For years, many companies have invested heavily in SEO. But when it really comes down to it, is SEO just a crapshoot?

That's a question worth asking following a survey that asked hundreds of respondents to predict which page would rank higher than the other for a variety of keywords.

The result: "most SEOs are no better than a coin-flip at predicting which page will rank better."

In the UK SERPs, respondents' accuracy in selecting the higher-ranked page was just 46%.

It was higher in the US by about 10%, but for many search terms, accuracy was frequently in the 40% range.

Since the survey included respondents with varying levels of SEO expertise, as well as laypeople, one might expect those with more knowledge to have better predictive capabilities.

But that wasn't really the case.

For example, for UK SERPs, while SEOs with three or more years of experience did perform better than laypeople and SEOs with under three years of experience, their accuracy was still equal to that of a coin-flip.

What's more, those who indicated that they were "sure" or "fairly sure" about their predictions were less likely to accurately predict which page outranked another for a particular search phrase by nearly 4%, and only slightly more likely to outpredict those who guessed. 

Blame the Penguin?

While these numbers will provide ammunition to SEO skeptics, and might even give companies some pause about their own SEO efforts, it's also reasonable to look at these numbers as evidence of just how complex Google's algorithm is to decipher today.

Google's core algorithm now consists of over 200 unique signals that can affect rankings.

And with Penguin 4.0, Google has not only integrated one of its most important spam-detection algorithms into its core, it is refreshing Penguin's data in real-time, "so changes will be visible much faster, typically taking effect shortly after we recrawl and reindex a page."

That means SERPs can change very, very quickly, and frequently.

Throw in personalized search and it's really no surprise that even experienced SEOs can't accurately predict whether one page will outrank another.

The future of SEO

And that really isn't what legitimate SEO is. Given the complexity of Google's algorithm today, an SEO's worth today comes down to two core capabilities: 

  • Being able to identify and fix problems known to be detrimental to rankings. While it might be nearly impossible to predict exactly what will produce a top ranking for any specific search query, there are numerous well-established mistakes that, when present on a site, can harm rankings.
  • Monitor and analyze data to suggest and implement improvements that might produce ranking improvements. There is no science for achieving top results, but a good SEO is capable of analyzing data and making changes over time designed to produce better results and respond to negative changes.

 In other words, companies should expect SEO to help them avoid the big no-nos and engage in educated, data-driven iterative experimentation to try to boost results.

To learn more, check out these resources:

Patricio Robles

Published 13 October, 2016 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (3)


Richard Game, worker ant at Cressive

Patricio - a good solid comment on the 'state of the nation'. Since the days of 'lashing links into a particular page' many have been left with no methods of how to affect directed change; partly by Google design, partly by lack of decent knowledge. However two other important states should be added and considered in this context. Firstly those (of us) that do use strong methods and processes to best design and control search programs, proven to control 'destination ranking pages' successfully in more cases than just a coin flip! And secondly the contrasting state of not taking such diligent action, doing nothing, and letting ranking pages be decided by 'drifting on the tide'. Within this range your comment is a good one well made. There is significant reason to do more than nothing and still significant value in 'better SEO' with 'page control'. As such differentiated services will continue to prosper with proven success from "doing SEO properly". RG

almost 2 years ago


Chris Turner, Owner and Principal at Bright Blue Kite

Good points Patricio. We have noticed SERPs changing by the day and sometimes between morning and afternoon. We have heard that Google makes minor changes to its algorithm up to 300 times a year alongside major updates like Penguin. That's getting close to daily updates. We always tell clients we cannot 'arrange' results but, as you say, some activities are known to be detrimeantal to rankings. Not mobile-friendly? Not good. Slow load speed? A big no-no. SEO is not just a crapshoot, by using some simple techniques on a client site, we have increased traffic from organic search by over 80% over a three-month period. Our view is that you must under-promise, its then possible to exceed expectation.

almost 2 years ago


yaacov goldstein, Account Manager at Five Blocks

Not sure any SEO would claim to be able to predict what a SERP will look like. It is a bit like predicting the Premier League table at the beginning of the season - there are too many moving parts and unknowns.
Our role is to do our very best to give our pages the best opportunity to rank as high as possible - based on what we know about the algorithm.

over 1 year ago

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