


This tendency to see patterns even where none exist is called, apophenia.

According to Psychology Today:

“Our brains are pattern-detection machines that connect the dots, making it possible to uncover meaningful relationships among the barrage of sensory input we face.

Without such meaning-making, we would be unable to make predictions about survival and reproduction. The natural and interpersonal world around us would be too chaotic.

So, when our pattern-recognition systems misfire, they tend to err on the side of caution and self-deception.”

Competitor Updated Content and Rankings Improved

In the office hours hangout from the previous week a publisher told John Mueller that a competitor updated their site to move their content above the fold and had experienced a dramatic improvement in rankings.

They saw the update to the website and the subsequent improvement in rankings and recognized a clear pattern. So they asked John Mueller if Google gave preference to pages with more content above the fold. (Citation: Does Google Gives Preference to Content Above the Fold?).

John Mueller answered that Google did not have a strong preference for pages with content above the fold.

“I don’t think we have strong preferences in that regard.”

Apparently the publisher was not convinced because they updated their web page to focus more content above the fold.


What happened next surprised the publisher. Their web page dropped from the top number one position to the second position.

Did Content Above the Fold Cause Loss in Rankings?

The publisher, clearly seeing that the competitor had an advantage sought to close that advantage by pushing their own content closer to the top of the page.

What they did was to remove an image banner from above the fold. After doing removing the banner and improving their web page their keyword dropped from the number one position to  number two.

Instead of solidifying their rankings the web page lost ranking position.

So now the publisher was back at the Google office hours hangout asking if the change they made is responsible for the drop in rankings.

Mueller responded that the changes that were made are not particularly dramatic enough to cause the observed change in rankings.

He said:

“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 told that the change in rankings was from position one to position two, Mueller reaffirmed that the ranking drop was not tied to the design changes and that what was seen was just normal day to day ranking changes.

Mueller said:

“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.”

Google’s Algorithm is a Black Box

The truth is that nobody can actually know, with certainty, that something that was done had an effect on Google’s algorithms.

In computing, a black box can be an algorithm whose inputs and outputs can be seen but how those inputs were processed and how the outputs were computed are not seen.

Google’s algorithm is this kind of a black box. Those outside of Google cannot see or know what is happening inside of the box.

We can put links and content into the black box and see the rankings come out on the other end. But since we can’t see what happened inside the black box that means we can not know why the site is ranking where it does.

SEO Cannot Be Definitively Attributed to Results

By not knowing what happened inside the box we literally do not know if the links did the trick, if some of the links helped the web page rank or if none of the links and the rankings were the result of the content alone.


It is a fact that how the links and content influenced those rankings cannot be known by those who do not know how the black box operates. This is a fact.

The implication of this is wide ranging. For example, we absolutely cannot extract the anchor text to brand name anchor text ratios and assign a meaning to that ratio.

Some people will observe that in a study of millions of sites the top ranked sites shared XYZ anchor text ratios and prescribe those as the statistically “natural” distribution of anchor text.

And while that’s a statistical distribution of anchor text perceived to be the normal ratio, there is nothing in that statistic that means this is what contributed to their top ranked status because we don’t know what happened inside the black box.

There is literally no causal relationship between the inputs we observe going in and the outputs observed coming out. We are only seeing patterns that our brains are wired up to see.

We see the patterns that our brains automatically stitch together in meaningful ways.

There are many aspects of SEO that exist because our brains see patterns that do not necessarily have a causal relationship.

In my opinion, it may open up a new way of seeing SEO if we as an industry became more self aware about our natural tendency to see patterns where they may not exist.


Doing this may help us to move beyond observing the obvious and become more open to entertaining other reasons for the outputs we see coming out of Google’s black box algorithm.


Removing a Banner to Push Content Up Caused a Drop in Ranking
Watch it at the 12:36 minute mark


How to Write For Google



How to Write For Google

Are you writing your SEO content based on the latest best practice tips?

I originally wrote this SEO copywriting checklist in 2012—my, how things have changed. Today, Google stresses quality content even more than before, conversational copy is critical, and there are revised SEO writing “rules.” 

I’ve updated the list to reflect these changes and to provide additional information.

As a side note, I would argue that there’s no such thing as “writing for Google.” Yes, there are certain things you should do to make the Google gods happy. However, your most important goal should be writing clear, compelling, standout copy that tells a story. 

I’m keeping the old headline in the hopes that I can convert some of the “write for Google” people to do things the right way.

Whether you’re an in-house SEO content writer, a DIY business owner, or a freelance SEO copywriter, this 27-point checklist will help you write engaging, Google-happy content—every time.

Items to review before you start your SEO writing project



– Do you have enough information about your target reader?

Your copy will pack a powerful one-two punch if your content is laser-focused on your target reader. Ask your client or supervisor for a customer/reader persona document outlining your target readers’ specific characteristics. If the client doesn’t have a customer persona document, be prepared to spend an hour or more asking detailed questions. 

Here’s more information on customer personas.


– Writing a sales page? Did you interview the client?

It’s essential to interview new clients and to learn more about their company, USP, and competition. Don’t forget to ask about industry buzzwords that should appear in the content.

Not sure what questions to ask to get the copywriting ball rolling? Here’s a list of 56 questions you can start with today. 



– Writing a blog post? Get topic ideas from smart sources

When you’re blogging, it’s tempting to write about whatever strikes your fancy. The challenge is, what interests you may not interest your readers. If you want to make sure you’re writing must-read content, sites like Quora, LinkedIn, Google Trends, and BuzzSumo can help spark some ideas.


– Did you use Google for competitive intelligence ideas?

Check out the sites positioning in the top-10 and look for common characteristics. How long are competing articles? Do the articles link out to authoritative sources? Are there videos or infographics? Do the articles include quotes from industry experts? Your job is to write an essay that’s better than what’s already appearing in the top-10 — so let the competition be your guide.


– Did you conduct keyphrase research?

Yes, keyphrase research (and content optimization) is still a crucial SEO step. If you don’t give Google some keyphrase “cues,” your page probably won’t position the way you want.


Use a keyphrase research tool and find possible keyphrases for your page or post. As a hint: if you are tightly focusing on a topic, long-tail keyphrases are your best bet. Here’s more information about why long-tail keyphrases are so important.

If you are researching B2B keyphrases, know that the “traditional” keyphrase research steps may not apply. Here’s more information about what to do if B2B keyphrase research doesn’t work.


– What is your per-page keyphrase focus?

Writers are no longer forced to include the exact-match keyphrase over and over again. (Hurray!) Today, we can focus on a keyphrase theme that matches the search intent and weave in multiple related keyphrases.


– Did you expand your keyphrase research to include synonyms and close variants?

Don’t be afraid to include keyphrase synonyms and close variants on your page. Doing so opens up your positioning opportunities, makes your copy better, and is much easier to write!


Are you wondering if you should include your keyphrases as you write the copy — or edit them in later? It’s up to you! Here are the pros and cons of both processes.


 — Do your keyphrases match the search intent?

Remember that Google is “the decider” when it comes to search intent. If you’re writing a sales page — and your desired keyphrase pulls up informational blog posts in Google – your sales page probably won’t position. 


— Writing a blog post? Does your Title/headline work for SEO, social, and your readers?

Yes, you want your headline to be compelling, but you also want it to be keyphrase rich. Always include your main page keyphrase (or a close variant) in your Title and work in other keyphrases if they “fit.”

Here’s some excellent information on how to write headlines that get noticed (and that are good for Google.) You can also use headline-analyzing tools to double-check your work.



– Did you include keyphrase-rich subheadlines?

Subheadlines are an excellent way to visually break up your text, making it easy for readers to quick-scan your benefits and information. Additionally, just like with the H1 headline, adding a keyphrase to your subheadlines can (slightly) help reinforce keyphrase relevancy.

As a hint, sometimes, you can write a question-oriented subheadline and slip the keyphrase in more easily. Here’s more information about why answering questions is a powerful SEO content play.


Is your Title “clickable” and compelling?

Remember, the search engine results page is your first opportunity for conversion. Focusing too much on what you think Google “wants” may take away your Title’s conversion power. 

Consider how you can create an enticing Title that “gets the click” over the other search result listings. You have about 59 characters (with spaces) to work with, so writing tight is essential. 



– Does the meta description fit the intent of the page?

Yes, writers should create a meta description for every page. Why? Because they tell the reader what the landing page is about and help increase SERP conversions. Try experimenting with different calls-to-actions at the end, such as “learn more” or “apply now.” You never know what will entice your readers to click!


– Is your content written in a conversational style?

With voice search gaining prominence, copy that’s written in a conversational style is even more critical.

Read your copy out loud and hear how it sounds. Does it flow? Or does it sound too formal? If you’re writing for a regulated industry, such as finance, legal, or healthcare, you may not be able to push the conversational envelope too much. Otherwise, write like you talk.

Here’s how to explain why conversational content is so important.



–Is your copy laser-focused on your audience?

A big mistake some writers make is creating copy that appeals to “everyone” rather than their specific target reader. Writing sales and blog pages that are laser-focused on your audience will boost your conversions and keep readers checking out your copy longer. Here’s how one company does it.

Plus, you don’t receive special “Google points” for writing long content. Even short copy can position if it fully answers the searcher’s query. Your readers don’t want to wade through 1,500 words to find something that can be explained in 300 words.

Items to review after you’ve written the page


– Did you use too many keyphrases?

Remember, there is no such thing as keyword density. If your content sounds keyphrase-heavy and stilted, reduce the keyphrase usage and focus more on your readers’ experience. Your page doesn’t receive bonus points for exact-matching your keyphrase multiple times. If your page sounds keyphrase stuffed when you read it out loud, dial back your keyphrase usage.



– Did you edit your content?

Resist the urge to upload your content as soon as you write it. Put it away and come back to it after a few hours (or even the next day.) Discover why editing your Web writing is so very important. Also, don’t think that adding typos will help your page position. They won’t.


– Is the content interesting to read?

Yes, it’s OK if your copy has a little personality. Here’s more information about working with your page’s tone and feel and how to avoid the “yawn response.” Plus, know that even FAQ pages can help with conversions — and yes, even position.


– Are your sentences and paragraphs easy to read?

Vary your sentence structure so you have a combination of longer and shorter sentences. If you find your sentences creeping over 30 or so words, edit them down and make them punchier. Your writing will have more impact if you do.


Plus, long paragraphs without much white space are hard to read off a computer monitor – and even harder to read on a smartphone. Split up your long paragraphs into shorter ones. Please.


– Are you forcing your reader onto a “dead end” page?

“Dead-end” pages (pages that don’t link out to related pages) can stop your readers dead in their tracks and hurt your conversion goals. 

Want to avoid this? Read more about “dead-end” Web pages.


– Does the content provide the reader with valuable information?

Google warns against sites with “thin,” low-quality content that’s poorly written. In fact, according to Google, spelling errors are a bigger boo-boo than broken HTML. Make sure your final draft is typo-free, written well, and thoroughly answers the searcher’s query.


Want to know what Google considers quality content — directly from Google? Here are Google’s Quality Raters guidelines for more information.


– Did you use bullet points where appropriate?

If you find yourself writing a list-like sentence, use bullet points instead. Your readers will thank you, and the items will be much easier to read.

Plus, you can write your bullet points in a way that makes your benefit statements pop, front and center. Here’s how Nike does it.


– Is the primary CTA (call-to-action) clear–and is it easy to take action?

What action do you want your readers to take? Do you want them to contact you? Buy something? Sign up for your newsletter? Make sure you’re telling your reader what you want them to do, and make taking action easy. If you force people to answer multiple questions just to fill out a “contact us” form, you run the risk of people bailing out.


Here’s a list of seven CTA techniques that work.


– Do you have a secondary CTA (such as a newsletter signup or downloading a white paper?)

Do you want readers to sign up for your newsletter or learn about related products? Don’t bury your “sign up for our newsletter” button in the footer text. Instead, test different CTA locations (for instance, try including a newsletter signup link at the bottom of every blog post) and see where you get the most conversions.


– Does the page include too many choices?

It’s important to keep your reader focused on your primary and secondary CTAs. If your page lists too many choices (for example, a large, scrolling page of products), consider eliminating all “unnecessary” options that don’t support your primary call-to-action. Too many choices may force your readers into not taking any action at all.



– Did you include benefit statements?

People make purchase decisions based on what’s in it for them (yes, even your B2B buyers.) Highly specific benefit statements will help your page convert like crazy. Don’t forget to include a benefit statement in your Title (whenever possible) like “free shipping” or “sale.” Seeing this on the search results page will catch your readers’ eyes, tempting them to click the link and check out your site.


– Do you have vertical-specific testimonials?

It’s incredible how many great sales pages are testimonial-free. Testimonials are a must for any site, as they offer third-party proof that your product or service is superior. Plus, your testimonials can help you write better, more benefit-driven sales pages and fantastic comparison-review pages.

Here’s a way to make your testimonials more powerful. 

And finally — the most important question:



– Does your content stand out and genuinely deserve a top position?

SEO writing is more than shoving keyphrases into the content. If you want to be rewarded by Google (and your readers), your content must stand out — not be a carbon copy of the current top-10 results. Take a hard look at your content and compare it against what’s currently positioning. Have you fully answered the searcher’s query? Did you weave in other value-added resources, such as expert quotes, links to external and internal resources (such as FAQ pages), videos, and graphics? 

If so, congratulations! You’ve done your job. 

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