This article addresses the mystery of search results that don’t make sense, such as top ranked sites with obviously paid links seemingly powering their rankings.  Some top ranked pages have weak backlinks and sometimes only a partial keyword match on the page. The top ranked site shouldn’t be ranked but there it is!  These are quirky SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). Often, what you see is not what is powering those rankings.

Traditional ranking factors don’t always explain why they rank. Google sometimes ranks pages number one despite their lousy links and poor SEO. I call these Quirky SERPs. This article offers an explanation of why this happens.

Sometimes, those paid links you think are powering the top ranked sites are simply red herrings. A red herring is an obvious clue that seemingly solves a problem. But a red herring does not solve the problem, it’s just the obvious clue. The real reason is less obvious.
Thus, you can take the evidence of paid links as a visible sign that the company is doing SEO but what you see is not necessarily what is driving their rankings.
Sometimes it’s an SEO who is working on a site with good rankings and taking the easy way out to do SEO. They used to call it “too big to penalize” because the backlinks were so massive they could absorb the shock of bad links. Thus, those SEOs could build poor quality links and collect their SEO fees, without harming (or benefiting the client).
Nowadays Google just discounts paid and spammy links.
It’s important to not stop at the spammy links and conclude that that is what’s powering the rankings. Keep digging.

A colleague and friend, Bill Hartzer, showed me a URL and suggested it might be ranking number one for a competitive phrase because of “powered by” footer links. I took a quick look and realized it’s probably the modification engine at work. I have seen this in other strange queries, especially where search results from traditional ranking factors can’t solve the problem for the MAJORITY of users.

Modification Engine
The modification engine is a part of Google’s algorithm. It exists outside of the Ranking Engine. These engines are algorithms that determine what gets shown in the SERPs.  There are certain kinds of keyword phrases where the results that come from traditional ranking factors like links, anchor text and on-page content fail.

A generic search like “plumber” or a specific search like the name of a restaurant chain (like McDonalds) would result in the Wikipedia page for Plumbers or the national headquarters web page for McDonalds.  This is where the modification engine steps in. The modification engine can take into account your geographic location and show you a list of plumbers or restaurants that are local to you.

Those results do not rank because of traditional ranking factors like links. The modification engine can entirely replace the first ten search results or only the top result or show a combination of quirk results plus traditional results.

The modification engine is like a personalization algorithm. It changes the SERPs so that the search results line up with what most users are looking for.

An Alternate Definition of Relevance:
Google interprets relevance as giving users what they are looking for, what they want to see.  So if a certain percentage of users want to see results about Jaguar the automobile and a lesser percentage of users want to see results about Jaguar the animal, no matter how many links your Jaguar the animal web page acquires, Google will  ALWAYS knock it down a few spots to display it beneath web pages about Jaguar the car web pages. Jaguar the car pages will always outrank the animal pages because that’s what users want to see. It’s not about links. It’s not about keywords. It’s about what users want to see. <— That is the true meaning of relevance.

The End of the Ranking Signals Era
Traditionally relevance meant how your keywords matched the search query. Traditionally 200+ ranking signals determined who ranked at the top of the SERPs. As you can see in the examples above, the Modification Engine puts an end to that.

Not all the pages you see in the SERPs are there because of 200+ ranking signals or because of keyword relevance. If you still see the search results through lens of ranking factors, please stop doing that right now. That era is over.

Both Bing and Google are modifying the search results to show web pages that satisfy users. That’s what all that CTR tracking has been about, to understand all the different meanings inherent in phrases that users type in a search query. Bing and Google use that information to order their SERPs in a manner that shows the most popular answers first, followed by the less popular meanings in descending order.

This important change in how search engines rank websites is the meaning of my previous article, Beyond 200+ Ranking Signals. The best approach is to ease off on thinking in terms of ranking signals when trying to understand the SERPs. I’m not saying to ignore ranking signals. I am only pointing out that you can no longer tick off boxes on a ranking factors to-do list and expect to rank. There is a lot more going on!

Caveat About this Example
Contrary to what most people may think should they review Bill’s keyword phrase, there is little natural traffic generated through the search engines. Let me explain. The keyword searches have always been full of results created by webmasters checking their rankings, PPC bots, and rank checkers. This has always been the case.

Using Google Trends I compared Bill’s phrase to several phrases for which I know what the actual natural traffic is and it correlated to what Google Trends was indicating, that natural traffic is very low to this phrase.

This is an important research point. Phrases for which there is relatively little traffic tend to be quirky. This is one of the reasons Google invented Rank Brain


A search on Google Trends you’ll see there isn’t enough data in the Regional results for the keyword that Bill is researching. That’s because there aren’t many natural searches for that phrase. There may be unnatural searches for that phrase (PPC bots, site owners checking their ranks, rank checkers, etc.) but not a lot of natural queries.

So I removed one word from that example phrase then compared it in Google Trends Explore to the original longer phrase. THEN you get the regional results. By population, out of all the regional results listed, California is the largest. When you click through to California’s results I saw that it was weighted heavily from the SF Bay Area down to San Diego, the California coast. I strongly suspect that most NATURAL traffic from this phrase comes from Los Angeles.

I have seen this exact same phenomena in another search where I knew with 100% certainty that Los Angeles natural searches dominated and accounted for a majority of traffic and conversions.  Google’s Modification Engine is discarding regular ranking signals and promoting a (Los Angeles) site that is likely to satisfy most of the users making this search query.

This is what the modification engine does, it discards regular ranking factors in order to re-order the SERPs to satisfy users. Wikipedia states this important fact about Los Angeles County:

“Los Angeles County… is the most populous county in the United States. Its population is larger than that of 42 individual U.S. states.”

Did the Modification Engine Produce All Quirks Mode Results?
Of course I can’t say this is definitively the reason why every quirky result is quirky. And I can’t say definitively this is why Bill Hartzer’s example is ranking. However I have seen this effect on other keyword phrases where I knew 100% that natural searches AND conversions were Los Angeles based. So without knowing the NATURAL geographic parameters of this particular query under discussion, I can’t say I am 100% sure, but this sure looks like a “quirks mode” SERP that I have confirmed elsewhere.

What Triggers a “Quirks Mode” Modification Engine Result?
The SERPs are data driven to satisfy users, not to rank sites according to links or how many keywords on a page match the query. <— This is important to wrap your head around.

Any time you see a search result that seems quirky, try taking a look at it from the point of view of how that search result might satisfy users better than a straight anchor text/link count/on-page SEO approach. Instead of attributing the results to something outdated like footer links, with a little digging around you might find that it’s the modification engine at work.

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