Most people understand that they need to rank in Google in order to get free, passive, "organic" traffic...
But, what do fewer people really understand?
One, that Google traffic is considered the best of all the free traffic sources out there and..
Two, exactly how Google rankings work.
You might know some of the metrics Google looks at, you might have heard that content is king, but when it comes down to it...
Do you have the fundamental knowledge of Google to know exactly how to rank?
Do you know how long it takes?
Do you know how to troubleshoot your rankings to try and improve them?
If you don't know the answer to all of those questions, or if you suspect there is something that you're not quite getting, then this article is going to give you a bunch of insights, and maybe even some lightbulb moments. Off course, do check out our masterguides too: Onpage SEO and Offpage SEO.
What You'll Learn Today
- How Google Search Traffic Works
- The 3 Most Important Factors in Ranking
- The Ways Google Can Punish You Negatively
- What Are Exact Match Domains
- What is Google's Sandbox
- Why SEO is an Artform
Why Google Traffic
This post is designed to talk about how Google rankings work, not so much about why Google and other information about traffic. That said, we all need a little bit more context in our lives, so let's remind ourselves why Google is the holy grail for many.
Search traffic in general is considered among the most buyer intent traffic.
After all, if someone is researching a product, looking for a solution to their problem, or generally in "pre-buy" mode, then chances are they are using a search engine to find their answers.
Since Google dominates the search engine scene, it makes sense to focus on Google ranking because...
If you do well in Google - you usually do well in Bing and other search anyway.
So it's the traffic that tends to buy the most, and it's the traffic that just keeps coming once you've got it.
Compare that to social media traffic, which needs more work to maintain and is less likely to be in buying mode - you can see why we focus on Google.
I'm not saying you should ignore social media traffic though; traffic is all good.
How Google Searches Work
When someone searches the internet via Google, they're not actually searching the whole web. They're just searching Google's index of the web. Imagine it's like walking into the library and looking for your answer - you can only look through the books that are there.
So the first step to getting Google rankings is to get indexed. Rest assured though, this happens automatically. It will take a bit of time for Google to come and crawl your site and add it to its index (you can speed it up by adding your site to Google Search Console), but for the most part, unless your site is spammy as hell, you'll find it gets indexed without you having to do anything, and usually within a couple of weeks, or even days.
Now, when someone performs a search in Google, such as "What's the fastest way to lose weight?", Google goes and scans its entire index for websites which it thinks hold the answer to that question, and it decides, based on a large number of factors, which sites to show in the top positions.
This video from Matt Cutts, Google's former head of Spam, put's rankings into perspective for us.
Note: Matt refers to PageRank, which no longer exists, but the concept is still there.
Google Analyzes on Over Two-Hundred Metrics
If we recapped the video:
You'd have heard that Google has more than 200 ranking factors to consider. This could be anything from the words in the article title, to the contents of the meta description.
However, it doesn't put equal emphasis on the same metrics. Over the years they have honed in on the most important ranking factors, and unfortunately for us, they tend to keep the exact algorithm secret.
For the most part, as long as you more or less meet the criteria for the basic metrics, and your site doesn't look spammy or breach too many rules, you can rank well just by focusing on the top metrics, which we'll discuss now.
The Top 3 Factors Google Looks At
We know roughly the entire list of ranking factors, but we don't know their exact position in the hierarchy. Fortunately, we do know the top three metrics:
- User Engagement
If you've heard that content is king, this is one reason why.
How Content Relates To Rankings
What a lot of people assume this to mean though, is that all they have to do is focus on good quality content. If you write it, they will come, right?
Alas, what "content" really refers to in this sense is your on-page SEO. The clues your content gives to Google that it is worthy of ranking.
This is things like your page title, the use of keywords within the content, the use of related keywords in the content, the way you use your subheadings, and even your use of images and videos.
You also have to be careful that you don't over-optimize your site.
The most important thing to remember is this:
Unless your site is set up for Google to read it AND understand what it's about - all the other ranking factors aren't going to do you much good.
That's why On Page SEO is very important.
How Backlinks Relate To Rankings
Ah, the contentious topic of backlinking. Some say it is essential, some say backlinks have no use. Either way it falls under the category of Off-Page SEO
In our world, some people consider themselves white-hat, others say they are black hat. Then there's the grey hatters, who are probably the most realistic SEOs out there - right in between the lines.
The long and short of it is this:
The more quality websites that link to your own website (and it really is quality over quantity), the higher your site will rank.
If all else remains equal, the site with more links, and better links, will outrank its competitors.
Backlinks have been one of the most abused ranking factors since the early days of Google. Google has spent years fighting spammers and others who game the ranking system, but despite getting heaps better at improving quality, they still fundamentally rely on links as a means of determining which sites to rank where.
The Internet is built on links afterall, its just an inherent part of the way the web works. Every link is like a "vote" in favor of another website.
The only way to know which sites are the best is to tally up the "votes"!
Of course, Google knows that people can still artificially boost their rankings by doing decent on-page SEO, building decent backlinks (through legit and less-than-legit means alike), and these sites do still find their way to the top. This is why they are now increasingly relying on user engagement metrics as a way of gauging how good a site really is.
If you build a spam site and get it to rank highly in Google, users will visit it once, then leave in a hurry, and certainly won't share it or return to it. Google can track this, and will quickly demote a site that has shockingly poor metrics.
Can you get a site to rank well purely on user engagement and shares alone?
Which is why you need to pay attention to content and links more.
Why Exact Match Domains Are No Longer In Vogue
An example of how Google has improved its algorithm over the years is the decline of the exact-match domain strategy.
An EMD is when you buy a domain name purely in the hope of ranking for that keyword. It used to be the case that if you wanted to rank for something such as, "How to lose weight fast", all you had to do was buy howtoloseweightfast.com, and you'd rank number 1 almost overnight.
To some extent this can still work, but you're much better off buying a normal domain name and then ranking for that keyword with your article titles and utilizing on-page, off-page, and extra mile SEO.
The lesson here is that Google adapts and closes loopholes all the time. The Internet is littered with methods that no longer work (and ironically enough is littered with tales of how things no longer work, when they really still do).
What About Exact Match Titles?
If you used the Internet as recently as 2010, you might remember that the first page of Google was always filled with results that were an exact match of what you typed in. You might type in "How to lose weight fast" and find that all 10 of the first page websites had their page title as "How to lose weight fast".
Nowadays though, you see something like this:
Only one result in page 1 is an exact match title. The rest are similar and clearly about the same topic, but different words have been used. This is because Google now puts a lot of emphasis on search "intent" rather than the exact phrases.
They also know which sites are quality and which are weaker, so they'll put a top quality site like Cosmopolitan.com in place of an unknown site, even if the unknown site better matches the keyword searched.
How does that translate for you?
Well it means that you don't need to fit awkward sentences or phrases into your titles anymore and you can just focus on answering the search term as best you can. It also means you need to use synonyms and related phrases.
What's The Sandbox And Why Is It The Most Important Thing To Consider?
There are two definitions of the Google Sandbox:
The oldest, and least used these days, refers to a Google penalty. When a site was removed from the Google index because it was seen as spammy, or it was penalized heavily enough that it had no chance of showing up anywhere near page 1, it was said to have been "sandboxed".
The sandbox more commonly refers to the first few months of a site's life, but it is not a penalty as such. Essentially, when a site is brand new, even if it has great on-page metrics, great backlinks, and a whole bunch of other cool things going for it, it just won't rank as well as it should.
Sure, it can still find its way to page one, but it would get there with much less resistance if it was 6-10 months old.
This is why:
Now sell Aged Sites (along with our new ones), so people can skip the sandbox and jump straight in.
In reality, this isn't a big deal. It's there to stop people ranking overnight with churn and burn spam sites, and it raises the barrier to entry somewhat as well.
For you and I, it means we need to be more patient and think about success in terms of months and years rather than days and weeks.
What it ALSO means is that you really need to have faith and keep soldiering on.
Partly due to the fact that you hardly get any traffic until you're in the top 5 positions in Google, and partly because of the sandbox, it can be very easy for a new website owner to look at their progress after five or six months, see virtually zero improvement, and give up.
I've seen it happen time, and time again.
Barely a week goes by when someone doesn't come to me and tell me they're not getting anywhere. When I look at their site, it's usually a few weeks away from success. They're often ranking on page 2 for dozens of great keywords, and just need that final push before the floodgates open.
Once you reach page one:
Traffic comes suddenly. Usually you go from 0, to 50, to 5,000 almost overnight, but it happens over the course of months.
How Does Google Penalize Sites Trying to Game The System?
While we're on the subject of sandboxes, let's talk more about penalties:
These can be algorithmic (Penguin, Panda) or manual.
A manual penalty is pretty self-explanatory. A Google employee reviews your site, and for one of several reasons, gives you a ranking penalty.
This could be because your site is spammy:
You built too many artificial backlinks, because you do some other deceptive things, or probably some other reason we don't exactly know about.
If your site is connected to Google Webmaster Tools, now also known as Google Search Console, you'll be notified within the dashboard and via email that you've been given a manual penalty.
Penguin and Panda on the other hand are part of the algorithm:
Panda penalizes sites based on their content (Trying to spam keywords all over their site, or having duplicate content), and...
Penguin penalizes sites for artificially gaming the rankings with links. Usually it's because you're building links and using too many keywords in your anchor text, not because you're actually doing link building itself.
If all this is too much for you to comprehend, and it probably is, then you can read in more depth about it here:
For the time being, just know that if you doing things Google doesn't like, you might get a penalty, and your chances of ranking will be massively hampered, if not permanently taken away.
Ranking Is An Art, Not A Science
As we get near the end of this article, I want to point out that ranking in Google is far from an exact science. If it were a science, I like to think it would be called Serpology by the way.
There is a ton of data and there are a ton of data scientists involved in Google, but no two websites or articles are the same, no niche is the same, no link profile is the same, and therefore, it's really hard to come up with exact numbers.
No single person even knows the exact way Google's search engine works. Not even the software engineers working on the search algorithm. Think of an assembly line, where each engineer has their own role.
Where do we go from here?
Will your site need 50 links to rank? Will you article need to be 1,000 words or 2,000 words?
It's hard to say for sure, so the best we can do is just try to follow best practices, and be consistent.
One thing I've not yet covered is the fact that if you consistently blog, consistently put out good articles, and consistently build relationships with other website owners, you will notice that your rankings improve, and your articles get to page one faster and faster.
Once you are in Google's good books, it can be a very powerful friend.