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Why Is It So Hard to Increase Your Search Rankings By One Spot?

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Why it is so hard to tell what it will take to increase your rankings for specific search phrases? Sometimes it seems remarkably easy, and other times it seems nearly impossible.

Full disclosure: I don't believe in tracking rankings. However, there are limited exceptions to my policy.

It's hard to ignore the brand value of ranking on a major trophy term. When people see you rank number one for a killer term, many of them immediately assume you're truly the best for that product category.

You will get most of your traffic from the long tail, but the head term has the most branding value. And, these things aren't separate from one another.

Investments you make in your SEO strategy, if you do it properly, should lift your traffic across a broad variety of search terms.

Targeting specific individual phrases with a link building strategy, for example, is dangerous stuff. As we have learned since the advent of the Penguin algorithm, too much rich anchor text will get you into trouble. There are ways to do this, but be careful out there, and don't go for the seemingly quick get rich schemes.

Ranking Gaps

The basic concept of "ranking gaps" is useful to understand because it can give you a better appreciation for the types of things you see happen in the search results. As we walk through this, I'm going to use some mathematical concepts to explain why increases in ranking on specific terms are basically impossible to predict, but don't worry, it's fairly simple stuff.

For the record, the numbers used here are fictitious, and don't resemble the output of any Bing or Google calculations. They are meant to illustrate the basic point of how this works, not replicate exactly what the search engines do.

A Simple Point Score Model

Google determines ranking on a search query basis. So what will rank high for "tennis shoes" is not the same as what will rank for "hair loss". This is only natural, as they are trying to give you the best results in response to your query.

This gets further adjusted by personalization of your results by variety of means. Many other things can happen such as showing local results for some types of queries, Query Deserves Diversity to provide users with true variety in the search results, Knowledge Graph results if applicable, and even In-Depth Article results if Google thinks that makes sense.

But, fundamentally, for each given query, Google rates the value of given web pages for that query. Google uses more than 200 ranking factors to calculate the order in which pages should be shown.

In the early days of Google, we would have thought about factors such as keyword usage and links as the primary driving factors for this calculation, but now many other factors can come into play. Regardless of the factors involved, you can think of each page being given a score for how it should rank for that query. It might look something like this:

Ranking Score Simple

Or, the rankings might be a bit more packed together, like this:

Ranking Score Dense

And, they can be more sparsely spaced, as shown in this image:

Ranking Score Sparse

All of the ranking score charts so far have been linear, where the gap between each of the items is exactly the same. In fact, this isn't realistic – the gap is likely to vary greatly between items. A score chart for a page might look a lot more like this:

Ranking Score Realistic

The point is that you don't know if you're close to passing the term sitting in front of you in the rankings, or if you're far away. There is no way to know.

You may have a client or a boss asking you what it will take to get to the number one spot for a given search term, as if you could go do some analysis and you could come back with an answer such as: "Get 17 links with this anchor text, update the content to reuse the target keyword 3 more times, and make this change to the title."

When I get asked a question about what it will take to get to a number one ranking for a particular search term, I usually say something like: "I certainly have no idea." Best to warm them up with a direct and blunt response. 

The potential for a big gap between you and the next website goes up as your rankings go up. If your site is back on the third or fourth page (or lower) of the rankings, chances are that the gap between you and improved rankings is small, basically because your relevance score is low, the perceived authority for that phrase is low, and you are part of the "unwashed masses". Your ranking situation could look like this:

Ranking Score Unwashed Masses

But, as you get higher and higher in the rankings, the gaps have greater potential to be large, but they won't always be so. The first page might look a lot more like this example:

Ranking Score High Rankers


Basically, there's no way to know what is needed to get to a specific ranking level. What you can do is instead focus on improving your overall non-branded organic search traffic (NBOST). That search term your boss wants you to focus on may not move at all, but if you increase NBOST by 30 percent, and revenue from the site 30 percent, you should still be a hero, even if that precious trophy phrase didn't move up a single spot.

If you increased that NBOST as a result of publishing great content that people love and link to and share, build your brand effectively, and, you consistently do it better than the other guy (the one in front of you), chances are that you will pass them in the search results for that all precious phrase in time.

So the way to be perceived as the best is, in fact, to be the best. In today's web world that doesn't simply mean having the best product or service, but also the best plan for actively communicating that on the web.

Blogs and social media sites give you a way to do that in a non-commercial manner, and actively engage with communities, peers, influencers, and potential customers. These actions may not drive revenue directly, but they will help build up your brand.

You have to do that consistently, and often over a long period of time to get there, but you should be able to build your traffic, reputation, and business along the way.

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