I had a client ask me the other day where his traffic was coming from, since he couldn’t find his listing in the top few pages of search results for a keyword that was showing up in his analytics reports. The analytics system had reported that he’d received a number of visits from users who’d searched for “Keyword X” in Google and had clicked through to his site. Problem is, when he went and searched for “Keyword X”, he didn’t see any of his pages listed in the first dozen or so pages of results in Google, and he figured it’d be unlikely that a number of users would click very many pages deep anyway.
So, how did this traffic happen?
This isn’t the only time I’ve seen something like this happen. Probably a number of people have had the experience of calling up a partner or colleague to talk about something they see in the Google search results, only to find that the person at the other end of the phone sees a very different thing when they commit the same search in Google. The listing could be shown 9 places down from the top of the page instead of 2 places down, or it isn’t showing up at all for them while it’s showing plain as day for you.
Unfortunately, this is going to become a more and more common experience for webmasters. Google’s diversity of search products and results sets are becoming more and more differentiated for different users, and as this happens, people searching for the very same keyword are going to be seeing completely different search results. Read on for more details.
Web analytics programs commonly report the top search engine keywords that bring users to a site. As the search results for different users become individualized, if you’re a webmaster looking at the analytics metrics you’ll begin noticing that your site may get traffic for search terms when you can’t even see one of your pages listed, or you may not get traffic for somewhat popular terms where you see yourself listed in the very first position in the results page. The lack of clarity in reporting is exacerbated because many of the analytics systems can lump all traffic coming from “something.google.something” or “something.google.com” as being from the Google Search engine. This wildcarding effect might lead you to erroneously assume that all your traffic comes from the US-centric web search results on Google, when in fact you may be receiving traffic from a variety of Google sites in a variety of ways.
Here’s a quick list of some top reasons why your Google search results may appear different from someone else’s:
- Personalization. Google has begun to customize your search results in order to bump up the sorts of stuff that you seem to want so you can find it more easily. This can seem cool in cases where you are clicking on your own company’s pages more frequently, since it may make your CEO think your site is ranking high on his prestige keywords. But, trouble may happen when he is telling his friends about this and they see something different. So, how would you see what most users would be seeing? One way would be to disable the personalization, explained in this helpful thread on the Search Engine Roundtable: Turning Off Google Personalized Results .
- Different Google data centers/servers. Google is big – really big – so it doesn’t run on just one machine – it runs on a great many. Getting all of those machines to be in sync is an ongoing task, and as data trickles across all their machines it results in various servers displaying slightly different search results. So, you may see one set of results in the location where you’re viewing Google, while end users somewhere else may be seeing a different list of results – for the same keyword. There are a few tools out there for viewing the different data centers’ results – here’s one from SEO Chat .
- Google for other countries. Google has individualized search engines for different countries, and keyword searches in them may be filtered down to sites identified with those countries. Ex: Google UK , Google Canada , Google France . Your site might show up higher/lower in some other country for a particular keyword search, and there may be a number of country-centric Googles handling your language. For English language sites, users could be finding you from a number of different Googles: UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc.
- Alternate types of Google searches. While most usage is going through the main Google web search, there are a number of other specialized search engines that web surfers are using: Google Image Search  / News Search  / Blog Search  / Maps  / Google Base , etc. Would your site’s content show up in some of these?
- SafeSearch. Google automatically performs a bit of censoring of its search results in an effort to keep objectionable content away from minors and people who wish to avoid it. Google has Moderate filtering engaged by default, but users could be finding/not-finding your content depending on their settings. You can go into your Google Preferences  and change the setting to be stricter or disabled. Don’t assume you know for sure if your site or page is flagged as potentially objectionable! For instance, there are perfectly respectable plastic surgery sites  which appear/disappear from the SERPs, depending on the user’s SafeSearch setting.
- Language preferences. One can also change the desired language returned in the SERPs in the Google Preferences. Changing this option will cause pages matching your desired tongue to show up much higher in the results order.
- Gadgets / Widgets /Feeds in iGoogle. People who are using Google’s customizable homepage service, AKA “iGoogle “, can add all sorts of “gadgets” or widgets to their homepage, along with content feeds. So, if your site content is accessible through one of the many gadgets out there, or if you have RSS/Atom on your site, users who have subscribed to those services might be coming to you through those avenues.
I’ve probably neglected to add a few other routes which can result in differentiation in how users may come across your pages from Google, and this will continue to change as Google adds and alters their various products and features. But, these are some of the top ways that users may come to you from Google, and these are the primary places to look if you’re trying to figure out why some other people may be seeing different results from what you’re seeing when performing keyword searches, or when you’re trawling through your web analytic keyword referral reports.