Why being number one in Google means jack

I've done my fair share of ranking reports for clients over the years. It’s something I've never really liked doing and always felt it needs to be sent back to the client with a list of reasons why this is not  a valid or useful metric for measuring the success of an online campaign. [It's important to note: search ranking reports should be used alongside traffic reports to highlight major changes in your positioning in Google's results, and can be a way to spot if you've received a penalty following an algorithm update.]

It all comes down to our goals. Why do we want to be number one in Google for our key search terms? Is it just for glory? So we can have t-shirts printed with ‘#1 in Google’ on them and parade around the office like amorous cockerels? Maybe.

But for the majority of us, being number one in Google is valuable to us because of the potential traffic it can drive to our website. So what if I said, I can create that kind of traffic while you’re at position 5, 6 or 7? What if I said number 1 is not always the best position to be in? Or how about, your most qualified traffic and highest conversion ratios come from the traffic we generate through email marketing or social media and not search at all?

Being number 1 in Google is likely to get you a higher number of clicks than the positions below, but it’s probably going to get you the higher percentage of tyre-kickers too, and they’re only helpful to boost our visitor stats and little else.

When is number 1 not number 1?

Position one in Google hasn’t been a cut-and-dry case for a long time. With personalised search, we started to see customised results based on the browsing history of individuals who were logged in to their Google account. We then saw this rolled out to all users, whether signed in or not, in December 2009, and it was left to the individual to turn off personalised results (if they could figure out how!).

Now we have results based on our location when we search on a mobile device. Something we need to be very aware of in the age of mobile superseding desktop as the way to access the internet.

We have the ‘Search plus your world’ feature launched in 2012 to show us search results, images and profiles from our Google Plus accounts. And now Google’s Private Results which we can switch on and off if we choose to. This shows us results from our other Google products such as Gmail and Calendar.


What we have, then, is a variety of different ways for Google to display search results for individuals, and it’s rare that 2 people will see the same results. We also have to take into consideration that search results can fluctuate throughout the day, week or month, so reporting on rankings is only providing a mere snapshot into where your website is likely to be showing up in Google.

We need to see the bigger picture. How much traffic are we generating from search? How qualified is that traffic?

We could sit at position 2 in the search results but still generate more traffic and conversions than the number 1 spot. Why? Because it’s not all about position. It’s about how well our title tag is optimised, how our meta description displays and whether our USP (Unique Selling Proposition) is strong enough to get that click through, not to mention how well our landing page performs in retaining the visitor. If I said you could be at number one in Google, but your bounce rate would be 95%, would you bite my hand off? I hope not.

So is it the end of the world if you’re not number 1 in Google – of course not! Getting fixated on that number is not taking into account your entire online strategy and you could be missing a trick.