Since the beginning, rankings and SEO have gone hand in hand. Back in the early 2000s, it made sense; you want to rank for “this keyword,” “that keyword,” etc… you write relevant content with relevant anchor text, get links and then use a variety of SEO ranking tools to track your position. Rankings were black and white back then but like just about everything related to the Internet, things have changed [for the good].
Two big events have taken place that have changed the landscape and how we use (and don't use) rankings:
1. Personalized Search – If you and I search for the same exact query, chances are slim that our page one results will be the same. Read more on personalized search below.
2. The tools – Many companies with SEO tools have decided it's too risky to provide a ranking tool using unauthorized and scraped Google data. So even if we wanted the data, it's not as readily available as it used to be and it may be more outdated than we're comfortable with.
I personally love to see the trend of moving away from rankings. Going in this direction is forcing both companies and individuals to focus on what's important which is writing content that's unique and appealing to real people. I also believe this trend will drive people to look at metrics that more accurately represent value. If you're ranked number 1 for a query and get 1,000 visits from that particular article but the bounce rate is 90% and the average time is less than 10 seconds, there's very little value in what just happened. I'd rather Google serve my article to a more qualified searcher even if that means I only get 100 visits but a bounce rate of 20% and a time on site of eight minutes.
For some time now (years!) Google has been personalizing search. They don't make it obvious that they're doing what they're doing (or why they're doing it) but it happens and it's not going away for the foreseeable future. Interestingly enough, Google's search results are not the only mainstream area where personalized results can be found; Facebook is also big on doing this and they base their results by what you look at and like.
Not only does Google personalize your search when you're signed in (Gmail, Google+, etc…) but they also personalize search when users are not signed in. How does Google do this? They use a 180 day cookie (a small bit of data that stores your previous activity for that particular website) to gather previous usage stats which will be used to serve up your personal results.
Similarly to the standard Google algorithm, we don't know all the details but it's said that Google personalizes your search results based on 50+ signals; from something as simple as the browser and computer you're using, to the factors below which can be a little more involved but yield super relevant [to you] results.
Where You Live – This is one of the most obvious factors in Google's personalized results; Google uses your physical location to serve up results that are locally relevant. Chances are, if you search for just “plumber,” you get results for plumbers in your local area.
What You've Searched For – If you're signed in, Google has years of search history to help personalize your results…even if you're not signed in, Google uses the 180 day browser cookie that I mentioned above to deliver results based on your past search history with that browser. Google also uses “previous query refinement.” This type of personalization takes into account what keywords were searched before your last query. For example, if a user searches “bestselling books” and then “gardening,” Google may return results that relevant to “bestselling gardening books.”
Social Sharing and Connections – Social media is playing an increasingly important role in Google's search results; especially with the addition of Google+ to the social scene. It appears Google is more likely to serve up articles related to your query if one of your social connections has shared it or maybe even liked it, +1ed it, etc…
Widespread Trends – Google has oodles and oodles of data about what queries people are using and what they ultimately click on. It'd be a shame for all that data to go to waste but luckily Google does use that data to serve results based on the previous queries for a wide range of people…if they're seeing a trend in query refinement across the country, they may alter your results based on what they “see.”
If you're interested in learning more, I highly recommend the embedded video below. It's an older video (from 2011) from Eli Pariser at TED but the video is still relevant and actually argues a possible downside of such personalized search. If you're short on time, start at the 2:00 mark; that's where Eli talks about the little experiment he did with his friends.