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Today’s question comes from Tahmine in Kashan. Tahmine asks:

Does searching on incognito mode effect SEO ranking? We are searching from my work place with shared network would it effect too?

Great question Tahmine, there’s a lot to unpack here.

Before we can answer this we need to look at what actions actually affect SEO rankings, as well as what incognito mode actually does.

We know that Google has hundreds of ranking factors. Thousands, if you count all the stuff SEO professionals randomly make up on Twitter.

Among them are some basic information that Google can get from your browser.

When you do a search they know what country/language your browser is set to, they know your location, and if you have a Google cookie set, they know your search history.

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All of these things are used to help deliver more relevant search results specifically for you – and explain why you might see a different result set than somebody else.

If you constantly search for something and keep clicking the same result, Google (and Bing) will recognize this and start showing you that result higher up for that search. This is useful because a ton of people still use search navigationally (e.g., they type in Facebook into Bing rather than go to facebook.com in their browser).

If you’re searching for something that has a local feel, they can use your location to bring up a map pack.

Whether this map pack shows up (and even where it shows up for you) can depend on how far you are from the businesses.

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What Incognito Actually Does

There’s a great primer from Google about how private browsing works here, but don’t worry I’ll summarize the key points for you below.

The goal of incognito is to hide your history from other people using the same device as you.

It’s not to completely anonymize you.

For that, you’ll want a VPN and TOR, your neighbor’s unsecured wifi, and probably a copy of Tails Linux running on a virtual machine – all of which is beyond the scope of this article.

When you do a search using incognito, there’s still a ton of info that Google and Bing can know about you. Those include:

  • Your IP Address.
  • Your location.
  • Anything you log in to during that session.

This means that Google and Bing can still show you custom results based on your IP/Location/etc.

This is why when famous SEO professionals ask everybody at a conference to do a search and click a result, you can see that result show up higher.

It’s because you’re all in the same location using the same IP address and the search engine is customizing its result to your hundreds of past searches – and it’s doing that based on ISP info and location, not your cookies.

Do Searches Affect Rankings?

That brings us to the heart of the question. While Tahmine didn’t come out and say it, I have to think part of this question deals with the topic of click-through rate and rankings.

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I alluded to it above, but let’s tackle it head-on: Google says that click-through rate is not a factor in the typical ranking algorithm. What they mean by this is, when you take away personalization and history and all that type of stuff, they do not use CTR in the algorithm.

What does this mean?

It means that they may use it to personalize your search results based on your previous behavior, but none of your clicks will impact that ranking position for anybody else.

But what about patents and other statements?

This is where there’s a lot of SEO confusion.

While they may not use CTR as a hard ranking factor, there’s plenty of legit uses for it.

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For example, if they’re doing an A/B test between variants of the search algorithm, CTR makes a good metric to look at to see which set of results is better.

Likewise, if they’re noticing that the map pack for a specific query type isn’t getting any clicks, they may decide to no longer show a map pack for that type of query.

They may also use CTR to determine what position to best show a people also ask box or similar feature.

Does Google use CTR? Yes.

Do they use it like SEOs think they do?

No.

You can click on your result or have other people click on your result all you want, it won’t improve your rankings.

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(Caveat: unless you’re talking about results within the local map pack or something. I know some black hats with a couple hundred phones who click stuff and drive around, and that does still seem to work – but only within specific local search features, not within general search.)

Getting back to the question: Does incognito mess with any of the stuff I mentioned above? The answer is no, not really – at least not in any meaningful way.

I hope that helped clarify some of the nuances about what incognito actually does and how CTR may be used and not used.

More Resources:

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Editor’s noteAsk an SEO is a weekly SEO advice column written by some of the industry’s top SEO experts, who have been hand-picked by Search Engine Journal. Got a question about SEO? Fill out our form. You might see your answer in the next #AskanSEO post!

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