Taking the Mystery Out
of Google Ranking

You’ve just spent a lot of time and money building your website. You’d love the world to come visit your site, but months go by and you only receive a few visitors. One was your mom.

Many of my clients find Google search results to be a complete mystery to understand:

  • How does Google determine which sites rank at the top?
  • Why are keywords important and are they on my site?
  • My “X” page showed at the top of rankings a month ago, but now it’s down to 3rd Why?

These are just a few of the queries I get about how the mysteries of google ranking work. The short answer to “how does my site rank highly?” is: The more visitors you have, who stay longer on the site, the more Google increases your ranking towards the top.

That’s fine and dandy, but how the heck do you do that? And how does Google sort out millions of websites to rank in a nanosecond?

It’s complicated.

It’s so complicated there’s an entire industry devoted to helping website owners improve rankings (search engine optimization – SEO). In order to get a basic understanding of how the ranking algorithm works, I’ve transformed the complex jargon into a simple, but imaginary conversation:

Hey, Google! I just launched my website. Where does it rank for my keywords?

Thanks for asking. Actually, since your site is new, it’ll take up to a couple of months to begin ranking in search results. However, once we’ve indexed it (a general scan to learn its site structure and keywords), your site should show up if someone searches for it by name, i.e. Joe’s Website Name.

Great. Can you explain how you determine whether or not my site will rank in the #1 position or lower in rankings?

Our algorithm determines where your site is ranked in response to someone searching for specific keywords. I know that sounds obtuse. But let me provide some examples about how the highly technical algorithm works:

Pretend the algorithm is the ringmaster at the circus or an usher in a theater. His or her job is to direct the audience’s attention to one of the acts performing in the rings, or, if the usher, to the seat listed on your ticket—the keywords.

When someone types in keywords, the algorithm goes, “Oh, Jane is looking for XYZ,” and returns a list meeting the criteria of “XYZ,” which many thousands of businesses online may have.

So how do you figure out which ones to list at the top?

That’s the algorithm: In order to determine which of those sites with XYZ will rank at the top, Google has a lengthy list of criteria for sites to meet. If your site meets more of those criteria than any other, it will be listed at or near the top of the rankings. But wait! There’s more…

In addition to those criteria (and lots of behind-the-scenes encoding), Google continually scores and rescores sites with “XYZ” when visitors visit them. The higher the score, plus the higher previous ranking, tells Google to push your site higher or lower in ranking than the last time someone searched for “XYZ.”

My head is already spinning! Google, can you explain more about what you mean by “scoring”?

Absolutely! Let’s say a searcher reviews the list of sites we displayed in results for “XYZ.” The searcher sees your website in the search results and clicks to go to your site. Ding, ding, ding! You’ve just earned a point in that score because the searcher chose your site above all the others in the results to click on for “XYZ.” It gets better…

Next, having arrived at your webpage, the searcher reviews it, scrolling down the page contents if interested. The longer they stay on the page, the more points you earn! Cool, right? But, if they immediately click “BACK” to our original search results, points are deducted because it appears you didn’t have what they were looking for under “XYZ.” They weren’t happy with the results, so we downgrade your ranking for that keyword. So the amount of time spent on a webpage contributes to our scoring.

Returning to your interested visitor, let’s say the searcher not only stays on your page for a while but then also clicks to visit another page in your site. Ding, ding, ding! More points for you because the searcher is obviously more interested in your offering. He or she is willing to go deeper. Fabulous!

It gets much more complex in how we rank and score your site. But let me give you another example: Let’s say that two or three months since your site was indexed our analytics department shows no one is visiting it. This tells our search department your content has little or no interest. Then your site might have its pages downranked in results. This is similar to the circus ringmaster. If no one is interested in an act performing in ring #3, he stops referring audience members to see that act.

Oh, my! I don’t want that to happen. But how can I keep searchers visiting my site so that you’ll rank it higher in results?

There are lots of ways to encourage improved ranking. Let me list just a few key suggestions to help ensure that folks interested in your “XYZ” are offered your site in our search results:

  1. Regularly review your site analytics to determine what is and isn’t working on your website. Analytics can tell you a lot of information, including how many visitors go to your site, what pages they visit, how long they stay on the page, and even how much money they spend on your site (if you have an e-commerce site).
  2. Just because you built your site doesn’t mean visitors will show up. Promote your site on other online channels such as social media, directories, your Google Profile, Google Maps. That will encourage folks to visit it. The greater visibility online increases potential website traffic.
  3. Regularly add fresh content to your website. This could take the form of a blog using your keyword phrases in numerous articles, adding new products, adding new services, and updating the content of existing pages. Businesses are always evolving. Demonstrate that your site is a valuable tool to your business by keeping it refreshed and not looking like an abandoned site that hasn’t been viewed in ten years.
  4. Make sure your site’s content is easy to read and understand. If it’s easy to read, more visitors will continue to read. But if it’s intimidating or filled with jargon, visitors will leave your site. Learn how to gain clarity and readability with the Flesch Reading-Ease.
  5. Get Google Reviews. The more great reviews you have, ding, ding, ding! Your site scores more points towards higher ranking.
  6. Keep your site running in good order. That means ensuring it receives regular maintenance. It may not physically need a quart of oil every few months, but websites rely upon a suite of software to run smoothly. Keep your software updated.
  7. Keep the dots connected. This relates to the maintenance above. If you plan to capture leads via a funnel, are there holes in that journey? Do you have a newsletter sign up form running smoothly? Does the sign up information lead to another screen or link where they can find new information? Are you asking a visitor to sign up before they know who you are and/or trust you with their contact information? Many factors can play a role in a visitor backing out of a website or dropping out of the funnel. Speak with your website designer to learn what improvements could be made if you’re not capturing lead information.

Wow! That sounds like a lot of work! If you had to narrow down your advice to one thing, what would it be?

Keep monitoring your site’s performance and taking action on what you learn. You don’t need to learn all the technical details or jargon about Google analytics and search results. Keep discussing your site’s performance and needed improvements with your designer or search specialist. Take action on improvements that make sense to you and fit within your budget.