Why Google Search Results Vary (and How Changes Affect SEO)

Have you ever watched someone else run a Google search and wondered:

Why is my Google search different from theirs? Why did my Google search results change?

It’s a question as old as time. (Which, in case you didn’t know, began in 1998. When Google was created. Before that there was nothing.)

It’s an excellent question. One, that if you’re serious about SEO and ranking well organically, you absolutely must know the answer to. Especially if you target local search.

To find the answer (and to learn how you can benefit from knowing it), let’s start by answering a very similar question…

Are Google Results the Same for Everyone?

No.

Next question.

Really, That’s All You Got?

Alright, think of it like this.

You and your friend Carl visit a roller coaster. You take the very last seat because everyone knows that’s the place to be on a roller coaster. Carl takes the very first seat because Carl doesn’t know about the physics of riding roller coasters. Right before boarding Carl drinks a liter of Mountain Dew and eats twelve corn dogs. You eat nothing. Because common sense. Upon boarding you take your mouse ears off. Carl leaves his on. Because Carl.

So.

There you sit in the very last seat of the roller coaster, empty-stomached and sans mouse ears, ready for a fun-filled ride. There Carl sits in the very front seat, being all Carl-like, loose-fitting hat atop his head and a belly filled to the brim.

Three. Two. One. Blast off!

Same ride. Very different results.

Google organic search results work the same way, only with less gross things hitting you in the face.

When you type something into Google and someone else somewhere else types in the same exact thing there’s a good chance that you’re each going to get different results. Sometimes it even happens if you are in the same room. Or even on the same device.

Google is mystical, mysterious, and ever-changing. Like our bodies or the Universe.

They could be the same one day to the next, but probably not.

So trying to get a read on what, where, when or how Google SERP (aka search engine result pages) will do something next is very difficult.

So what does that leave us with?

The why.

Why Google Search Results Vary

Google wants to provide you with your very own Internet. One tailored just for you.

Pretty nice of Google, eh?

To do this they created some wicked smart algorithms to package up the bits and pieces of the Internet into a smaller Internet that is exactly the way you like it. Because you like different things than other users it’s only natural that your Internet search results be different too.

And what do we — the users — get from all this generosity?

A “personalized experience.”

Or — as they like to call it — personalized search.

Personalized Search Explained

Personalized Search is web search results tailored specifically to individual users.

Rather than being based solely on traditional SEO ranking factors (like page speed, HTML tags, site structure and core web vitals), personalized search is based on information search engines gather about a user. This information is then used to provide more relevant, personalized results related to the location, interests, search history and demographics of that user.

At times, personalized search can seem psychic.

But in reality it’s just Google algorithms doing their thing.

Once upon a time, in a server far, far away, Google displayed the same results for everyone. It was horrible. For any given query everybody got the same information. Which meant you ended up having the same exact experience as Carl.

But then things changed.

In 2009, Google unveiled personalized search to the masses. And it was glorious. A study performed two years later found that by then roughly 50% of Google results were now personalized. The SERP hasn’t looked back since – though the level of “personalization” has continued to evolve and shift over the years.

So if your search results are different from that of your friends, colleagues, and customers, don’t worry. It’s by design.

A change to make your Internet experience is the best of all possible Internet experiences. And so you never have to worry about being grouped with Carl again.

The Disconnect Between Personalized Search and SEO

Google organic search results vary. It’s just a way of life.

However, don’t take that to mean you should accept it.

In fact, that’s why SEO was created in the first place — so businesses could have a say in how SERPs are compiled.

The trouble is that when implementing SEO, many companies often ignore personalized search. This is mostly because personalized search feels like something that is out of our control.

But that’s not entirely the case.

Any brand that wants to be successful in organic search needs take back control, or at least prevent losing control, of their SERP rankings. But if you’re hyper-focused on why keyword ‘xyz’ may be position 1 one day and position 3 the next, or why you might see different results than a colleague, you might be missing some costly opportunities. Not to mention, that’s a quick way to lose your sanity.

So, although you might have come in wondering “why do my Google search results vary,” that is not the question you should be asking.

At least it shouldn’t be if you are a company looking to profit off high search rankings.

Rather, you should want to know…

What Factors Affect Personalized Search?

That’s the question you should be asking yourself. Well, actually, that’s one part of a three part question:

  1. What factors affect personalized search?
  2. What does that mean for my SEO?
  3. How can I make sure it doesn’t hurt my rankings?

Find the answers to those three questions and you’ll be sitting pretty atop search engine result pages.

Don’t worry, you won’t have to look far for the answers.

After all, this isn’t Bing.

Want to know the top 5 reasons why Google search results vary and how it affects your SEO ranking?

Look no further…

1. Location

The location from which you search plays a big role in the results you receive. Google can identify a user’s location by several means, including IP address, search history, map usage, or a device’s GPS.

Location’s Effect on Personalized Search:

Physical businesses and places closest to a user receive priority and appear higher up in organic search results.

If you look up “best pizza near me” on a phone in New York City you’ll get Lombardi’s. If you run the same search while in Southern California you’ll get… Domino’s?

Even searches within the same city, a few miles apart, will often return different results. So while the top listing for “best pizza near me” in SOHO is Lombardi’s, the top listing by Times Square might be Joe’s.

Why Location Matters for SEO:

Location-based personalized search is crucial to local businesses. They need to implement SEO that ensures Google not only knows exactly where their business is located but show it in search results above all other similar businesses in the same geographic area.

For larger companies, based in several different locations, making data-driven SEO decisions becomes less straightforward as they need to account for multiple sets of geographic analytics.

What You Can Do:

Fortunately, location is probably the factor we have the greatest influence over when it comes to personalized search.

Here are several things a business can do to improve targeting for a specific location:

  • Create and optimize their Google My Business profile.
  • Add addresses throughout their website — including footer and contact page (but not at the expense of user experience).
  • Use location-based keywords — e.g. if you’re targeting New York pizza searches write content that reference New York such as “Best Pizza in New York” or “Top Rated Pizza in Times Square
  • Add your business (and address) to online directories — like Yelp, TripAdvisor or niche business directories.
  • Grow your online reviews.
  • Add your address to social media profiles.
  • Create a location on Facebook that can be tagged in Facebook and Instagram posts.
  • Publish location-specific content — including on a blog, social media feeds and in Google My Business posts.
  • Make sure your website is mobile-friendly.

The key is to keep your address and location-based keywording consistent across all online platforms and directories.

2. Search and Browser History

Google personalizes search results based on your online history and behavior.

They collect this data by two means:

  • Google Account – Google can view the web history of anyone logged into a Google Account and monitor activity.
  • Cookies – For anonymous users (not logged into a Google account), Google analyzes web cookies stored on browsers.

The type of data they collect includes:

  • Searches performed on Google
  • Search results users click on
  • Websites visited
  • Online engagement (such as videos watched or products purchased)

History’s Effect on Personalized Search:

Google uses search and browser history to construct online profiles for users (including gender, age, language, location and interests) and tailors results to align with that profile.

For example, if someone clicks on links from Amazon more than they do other online retailers — like Target or Barnes & Noble — then over time, it’s possible that more listings for Amazon will appear in search results and less listings for the others.

Want to test this yourself?

Run a search. Go to the second page and click a link. Repeat this process multiple times in the same browser and on the same device. You might be surprised how fast that link moves up in rank.

Does this mean you control the Internet?

Nope.

It means that in some instances Google personalizes results just for you.

Why History Matters for SEO:

Priority is given to those who get clicked.

If a user clicks on a competitor’s site, that site has a very good chance of outranking yours in future search results, even if you outperform them in all other SEO categories, like on-page keyword density and site speed.

Google’s reliance on online history can also make it hard for businesses to get accurate ranking analytics.

If a business consistently searches their own company name, or constantly clicks on results related to their site, Google will start ranking their site higher for them in the future. This can mislead the business into thinking their SEO efforts are working better than they actually are.

What You Can Do:

There are two ways to overcome search history bias:

  1. De-personalize SERP for your business
  2. Prioritize Your Snippet’s CTA

The first is easy. Just turn off Google’s ability to track your online activity by using your browser in Incognito (or Private) Mode. Once done you’ll get a more accurate view of your business’s online presence as others see it (especially if you also turn off location tracking).

For the second, implement CRO into your SEO strategy.

This means optimizing your organic listing CTA. Don’t just focus on inserting keywords into your page title, but also focus on crafting snippet headings and descriptions that entice users to click.

 

3. Device Used

Google treats mobile and desktop devices so differently now that it’s probably best to think of them as being two completely different and distinct search engines:

  • Google Search on Desktop
  • Google Search on Mobile

Device’s Effect on Personalized Search:

Search results on a mobile device differ than those on a desktop.

Sites that are mobile-friendly, or utilize AMP, will appear higher in SERP than those that aren’t (AMP isn’t a direct ranking factor, but it can improve site speed which is a ranking factor). Also, because of a smartphone’s added capabilities to track location, mobile devices will likely see more location-based results than desktops.

Why Devices Matter for SEO:

Since Google offers up two separate search engines indexes — for mobile search vs desktop search — companies need to segment their technical SEO into two different strategies — mobile SEO friendliness vs desktop SEO.

Most importantly, websites that are not designed with mobile in mind will fall behind. Especially since Google now ranks sites using mobile-first indexing.

What You Can Do:

Make your site mobile-friendly. It’s that simple. Prioritize optimizing content for mobile over desktop.

Also, track your mobile and desktop rankings separately to ensure you make decisions that benefit both.

 

4. Google Accounts

Google collects different data from users who are signed into a Google Account versus those who are not, such as Gmail, Google Drive or Google Voice.

Account’s Effect on Personalized Search:

Google uses data it gathers while you are logged into a Google Account to refine your results. Not only does this mean results vary from one account holder to the next, but it also means those results will be more personalized than an anonymous user whose results are based solely on browser cookies.

Want to try this for yourself?

Log into Google on a computer and run a search. Then run the same search on a different computer in the same location only without being logged into Google.

There’s a good chance the search results will vary.

Why Logging In Matters for SEO:

Only users with a Google Account can leave a review on Google.

The more positive reviews your business receives through Google My Business the better your chances of ranking higher, especially if those reviews use location-specific keywords and your competitors have less reviews.

What You Can Do:

Since Google relies on web history for personalization, incorporate multichannel marketing across paid ads and social media to drive targeted traffic to your site. The more a Google Account user visits your site, the more often your site can appear for them in future searches.

Also, constantly encourage customers to review your business on Google.

 

5. Time

The day and time when someone runs a search impacts how much Google results vary.

Time’s Effect on Personalized Search:

The same search in the morning could return a different result in the evening. Even if all other things, like device and location, are exactly the same.

Some of this just has to do with Google’s constantly updating SERP along with Google’s “queries deserve freshness” methodology in the Freshness algorithm update.

This is why queries like “what’s the weather in Austin TX,” “California forest fires,” or “Giants game results” can change day-to-day, or even hour-to-hour. If you’re asking yourself, “why did my Google search results change?” it might be because what you are searching for is a time sensitive topic that Google thinks needs the most up-to-date results.

Why Time Matters for SEO:

For most businesses, time will not play a huge role in day-to-day SEO. The freshness algorithm isn’t used in every search.

However, time’s effect on personalized search can play a big part for businesses that rely on seasonal traffic, like eCommerce brands that rely on seasonal buying trends. Some websites might have to think about the “freshness” algorithm when determining their site’s content and subject matter – especially for sites with news-like content. A breaking news site, or a site with subject matter that is constantly evolving might have to think about a different content strategy or learn to live with fluctuating SERP rankings.

This is not only true for “newsy” content, but also “Your money or your life” type content (YMYL). That is content that’s about important topics regarding well-being, health, medicine, personal info, money, etc.

What You Can Do:

On a day-to-day basis, when analyzing SEO, you can compare data from identical time periods to limit variations in results. Though this probably won’t make that much of a difference in your analytics. It’s also a good idea to circle-back on content that’s not evergreen in order to update or refresh it. If you see traffic for some pages starting to drop, you can go back and update it with new information.

On a monthly and seasonal basis, it’s important to create content on your site, blog, social media and Google posts that are optimized for the time period you wish your listings to appear. To do that you’ll need a strong seasonal SEO strategy. In order to get more long-term, sustained search traffic its best to create content that is evergreen and that targets keywords that are also evergreen.

 

Conclusion: Google Search Results Vary; So Should Your SEO

They don’t call it “organic” for nothing.

Search results are constantly in a state of change. They are continuously developing. Like our bodies, the Universe, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s girlfriends.

So your SEO has to do the same.

Not just when it comes to the traditional list of ranking factors we’re all familiar with, but also when it comes to personalized factors that differ from one user to the next.

While there are some factors out of our control that cause Google organic search results to vary (like Google data center locations), the ones listed above do allow for optimization.

So take advantage.

Google results are not predefined. They will never be the same for everyone. But that’s a good thing. It means your business can optimize your content so it appears for the prospects you want and goes unseen by those you don’t. When done well, this personalized SEO will refine your traffic, boost your CTR, and drive more valuable conversions.

Now that’s a change we can all get on board with.