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Why Have My Search Rankings Dropped?

On March 12, Google announced what it called a “broad core algorithm update,” the sixth major change to the search engine’s algorithm in the last year. Unfortunately for everyone, that’s about as specific Google got in describing the impact of “Update Florida 2,” as it has been named.

As with prior changes, Google’s advice in managing this new update is to continue with standard, accepted SEO practices.  But, for sites that have noticed their traffic on the downhill lately or in the last couple of years, a better explanation is in order.

How SEO Started

In the early days of Google, earning Page 1 rankings on the search engine was as easy as incorporating the right keywords into your meta tags and content. Companies that jumped on the SEO bandwagon early got tremendous advantage, dominating rankings within their business segments.

Over time, Google modified the algorithm to make capturing the prized top rankings more difficult, adding backlinks and myriad other ranking signals.

Today, we know that the Google algorithm incorporates more than 200 ranking factors, about half of which are related to on-page SEO and the other half to backlinking and content marketing.

Then Google Got Smarter

Starting in 2015, the company began incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) into the search results. Called RankBrain, this change causes fewer search results to be determined entirely by the 200 factors in the algorithm and more by the search engine’s interpretation of user intent.  Google uses its traditional search factors to narrow the list of qualified web pages for a search query then employs neural matching to determine the exact rankings.

Google expects the result of using AI to improve the overall quality of search results matching the intentions of the searcher. For website owners seeking top placement for a broad set of keywords, this could create havoc for organic search results and site traffic.

Here’s an example of how RankBrain works:  A search for “ice cream,” is interpreted by Google as someone wanting to buy ice cream. Since most people wouldn’t fly across the country to do that, Google will overwhelmingly display local results of ice cream shops. To hedge against the unlikely event that someone is actually searching for a particular type of ice cream, Google might throw in one or two less relevant results, like a particular brand, such as Ben & Jerry’s.

At the same time, a search for “best ice cream,” is interpreted as someone wanting to read about ice cream reviews. So the results are largely for sites that rank ice cream brands or that collect ice cream reviews.

Consider all the other potential keyword combinations to search for ice cream.  Given Google’s newer emphasis on user intent, it becomes very difficult for a single site to dominate the top rankings across a broad set of keywords related to ice cream – or any other topic.

But, There’s More to Google Search

Even while Google has been developing and incorporating RankBrain, there have been lots of other changes to the search engine over the years that impact how results are displayed and how much traffic ultimately gets to a company’s website.

  • Google AdWords – the positioning of AdWords – now called Google Ads – has changed considerably over the years, from a column down the right side of the page, to varying presentations of ads now solidly along the top and bottom of search results.
  • Google Local – the incorporation of Google My Business and Google Maps enables local businesses to appear more regularly in search results. Additionally, Google’s algorithm prioritizes results geographically, which means that smaller local businesses have an opportunity to be seen in the search results over large national companies for search terms where Google feels the user might want to see local businesses.
  • Knowledge Graph – this is the box that has since replaced the Google ads in the right column of Google results.  You’ll often see one company’s Knowledge Graph listed in this position.
  • Universal Search – along with the repositioning of Google ads, Universal Search has had the largest impact on Page 1 rankings because it’s replaced a portion of the organic listings with other types of results, such as videos, images, e-commerce and maps. In many cases, that means there are no longer 10 organic positions on the first page of Google.

The result is that even if you’ve been consistently doing all the right SEO things to earn and maintain top rankings, Google has stacked the odds against you – making it far more difficult to keep those top positions. There are fewer Page 1 listings available and earning them is somewhat out of your control, now that Google has allowed AI to take over the ranking process.

And, even if you’re still listed at #1 in organic results, if those results are displayed under four ads, a section of images, e-commerce listings and a Google local box, then your site is likely generating far less traffic from that #1 listing than it did before.

And, Here’s the Silver Lining

That doesn’t negate the importance of SEO. Rather than compare the traffic you’re getting today to what you got before all these changes, it’s more relevant to consider what you’d have with no SEO at all. Page 1 listings on Google certainly come at a higher premium in SEO effort, but the benefit is that your rankings are far more targeted to the audience most likely to respond to them based on user intent, increasing the overall quality of the Google traffic and leads coming to your site.

Need help with your SEO? Pilot Fish specializes in website design and SEO for industrial companies. Contact us for a free site review and consultation or call 877-799-9994 ext. 2012.


Given Google's newer emphasis on user intent, it becomes very difficult for a single site to dominate the top rankings across a broad set of keywords.