What Causes Rank Volatility and how to Deal With it (3 Case Studies)
September 23, 2020 |
Picture this. You open up your rank tracker to check on your rankings. You see one of your pages is unstable. In other words, Google’s not sure what to do with it. Some days it’s up, other days it drops. Is this a bad sign?
Before panicking, it’s important to realize that there can be more than one reason for rank volatility. How you deal with it will be different depending on what the cause is.
In this post, I’ll show you some case studies that reveal three potential causes of rank volatility, and I’ll show you some strategies for dealing with it.
Let’s jump in…
Diagnosing Rank Tracking Volatility
The first step to figuring out what is causing your page’s instability is to log into your handy rank tracker to see if you can see any patterns. In order to do that I will be looking at the pages in our Fluctuations Report in the SEO Monitor
Now, there are cases where the ranking fluctuations are caused by the SERP itself.
Case Study 1 - allrecipes.com
Let’s look at a page for the site allrecipes.com. I notice that the page ranking on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) for the term ‘learn to cook & bake’ is unstable.
When seeing this, it’s important to try to work out what is causing the lack of stability. Once you do that, you can come up with a strategy to stabilize the page or even improve its rankings.
Let’s look at the rankings for the top 20 spots over the last 30 days through the lens of the SEO Monitor
Let’s dive in...
Uncovering an Unstable SERP
In the screenshot below you’ll see the top 20 spots over a 30 day period. Each colored line represents a URL on the SERP. The dark blue line is the URL we are tracking.
What you’ll notice is with the exception of the top three spots, all the URLs tend to dramatically rise and fall. Some appear on the top twenty spots for just a day or two, some rise and fall by more than ten positions within the space of a day. Also, even the top three spots tend to fluctuate. It’s fairly clear that the reason the URL is unstable is the SERP itself is unstable.
The question is what can be done in this case? Is it worth trying to get to the top of this SERP, or will it always be unstable? Could you in theory create a piece of content that could stabilize the SERP?
In order to decide that, we’ll have to do a bit of theorizing. What’s causing the chaos on the SERP? Is it that Google can’t find the right piece of content to satisfy user intent?
Not having the right content could, in theory, result in an unstable SERP. Perhaps Google is constantly trying different options (in a way that only machine learning could).
Now, I don’t believe that to be the case. Google literally has 213,000,000 pieces of content to choose from.
This leads me to believe that creating a better piece of content won’t solve the unstable SERP.
Instead, a possible reason is Google simply hasn’t figured out what the user is looking for. This is highly probable because the term ‘learn to cook & bake’ is broad and therefore vague. Is the user looking for a course or a few skills?
To see what I mean, let’s take a look at the SERP.
In the screenshot above, you’ll notice that Google is serving four separate search intents. The top URL, indicated in red, is for a Pinterest page presenting a list of images. Three of the URLs, indicated in green, are lists of cooking skills. The URLs indicated in purple are cooking courses. The one in yellow is for a Facebook post for a page called ‘Learning how to cook n bake in general’.
The appearance of these four user intents could be for one of two reasons. Either Google understands there are four user intents, or more likely, Google simply hasn’t figured the user intent out.
If our assumption is correct that Google has not worked out the user intent, it makes sense that Google is dealing with this by constantly adjusting to balance different user intent options. The result?
The question now is, what should you do if this ever happens to one of your pages?
How to Deal with an Unstable SERP
There really are two options here. Firstly, if the page is not important to your big picture goals, it might be a good idea to focus on something else. Yes, time is short and as an SEO, there is always something else you can be working on that can have an impact on your site.
If however, the page is of primary importance, it’s important that the page stabilizes. In this case, a great strategy is to look for a subtopic in order to rank on another SERP (as well as this one).
The best way to do this is to use a good keyword research tool that has a ‘questions’ filter. I’ll be showing you how to do this using our Keyword Explorer
. Simply type your query into the tool, and look at the questions filter.
As you can see from the screenshot there is a list of questions that can be used as subtopics for your article. Each one of these questions is its own keyword with its own SERP.
If you include these subtopics in your article you’re likely to rank on those SERPs as well as the SERP your page is currently ranking on. At this point, it’s a good idea to check those subtopic keywords to see if their SERPs are stable. You can do that by tracking those keywords and analyzing them with the SEO monitor as I showed you above.
The strategy here is to get your content onto as many related SERPs as possible. This won’t stabilize the rankings on your main SERP, but it will ensure that the article gets traffic from other SERPs.
Now that we’ve covered unstable SERPs, let’s look at cases where the SERP is unstable but your URLs are not in any danger...
Case Study 2 - easyjet.co.uk
If we look at the site easyjet.com, we’ll see something interesting. When tracking the term ‘uk flights’, the Rank Insights Report shows a sudden drop in rankings on August 11th. The page was plodding along at position 11 then there is a sudden drop to position 28. The drop is dramatic, but there is a quick recovery. Should the owners of this site proceed with caution? Is Google thinking of dropping this URL to page three or lower?
To get a clearer picture, let’s take a look at the SEO Monitor. As you can see, this report tells an interesting story.
The general SERP is relatively stable for the top ten results. (Below position ten, Google seems to be constantly testing different pages.) On August 11th, there is a sudden shaking up of the SERP. A URL that is not ranking in the top 20 spots suddenly hits position one. After being king for a day, Google demotes it to position 20 the very next day. The top six URLs suddenly drop around five places and recover the very next day. Whatever caused this seismic shift seems to have passed.
What is interesting about this is if we look at the SEO Monitor for a related term (in the same industry) we see something similar. Here the SEO Monitor is tracking the term ‘low fare airlines.’
Since this is a pattern that appears on more than one SERP, it makes sense to assume it was something caused by Google itself. To figure this out I took a look at the Rank Risk Index
. As you can see in the screenshot below, there were rank fluctuations on Google that day. After doing a little research I discovered that the sudden ranking change was caused by a Google bug
. Google confirmed the bug and fixed the problem.
The takeaway here is that in all likelihood, the owner of easyjet.com would not have to worry that Google is thinking of dropping the URL. We can see this because Google dropped six URLs that day and those URLs recovered the next day. When things like this happen, as I have shown you above, doing a little detective work will often help you get to the bottom of it. When trying to find a pattern like this, places to look are SEO news sites like Search Engine Roundtable and the Rank Risk Index.
Now, there may be scenarios where having an unstable URL is great news. Why?
Perhaps Google is testing your page to see if your page is worth promoting.
Case Study 3 - securityadviser.com
Here we’ll be looking at a URL we are tracking for the website securityadviser.com. The URL for the term ‘situational awareness training’ is unstable. Let’s try to figure out why by looking at the SEO Monitor.
The screenshot above paints an interesting picture. The top seven spots are relatively stable. Beneath these seven spots, Google is doing some testing. This SERP, however, is not chaotic like the previous example. What is also interesting about this SERP, is that even the top spots have a small amount of volatility.
When we look at the page we’re tracking, it seems that Google is testing it out. It hovers around position nine for a few days. It then drops to around position 16 for around four days. It then jumps to around position nine again. It seems that Google hasn’t decided where this URL should be. What’s more, the volatility seems to be based around the page itself. This assumption is based on the fact that the top spots are relatively stable. This means Google has figured out what kind of content will satisfy user intent and is likely testing whether this piece also satisfies user intent.
When Google tests your page like this, even though your rankings are unstable, it’s likely you’ve discovered an opportunity. Not only can you perhaps convince Google to stabilize your ranking but you can also perhaps convince Google to promote your page to a higher position.
The question is how could the site owner do that?
Content Analysis for Higher Rankings
Since according to our analysis of the securityadviser.com URL, the content itself is causing the volatility, it makes sense to see if we can improve the quality of the page overall. By doing that perhaps we can not only stabilize the rankings but we can also get our URL to show at the top of the SERP.
In order to do that we’ll have to analyze the top content to see the nature of the content that Google is using to satisfy user intent. Understanding this will help us to laser focus our content on satisfying the search intent.
To do that, go to the SERP and click through to the top-ranking pages.
Find Out What Content Satisfies User Intent
Take a look at the top of Google, where the URLs are stable. Click through to the content and see what their content is all about. In this case, I’ve noticed that the top spot which occupies the Featured Snippet is taken by a landing page designed to sell a course. The next few URLs are for long content explaining situational awareness tips and exercises.
See the screenshot below:
What we are seeing is Google satisfying two user intents:
- Searches for a situational awareness course
- Searches for long-form content explaining situational awareness tips and exercises
Now, since the content we are tracking
is a long-form article explaining five situational awareness training exercises, we’ll be competing with all the articles that are answering this user intent.
The question now is, can we satisfy the user intent more effectively than the other posts on the SERP?
To do this, we’ll need to outline the currently ranking URLs...
How I would go about improving my content is to create a brief overview of the top articles. On a spreadsheet, I’ll create a list of bullet points outlining each point covered in each article. I’ll then compare and contrast all the articles to find:
- Which points are common to all of them
- Which points are unique and to which articles
Although this might seem a little laborious you’ll gain insight into what topics Google understands as important to satisfying user intent. What you might find is there are some topics that are covered in all the top articles, while others only appear in some of the articles. Once you have this figured out, you should compare these outlines to your article. You’ll be able to see very quickly if your content is missing something that the other content covers. As a general rule, I’ll add these missing topics to my article making sure to structure it so that it makes sense and flows naturally.
By adding this to your article you’ll already make your content more authoritative to Google.
Once you have the overview figured out, it’s time to look at the actual quality of the content.
Content Quality Analysis
Now, go back and look at the top-ranking articles again. Read through some of the paragraphs. Then ask yourself, as someone who typed the term into Google, and clicked through to the article, would you be satisfied? Has the information been adequately explained, or would you need to go back to the SERP to clarify a few things?
If there is something missing, you might have found a content gap. Make sure that these points are adequately explained by your article.
By adding more to the quality and quantity of your content you can easily create higher-value content than what’s currently ranking. The key here is to think about the user. Has your content satisfied the user completely?
Add something of Unique Value
Once you have improved both the quality and the quantity of the content, you should also try to include something unique that the other content does not cover. This unique content should be something that raises the overall value of the content, establishing it as more valuable than anything else that is ranking in Google on the topic. In other words, don’t just add content for the sake of adding content. Make sure that it improves your article as a whole.
Now that I’ve briefly outlined this strategy, let’s go back to dealing with ranking volatility...
Ranking Volatility - The Big Picture
Let’s take a step back and look at what we’ve learned from these three cases. The main takeaway here is, there is more than one reason for rank volatility.
Was the rank volatility caused by:
- Google struggling to understand the search term?
- A momentary change in a Google algorithm?
- Your content?
Understanding what caused the volatility is key. What’s more, there might be more reasons for rank volatility than the ones I have covered in this article.
However, I’ve created this post to show how you can figure this out on your own by using your common sense and some SEO tools. If you do this often enough you will be able to develop your instincts which will help you come up with a theory as to what is causing the problem and to create a strategy for dealing with it.