Analytical types will tell you that for every event, there are factors that caused that event. Makes perfect sense, no? That's how we learn. My hand got burned because I tried to pick up a hot dish. In the future, I'll know to use a potholder. That's learning for survival and well-being.

However, much like early humans thought that sacrifices to the rain god brought the rain and praying made the sun rise each day, website owners often believe their actions have caused changes in the rankings. They truly believe that every little thing they do is instantly reflected on the changes they see in search rankings. And it makes them nuts!

That's not learning, that's jumping to conclusions.

How Urban Legends Are Made

A primitive man is out hunting in an area he's never been to before. Just as he kills a deer next to a pine tree, the volcano under the mountain rumbles and shakes. The man assumes killing the deer next to the pine tree caused the rumbling and the gods are mad. He returns to his village to tell the others what happened and no one ever kills a deer in a grove of pine trees again. It works! The volcano remains dormant.

Webmasters often see a decline (or an increase in rankings) after doing something to their site. Maybe they changed the meta keywords, or put Adsense on their site, or changed headings to h tags or took headings out of h tags. Whatever they did, shortly afterwards they saw a change in search rankings and assumed that they caused the change.

Even though they can't duplicate the event, they continue to believe they did something that caused their site to rank better or worse. They will not listen to anyone who tells them otherwise. They won't touch the site again for fear of losing their rankings.

If the change "caused" a drop in rankings, they put their site back the way it was immediatly and yet the site doesn't go back to where it was. Instead of coming to the conclusion that the change didn't cause the ranking issue, they instead believe they've angered the search engine gods and head to the forums to find out how to beg forgiveness.

You Don't Control the Sun

We want control. We can't stand the idea that some things are simply out of our control; that we didn't cause them and we can't change them. We simply assume we haven't found the right key, the right code, or the right formula. But once we do, watch out! We'll be able to easily manipulate the engines to do our bidding.

Just as early humans didn't actually cause the sun to come up every day, minor changes to your site generally don't trigger massive changes in search engine results. If you can't duplicate the event, it was probably just a coincidence.

Search engine rankings are complex and involve many factors that you don't control, such as the number of other pages that use your desired terms. If you truly believe something you did caused a great change, then duplicate it. Try it again. Change it back and see what happens. Try it on another site. Do you get the same results? Do it again. If you can get the same change to happen in a predictable pattern, you may actually be on to something that counts.

Changes That Make a Difference

Some changes do have a very real effect on your site. An example of some changes that may influence your rankings are:

Changes to page titles
Changes to body copy
Changes to navigational structure or internal linking

Any change that blocks or unblocks the spider's access to the site such as:

Block or unblock robots.txt
Move to or away from search friendly URLs
Remove or add password protection
Changes to text in links or image links
New pages or new content on pages
Additional links from external sites

Impactful Changes Often Take Time

While the above activities can impact your rankings, you may not see an immediate reaction in the search listings.

If you are making changes only for the search engines and waiting for them to appear, you will drive yourself crazy trying to figure out why this or that happened when it did. There are a ton of factors you can't control: algo changes, new competitors, changing competitors, server issues, even database issues where you may see different indexes from one day to the next in the search engines.

If you continue to improve your site, make search-friendly, focused changes to your site when needed (and not every week), gain quality incoming links and continue to build a better web experience for your visitors, long term rankings should be achievable. So don't freak out if your #3 drops to a #12 every now and then... that's just the nature of the game.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
September 28, 2005

Scottie Claiborne is the facilitator of the Successful Sites Newsletter. She is a speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences and the High Rankings Seminars as well as the administrator of the High Rankings Forum.

Search Engine Guide > Scottie Claiborne > Cause and Effect - Not Always Easy to Determine