There’s no Such Thing as Being Number 1 in Search

If there’s one thing that I wish I could help all business owners understand, it would be that there’s no such thing as being number 1 in search. It’s true that it was possible years ago (many years ago) but it’s no longer the case.

Back in the days when it was clear who was in the top 10, we all got the same search results. Today we get personalized and more relevant results. Google started personalizing search results in 2009 by tracking individual behavior and learning which types of sites a person likes.

A simplified version of the personalization layer of search looks something like this:

  • Search History – Google keeps a record of your searches and incorporates it into calculating what’s relevant
  • Social Sharing – if you share it, you must like it and Google will give you results that are similar
  • Social Connections – content that has been shared by people you’re connected to on Google+
  • Previous Search – Google looks at what you just searched on and combines it with your new search to see if it makes sense to include both terms in the results
  • Mass Personalization – in addition to your individual behavior, Google takes overall search behavior into consideration
  • Location – the physical address of the computer

When you “Google” something the default search results are “private” and include things like pages, photos, and Google+ posts from your friends. Google calls this your “Social Results Setting” and you can turn it off and on by clicking on the world or the little person icon in the upper right hand corner of the search results page.

How to Turn Off Private Results in Google


This doesn’t completely turn off all of the personalization layers, in order to do that you need to take some additional steps which include signing out of Google and selecting verbatim results while searching. My bet is that the average person isn’t even aware of “private” vs “public” results, let alone how to turn personalization completely off, so I’m going to focus my examples based on Google’s default.

I did a search on “Inbound Marketing and SEO” to demonstrate how the search results change between private and public results.

The first 5 results for this particular search don’t vary much, the top two results are the same, there’s a bit of shuffling between positions 3, 4, and 5, and my private results contain a link to a HubSpot article because I frequently use them as a resource.

Personalized search results position 1 through five

The results in positions 5-10 demonstrate the impact of personalized results even further. There is only one link in common and it’s in position 10 on my private results and position 5 in the public results.

Personalized search results position 5 through 10

 Although the first two search results are the same for me in both public and private mode, that doesn’t mean they will be number one for someone else because it still includes the past search activity even when you’re signed out of Google.

Non-personalized Search ResultsTo completely (or as completely as possible) remove the personalization of search, first sign out of Google and clear your browsing history and cookies.

Perform your search:

1.  Click on “Search Tools” at the top of the search results page

2. Click on “all results” (this will display after you click on “search tools”

3. Select “Verbatim” from the drop down menu

Now you see the most “pure” search results possible and the results have changed again. There are only two results in the top 5 that are common to my “public” results and the order of the results is completely different.

 Non Personalized Search Results Comparison

Personalization of search results is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to why search results are different and there’s no such thing as being number 1 in search. There’s the fascinating world of Semantic Search and Natural Language Processing, which means that the search engines understand the search query and the intent behind it.

So what does this all mean?

It means that there is no such thing as being number 1 in Search results and that it’s OK! Yep, it really is OK to not be number one in your keyword position report.

If you think about it, it makes sense that you don’t want to be number 1 for everyone, what you want is to be on the first page (hopefully number 1) for the people that are looking for your products and services. It may actually even mean that you get less traffic to your site, which also may be OK.

What you want is qualified traffic not lots of traffic, well ok, what we all really want is lots of qualified traffic. But what’s important is to focus on the right things rather than losing sleep about whether or not you’re number 1 on the keyword position report for what you perceive to be your most valuable keyword.

The right things to focus on are: creating good content for your visitors and forming relationships with folks that can help share your story.  Then monitor key engagement metrics like bounce rate, number of pages per visit, average time on site, leads, and sales to determine whether or not your strategy is working for or against you.

If your organic traffic is growing, does it really matter if it’s coming from one keyword or from multiple phrases? Often-times the long tail phrases are far more valuable than the keyword that everyone else is trying to rank for.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t monitor search positions at all, they’re still a valuable indicator; but think about it like a scale – if you need to lose weight, it doesn’t matter if your scale is 5 LBS off, you know which way the numbers need to go. Same with average position for individual keywords, look at them directionally but not in a vacuum and be sure to take into consideration all of the important metrics before determining whether or not your SEO strategy is working.

Don’t be fooled by SEO agencies who guarantee that they can “get you to the top of Google,” plain and simple, they can’t. What a good SEO consultant or agency can do is provide you with sound advice that will help you show up in the search results for the people who are interested in what you have to offer.

  • Thank you for an amazing article that was clearly written and easy to understand. Now, I no longer will stress out about Google ranking and not being listed #1. You shared valuable insight. Thanks again!