Why is that useless competitor outranking you?
The 10,000 foot explanation is that the world of search engine optimization (SEO) is mightily complex, because the job of the search engines is so complex. They deal with a web that has more than 1 trillion pages, crawl and perform a semantic analysis on a large portion of those, build a complete map of all the links between sites and web pages, put that in a database system spread across the entire planet, and respond to user search queries in less than 0.2 seconds. Google also professes to use more than 200 search ranking factors.
In addition, Google is battling against the spammers of the world. The spammers are constantly trying to figure out ways around Google's algorithm to obtain rankings that they don't deserve. In defense, Google and Bing both don't provide details of their ranking algorithms. The less that spammers know, and the harder it is to figure out by testing, the better.
In spite of all this, common advice by SEOs tend to focus on a few factors, such as:
- Good use of title tags.
- Text rich content that uses key phrases and phrases related to key phrases.
- Search engine friendly site architecture.
- Inbound links, in terms of volume, quality (PageRank, trust, and authority), and relevance.
- And the new kid on the block is presence in social media environments.
This is intentionally an abbreviated list, as this isn't a general SEO ranking factors article, but these are the basics.
So What Causes the Confusing Results?
This can happen for many reasons. Here are 14 of them:
- Domain age: This is probably the most well known of the factors. We don't tend to focus our attention on it because the only way to do anything about it is to buy someone else's existing domain. This isn't a practical approach for most people, however.
- Link age: Perhaps your competitor received their one great link early on, and it's still driving their rankings today, even though your overall link profile may look better on the surface.
- Link churn: It may be that the backlink profile to your site is less stable.
- Other temporal factors: Examples of these include a site becoming considered the better site early on, and then the algorithm may be slow to change its perception of the site. Think of this as algorithm inertia.
Confoundingly, it can happen the other way too, if the competitor site is considered newer and fresher.
- Key links not counted: Maybe the killer links aren't being counted for some reason. It could be that they are algoritmically determined to be paid links, for example.
- Key links not crawled: The web is a big place. Did you just get a killer link from a web page that the search engines don't crawl often? This can even happen with pages on authoritative sites, if the page is one that the search engines perceive as not changing a lot, or as having low-ish quality content.
- Social media buzz: Perhaps that competitor's site has a stronger profile of references on social media sites. While I don't think social media buzz is a huge factor (except possibly in the news context), it is a factor, and perhaps it can be the difference.
- Content quality: You probably think your content is great, but the search engines may disagree. Similarly, you may think your competitor's content is poor, but it may look like a beauty in the eyes of the search engines.
- Unknown bad outbound link: In the Wild West of the web, this happens all the time. You link to a page that is a great resource. The site owner shuts down the business. Porn site operator takes it over. Presto! You're linking to porn. You should absolutely link out, but monitoring those links is a good idea.
- Other spammy behavior: Many sites make these types of mistakes without knowing it, such as unintentional cloaking or hidden text. Another common form of this is getting a little overzealous with your on-page optimization.
- Query deserves diversity (QDD): The search engines need to serve up different types of results to maximize user search success. For example, consider the search query [mustang”. Does the user mean the horse, the car, or the one the companies that use mustang as part of the company name? It's pretty well established that the search engine will recognize ambiguous queries and provide results that are targeted as handling this ambiguity, even if the raw link algo would suggest otherwise.
- Click data: Google and Bing have numerous sources of data for click behavior on your site. For Google, this includes the omnipresent Google Analytics, and the Google Toolbar. In addition, the search engine can track how quickly a user returns back to a set of results and clicks on a different result (presumably because the user did not get what they wanted from the result they first checked.
- Testing: The search engines are constantly testing and measuring search quality. They can do this by varying the search results and then measuring user responses.
- Randomness factor?: Lastly, a bit of speculation. Could there be some intentionally introduced randomness in the results? While this serves the purpose of testing, it also helps to make the spammers job harder.
Many of you can come up with other ideas why a competitor outranks your site. The next question, though, is what do you do about it? The answer varies by the problem.
Domain age is hard to address, as is testing, randomness, or QDD. Improving your link profile by getting links from high quality pages on authoritative sites is something you should be looking to do anyway.
Watching out for the quality of your user experience, and creating a superior click profile, is also critical. Creating a great user experience and leveraging that user experience to obtain links to your site remain the basics. But watch out for these other factors, and do what you can to have them working in your favor as well.
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