You’ve spent months turning your website into everything search engines want to see, but there’s still that one horrible site that outranks you for no good reason… right?
Wrong. Search engines use hundreds of factors to determine a page’s rank in the SERPs. Since the algorithms don’t play favourites, if you feel like you’re being outranked for ‘no reason’, you may have simply not identified the cause yet. Particularly if you’ve been involved in creating or optimizing this site in the first place, the initial challenge you’ll need to overcome is your ugly baby (syndrome). To you, the site is beautiful–perfect, even–but if that were truly the case, you wouldn’t be reading this article.
The way we approach this scenario is to cover the key high-level rankings factors that seem to carry the most weight. Those are exactly what we’re going to look at in this article.
What we find when running through this process for a new client is that by inspecting these high-level elements, we’ll come across some red flags. Those red flags tend to lead us down a rabbit hole of discovery, eventually giving us an indication of where the weak point lies. So, try to avoid any hand-waving and actually take the time to look at each of these elements thoroughly. “My UX is fine, I can safely skip that portion” might see you miss the biggest flaw you didn’t know you had.
Again, if everything was great, your rankings would indicate the same.
Table of Contents
Fresh, high-quality content
Heavy emphasis on ‘fresh’. If I had to pick a single factor that drives rankings almost unanimously, it’s this. Even if your website is mediocre, if you’re producing good content on a regular basis, you’re probably going to rank well.
If you’ve been focused on other priorities and your content production has been suffering, we’ve probably identified your biggest issue straight out of the gate. Spend some time coming up with a sustainable content plan that sees you producing at least 1 article per week and stick to it. With an effective internal linking strategy and consistent content production, you’ll start to see an improvement quickly.
Just make sure the content is actually high quality and on topic for your website.
Site structure and navigation
The structure of your site makes a difference to both users and search engines for a number of reasons. Firstly, users are impatient. If they can’t find what they’re looking for quickly and easily, they’ll leave your site in search of another that gives them what they want.
As for the search engines, they’re going to use a few factors to determine the most important pages on your site and generally crawl those first, making their way through to the least important pages until the budget runs out. Of course, there is more to it than that, but we’ll cover that in a future post. If this hierarchy is unclear, it may be your secondary pages are the ones getting crawled most often, so all your great, fresh content is going unseen for some time.
A few elements that are taken into account by users and crawlers alike:
A well-structured site should use as much of a “flat” taxonomy as practical. Avoid having too many levels in your site structure. The layout needs to make sense, but don’t make the user click through 6 levels to find what they want!
Ideally, your navigation will follow the same layout as your site structure. This guides users and crawlers to those same, high-importance pages first.
Submit your sitemap to Google’s Search Console and make sure it’s kept clean and up to date. As a general rule, your site map should be much like your overall site structure – as simple as practical.
Most platforms offer automated sitemaps by default now but it’s always worth checking that your sitemap doesn’t include any deleted or redirected pages.
With all the technicalities of SEO, it’s easy to get wrapped up in focusing on the search engines. While important, search engines aren’t going to pay for your product or service. In terms of rankings, there’s a lot of crossover between what makes a good user experience and what Google wants to see in a website. It’s a win-win.
User experience should be at the forefront of every decision you make. An effective website addresses the key problems your audience shares, makes it clear that you have a good solution, then provides details about what the solution looks like for them.
To do this well, you need to consider:
How quickly does your website load?
Your content should be laid out in a way that’s nice and easy to read. Make use of bullet points, headings, accordions and images to keep it from looking like a wall of text. Note that it’s perfectly fine to ‘hide’ content in accordions and tabs these days. This was once a no-no in the industry so you may stumble across some old advice on the topic.
Call to Action
When they’re ready to pull the trigger and convert, make this as quick, safe and painless as possible.
A Great Mobile Experience
By now, your site should be a responsive design but that’s not the end of the story. What does it actually look like on different screen sizes? Is the content still easy to consume? How much scrolling is required to find the most important elements? Pay close attention to this mobile user experience.
Great internal linking practices have two important benefits. They indicate to search engines which pages are most important (and relevant to a topic), and they help users gather more information on the topic.
If you can keep your audience on your website for longer–for the right reasons– you’re giving them useful information while building brand familiarity and loyalty.
User engagement metrics
Not officially a ranking factor, if your user engagement is up, then that’s a solid indication that your user experience is healthy. As we covered above, a great user experience has a lot of bleed into all the things search engines care about. More importantly, it also has a major impact on your ROI. These include factors like:
- Time on site
- Pages per visit
- Visits per user
- Visits to conversion pages
- Total conversions
Ignoring the user experience when updating your website won’t just affect your potential to earn revenue, but also your ability to rank. If your website isn’t too user-friendly or your competitor has a stronger brand behind them, these may also be contributing to their better position in the search results.
It’s also worth noting, a “better user experience” doesn’t necessarily mean a more visually appealing site. There are plenty of wildly popular websites that are functional but leave much to be desired when it comes to their aesthetics. Take a look at Reddit, eBay and Amazon for some prominent examples.
If all of your onsite elements really are excellent, your link profile may be that final missing piece to the puzzle. Honestly, in modern SEO though this is unlikely to be the factor that’s setting you apart.
Time and time again in the SERP analyses we do for clients, we see websites with zero backlinks outranking sites with thousands. Now sure, if that same website put some effort into link building, they could probably rank even higher but don’t be tempted to take the easy way out and say “We’re getting outranked because our link profile sucks.” Look to your onsite factors first before you go making any drastic moves on the link building front.
Don’t get mad, get
Getting outranked by a site that seems subjectively worse is frustrating. I’ve been in this industry for more than a decade and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve experienced that frustration first-hand.
The thing is, anger isn’t a ranking factor. So, take that frustration and channel it into a strong campaign that’s going to create an overall better website. Work on your content, improve your UX, and look around at what your competitors are doing and how they’ve structured their site. There are so many things you can optimize on a website that your biggest challenge should be wrangling all those tasks into a logical order.
Once you have that plan organized, start implementing those changes and carefully monitor the results. You should always be tracking rankings, traffic, conversions and revenue at a minimum. If you’ve done your analysis right, you should start to see improvements quickly. Speaking from experience, it’s always worth the effort.