When I first started thinking about building websites many years ago, I had absolutely no idea how Google worked. The year was around 2003 or 2004, and I honestly didn’t even know that normal people like you and me could create a website and have it rank on the first page of Google. Maybe I thought that only large corporations that paid to be listed there could make it. Overall, I had no clue how to rank in Google.
So, I decided to ask around. I emailed a cousin and the spouse of a different cousin because I knew they were “tech geeks”. I figured that since they knew about computers, they should also understand how Google works. They graciously offered me the pointers they could, but Search Engine Optimization really wasn’t their domain.
I felt pretty lost. I didn’t know a single person that really knew anything about how Google worked. So, this began my personal journey of exploring the hidden world of how websites actually rank naturally within Google and other search engines.
Finding What Works to Rank in Google
After lots of trial and error, and several years, I was able to educate myself enough on ranking a site in Google, that I was able to quit my job almost 2 years ago because I was making more money from my websites than I was from my day job! The process of knowing nothing 10 years ago to now using SEO as a way to drive my full-time business is still astounding to me.
Since starting my blog here at NichePursuits.com, I’ve written lots of details about niche sites, how to create them, monetize them, link building tactics, and more. However, I have no one post that overviews the entire process of how to rank a website in Google…that would be easy to consume and understand by someone just getting started.
I am writing this post for someone just starting out that is trying to wrap their head around how Google works. This is the post I wish I had 10 years ago when I first got started.
Be sure to read to the end, as I include specific keywords that I am ranking for, how much traffic I get from them, and how you can do the same.
Understanding How Google Works
Google’s purpose is to show results that are the most relevant and highest quality based on what someone has typed into the search bar. This is not an easy job. So, if someone goes to Google and types in: “What is a blog?”; how does Google know which site should be ranked first? After all, there are literally millions of websites that talk about blogging.
Google looks at on-page factors and off-page factors to determine what site should rank first.
On-Page factors include things like: the title of the article, quality of grammar, use of the search query (keyword) in the article, and more. So, an article that is titled “What is a blog” is more likely to rank than an article called, “The Origins of Blogging”. In addition, having the actual search query (keyword) in the article (not just in the title) also helps Google know that it should be ranked for that phrase.
However, these on-page factors are only 1 piece of the puzzle. Off-page factors are also very important. These include links (other sites referencing the site with a hyperlink), social factors (how many people are talking about the site), and overall authority of those linking or talking about the site. For even more depth, here’s a list of 30+ ranking factors used by Google.
As you can see, when Google has to look at millions of sites all talking about the same thing, its not an easy job; but the below guidelines will help you understand how it all works.
Natural vs. Paid Results
Overall, Google will usually display around 10 “Natural” results per page. A “natural” result is one that is NOT paid for. So, if you have a website that is the most relevant and highest quality on a specific query, you could be ranking at the top of Google for free!
However, there are also a number of “paid” results. These typically show up on the top of the results or in the right hand column. See this image to see the difference between paid vs. natural search results:
The Importance of Keyword Relevancy
Generally speaking, you should not expect to rank in Google if you don’t even mention the keyword you are trying to rank for in your article. Even better yet, is if you can mention the search query in your page title (more on that below).
This of course, makes intuitive sense. A page that talks about “how to blog” is more likely to rank above a site that talks about “bass fishing tips”, for the query “how to blog”.
So, be sure to at least mention the keyword you are trying to rank for in Google in your article.
This really underscores the importance of planning! If you don’t target any specific keywords to try and rank for, you are not likely to rank for anything significant.
Yes, you want to mention your keyword in your post, but don’t go overboard! Mentioning your keyword once or twice in your article is sufficient! If you start mentioning your targeted keyword in every paragraph, this is called “keyword stuffing” and Google could actually make you rank lower because of it. So, don’t shoot yourself in the foot by overusing your keyword – a couple of times is just fine.
So, you understand keyword relevancy now. But even more important than mentioning the keyword within the text of your article, is mentioning your targeted keyword in the Title of your article! Google places more weight on what is mentioned in the page title. Again, this makes sense: Whatever the title of your article is, really should be what your article is about.
Again, its just a matter of planning. If you are randomly blogging on your thoughts on the world, you might title an article, “My thoughts for November 2012”. How many people do you think are searching for this on Google? Right, none.
But lets say that “My thoughts” article, you actually were writing about how you learned to improve your resume writing skills. Now by simply changing your title to, “How to Improve Your Resume Writing Skills”; NOW you have something that people are actually searching for on Google!
By simply optimizing the titles of your articles, you could see the difference between almost no traffic to lots of free Google traffic. If you are looking for ways to brainstorm for great article ideas, read this.
What is a backlink? A backlink is simply a “hyperlink” to another website or page. (I just hyperlinked the word, “hyperlink” to Wikipedia in the previous sentence…cool, huh?). These links are Google’s way of knowing that something is being talked about and is potentially important. The more “votes” or links that a site gets, the higher it is likely to rank.
More links from more authoritative sites are likely to be more valuable. A link from CNN.com is more valuable that a link from your cousin’s personal blog (unless he’s really cool). Make sense?
Some people think that links are the end all and be all of ranking in Google. But its only one piece of the puzzle. Yes, it helps; but your focus should really be on finding keywords to rank for with low competition, writing high quality content, and optimizing your titles.
Then once you have quality content, you can share it with others in your industry, network with related bloggers, be active on social media, and other sites will start to link to you! I have written about a number of link building tactics in the past, but your focus should really be on great content and building relationships.
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You could literally spend months researching different link building ideas or spend thousands of dollars on services that will do it for you; but if you are just getting started, you should focus on the basics. A great article on relationship building as a source of links is here on the SEOmoz blog.
If fact, some say you should never try to build any links manually yourself…ever! I did a podcast interview with Fraser Cain a while ago, where he discusses building a six figure website without ever “building” a single link. Marcus Sheridan also stressed the same point in my last podcast interview with him.
Domain and Page Authority
Domain Authority and Page Authority are terms used by SEOmoz.org to quantify how authoritative a site or page is overall. This goes back to my example of getting a link from CNN.com being more important than getting a link from a weak site. If you can get a link from a high page authority page, this is likely to help your ranking.
These metrics are also important to understand when trying to figure out what keywords you want to rank for. For example, the keyword “business ideas” has lots of pages that not only mention the keyword in the title, but also have high domain or page authority. This would be an EXTREMELY difficult keyword to rank for (more on this keyword below).
However, if you look at the keyword, “Niche Business Ideas”; the results are much less authoritative. This means it would be easier to rank for than the keyword, business ideas (example provided below).
Analyzing the Competition
If you put all of these elements together, you can start to understand how easy or difficult a particular keyword might be to rank for. Here is what you would look at when analyzing the top 10 results in Google:
- Is the keyword mentioned in the article?
- Is the keyword in the Page Titles?
- Are the ranking articles of high quality?
- How many links are pointing to the page?
- Where are the links coming from?
- Do the ranking sites have high Domain and Page Authority? (Page Authority is much more important for individual results).
To drive the point home about analyzing the competition; I’ve done a couple of experiments. About a year ago, I randomly picked the keyword “Spencer Likes Honeycombs” to try and rank for. Yes, I know that no one is searching for this term. I picked it as an experiment only. The existing results in Google for this keyword were medium to high level domain or page authority. There were also lots of links pointing to the pages.
BUT, the results were not really targeting the keyword. None of them used it on the page exactly and was not in the title. I knew that page title and keyword relevancy typically tops page authority, so I mentioned the keyword in my article. Within minutes I was ranked at #1 in Google for that search term! (Still do).
This was simply meant to drive home the significant importance of keyword relevancy over links and page authority. You can read about the entire “Spencer Likes Honeycombs” case study here.
I am constantly finding and researching keywords that I want to rank for with my niche sites OR with my blog here at NichePursuits.com. I would love to rank #1 for the term “business ideas”, but its EXTREMELY competitive. If you take a look at this screenshot from Long Tail Pro, you can see what the top 10 competition looks like:
With Long Tail Pro, I can quickly see that the top 10 sites in Google for business ideas are quite authoritative. At a quick glance, I can see that the Average Keyword Competitiveness is 63. You can see a full chart of what keyword competitiveness is all about here. But for my purposes, I prefer to target keywords that are under 30 if possible.
The Page Authority column also shows very authoritative results. Again, I like results under 30 if possible; most of these are 60 or above. Finally, all of this is confirmed by seeing how many “Juice Page Links” there are (final highlighted column above). So, all of these sites have lots of links.
So, instead of writing a big article targeting the keyword “Business Ideas”, I kept searching. What I found is the keyword, “Niche Business Ideas”. Yes, this keyword gets less search volume, but it still gets around 1,000 searches per month. I’d rather rank and get SOME traffic for a keyword that gets a decent number of searches, than rank no where in Google and get NO traffic for a keyword that gets searched for 100,000 times per month.
Here is what the competition looks like for Niche Business Ideas in Long Tail Pro:
As you can quickly see, this is a MUCH better keyword to target. The average keyword competitiveness is only a 23! As you can see, the Page Authority of the ranking sites is much lower and there are much less links pointing to these top 10 sites in Google.
So, what did I do once I found this potentially easy to rank for keyword? I wrote an article targeting this keyword! You can see the article I wrote about niche business ideas right here.
The results? Well, as you can see highlighted in the image above, I am now ranking #2 in Google currently for that keyword! (I bounce between 1 and 2 frequently). I didn’t manually build a single link to that page. However, because others read my article and liked it, you can see that the page does indeed have 48 page links.
And more importantly than where I am ranking is the traffic! For this one keyword, I get a few hundred visitors each month. The article itself got 859 visitors from Search Engines in the past 30 days. If I had targeted the keyword “business ideas”, I would probably be getting almost nothing (because I wouldn’t be ranking). While a few hundred visitors each month won’t change your business overnight; imagine multiplying this by hundreds. I have hundreds of articles on my blog here and rank for lots of different keywords.
See this screenshot from my Google analytics to get an idea of the amount of search engine traffic that came to this page. Please note, this analytics screen is ONLY showing Search Engine traffic (not direct, referral, or other traffic):
All of this translates into more free traffic and eventually growth in my business.
Wrapping Up and Your Comments
Overall, understanding how the search engines work is so vital to your success online! If you want to rank in Google, you need to first make sure you are targeting something that you have the potential to rank for. Then you need to look at the items I discussed such as keyword relevancy, quality content, page titles, links, page authority, and more.
I REALLY wish I would have had this knowledge 7 or 8 years ago. However, I hope that this post has given you the information you need to rank in Google and get the search engine traffic that you want.
I would love to hear your thoughts and comments or questions that you have below. I look forward to the discussion.
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