Before we get into the SEO tactics of what to do and how to do it, let’s have a quick reality check. Set your emotional attachment to your site and business aside and prepare to be dispassionately honest with yourself — or better yet, get someone without any skin in the game to answer this question.
Does your site really deserve to rank?
Everyone answers yes to this – “of course my business deserves to rank!” But step out of your own shoes for a moment and look at it from Google’s perspective. Is your site really the best result on the entire internet? Because that’s what Google is trying to find.
Sure, the user is searching for artisan snowflakes and you sell artisan snowflakes, but that’s not enough to put you ahead of everyone else. Is your site better than other sites offering the same products/information? Does it look better? Is it easier to navigate? Are your prices/services/selection/ease of use/customer service/online information at least as good as your competition?
SEO is really a combination of technical tactics and marketing. And it doesn’t matter how much you market shit, it’s still shit.
As a SEO, this can be a very difficult question to wrestle with, because everyone thinks they deserve to rank.
Example: Best Buy Reviews
I remember when I was at BestBuy.com, I was asked why we didn’t rank for top reviews searches — many of which had substantial search volume. BestBuy.com has user reviews after all, and my colleagues wanted to know what we should do to get those user reviews to rank for “computer reviews” or “appliance reviews.”
But the problem is we didn’t deserve to rank for those searches because a page of user reviews isn’t what the searcher wants to see. Someone searching for “best laptop reviews” wants to see an expert editorial opinion giving them informed advice. Not a list of 500 random people on the internet giving their personal opinions.
Ultimately, I argued, if we did start ranking number 1 for all these searches, Google would have to change their algorithm, because they would be ranking a bad result. Cnet and Tom’s Hardware and other experts who are really doing the research and comparing the products deserve those spots. I suggested that if we wanted to have the Geek Squad go out and start reviewing and recommending hardware, we could work to make that rank, but spending time to rank user reviews was a poor use of our time.
Example: Lumber Liquidators vs Home Depot
Both Lumber Liquidators and Home Depot sell hardwood flooring (and vinyl and laminate and all the rest). Both are huge, expansive sites. So which is the best result? Here are some things to consider:
- Their prices are more or less comparable
- Lumber Liquidators has a larger selection
- Lumber Liquidators is only about flooring, and isn’t cluttered with patio furniture and bathroom sinks, which is a plus to flooring shoppers
- On the other hand Lumber Liquidators has a magnificently ugly site, that looks like someone wiped their backside with a used car newspaper ad
- Home Depot also sells every tool and accessory you would need to install your flooring, all at better prices than just about anywhere else. It’s a one-stop shop, making it a superior result in that regard.
- Home Depot also has superior in-depth how-to articles and videos on everything you’d need to know to install that flooring. You don’t need to go to a separate site to learn what you need to know.
Which site would you want to shop at?
So who ranks? Well, Home Depot does, and probably deserves to. However, with enough links Lumber Liquidators could probably overcome their User Metric failures. But if I was running SEO for Lumber Liquidators, top of my priority list would be dealing with that horrible site: surely there must be a better way to present the site while still staying on brand (as far as I can tell from the site, their brand is “in your face cheap cheap cheap buy now and quality isn’t what you’re here for right?”)
In the modern internet world, a site that hideous just doesn’t deserve the #1 ranking in Google.
An Ecommerce Site Test of Deserving to Rank
Here’s another way of looking at it — though this is only really applicable for ecommerce sites: an idea I once had to promote my little ecommerce site AwesomeDice.com was to approach the 10 leading gaming bloggers and ask them to review dice sites: not just mine, but all the competition too. I’d give them the money to buy a cool set of dice from every online dice store out there and ask them to make a post about the experience, rating each site on selection, usability, price, how long it took the dice to arrive and anything else they could think of. It’d be great exposure, and since I had no links getting those 10 links to my site and all the competitors would still land me ahead of the game.
Ultimately I decided not to do it because I was worried that my brand new site wouldn’t hold up well against the others in the eyes of a critical blogger — particularly my product selection at the time. Then it hit me that this was the problem: if you’re afraid to do this for your site, then that’s probably a good sign that your site doesn’t deserve to outrank the competition. It then became clear that my first task wasn’t SEO, but was instead to get my product selection up to par.
Chase What Google’s Chasing: the Best Sites
“I’m sick of following my dreams. I’m just going to ask them where they’re going, and hook up with them later.” – Mitch Hedberg
Part of this notion of deserving to rank is tied closely with something Matt Cutts, Distinguished Engineer at Google once said: “Don’t chase after Google’s algorithm. Chase after your best interpretation of what users want, because that’s what Google’s chasing after.”
The idea here is not to obsess over every minor ranking signal tweak to the algorithm, but instead to build the kind of site that Google is trying to rank at the top of their results. If you do that, every algorithm change Google makes will only help you. I can tell you from experience, it’s a pleasant thing to sit back and let Google algorithm updates boost your rankings year after year.
Alas, building a great site that deserves to rank isn’t enough, as we’ve seen over and over again. You still need SEO (or a large ad budget) to get eyeballs on your site in the first place. After all, no one can recommend your site if they haven’t ever seen it.
SEO From Zero Example
When I first launched AwesomeDice.com I was starting with a brand new domain with no links at all, and naturally the site didn’t rank for any keywords — despite having solid on-page optimization and site structure. I spent a lot of time in that first year working to build links.
After the first year I was ranking okay for most of the keywords I was targeting: not great, but I was finally getting organic traffic. But then I pretty much stopped working on building authority — I was busy with other stuff, like shipping orders every night!
Yet over the next year AwesomeDice.com continued to slowly improve in rankings until it was ranking number 1 or 2 for nearly every major keyword I tracked. This happened because people continued linking to Awesome Dice even though I stopped working at it: they linked on forums when they talked about some cool dice they just got, or they linked on blog posts when they wanted to share dice pictures, or they linked to the content I created. Because I had built a site that was better for shopping for dice than the competition, and because I had enough rankings that some people were able to find the site, I steadily earned more links and better rankings.
The worse your site is compared to every other site on the internet that could fill the same user need, the harder it is going to be to get it to rank.
But delightfully the opposite is also true: the better your site is the easier it will be to rank it. Because a great site naturally triggers all those signals that cause Google’s algorithm to rank a site well.
Certainly Google isn’t perfect and doesn’t always rank the best sites and subpar or truly crappy sites make it into the rankings. But if you pay attention, they don’t usually stay there long.
So you could even say that step #1 in SEO is: build a site that deserves to rank #1. Only then do you start on the work to rank where you deserve.