We’re no John Mueller, but we know a few things about why some sites rank and others tank. (Not, of course, because of rhyming humor.) If you’ve spent hours trying to understand Google’s rankings, we are impressed. If you don’t want to spend hours trying to understand Google’s rankings, or you only need to be peripherally aware of website standings, read our quick list of seven reasons websites rank.
In no particular order, here are seven elements that can make websites rank higher:
Spelling and grammar are crisp and accurate
Don’t dismiss the value of checking your text for sloppy language use and poor punctuation. It’s not that Google itself is the grammar police, but poor language use affects a site’s user experience, which Google does police.
Ask any journalism professor, grammar and spelling are communication tools fundamental in the establishment of trust between a reader or viewer and information. (True also for products and brands.) Correct language use signifies authority, intelligence and credibility. It’s seamless, which helps to make the user experience seamless. Incorrect language use denotes sloppy thinking and can drive users from a site.
To provide scope and context, consider the last time you found a typo on a restaurant menu. Even if you’re a lousy speller yourself and wouldn’t know a comma splice if it bit you, you can spot a misspelling on a menu. You pounce. You point it out to everyone at the table. The result? You and your fellow diners now question the quality of what comes out of the restaurant’s kitchen because a typo makes you question the restaurant’s entire credibility and attentiveness. Are food and menu quality related? Probably not, but an error in how food is initially presented (and described) makes you doubt the quality of the entire dining experience.
(Just for fun and to support our theory, we’ve included this “Menu typos we never want to see again” blog post.)
Also, according to Google’s search quality evaluator guidelines, spelling and grammar errors can signify a low-quality webpage, including untrustworthy web pages that might intend harm.
“This content has many problems: inaccurate/meaningless information and complete lack of editing with poor spelling and grammar—both of these characteristics in combination justify the Lowest+ to Low rating,” according to Google.
Spelling and grammar are low hanging fruit in a web page’s quality status. Myriad tools are available to help you help yourself—and your web page hit the most-basic quality metric.
Keywords are included in titles, headlines and subheads where Google can see them
Not everyone agrees with this point, and we consider doubt about it a holdover from the days of keyword stuffing and black-hat behavior. But hear us out.
Keywords have a job, and that job is to identify quickly and directly to whoever’s searching, whether it be a human or a web crawler, what a page is about. If you take keywords out, you make it harder for Google and users to connect to your relevance as a web page.
We didn’t want to bring John Mueller into it, but he has said repeatedly to put the page’s focus keyword where Google can find it, which includes putting (not stuffing) it in headings, subheadings and image captions.
(By the way, subheadings improve a user’s reading experience, which can enhance rankings.
Your goal is to help a search engine sift and separate out text associated with your topic.)
Unique content is included above the fold
If you’re old enough to have read a newspaper in its hard copy form, you know “above the fold” is a term from newspaper print production. The most newsworthy stories of a given day are placed above where a broadsheet newspaper folds when displayed. Visually, it works to get attention and indicate for readers the importance of an article. It is similar in tabloids, even though the entire front page of a tabloid is visible. The size of the top-of-front-page headline and images indicated the importance of a story in a tabloid.
For web pages, above the fold refers to the visible part of a webpage before users scroll down, so the “fold” is where the loaded page initially cuts off at the bottom of the screen. Although it’s improbable for a site to have unique content above the fold on every page (hello, navigation bars, logos et al.), Google is happy when there exists a minimum amount of unique content above the fold.
Unique content could be a heading or other elements, but it needs to be engaging original content. (And of course, above-the-fold content should function properly, but make sure it’s inviting visually. If visitors don’t like what they see, they’ll probably bounce.) To go further on the fold, see this advice from Semrush on above-the-fold practices.
Google Business Profile is used in local search rankings
If you’ve Googled “Google My Business” (see what we did there?), it’s probably because you’ve seen or heard of its value—particularly to local businesses—in a geographical area and want to know more about how it’s used. You may also have learned that, in 2022, Google My Business was renamed Google Business Profile. Since 2014, when the tool was launched, Google has integrated GBP listings as much as possible into search results, particularly on mobile searches and local searches.
Many businesses create a Google business listing, aka their Business Profile, to increase visibility on Google and easily connect to current or potential customers. The Google Business Profile tool enables business owners to create, manage and optimize their business summary within the business directory listing on Google. (The only requirement for using it is that a business must have some face-to-face interaction with its customers, so 100% online companies and service providers are excluded.)
Part of how businesses and service providers edit and control their presence is by allowing local search, but also including maps, reviews, logos, contact details, including hours of operation, licensure and identifiers that businesses and service companies might want to highlight, such as veteran-owned or women-owned.
Presentation isn’t an afterthought
On websites, as in life, presentation counts. We don’t need to revisit the Will Rogers quote about first impressions, but know that the first impression you give others as a person is not unlike the first impression your web page gives visitors.
When people see another person for the first time, their impressions form instantly based on visual cues, including gender, race and age. According to psychologists, the final cue to the impression you leave comes from your appearance and how attractive others judge you to be.
“While all this processing going on at once, it’s difficult to separate what influences what in the impression you make on others. It’s quite likely that all of these cues interact rather than being judged separately,” psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne wrote in a blog for Psychology Today. “And the overlay of your attractiveness in the judging process almost certainly happens simultaneously as well. Your total impression is a combination of all of these factors.”
The same is true for web pages. Viewers are evaluating multiple cues from your web page almost instantly and deciding if your presentation is “attractive” enough to continue into the site. If a web page experiences a general reduction in traffic not related to a specific algorithm update, it may indicate there’s an issue with the website’s presentation quality. Its attractiveness.
In a Google blog post on the issue, Google gurus gave suggestions on how to self-assess if your site delivers quality content. According to Google, start the presentation quality conversation by asking yourself these questions:
- Does the content provide original information, reporting, research or analysis?
- Does the content provide a substantial, complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Does the content provide insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- If the content draws on other sources, does it avoid simply copying or rewriting those sources and instead provide substantial additional value and originality? (Color us guilty here, as this list is from Google.)
- Does the headline and/or page title provide a descriptive, helpful summary of the content?
- Does the headline and/or page title avoid being exaggerating or shocking in nature?
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend or recommend?
- Would you expect to see this content in or referenced by a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
We’re not big fans of yes/no questions, but this list provides a good place to start in evaluating if your presentation skills are good enough to rank your site well.
Original page titles are left alone because they still count in search rankings
For now, which is always the caveat with Google, if an original title incorporates an important keyword, and that keyword isn’t featured in a Google page title update, know that—for now—that title with the targeted keyword is still used by search ranking algorithms. (In 2021, Google updated how it generates page titles in search results.)
And NEVER change the URL because Google will treat it like a brand-spanking new page and it’s start-over time.
Older, lower-quality content doesn’t need to be removed; it just needs a makeover to improve it
Clean it up, unless it’s been hacked. Enough said.
We did say these reasons weren’t in order of importance, but this last item is probably the benchmark for why a site ranks well or poorly.
Sites with high quality content rank
Since quality is a subjective concept, as in our idea of quality may not be your idea of quality, it’s tricky to try and guess at what Google determines is high quality content. In the interest of not guessing, consider what Google itself identifies as quality content.
“There are highest quality and lowest quality webpages of all different types and purposes: shopping pages, news pages, forum pages, video pages, pages with error messages, PDFs,
images, gossip pages, humor pages, homepages, and all other types of pages,” according to Google. “The type of page does not determine the PQ (page quality) rating — you have to understand the purpose of the page to determine the rating.”
Know that quality isn’t determined simply as quality text, but relevant and well-integrated images. It’s overall design and page speed, too. Google has determined that the highest quality pages serve a beneficial purpose and achieve their purpose well.
Note for the coder in you: If your page speed lags, check for render-blocking, which could put a drag on your search engine rankings. Scripts and stylesheets are two types of render-blocking URLs, both of which you (or a professional coder) can address. Defer any non-critical third-party scripts to load after all core website content, which may extend your time to load (TTL) metric, but it will make rendering faster. Also, remove or make scripts asynchronous (asynchronous programming enables a program to start a potentially long-running task and while being responsive to other events while that task unfolds, rather than having to wait until it’s finished) so they load concurrently with the rest of the page.
Here are seven things that don’t need you to fuss over them:
- No need to include keywords in domain name
- Don’t bother changing dates—that won’t improve ratings
- Customer ratings and reviews on Google aren’t a rating factor, but blog comments count
- Word quality matters, but word quantity doesn’t
- Ditto on backlinks
- Duplicate content isn’t a negative and content in different formats isn’t duplicate
- Avoid an internal link load up, as internal links don’t send the same ranking signals as external links and they can water down the value of your site
If you need a John Mueller in your corner, we do know he consults. Or consider more insights on ranking from Moz. But if you just need a little help with your web page rankings, contact us. We can help.
Spelling and grammar affect a site’s user experience, which Google considers in its rankings. Poor language use can make a site appear untrustworthy and drive users away.
Yes, including keywords in titles, headlines, and subheads helps Google and users quickly understand the page’s relevance and topic.
Above the fold refers to the visible part of a webpage before users scroll down. Having unique and engaging content above the fold can positively impact rankings.
Creating and optimizing a Google Business Profile can increase visibility on Google and help connect with local customers.
The visual presentation of a web page influences the first impression visitors have. A well-presented site is more likely to retain visitors and improve rankings.
Yes, original page titles that incorporate important keywords are still considered by search ranking algorithms, even after Google’s page title updates.
Older, lower-quality content can be improved through a makeover rather than being removed completely, unless it has been hacked.
No, including keywords in domain names is not necessary for improving rankings.
Changing dates on content does not directly impact search rankings.
Customer ratings and reviews on Google do not directly influence rankings, but blog comments can have an impact.
Word quality matters more than word quantity for rankings.
Backlinks play an important role in rankings as they indicate the authority and credibility of a website.
Duplicate content is not necessarily a negative factor, especially if it serves a different purpose or is presented in different formats.