A Guide to What Is Really Stopping You From Ranking

Gareth Simpson's picture
Tablet showing Google Search Page - CC0 License - Public Domain

It’s the million dollar question all SEOs get asked: “why isn’t my website ranking?”. Sometimes the answer is simply that the site doesn’t offer much value and doesn’t deserve to rank; other times a website is being held back by its own technical environment, or let down by poorly thought-out content. Are you worried about your current website rankings? Don’t get yourself tied up in knots – detangle your site’s content and CMS to give yourself the best possible chances of ranking.

Elementary content relevance

Gone are the ‘halcyon’ SEO days when you could repeat a two word phrase over and over again on your website and magically rank for it. On-page relevancy in 2017 is all about using semantical variants, synonyms, and adopting user language that’s focused on intent and purpose. Write naturally & give generously.

  • Your content doesn’t just have to be superficially relevant, it needs to be genuinely engaging and valuable to users. Engaging users is all about finding that sweet spot between audience/keyword research, and your own brand messaging. One way to make sure your website has plenty of great user-friendly content is to create a resource library.

  • The rise of AI and machine learning means that Google is able to understand user intent in search queries in a much more comprehensive way than ever before. It’s not just about what’s on your page anymore – it’s how well users engage with the page and whether they find what they need once they’re there. Make sure your landing pages are purposeful and that users can get to ‘the good stuff’ fast. Here’s more on why search engine results are now more user focused.

Lack of data

The most rankable sites are the ones that serve themselves up to search engines on a plate. Don’t be shy about what your pages are all about and make sure that you fill in all possible knowledge gaps.

  • Metadata is a fantastic way to help search engines organize and understand your pages, but people often forget to keep theirs updated. Duplicate title tags and nondescript meta descriptions make your site much less interesting to search engine eyes. Always write user-focused and compelling title tags and meta descriptions that you regularly check and update.

  • Structured data will help your site appear in Rich Cards, but it also has loads of other handy uses (breadcrumbs, site links search box, reviews, Knowledge Graph etc.). Use structured data as much as you can to give search engines a comprehensive view of the site. (Markup data relies on quality content in the first place – don’t lose sight of the most important thing which is giving people what they want information-wise).

Your competitors

Ranking a website isn’t just about having a great website, it’s about being competitive in the current search marketplace. You will need to get to know your competitors’ websites and backlinks in order to compete with them.

  • If you rank amongst loads of sites that seem a bit irrelevant to yours – try to find out why. Is your website’s purpose unclear? What sort of neighborhood do search engines think you live in? Troubleshooting relevancy issues from the search engine results pages themselves be very eye-opening.

  • Conduct competitor backlink checks to see where they are getting their inbound links from. Can you score links from the same place? How do they compare to your backlink portfolio? A tool like Majestic is a good place to start.

  • Do one better. Don’t be a parasite, but focus on improvements and refinements on what’s already been done out there.

Poor backlinks

Bad backlinks will hold you back, and not having enough good ones will hold you back too. But in today’s SEO environment, what ways of getting backlinks are actually ‘safe’? What types of links are going to cause you problems and should be avoided?

  • What are bad links? Low quality links with low relevancy may be holding your site back – the same goes for links that have too many keywords in the anchor text. Always go for branded and natural anchors – steer away from anything that is going to look too doctored.

  • Too many similar links or inordinate interlinking may make your links look like a footprint. It’s always good to keep things varied and avoid any patterns where you can.

  • What does your backlink neighborhood look like? Ideally you want links that have good topical relevance and that come from sites that are in the same niche or vertical. Links that seem irrelevant may still pass authority, but as they are less relevant they’re a less powerful ranking signal.

  • Disavowing bad links is possible, but link disavowal can also be risky as search engines are suspicious of change. If you have inherited some pesky links, manage disavowal with extreme caution.

  • One thing you can do to increase your backlinks (and ranking potential) is to go after some good quality editorial links instead, using methods like guest posting, content outreach, and digital PR to score natural mentions of your site and its content.

  • Outbound links can also help your rank, as can social signals. Social signals like shares and comments don’t replace backlinks, but they help build a general atmosphere of ‘noise’ and activity around your site.

Indexing issues

Good websites aren’t solely built for users – they take bots into account too. Crawl budget and indexing are SEO terms that get thrown around a lot – it’s important to optimize bot experience as they are the ones that crawl and index the web every day. You want to sculpt the search engine experience of your site? Here’s how:

  • Point search engines away from any pages that aren’t going to do you any favors

  • Deal with any duplicate content issues with URL canonicalization

  • Implement, test and update redirects

  • Plan out a solid information architecture

  • Check for technical environment mistakes like the misconfiguration of robots.txt, URL parameters, or sitemaps

  • Fix any index bloat issues.

Too many pages in the index can make your site look thin on content, whereas not enough means search engines aren’t really getting what you are about. Make your site easy for search engines to sort through and organize.

Not understanding your CMS/ technical environment

You need to know how different CMSs behave – they all have slightly different SEO characteristics. Each CMS has its own challenges and blind spots, so you can’t ever do ‘one size fits all’ SEO. You need to learn how to shore up your CMS’s SEO environment and get to grips with the necessary tools.

  • WordPress has loads of must-have SEO plugins that give you increased control over your online environment. With WordPress, you’ve got the benefit of loads of user contributions that keep the content management system’s SEO environment alive. On the other hand, you can get tailormade CMSs (like Shopify for ecommerce or an industry-specific CMS for estate agents etc.) that come with a lot of these SEO features as standard – it’s then up to you to tweak and optimize the environment as well as you can.

  • On the other end of the scale, a CMS like Drupal has almost no in-built SEO modules, meaning that you’ll have to build SEO up from the ground. It can be a very flexible way of dealing with SEO, but you’ll need to have a close relationship with your developers.

  • HTML is always best for SEO; JavaScript and AJAX can cause you some issues; they’re better than they used to be, but they’re still not ideal.

Mobile incompatibility

Mobile is becoming increasingly central to online marketing and a good mobile user experience (UX) is a must have for good rankings in 2017.

  • Invest money into a great mobile experience – it’s where most of your users are. A bland website that’s been shoved onto a mobile platform isn’t really going to cut it anymore. You need speed, instinctive usability, and a compelling user journey to see you through.

  • Think about what’s beyond mobile – websites are becoming more flexible entities, with content that’s not tied to any single platform.

In a nutshell: good rankings are a dynamic interplay of SEO factors that straddle both off-page and on-page, and involve both content and technical elements. Have you got any SEO improvements you’d like to implement in 2017?

Image credit: WDnet Studio via Pexel 

About the Contributor

Gareth Simpson – Technical SEO & Startup Founder

Gareth Simpson has worked as an SEO for almost a decade now and has recently started freelancing as an SEO. His SEO specialisms are content and blogger outreach...and he likes green tea. Follow him on Twitter.

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