It appears that Google is at it again. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not usually the type to pitch a fit over changes to the algorithm that are intended to make it easier for legitimate online marketers to get their voices heard (and their URLs seen). I’m also all for those who “game the system” having a hard time cutting to the front of the line. But some of the changes that we’ve been seeing in the past few weeks qualify as bona fide “head scratchers” of the biggest extreme, no matter which side of the field you’re playing on.

Google’s Mysterious Crowding Update

First, there was the sudden change in Google search results ranking that baffled some, and mystified others. SEOMoz was among the first to report it back in June. Whereas your typical, run of the mill keyword search will typically bring back a varied diversity of links, suddenly it appeared that that touted diversity had been abolished overnight – with fewer website domains turning up and an incredibly high percentage of the same URLs hogging the top positions. To confound matters even more, many of the results comprising those top positions appeared to be associated URLs that really had no business ranking in the top to begin with: Contact and About Us pages stocked with boring, generic text. The end result? Websites offering actual value and a far richer level of choice were relegated to positions much further down the list.

Google’s “Top 7” Greatest Hits

As if eliminating diversity with one deft swat wasn’t enough, Google apparently decided to take things a bit further. In a confusing move, it would appear that the search engine behemoth has settled on “7” as their new favorite number – as indicated by the sudden appearance of search engine results pages returning only 7 results instead of the standard 10 (or greater). While most logical minds would agree that 7 is, indeed, a lucky number, few have been able to rationalize the sudden drastic spike in SERPS with only 7 results.

Making Sense of it All

With no guidelines to refer to, we’re forced to try to make sense of it all on our own. Though the efforts of diligent and selfless individuals, it’s been discovered that keying in a specific brand name (like “allstate auto insurance”) will return 7 results, all brand specific. Whereas keying in a generic, non-brand specific term (like “auto insurance”) will kick back 10 results, with varied brands. You’ll also get an additional 2 “preferred results” if your search history shows you’ve conducted that generic search before. Another variation has been spotted by keen eyes: if you key in a search term that is a direct match for an actual URL but not a specific brand, you’re back to 7 results – including any associated sitelinks for that particular URL. Confused? You’re not alone.

What’s to Come and What You Can Do

The end result of this madness is a seeming march toward SERP dominance by the few, which could be a cunning way for Google to emphasize the importance of its pay per click ads as a way for less visible companies to be seen. The fact that there was no major announcement by Google about these very obvious (some might say deceptively sneaky) algorithm changes has left plenty of people fuming – and more than a few online marketers considering spending the majority of their marketing budgets on Bing and Yahoo, those “other” search engine big guns that as of yet haven’t mirrored Google’s odd SERP changes.

If you’re committed to Google but wondering what you can do to ride out the changes, consider taking a more organic approach to tracking your SERP rankings instead of relying on software to tell you if you’re doing okay. Test out your primary keywords and see how they rank in manual searches. Perhaps boosting your pay per click budget might offset the diminished SERP visibility, but nobody’s making any promises there.

Otherwise, the only thing left to do is to ride out the changes, which could through the course of time prove to be only temporary tweaks as Google tests out new methods of delivering the most relevant search results to users. In the meantime, your best bet is to partner with an internet marketing consultation firm that can help you achieve maximum SERP visibility through skillful strategy that anticipates evolving trends and can suggest proactive measures.