Why Don’t I Rank? How Does Google Search Work?

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Andy Crestodina

This is one of the most common questions in all of web marketing. It’s up there with “How do I get more Twitter followers?” and “How do I get leads?

It’s a short question with a long answer. We’re really asking how does Google search work? Sure, it’s complicated. But here it is in plain English. This is why you don’t rank in Google.

Note: This article should be equally useful to people getting started in SEO and the pros who need an article to share as a shorthand way to explain search rankings to others.

1.Your site isn’t an established authority. (Link Popularity)

The main reason websites don’t rank is this: they are not as credible as other websites for that topic. Credibility happens when one website links to another. Sites are credible (and therefore rank-worthy) when other credible websites link to them. Here’s a video explaining Google website rank and link popularity.

The quantity and quality of the links to your website combine into a credibility score. This is sometimes called “domain authority,” and it is a scale of 1 – 100. The credibility of a specific page is its “page authority.” The more credibility, the more likely you are to rank.

The actual Google term for link popularity is PageRank. It measures link popularity on a scale of 1-10. It’s named after Google founder Larry Page.

Use the Moz Bar to check the authority of high ranking websites, and use Link Explorer to check your own. If the listings on page one of Google have more authority than your site, you’re unlikely to rank.


Now compare. Are you out of your league? If so, the fastest way to rank higher is to do some keyword research, and find a less competitive phrase.

Warning: Don’t try any funny stuff. If your first thought is “what are the shortcuts for getting links?” then you might be headed toward the dark side of SEO. The Google Search team is smart and any “link schemes” may hurt more than help.

2. You don’t have a dedicated page. (Keyphrase Focus)

Here’s the second most likely reason you don’t rank: you don’t have a great page focused on the topic you’re targeting. Ask yourself, which page on my site would I expect to rank for the phrase?

You need to have a page on your site totally focused on the target phrase if you hope to rank. Remember, Google doesn’t rank websites, it ranks web pages. That’s how Google search works.

Your goal is to make the best page on the Internet for that topic. Do everything possible to improve the quality of the page and make a good page great.

  • Add examples and evidence.

  • Add images, charts, and graphs.

  • Add detailed, step-by-step instructions.

  • Add quotes from experts and influencers.

  • Add statistics from research studies.

Warning: Don’t make two pages that are both relevant for the same topic. Make one page that is super focused. It’s better to have one page rank on page one, than two pages that rank on page two.

3. You aren’t using the phrase properly. (Indicating Relevance)

You have a competitively authoritative website, and you have a great page on the topic, but you’re still not ranking? You probably aren’t using the keyphrase properly. The third most likely reason is about indicating relevance.

Look at the page through the eyes of Google. Ask yourself: why would this page rank for this phrase? Does the keyphrase appear on the page? Where? How many times?

If you visit any high ranking page, then use control+F to see all instances of the phrase, you’ll see there are probably quite a few.

In a previous post about SEO best practices, we listed the places to use the keyphrase. There are many places you can use the phrase: meta tags, image ALT tags, bullet lists, links, and captions. Here are the three most important:

  • Use the keyphrase once in the page title, within the <title> tag.

  • Use the keyphrase once in the header, within the <h1> tag.

  • Use the keyphrase several times in the body of the page.

Since you’ve made the best page on the web for the topic, you likely wrote more than 1000 words and used the phrase several times naturally. Go back and make sure. If the page is very long, you’ll likely use the phrase more often.

Warning: Don’t cram the page full of phrases at the cost of readability. Keyword stuffing is spam, and it can actually hurt results, both in ranking and for readers.

Other Possible Reasons You Don’t Rank

Of course, none of us knows exactly how Google search works. We know there are more than 200 factors. Aside from the big three listed above, here are a few others.

  • Technical Reasons
    Since Google is so good at scouring the Internet, this is less likely to be a problem. But when it is, it can be disastrous. A little bit of code will keep a page out of Google: <meta name=’robots’ content=’noindex,nofollow’ />

  • Website Navigation
    Descriptive navigation is an important way to indicate relevance. If you’re a pet photographer, “cat portraits” is a better label in your navigation than “services.” See website navigation best practices for details.

  • Internal Linking
    Linking between pages is a way to pass authority from one of your own pages to another. Use the target phrase in the text of the links. See internal linking best practices for details.

  • Social Activity
    Pages with shares, +1s, and comments tend to rank higher. Make sure you’re sharing generously and connecting your content with people on social networks.

So that’s how Google search works!

Yup. That’s it. That’s the secret to SEO. The good news is that it gets easier, as these pages become link magnets. Here’s how the feedback loop in Google Search works:

A few high ranking, high quality pages are likely to attract links from other websites naturally, helping them rank even higher. And those links make your entire website more authoritative, helping all your pages rank a bit better.

Still not ranking? Keep going. Publish more content on related topics. Submit some as guest posts to related blogs. Share with influencers. Add more internal links. Try more phrases. Quality takes time, but it’s worth it.

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Comments (45)
  • Just discovered this post on Twitter and now wondering how I’ve missed it before! That simple video is a great idea! I was trying to explain this to a friend the other day. Now I’ll just send her a link to this article 🙂

    I have 2 questions though:

    1) When you are explaining relevant vs irrelevant links, some links disappear and only links from Facebook and “social” are left (2:44). But Google said multiple times that social media is not a ranking factor (Mark Traphagen summed it up here: https://www.stonetemple.com/googles-matt-cutts-understanding-social-identity-on-the-web-is-hard/).

    So I’m not sure what those connections in your video mean. Do you mean links from social media are an authority factor? Could you please clarify?

    2) As far as I understand, you are saying outgoing links diminish the authority of a page. But I see many people publishing expert round-ups with sometimes 100 outgoing do-follow links on that post. Is this a good idea?

    Thanks a lot in advance,


  • i only have one question, how the hell do i get backlinks???

  • duplicate page fact is very interesting. Well explained, Andy. Thanks

  • Great tips here! The video explains link building very well and I totally agree with that! But I like to add something very important as well, Content as Google once said “Content is the King” therfore high quality contest that best describes your products and services has a much bigger impact in the whole SEO campaign. For more information about how important content is feel free to visit Internetmarketingexpertscentralcoast.com.au.

  • Thanks Andy. I will put your article to good use with my own site.

  • Great post.Very useful.Thanks and keep it up.

  • Even you don’t call yourself as an SEO expert but indeed you are as far as I think!

    Recently i started a blog which is more of like fitness blog where my main keywords are “xyz for men” and “xyz for women” and my blog meta title is ” xyz for men and women” So basically what I want to ask here is that will search engines consider my blog and rank for both the term ” xyz for men” and “xyz for women” or it will consider the first one” xyz for men” only and ignore the other and I want to rank my blog for both the term pharses so when people search for xyz for men my blog should rank also when xyz for women i want my blog to rank ( Please clarify this and give SEO suggestion as this is my first choice) and what meta title tag is best for seo below are my choice

    1) xyz for men and women | Brand name

    2) xyz for men | xyz for women | Brand name

    3) xyz for men and for women | Brand name

    Optional my second choice

    Or should I leave the home page title as only “xyz” and then create two pages like ” xyz for men” and “xyz for women” I think that most people will say that this is the good strategy but as far as building backlinks it’ will take more effort and time to build backlinks to both that separate pages as compared to my blog home page as I can get a backlink like” xyz for men” & “xyz for women” and link to my blog home page

    Also our blog home page naturally tends to get more backlinks and has higher SEO authority as compared to other individual posts or pages on our blog and people generally link more to our blog home page as compared to blog posts

    And to add at the top of this I am having the domain name like ” xyzmenwomen.com” what would be the best option considering the inbound backlinks as important factor to rank in search engines

    I basically want to ask this question to safe my efforts in the amount of backlinks boost for SEO

    Any help will be appreciated

  • I would like to add more if you permit me please. Make website pages as large and more in number as possible, keep source code short / clean and more than the content on the website, increase loading speed, use less images, avoid frames on the site, avoid redirection, avoid duplicate content across many pages on the site etc.

  • Thanks for the informative stuff Andy.

    Another reason for not getting ranked in Google search is “Copied Content”. I’ve seen many bloggers copying content, making few word replacements and publishing the article in their name.

    100% Original content is also one of the key to get ranked in Google search.

  • Hello Andy,
    Thank you for sharing this Awesome article.
    This helps me a lot.
    Surely i will come back to your site for more updates.
    Good Job..

  • ill be singing to myself, so i remember, to have as dedicated website as possible, but should an embed video have its own site.com/video/videoname site or not for instance?

  • Can I builds more links for my website to get good ranking speedily or is there any pattern to build qualitative back-links for my website?

    • I don’t recommend looking for shortcuts. Of course, you want to be efficient, but always focus on quality, build strong relationships. The easier and faster something is, the more people will do it and it will eventually be de-valued.

      Take the long road! Shortcuts won’t get you all the way there…

  • Thanks for this article Andy. I have a question about duplicate post titles. I have a focus static page on my blog and like Todd had mentioned I have made many posts on the same topic but the trouble is they all have very similar post titles or even the same in several cases. This goes back over a period of several years. I just became aware that the same post titles are not a good practice. Do have a suggestion how to ‘clean’ this up? I am not sure going back and changing the post titles is a good idea. Thanks,

    • Yes, Robert. You should clean those up! You shouldn’t have two pages with the same title. If you were an author, you wouldn’t write two books with the same title, would you?

      There’s a fast trick to finding them. There are lots of tools that will show you if you have duplicate titles, including Google Webmaster Tools. You can also search Google for just pages on your own site that include certain words in the title. To do this, use search “operators”. For example, a search for this…

      site:orbitmedia.com intitle:orbit

      …will show me all the pages on my site with the word Orbit in the title. Make sense? Hope this is helpful!

      • Thanks Andy. If I go back and change the post titles so they are all unique is that a straightforward operation or would doing that cause other problems at this point?

        • I recommend you do this, Robert. The only risk is in making a high ranking post *less* relevant for a phrase. But if you have an eye on your Analytics and you know what’s pulling in traffic, this is unlikely. Best of luck!

          • Thanks Andy, I appreciate your help.

  • Hey Andy! That was a lovely post! Authority is the kings of content in the current SEO world! Very well said!

  • Nice article, it really does come in handy for explaining the main ideas about how Google works. If you get only this points right you’ll have a good ranking site.

  • hello Andy my name is ken and I am in a web design class I had just a question for you that could help me with my project the question is “what are the skills required of a professional web designer”?

    • Hi, Ken. That’s a great question, but it has a long answer. Great web is almost always done by a team of specialists. Our teams usually have at least three people: designer, programmer and project manager (creative, technical and service). There’s also the strategist who plans the project with the client and the server/support team who keep things running once they’re live.

      There are so many skill sets in the web design industry. I think I’ll have to write a post to answer this properly!

  • Great post Adny, useful info for me. I have a question can i have two posts on the same topic but one has the latest content like
    …. wordpress themes 2013
    …. wordpress themes 2014
    Later has a lot of new content but they are on the same lines

    • That’s a good question and something I’ve thought of recently. Here are a few considerations:

      – If the old post has strong link popularity, you’re better off revising it.
      – If the year is part of a popular keyword and people often search using the year, you’re better off making a new page every year.

      So I would do a little research on the phrase and link popularity measurement on the page before deciding. Without looking into it, I’m not sure but that’s what I would check on. Was this helpful? y/n

      • Yes it was helpful, thank you. People likely to search the 2014 version more this year. What about a 301 redirect of older post to the new one?

  • Hi Andy,

    Your posts always make me take a step back from the daily crunch and make me think about whether I have the important things covered. Am going to try that Moz tool bar too. Very helpful.

    Do you have a rule of thumb for how much res is high res? Looks like the unicorn screen grab in this article is about 850px on the long edge. I have been using 1000px at 70% quality for JPGs recently. That seems to look good and not bloat the file sizes. Not sure what looks good to Google though.


  • Great article. I get this question all the time from clients and do my best to explain the mysteries of google ranking. From now on I think I’ll save myself some heart ache and just give them a link to this article. Short, sweet & simple…. Love it! Thanks Andy.

  • Hi Andy!

    Love this article. Great topic.

    I like the factors you mention.

    Before making a page devoted to a specific search phrase, I’ll type that phrase into Google and check three things.

    (1) Relevancy
    Are all the results that Google shows on the first page relevant, even using the exact search phrase in the blue line of text – the HTML title? It’s going to be more difficult, because Google already can find topically relevant pages.

    (2) Page Authority
    Does the Moz bar show that the PAGE Authority of the ranking pages is greater than 35? It’s going to be more difficult, because higher PA means I’ll be competing against stronger pages.

    (3) Links
    How many links do the ranking pages each have? If I click on the Moz bar for more info, I can see how many of the links are considered by Moz to be Juice Links – good ones. Do all the ranking pages all have dozens or more Juice Links? It’s going to be more difficult, because Google favors pages that have lots of strong links.

    Why doesn’t a page rank for a particular search phrase? Often it’s because the competition is too strong.

    • Nice summary, Greg! Your comment here is a nice how-to all on it’s own! My only input would be to think of authority as relative. High or low depends on the authority of your own site. But 35 is a good benchmark.

      I’m glad you emphasized PAGE authority, which is a more accurate metric, but harder to compare since the page your writing doesn’t exist yet!

      I didn’t mention it here, but I often search optimize guest posts, which is fun because you can write for sites that have very authoritative domains. If you want to rank for a phrase and your own site doesn’t have the horsepower, submit it as a guest post to a more credible website. Fun, right?

      Thanks again for the comment!

      • Andy what add on or service do you use for onsite PR and DA detection. Looks like you have the Moz add on. Are there any on page that aren’t subsctiption based?

  • That is an excellent description Andy. Easy to understand too. As you taught me, Ubersuggest is great tool to find longer tail keyword phrases that might have less competition.

  • You always make it so simple Andy…reading your words is so worth the time…thanks!


  • UNICORN MAINTENANCE! You certainly know how to hold our attention 🙂

    We always appreciate your guides, as they break-down these tasks in an easy to understand and clear way.

    Thank you, Andy! And Happy New Year!

    • Aww, thanks Lisa! But I can’t take credit for the unicorns. That was Amanda’s addition.

      • Thanks, Lisa! *curtsey*

  • Good summary, and I think an even simpler explanation (given recent Google developments) for people wanting to rank is “just focus on making a great site”. Useful content is still the king, and that will drive authority if you can market it the right way. With the future in Content Authorship and utility, SEO companies that market outdated tactics via outdated methods (spam emails) are not even worth considering and give the rest of us a bad name.

  • As always, great info Andy… question about images and graphics. It seems that they are becoming more and more important in searches, as Google Images post image results near the top of the search results. How would you recommend tagging images with description and keywords? Do search engines get as granular as what the image is in relation to the description and keywords?

    • Hey there, Rob!
      Yes, some keywords return search results with images and others don’t. I would start by checking the target phrase and seeing if images appear in the results. If so, image SEO is a separate specialty, but I’ve read a bit about it. Here’s what I understand.

      – Use a high-res image if possible
      – Use the target keyphrase in the name of the file
      – Use the target keyphrase in the caption
      – Use the target phrase in the body text on the page
      – and of course, put the phrase into the ALT tag

      I know a guy who optimized a picture of himself for the phrase “best looking man in the world” Yes, according to Google, he is the best looking man in the world. Check it out! His name is Joel and you can find him on Twitter: @JoelKlettke. Ask him about image SEO. 🙂

  • Great post Andy!

    I’ve been contacted by a couple of owners of SEO companies who want to help me with link building. I’m kind of nervous about it because I wouldn’t know the sites linking back to my website.

    • Those emails make me nervous too. I’m very skeptical of SEOs that use mass email for marketing. Doesn’t really make sense, does it?

      Focus on quality content, regularly guest post and look for opportunities for natural links. Most “link building” techniques that aren’t based on content are unethical, unsustainable and risky. Trust your instincts, Amandah!

      • Thanks Andy! Companies that promise links, Twitter followers, Facebook likes, etc. make me nervous, too.

  • In one of the warnings, you say, Don’t make two pages that are both relevant for the same topic. Isn’t it common for sites to have a “focused” page on a topic in their site and then have several blog articles on the same topic. Does this violate your rule of thumb?

    • Great question! Actually, it’s a great idea to have lots of blog posts that relate to your services and link to that service page. But they should all target slightly different phrases. For example, if you have a service page about “social media for plumbers” you can create blog content on related topics, but not targeted the same phrase.

      Examples might be “LinkedIn for Plumbers: 5 Best Practices” and “Down the Tubes: 10 Social Media Mistakes Plumbers Often Make…”

  • Great post again, Andy, thanks!

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