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.
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 Open Site 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.
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.
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.
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.
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’ />
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.
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.
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.
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.