Understanding Google rankings and how to achieve them is the first step toward building a better SEO strategy.

“I want my business to rank #1 on Google.” If you haven’t said this yourself, you’ve probably heard other people say it. Google rankings are hard-fought territory—so much so that they have spawned an entire industry (SEO—the one we’re about to talk about right now).

But if your idea of SEO equates to “ranking first on Google,” then you’re probably thinking about it the wrong way. There’s more to SEO than simply deciding what you want and aiming for it. Instead, it requires a nuanced and multi-faceted approach that takes many variables into account. Here’s a few tips to help you think about your strategy from a new perspective.

1. Know what you want to rank for.

We sometimes have clients come to us with a very specific keyword or phrase in mind and ask us to help them rank #1 for that search. The problem is, that’s not how SEO works. You may decide that you want to rank higher than your biggest competitor for that term, but your competitor naturally wants the same thing. And we can’t tell Google which of the two of you it should rank higher—no one can.

Instead of viewing search engine rankings like billboards, where the company with the larger purse gets to call the shots, think of them like an award you and your competition are competing for: If you want it, you have to earn it.

If your competition is a real industry powerhouse, that may seem like a difficult task. Fortunately, the great benefit of SEO is that it allows every business a multitude of ways to work their way up the rankings. Don’t get focused on a single keyword or phrase. Let your competition have “best gym Ann Arbor” while you run after “best yoga studio Ann Arbor” instead. And while you’re at it, scoop up “yoga workouts,” “yoga exercises,” and “yoga classes.”

2. Focus on user intent.

Every now and then we’ll hear people say something like: “a lot of people search for celebrities, so I want my orthodontist clinic to show up when they do, because that will draw in a lot of traffic!”

Yes, I’ve exaggerated, but I’m sure you get the point. This business is treating high traffic keywords like high traffic intersections: a lot of people are there, so that’s where I should be, too!

The problem is, people go through intersections for any number of reasons: they live nearby, it’s on their way to work, it’s a busy road through town, etc. But people people punching in search terms are looking for something far more deliberate: an answer to their query.

Google knows this, so they probably won’t rank your orthodontist clinic for celebrity search terms no matter how hard you try, because Google’s job is to connect searchers to what they want, not to what you want. The searchers are the customer; you’re the product. And honestly, it doesn’t make sense for you to chase down people who aren’t searching for you. That’s a waste of your time and theirs.

Instead, think about what terms your searchers might punch into their search engine of choice if they were looking for your business. Then design your content to attract people who are already looking for you.

3. Play the long [tail] game.

If you’ve read anything about SEO, you’ve probably heard people talk about the “fat head and the long tail.” This refers to keyword length and search volume. Basically, short words and phrases (the fat head) individually have a lot of search volume, but if you were to add up the proportionally smaller search volumes of all the longer key phrases (the long tail), the would cumulatively account for a lot more traffic.

And here’s what’s even better: those long tail key phrases are easier to rank for and have a higher conversion rate.

It’s easier to rank for long tail key phrases because they’re so specific. They’re phrases like: “women’s bikram yoga studio near me.” That’s a phrase you can rank for, and if someone is searching for it, there’s a good chance they actually want to come to your studio. (But, per the previous point: if you run a cross fit gym, don’t try to rank for this. The people searching for this want to practice yoga—not cross fit.)

On the other hand, someone searching for the fat head phrase—“yoga”—could be searching for anything from general information on it as a topic to a dictionary definition of the term. You won’t do your business good by trying to chase this keyword, because you have  no idea if the people searching for it live near you or want to take yoga classes at your studio.

4. Optimize your on-page content.

So far, we’ve focused on keyword strategy: picking the right keywords based on your business objectives and searcher intent. But once you know your keywords, how do you use them effectively?

That’s bringing SEO theory into practice. The first step of SEO is to implement your chosen keywords across your website. We’ve written a thorough post about on-page optimization, but here’s the rundown:

  • Keyword density:Incorporate your keywords naturally throughout your text, but not so much that you’re stuffing the page. If the sentence reads wrong, you shouldn’t use the keyword there.
  • Alt tags:Write alt tags for your images, and incorporate the keyword if appropriate.
  • Meta descriptions:Write meta descriptions for your pages using the keyword. This is what shows up in Google, and it’s a chance for your visitors to get a sense of what your page content is about.
  • Title tags:Include the keyword or phrase in the title of your page, as appropriate.
  • URLs:The title of your page should match the URL and therefore contain the keyword.
  • Headers:Incorporate the key phrase naturally into headers of your page content as necessary.

5. Go beyondon-page content.

Done the on-page work? Now it’s time for the technical SEO work. This includes things like submitting your site map to Google for indexing, removing broken links from your page, listing your business information so that it can be found in local searches, and following up on link-building opportunities.

Page rankings are only part of the battle—and they aren’t the only way to generate traffic.

Remember, SEO only gets your foot in the door. It’s the introduction, the handshake, the first impression. It doesn’t close the sale.

For that you need a well-designed site that offers a great user experience and helps users find what they came for. Do that, and you’ll soon notice that your site analytics will improve. And guess what: if Google sees that you’re ranking well, it will boost you in the rankings and send more traffic your way.

Published 04/18/19 by Laura Lynch