Every website owner has the desire to not only have a beautiful, functional website, but also for that website to become an active marketing tool. The first step for any website to being successful is being found. Visibility in the various search engines, more often primarily by Google, is then crucial to being found.
There is no such thing as a search result; subsequently there is no "number 1". This may seem a dubious claim at first; however it can be easily explained by describing how a search engine like Google may actually deliver their search results.
The truth about rankings
Rankings are different for each individual as they are based on your location, your user data, your preferences, your search history, your settings and which Google server you happen to land on. A search could use any combination of these or even choose to ignore some, not to mention Google are testing different algorithms all the time. In this manner you could even end up with two different (occasionally vastly different) sets of search results on two different browsers on the same machine simply because they've been used differently in the past.
The theory behind this method of returning search results in a personal manner is to increase the relevance of the search results for a particular user. This becomes more refined as more data (searches) is gathered and calibrated accordingly. Google has applied this feature to all searches since December 2009, although many may not have even realised it.
Alternatively, should we choose to ignore all of those factors, assuming that you could show up in first position for a particular search; that would be great, but wouldn't really matter because all of your potential clients would have personalised results. You would still have no idea how your website might be ranked for their search results.
I searched for...
You perform a particular search and you're returned a certain set of results, but it is estimated that some 70% of searches have no exact match. So while you may be performing a particular search it seems that most searches being performed won't match yours. Keywords (or key phrases) remain an important factor, but where they rank doesn't matter anymore. Searches have become very specific and unpredictable; focusing on just a core phrase would leave you missing out on a lot of long-tail keyword traffic.
How do you measure SEO success?
The goal of ranking for a particular keyword is gone. Instead, keywords are a tool within search engine optimization to get qualified unbranded organic traffic.
Your SEO efforts should be generating quality organic traffic.
Rather than agonising over where your website appears to rank, SEO of your website aims to help Google understand your website and your business so that when people search for what you have to offer they'll find your website, but didn't know of your business previously.
So to sum it up, if SEO is not about ranking, what is it exactly? SEO is the method of driving increasing volumes of quality organic search traffic to your website, not a rank on Google.