Diagnosing SERP Volatility

One of the perks of working agency side is access to a plethora of tools and a plethora of Analytics accounts across verticals. I also watch the Google SERPs religiously and use a few tools (SERPmetrics and Mozcast) to keep an eye on the algorithm and flux. It’s always good as an SEO/online marketer to keep an eye on the search results and see the changes broader.

Today I looked at the SERPmetrics flux capacitor and saw this:

And Mozcast showed this flux:

Then I looked at a couple of clients in our Distilled portfolio and saw this traffic:

That’s a 25% increase week over week.

And this:

Something has happened recently in the search results, so I did a bit more digging.


Because this is across multiple verticals, this signals to me that it’s not an isolated incident.

First off, it’s non-branded organic that has gone up –

And the number of keywords that the sites are ranking for are not significantly higher to cause this search volume –

Actually, the increase for both clients has been for head terms that are relatively competitive that they have been competing for for a long time.

Diagnosing What Happened

Whenever I see something weird going on in the SERPs, I do the following:

  1. Engage on Twitter. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not;
  2. Check SERPmetrics Flux and Mozcast for tracking of fluctuations;
  3. Filter out branded keywords from Google Analytics;
  4. Compare one week to the previous, see what keywords have gained;
  5. Draw conclusions and adjust.

I suspect that we’ve seen a recent Panda update, or an iteration on the Penguin algorithm, or both at the same time. It would surprise me if Google <tinfoil hat> rolled the two together to throw us off</tinfoil hat>.

What do you think?

11 thoughts on “Diagnosing SERP Volatility

  1. Nice post John.

    MozCast and SERPmetrics are both great tools, but until we can include additional information (e.g., impact on ranking factors, domain diversity changes, etc.) in the analysis, we’re in the same situation as storm chasers. We can identify when a tornado touches down… but we still don’t know a lot about what caused it :-/

    Fortunately, I know Dr. Pete has numerous ideas about making MozCast more actionable. So I’m looking forward to seeing how that tool evolves over time.

    This week, I also wrote about SERP monitoring (and various resources for chasing Google’s algorithm). Here’s the URL if anyone’s interested: http://www.webgnomes.org/blog/google-algorithm-chasing/

  2. It’s a particularly difficult concept to explain to some clients. For the most part, the response to “The SERPs have been particularly volatile of late, resulting in some ranking fluctuation” is “I don’t know what that means and I don’t care. All I care about is that I sold less/the same as/only a little more than last month. Fix it.”

    1. Right, and it’s not surprising to me that clients respond that way when you tell them that. They’re not SEOs and won’t understand it.

      What I tell them is “Rankings have been fluctuating because Google is changing their algorithm to target techniques against their guidelines. We are planning to do X, Y, and Z to regain rankings.”

      1. I think that last sentence is the critical element, but it assumes you have enough of a handle on why the fluctuations are happening to determine what X, Y and Z are.

        In terms of the language used, I was paraphrasing and have probably done myself a disservice in the process. A direct quote from a report I wrote earlier this year includes:

        “Google has made some significant changes to its algorithms in March and as a result there has been a high degree of volatility in search results. This has resulted in some terms progressing faster than anticipated and others suffering setbacks.

        We are continuing to monitor the situation on a daily basis and over the next month will be preparing suggestions for any changes we feel are required to take advantage of the new landscape Google have produced.”

        which I hope is closer to what you suggested than the language I originally used here.

        1. Just to chime in on the above. The replies are great and I am in no way dissing them, but if I was presenting that to a CEO/CMO/VP of a large company, his face would be blank. That would really mean nothing to him. As said above, they see money in and want to see sales out.

          I think the continuel fluctuations in the SERPs are really going to make it increasingly difficult to stand in front of senior execs and sell the advantages of SEO.

          Just my two cents.

  3. “…so I did a bit more digging”

    That’s the one thing everyone needs to do more of, and something I hope to do more of myself in the coming months. Bits and pieces of data are just part of the story, and good marketers are always trying to fill in the missing plotlines.

  4. Hi John,

    I’ve noticed ranking fluctuations during the last few weeks too. Some keywords have held up well, but others have dropped significantly. I don’t have access to SERPMetrics Flux and Mozcast, but what I usually do is look to searchmetrics data and identify drops in visibility. I then look for 1st entry page stats by the week (it’s difficult to say how keywords have performed with “not provided” in the mix). But based on the 1st entry page visits, I can tell if there’s been a significant drops in visits and to what pages. From what I’m seeing, it seems like a panda update as certain sections of the site have seen drops in visits whereas others have seen increases. So the “penalty” seems algorithmic. I’m also not sure if these have anything to do with the recent messages google has been sending webmasters (I’m just thinking out loud here). Ay thoughts?

  5. I totally had the same moment today. My suspicions is with links an anchor texts, but let’s not be too quick to call the Penguin.

  6. Hey John – really happy to see someone really digging into this. We have been seeing crazy fluctuation on Google’s international indexes too, especially with the Japan/Korea Panda update that rolled out on 7/18.

    Since then we have literally seen thousands of rankings skyrocket while other long-standing, relatively stable rankings get smashed 3-4 pages (I should mention that are highly matched for relevancy, i.e. query is ‘reviews about [model] phone and [problem]’ and former ranking page is collection of UGC on page for brand > model > issue).

    I can only hope we begin to see some sort of stability or at least find a model that allows for better attribution of the fluctuations. Keep up the good work!

  7. John, cheers for the post. I do a similar process to you, a great deal of investigation and snooping to determine which keywords are bouncing in the ranks and then adjust things accordingly.

    What’s interesting though is that a lot of my clients are from South Africa and we always get hit by flux’s well after you do, I really need to built a Mozcast for South Africa as us SEOs here in Cape Town need more “real time” data at our finger tips!

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