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What Is Rank Transition & What Does It Mean for SEO?

A client, or boss, presents a problem with the website: “Rankings are down despite all this work we have done on the site.”

You scratch your head looking at the pages you updated with internal linking, meta tag updates, and perhaps some small text on the page that mentions the focus keywords.

You’re not spamming, at least you don’t feel you did enough to alert Google that you’re spamming.

The pages are showing up in search results, but the rankings aren’t what you predicted, and they aren’t consistent across the pages you edited.

Your advice to the client, or boss: more work needs be done to adjust.

So you make those changes. And the rankings change again – but not for the better.

It’s as if the pages are all ranking randomly, and each change is making it worse.

Every SEO professional at some point has experienced this rank transition, whether you realize it or not.
What Is Rank Transition?

Rank transition is Google’s way of confusing spammers as they adjust for rankings and continually readjust in an attempt to obtain a good position for one or more documents within a website.

It’s Google’s way of identifying specific techniques and formulating an algorithmic rule that appears to randomize rankings.

Google’s Ranking Documents patent was approved in 2012. The SEO industry covered it extensively, including Bill Slawski at SEO by the Sea and myself as I was experiencing the effects of the patent.

In 2014, the U.S. Patent office approved a similar updated patent, Changing a rank of a document by applying a rank transition function.

Both patents are fairly specific about what Google considers spamming, and the timing is quickly mentioned.

However, the wording leaves it somewhat open-ended which I believe could be used for most changes for SEO as well as the timing.
What Appears to Be Random Isn’t Actually Random

Computers and programs can’t function in a random way.

Therefore, the ranking documents patent contains 29 claims detailing a set of rules in which the pages (or documents) that are affected by the patent are set up in a way that rankings appear to be random during the established transition period.

Upon a change to a set of pages on a website, the new ranking position is determined.

However, it is not set for an amount of time. Instead, each page is assigned a position based on the algorithms defined in the patent.

The positions will appear to be random until that determined amount of time is complete and no further work or adjustments to those pages were made.

Google looks at the page that is now changed (or optimized), determining the old rank and then the new rank based on the changes.

The rank transition is set and published.

If there are no further changes during the transition period then the target rank is set. However, the transition period is reset if more changes are made.