1. Get More Backlinks
Not only is this one of the top three ranking factors in the eyes of Google, but they also tend to be the number one bottleneck for the majority of website owners. Not only are they hard to get, a lot of people think they are no longer important – which couldn’t be further away from the truth.
Not having enough backlinks to rank can happen in two main ways on your site.
The more common issue is that your website as a whole isn’t authoritative enough to stand up against your competitors. In other words, their entire domain (not the page that is ranking) has so many links that they’re simply more trusted than you.
To check if this is the case for you, use a backlink checker tool such as Ahrefs and compare the “Domain Rating” metric of your competitors’ sites to your own. If there’s a major gap, that’s likely the culprit.
P.S. Other backlink checkers usually have a similar metric if you don’t want an Ahrefs subscription for some odd reason.
Just as important site-wide authority are backlinks to the individual page you’re trying to rank with.
Unless you’ve been working with an SEO agency for a long time or have a really good technical search engine optimization expert on your team – you probably won’t want to compete on the on-page side of things.
How many backlinks should you have to your target pages? This is largely going to depend on the competition – how many links they have to their pages, what the quality of those is like, and so on.
As a general rule, you’re going to need more links to your target pages when going after informational or service keywords. E-commerce is a little easier because not many websites naturally link to category pages.
2. Start with keyword research
The internet is far too large for Google to manually decide what each page is about, what queries it should rank for, and in what position.
That’s where the Google search algorithm comes into play – it does all of that automatically.
As you might have guessed, it’s not going to be as good as we are at understanding the English language, the intent behind certain words, and how various topics overlap.
We need to figure out what people are typing into Google, compare the data, and then optimize our pages based on that.
Just look at the image below to see how much search demand can vary from keyword to keyword:
Even after 12 years of looking at keywords daily and helping business owners with SEO, I would’ve assumed that “how to get number one on Google” would have more searches than “how to improve search engine optimization.”
Based on my experience, we can group these keyword-research-sinners into four categories:
- The oblivious– These are the folks that have no idea what keyword research is or have simply never done it. They believe in sayings like “build it and they will come” and generally get zero search traffic.
- The rushers– These site owners have heard of the concept and it makes sense to them but they’re not using any tools for it. They try to remember to stuff in a few keywords here and there and occasionally it might even work.
- The reachers– My least favorite category. They’ve looked at the search volumes, chosen the highest volume ones, and they will never be able to compete for them (more on this later.)
- The enlightened– Hey, that’s you! You’ve read the post, you’ve seen some data, and you know you’ve got to make a keyword plan before optimizing for anything. Check out the rest of these tips and you’ll know exactly what to do.
3. Optimize Your Pages With Keywords
With keyword research out of the way, it’s time to start putting all of it to use.
But then you look at the title of the page (and other key areas) and you’ll start to wonder what the page is supposed to be about.
The most important places you could place your keywords in are:
- The page title
- The URL
- The H1 tag and sub-headings
Those are the first places Google is going to look to get a feel for what your page is about.
Yet when you name your page “services”, it could be about anything.
For your page title, the permalink, and all of the headings on the page – you can play the blank piece of paper game.
If you would see any of them on a blank piece of paper (e.g. your site’s URL or a specific heading), could you guess what the general topic is?
If not, you’re likely not specific enough. Put those keywords in there.
Disclaimer: This doesn’t mean that you can never write a piece of content unless you’re targeting a keyword. You totally can and I encourage thought leadership. But if that’s the road you’re taking, you need to make sure to have a content promotion strategy other than organic search.
4. Write Longer Content
Just because you put your keywords in the title, permalink, headings, and meta description does not mean that Google is going to take your word for it and say “oh, that’s what they should rank for…”
Their goal is to give users the best possible result that can solve their problem/query and most of the time, longer, high-quality content does that better.
Think about when you were in school – what was more helpful, a Wikipedia article with some formulas or an actual textbook with illustrations, examples, and a quiz?
Google is also great at understanding related words and phrases.
They know you cannot talk about building a website without mentioning design. That email marketing also entails the word “newsletter”. And that the phrases “best pizza” and “pineapple” do not belong on the same page.
The majority of successful pages don’t rank for any one keyword. They rank for hundreds if not thousands of variations.
How long should your content be?
If you were already arguing in your head that longer content doesn’t always win, you’re right.
But it applies to 95% of website owners.
To figure out the ideal word count, you need to look at each topic individually and assess what Google already likes.
Search for your main keyword and look for sites that are of similar authority to yours. This means excluding huge sites like Entrepreneur.com, Wikipedia, etc (they can get away with mediocre content.)
Now look at the word count of the actual articles (exclude comments, sidebars, menus, etc) and analyze the results and look for a theme:
- Is longer or shorter content ranking better?
- Does it look like there’s a cut-off point for content length helping?
- Is there someone ranking well despite low domain authority? How long is their content?
- Is there someone ranking poorly with similar content length and high authority? Can you find a reason why?
5. Go after less competitive keywords
I know it’s tempting to go after the high search volume keywords but the truth is…
Search volume isn’t the most important metric out there. We’ve already covered two reasons why that is:
- No page only ranks for one keyword– and you have no idea how many searches a month the other ones might have (or how many there are in total)
- The search volumes are estimates and wildly inaccurate
However, the most important aspect to consider is that the only way you’re getting a piece of that action is by ranking in the top 3 positions. A keyword could have a million searches a month, but if you’re in position #16 you shouldn’t be expecting any traffic from it.
Even the first position (on average) gets around 30-35% of the traffic.
You’re going to be much better off going after lower search volume keywords that you’re confident you can get to the top for.
This results in a more likely return on investment, much quicker results, and hopefully the confidence and skills to eventually go after the bigger stuff.
Fun fact: Some of the best money-making keywords I’ve ever stumbled upon have been super low search volume in theory (e.g. 200 searches a month or less)
6. Optimize for Search Engines
This is probably the best-kept SEO “secret” out there and it’s quite obvious when you think about it.
If you want to know what to do to get on the first page for a keyword… Look at what the pages that are already there have done.
Here are a few angles you can take to analyze search intent and give your pages the highest chance for ranking.
- Type of search intent
The first angle is going to be the search intent itself – what is the user trying to accomplish by Googling this term?
Search intent is generally broken down into four categories:
- Navigational –People searching for Amazon probably just want to go to Amazon.com
- Informational –By far the most common category is people looking for answers. Queries like “what is search engine optimization?”, “how long to boil eggs” or “reciprocal link meaning.”
- Commercial or buyer intent keywords –Users looking to buy something – generally anything generic such as standing desk, Bluetooth earphones or red leather jacket.
- Commercial research/investigation– Even higher buyer intent, people have decided they’re going to buy something and are doing final research. Keywords like best email marketing tool, Convertkit vs Mailchimpor Leadpages review.
Identifying and matching the search intent should be your number one priority when planning to create a page for that keyword.
If everyone in the top ten search results has category pages for selling standing desks, you will not rank for that term with an article explaining what they are or why they’re good for you.
The same goes for the other intent types – if you only see round-up reviews of the best Bluetooth headphones (top 10 etc), you will not see success with a single product page claiming that you are the best.
- Angle and contents
While the majority of the time, matching the main search intent itself will be enough, you can also take it a step further by looking at the angle of the page as well as the content itself.
Let’s say you’re googling for how to build backlinks? There’s a lot of different ways you could approach this topic:
- How to Build Backlinks the Smart Way
- 27 Highly Effective Link Building Strategies
- The 4 Pillars of Link Building
You’ll want to (yet again) replicate what you’re seeing in the top ten results. If the majority of articles are long listicles, you’ll need to take that route as well. If you’re seeing mixed intent (a variety of angles), feel free to go with whatever you think would be most useful for the reader.
To give things a final polish, I want you to read through the top-ranking articles and look for common themes. The odds are high if everyone covers the same topics and you’re missing them, you won’t rank.
For example, if everyone talks about guest posting in their link building guides and you don’t mention it even once – that may be a red flag to Google that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
- Content length
While I already mentioned this under one of the previous tips, you must take a look at the content length of your (successful) competitors and try to at least match that.
Google has historical data on how users react to different pages they’ve displayed in the top 10 results for this keyword. If they’ve seen that most users prefer 2,500-3,000 word guides not short stories nor online e-books… You’re not going to convince them otherwise no matter how good your writing is.
7. Improve Your Site Speed
In fact, they confirmed this nearly ten years ago and have made a myriad of moves since then that indicates the importance of site speed.
And it makes sense…
They want their users to have the best experience possible so they’d be inclined to use Google again. Waiting for a blank page to load generally does not fall under the“best experience” category.
Here’s a random keyword I looked up along with the average loading times of the top results.
See a trend?
All else equal – pages that load faster will rank better.
So what can you do to improve your site speed?
The number one thing slowing down websites is bad hosting companies. If you’re on some sort of promo-deal from one of the popular shared hosting companies, this is likely holding back your website speed.
The best way to see if this is the case is to use a tool such as ByteCheck to measure your time-to-first-byte (TTFB), which indicates how long it takes for your server to respond to a request.
If it’s above 400-500 ms, it’s probably time to switch hosting companies.
Here are a few fast hosting companies we’ve used in the past:
Two key things slow down websites:
- Excessive use of plugins and apps –most site owners, especially on WordPress, use way too many plugins for additional functionality. Some of the more common ones, such as Sumo, can slow down your website by over a second. This is more common with free plugins. Go through your list of extensions, disable (and delete) the ones that you don’t need, and try to find faster alternatives to the ones that are holding you back (use GTMetrix for a breakdown).
- Lots of big images– the word count on your pages doesn’t impact loading time but images do and in a massive way. A photo taken by your camera could be anywhere between 3-50 MB, depending on the resolution. By properly compressing these images and uploading them in the resolution they will be displayed in, you can cut this down to a few hundred kilobytes.
Lastly, you may want to consider using a plugin such as WPRocket which can take care of the majority of your site speed issues in a few clicks.
That takes care of:
- Content delivery networks
- Minifying and compressing various resources
- A lot more
Ideally, you’ll want every page on your site to load in less than two seconds, but three seconds as an absolute maximum for more media-heavy pages.
8. Optimize Your Content
When you’re reading something and the author keeps mentioning the same phrase, it becomes quite apparent that it might be an important term, right?
That’s exactly what Google does.
In this day and age, it’s not as easy as saying that your keyword density needs to be at a certain percentage.
So how do you figure out how often you should be using your target keywords?
You might notice a theme in this post regarding “reverse engineering” what is working for your competitors and that’s the same thing you’re going to do here.
Look at the top competitors for your keyword and map out the lowest keyword density out of them, as well as the highest one, and aim for the higher end.
Keyword density means you’ll also need to take into account the content length.
Surfer SEO is a correlational analysis tool that allows you to type in a keyword and pull in data from all of the main on-page search engine optimizations factors, ranging from the use of keywords and related phrases to page speed.
Their most powerful feature is called True Density and it does all of the above for you, automatically. Not only does it give you an overview of how often the main keyword is used in titles, headings, images, and content…
It also gives you all of the phrases and words that your competitors are using but you are not.
Here’s a screenshot with an example.
9. Improve Your Site Structure
This means that a poor site structure can leave some pages that are important to you completely neglected and vice-versa.
It’s not uncommon for us to see website owners wondering why their most important blog article is stuck on the second page… Only to discover that it would take Google 9 clicks to even find that post because no other links are going to it.
If a page on your site only has one link pointing to it, how important can it be?
The closer (in terms of clicks) a page is to your homepage, the better it is going to rank.
As your site grows in size, this can be tough to manage but ideally, every important page should be within 3-4 clicks from your homepage.
Tips for Improving Site Structure
The best way to think about site structure is in the number of clicks it takes to get to a page from your homepage. What are the different ways you can do this?
Generally, this is done by setting up your site in a hierarchy. Your homepage links to the most important pages and categories, which then link to sub-categories and sub-pages, and so on.
Now, what happens if you only have one category, such as the blog, but then have 300 posts under that? You’re probably not displaying 300 posts per page so some of these will be really far away.
You can get around this by:
- Creating additional categories for the blog and linking to those from the navigation (e.g. on-page SEO, case studies, link building, technical SEO, content creation)
- Increasing the number of posts displayed on a single page
- Ensuring you page numbers at the bottom of your category. If you only have a“previous” and “next” button, it’ll take a lot more clicks to reach the posts on page six for example
Of course, another easy way to get more internal links to your important pages is contextually within other articles. If you mention a topic in one post and have a relevant blog post or services page, link to it!
You could even write a little ad at the end of the article, promoting something else:
“Tired of all of this SEO wizardry and want to try something different? Check out our guide to pay per click advertising!”
There are very specific standards for creating websites that should be followed.
For example, you have the HTML heading tags that go from H1-H6 and indicate the importance of a heading on a page. Some developers wouldn’t like the heading font size so they would simply switch out the H1 and H3 or use CSS to increase the font size of a standard paragraph.
This would likely hinder your rankings, depending on how severe the problem is.
While many of these are appealing to developers and may look good to the user, it doesn’t mean that Google may see them.
Here’s an example from an e-commerce store where we can see the category fine, but if we look at the website as “GoogleBot”, there is not a single product visible nor links to them.
11. Optimize Your Category Pages
While this is not necessarily an issue, it’s a massive low-hanging fruit, especially for e-commerce stores.
Let’s say you have a local store selling iPhones. You’ve got the same products as everyone else, the same product descriptions, and probably even the same images.
I’m betting in most cases, you’re not going to win that game.
Just like with any other page on your site, if you have more words on the page, Google will understand the page better and be able to separate it from the competition.
Most e-commerce category pages are also massively over-optimized due to product titles. By adding other related content to the page, you’ll also
- Reduce the keyword densities for them and potentially increase your rankings
- Increase your chances of ranking for additional long-tail keywords
12. Check For Duplicate Content Issues
This happens a lot with eCommerce stores for two reasons.
Let’s say we have a supplement store selling Magnesium. This could go both in the sleep improvement category as well as heart health.
That is fine as long as from both categories, the URL ends up being:
What is not okay is those categories creating two separate landing pages for Magnesium.
Another instance of this is when your products are using parameters in URLs but don’t utilize the canonical tag, which tells Google what the “main page” is.
Let’s say you have an option on your “standing desk” product page for white or black color.
If your URLs display as:
You need to make sure the versions with parameters have a rel=”canonical” element, telling Google that they should be ranking the /standing-desk-pro/ URL…
Now picture this issue when your t-shirts come in 6 sizes and 26 color options… And you sell 500 different shirts.
That’s a lot of duplicate content.
13. Check for Keyword Cannibalization
When you have several pages that are optimized for the same keywords, the odds are high that neither of them will rank very well.
Again, there are a few ways this can happen.
Some people write a lot of pointless content effectively targeting the same keyword:
- SEO Services – What You Need to Know
- Why Our SEO Services Are the Best
- 7 Reasons You Need SEO Services
- 3 Reasons Your Restaurant Needs SEO Services
In some cases, we see tons of tags added to every single post and these might start conflicting:
In other cases, they see a ton of different keywords and create pages for each of them:
- Commercial ovens for bakeries
- Commercial ovens for restaurants
- Commercial ovens for grandma
Well, if you Google those keywords and see that others are only ranking with a generic “commercial ovens” page – this strategy is going to backfire.
The best way I’ve been able to identify these issues is by looking at your top ranking keywords in the SEO tool Ahrefs. If you click on the SERP history button, you may find several pages competing for the same terms and dropping in and out of the results.
Here’s an example from a crypto website that instead of updating a single page and reaping the benefits of long-term rankings, competes for the same keyword with a different article every single week.
14. Clean up Google’s Index
You can have a few great pages, but if the rest of the site is low-quality or thin content, you’ll struggle.
Remember when I talked about the authority of your homepage being spread to your inner pages?
Well, the more pages you have, the less authority each page gets. Makes sense, right?
This is why index management is critical, plus you might find a ton of other on-page SEO issues.
Ask yourself: is there anything anyone would ever want to Google for, to end up on this page?
If not, apply the noindex tag on those pages, telling Google to ignore these and not show them to users. They’ll still be accessible if someone ends up on the page but just excluded from search results.
Commonly you’ll see:
- Staging sites (thousands of pages of duplicate content)
- Tag pages
- Category pages (for blogs – eCommerce should leave these indexed)
- Dated archives
- Author archives
- Thank you pages
- Members-only pages
- Content you forgot existed and is now outdated
- Testing pages (landing pages, homepage variations, whatever)
- Discounts you don’t want others to find
- Your lead magnet download pages
15. Do a Backlink Audit
But just like with everything else in life, not all links are created equal.
I see a lot of people complaining about getting hit by Google updates, losing the vast majority of their traffic, and wondering what they can do to recover.
More often than not this is caused by shady link building practices either done by the website owner or some sort of link building service they’ve used.
Here are a few things to look out for.
Cheap link building services –most commonly this means some kind of service off an SEO forum or a place like Fiverr.
High-quality backlinks are difficult to acquire because they would be placed on sites with high standards and often require an investment in either really good content or time building out a relationship with website owners.
If anyone is trying to sell you links at a “good price” (let’s say less than $20/link) or are emphasizing the number of links, you’ll probably want to steer away from them.
Outdated and shady link building schemes– while this massively overlaps with the cheap link building services, there are still SEO “professionals” who think they’re doing something good by using these strategies.
This includes things like:
- Blog comments
- Forum links
- Web 2.0 sites
- “Private” blog networks
- Scholarship link building
- Any automated link building
Overly aggressive anchor text –Anchor text is the clickable part of a link. Having your keywords in there may help you rank a little bit faster, but it looks incredibly unnatural to Google and is something that can get you penalized.
Link building in itself is already highly effective at increasing traffic and rankings, you don’t need to over-do it.
We’d recommend going for partial match anchor text at most, err on the lengthier and safer side (3-6 words), and make them look natural.
When you check out the backlink profile of any legitimate site, you’ll see a lot of generic anchor texts such as:
- Research by X company indicates
- This guide from X company
- Some sort of fact
- Check it out
- The URL itself
- Company name
Even when you’re able to build super high-quality links and do it at a high-paced, it’s probably sensible to slow down a little and err on the safe side again.
So how fast is it okay to build links?
Well, ultimately it should be at a pace that is consistent and sustainable for you. This is going to depend on the number of resources you’ve got available.
Google is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) sources of online traffic and I cannot imagine a bigger red flag than seeing a website that was getting zero visitors from them attracting hundreds of links per month and then as rankings improve, link growth declining or stopping entirely.
Velocity and consistency are key.
16. Fix Everything That is Broken
Almost every sizable website is going to have things break and it’s generally not a huge deal, but they should still be addressed. User experience is crucial for search engines, so make sure you fix everything that is broken.
Broken pages can appear on your site for a bunch of reasons – perhaps you’ve changed the URL on something or the content was simply not relevant anymore and you had deleted it.
This will lead Google to an error page, stop their crawling process, waste resources, and it’s obviously not the best thing for your potential visitors.
You can find broken pages using Google Search Console, a site audit tool such as Ahrefs, or using the search engine tool Screaming Frog.
Here are the best solutions depending on why a page has disappeared:
- URL changed– Set a 301 redirect from the broken page to the new permalink.
- Page deleted-If a page has been deleted, the best alternative would be to 301 redirect it to an equivalent resource or something highly related (e.g. the main category where the page was)
- Page deleted with no alternative– When you don’t have any kind of alternative page to redirect it to, you could display a 410 header which signals “content deleted”.
There is a myriad of SEO tools and plugins that can help you find these and the fix is really simple. Either remove the link or replace it with a functional one with the same context.
Broken images signal a poor user experience to Google and need to be fixed. Just like with links you only have two options here: either replace the image with what it was meant to be or just get rid of it entirely.
17. Set up HTTPS
Having a secure website has been a ranking factor since 2014 and Google is only putting more emphasis on it as the web advances. If you’re still not on HTTPS, there’s a high chance it’s also holding back your rankings.
Most web hosting companies give out HTTPS certificates for free nowadays so there is no reason to not switch over. Even if yours doesn’t, you’ll be able to pick one up for the same price as your yearly domain renewal.
It’s worth it.