When personalized search creates a different SERP for every searcher, are your rankings reports nothing but fibs? Not so — here’s why.


At some point, every SEO experiences it: a colleague or client will look at a report, raise a skeptical eyebrow, summon the Google search engine, plunk in a keyword, and question why they see a different result than what you’re presenting.

Conflicting ranks are the result of personalized search and can make it difficult to justify your rank tracking, a practice frequently stripped of its crown by some members of the SEO industry.

But modern SEO is much like King Arthur’s Medieval court — if it weren’t for rank, no one would know where they stand or how they’re supposed to act.

Thanks to personalization and localization, what they see isn't always what you report.
Thanks to personalization and localization, what they see isn't always what you report.

What happens when a client Googles their own keywords?

Thanks to personalization, what they see isn’t always what you report.

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So, since rank still informs many SEO decisions, we’re diving into personalized search to help you explain and defend your reporting.

personalized search and conflicting ranks

In an effort to deliver the most relevant results, Google tailors the SERP to the individual searcher. This is why even the person sitting right next to you might not see what you do.

But personalization certainly isn’t a new phenomenon — the roll-out began over ten years ago with the birth of “My Search History” and peaked with the Venice algorithm update, which ushered in the now ubiquitous local universal results.

Today, any given SERP is personalized by:

  • Device: Because of different screen sizes and user behaviour on each, desktop computers and mobile phones often return varying search results.
  • Location: Results typically reflect where the searcher is located, which could be as broad as country or as narrow as street corner.
  • Online history: A user’s web visits and search history influence the results that Google displays on the SERP.

Personalized search might make it seem like SERP tracking is a fruitless endeavour, that there are far too many variables in play to get reliable insight. But the truth is, not only is getting a baseline rank still beneficial, you can actually get pretty darn close to tracking a completely personalized SERP.

The importance of measuring a baseline

You’re a large pizza chain with restaurants in every major city in the US — how can you get a sense of how well your SEO is doing in each? By creating a baseline to compare against.

We define the baseline as desktop and mobile results from each of your national markets (the US, in this example) — before the more personalizing factors of localization and online history get layered in.

“[Baselines provide] a directional idea of how well you are doing, but the reality will necessarily be a margin of error off…”

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By tracking keywords in all of your national markets, you create an accurate, objective foundation to build the rest of your SEO strategy around. You can now see which major cities within those countries are performing below their national baselines and need your attention.

We spoke with John Doherty, digital marketing consultant and Credo founder, who described baseline rank as “the place to start the conversation, not the be-all-end-all.” He said that similar to Zillow’s Zestimate for housing prices, “it gives you a directional idea of how well you are doing, but the reality will necessarily be a margin of error off depending on the query, location, and personalization of your browser.”

Zeroing in on localization

While a baseline rank is incredibly beneficial, the reality is that the vast majority of searches are largely influenced by localization. Initially this may seem frustrating, but it’s actually helped widen your scope of influence.

Once upon a time, each keyword would return the same SERP; today you’re no longer limited by that 1:1, keyword to SERP ratio. Depending on searcher location, one keyword can return a multitude of SERPs, giving SEOs more opportunities to rank.

For example, if you’re a small, SEO-savvy pizzeria in the SoHo neighbourhood of New York City, ranking for [pizza places] would have been out of the question before. Now, geo-location and local universal results are helping the hungry searchers roaming your neck of the woods find sustenance. Ranking for this keyword is far more accessible.

Geo-location and personalized search means your pizza has a better chance of ending up in hungry hands.
Geo-location and personalized search means your pizza has a better chance of ending up in hungry hands.

SEO wins for the little guy ABC

Geo-location and personalized search means your pizza has a better chance of ending up in hungry hands.

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And tracking these hyper-local results is absolutely within the realm of possibility. In fact, we do this every single day at STAT, an incredibly large number of times per day.

For each and every keyword that we crawl, we present a fresh face to Google and search as if we’re in your searcher’s location. And thanks to STAT developer magic, we never modify Google’s URL search parameters to achieve this — the average human person doesn’t do this, so neither do we.

No online history? No big deal

Although the “fresh face” we search with means that online history isn’t taken into account, this is actually a good thing.

Think about it this way: people who are already familiar with you, your product, or your services, often see your website higher on the SERP than those who are not.

When targeting new audiences, you want to see what first time searchers see, not the likely modified rank of a repeated search. This in turn will help you rank well for any subsequent relevant searches.

People are always searching for new things, which mean more opportunity for you to get in front of their face.
People are always searching for new things, which mean more opportunity for you to get in front of their face.

More searches, more opportunity

Searchers type in five million never-before-seen queries every single day.

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And if you think there’s never anything new under the sun, in Google’s universe, every day their search engine is faced with 500 million never-before-seen queries.

So, just because you don’t always report the same results that your colleagues or clients may see when they spot test, it doesn’t mean that you should give up on rank tracking. A baseline is still a crucial metric, and you can get so local that you’re as close to a personalized SERP as you’re going to get without violating any laws.

More on local search

Need a helping hand with your local SEO? Give our STAT Guide: Strategies for local SERP tracking a read — it’ll clarify some of the complexities around local search and provide you with ready-made tracking patterns that you can apply to your SEO strategy.

Want to see how local STAT can be? Say hello and request a demo!