Thursday, March 2, 2017

How Does Google Rank Websites and Keywords?

Online success is often based on a simple measurement: popularity, evident in search engine results. For most search engines, this measurement is based on several criteria or "ranking factors," including website content and the number and quality of incoming links to a website from other sites.

The digital marketing world is crowded with "ranking" resources. By measuring the popularity of keywords, web pages, and websites, these resources claim to help digital marketers improve ranking.

SEMrush offers a ranking tool as part of its "All-in-one Marketing Toolkit," which claims to "boost digital marketing efforts."

Moz Pro's Rank Tracker, billed as "Your Search Engine Rank Tracking Tool," claims "to save time and improve your SERP rankings."

Many digital marketing websites offer similar ranking services, each providing unique scores based on unique parameters.

No doubt, these tools can be helpful, especially for enterprising website owners. In essence, however, these tools replicate the work of search engines

As Moz Pro notes, "Moz Pro’s powerful rank tracking software tool retrieves search engine rankings for pages and keywords, and stores them for easy comparison later. No need to manually check daily."

This "manual check," of course, refers to a daily search. For many websites, in fact, Google is the only necessary tool to measure the ranking of different websites, pages, and keywords. The "tools" offered by Moz and others are helpful for some, but not helpful for all. For many websites, entry into the digital marketing world relies on a streamlined view--and no tool offers the ease and accessibility of Google.

Why Google? If a digital marketing firm uses the term "website ranking," and promises a "high" website ranking, they are likely talking about Google ranking, and nothing else.

To check a "ranking," a simple search is often all you need.

So How Does Google Rank Websites?

In a recent announcement about its core algorithm, Google referred to "200 unique signals or 'clues' that make it possible to surface what you might be looking for." These signals, often referred to as "ranking factors," are a popular source of speculation for SEO experts. In the end, though, much of the speculation is exactly--mere speculation.

The top ranking page (on Google) for "Google's Ranking factors" is Backlinko's "complete list" of 200 ranking factors. However, Brian Dean, Backlinko's founder, admits upfront: "Some are proven. Some are controversial. Others are SEO nerd speculation."

As we noted above, though, the important ranking factors are obvious.

In the recent algorithm announcement, Google clarified some important factors: "These signals include things like the specific words that appear on websites, the freshness of content, your region and PageRank."

PageRank, incidentally, is generally believed to be a measure of the quality of incoming links. PageRank is not to be confused with RankBrain, another component of Google's algorithm, which uses machine learning to gather information about websites, and which was confirmed by Google to be the "third most important factor."

Google has also seemingly confirmed the top two ranking factors. As Search Engine Land reported last year, "In a Q&A with Google, Andrey Lipattsev, a Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google, said the other two factors were links and content."

 "I can tell you what they are," Lippattsev said. "It is content. And it’s links pointing to your site."

Inbound links--"links pointing to your site"--can come from anywhere: blog, forums, personal websites, corporate websites. Google treats each incoming link as a "vote," although some votes count more than others. A link from The New York Times, for example is more important than a link from your mother's blog. Still, every link counts: When another website creates a link to your website, they are saying to Google, and the rest of the web, "This is a good website."

This vote, of course, is about your content. The best content is relevant to your audience, yet also relevant to another website's readers. 

So Google uses RankBrain and PageRank, two algorithm tools, to measure the quality of your content and links. Based on these measurements, your website is compared to other websites and ranked.

Of course, each ranking is relevant only to a specific keyword search. For this reason, most digital marketing and SEO campaigns try, first, to achieve a high ranking for several keywords.

What is Keyword Ranking? 

Most successful websites are optimized for specific keywords. (Please read our post on the difference between optimizing for keywords alone and quality content). So what does keyword ranking mean? 

A keyword is the word or phrase you type into a browser. When you perform a search for any given keyword, Google scours its database to find examples of websites that match your query. Imagine all of these websites are well-optimized; all deserve to be on the Google’s first page results. However, there are only twelve available spots per page. So who will occupy the top spots? To deliver the best results, Google compares websites by rank. Let's say out of thirty well-optimized websites eight have high rankings--only these websites will appear on the first page results. All other websites will be placed on the second and third page results.

This is, in essence, the definition of a high ranking as well as"keyword" ranking: a website that beats other well-optimized sites because it has received many clicks, or many incoming links, based on a certain keywords. 

How Important is Ranking?

For most websites, a first page ranking is a perennial, yet often elusive goal. However, a first-page ranking does not necessarily equate to increased profits. As Josh Stelmle notes in Forbes: "Search engine rank is the metric focused on more widely than any other, and yet in only rare cases is it the metric that matters most."

What matters more than ranking? Well, a ranking is only as important relative to the amount of traffic your website can convert into profits. Too often websites focus on ranking, but neglect this crucial point.

Increasing traffic to your site is a pivotal goal, but true success requires the right traffic: targeted visitors, interested in your product or service. SEO is about refining a website's content and design to attract this targeted audience, the sort of audience most likely to lead to conversions--when a visitor performs a desired action, like purchasing a product or clicking a link.

So don't worry too much about ranking. Instead, focus on satisfying the needs and desires of your ideal customer. If you do this, the top ranking will come, but it won't matter--you'll already be profitable. 

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