"Why isn't our website ranking higher?"

As a digital marketing consultant, I hear this question all the time. The question is fair, it's basic, but it's notoriously impossible to answer.

The most honest answer goes like this: "There could be a million reasons." To provide the most focused answer requires an under-the-hood examination of the website's various parts.

From my experience there are a few main things that constantly present themselves as barriers to better ranking. If you're scratching your head over the ranking question, there's a good chance you're facing one of the following issues.

1. Your website is targeting the wrong keywords.

When someone complains "our website isn't ranking," my first question is "what are you trying to rank for?"

A website does not merely rank in the raw, unadorned sense of the word. A website ranks for something--namely, keywords.

To illustrate, Nike.com will not rank for the term "personal branding." Why" Because their entire website does not contain that phrase anywhere. (I checked.) My website, however, does have the #2 organic position for "personal branding." Why? Because I have a massive piece of conten that is devoted to the topic, I blog about it, I get linkbacks on the topic, and the phrase appears at least 143 times on my site.

My websites will never rank for "Kaishi run" or "nike sneaker." But Nike? Yes. They will rank for those terms.

The ranking question depends on the keyword question. That is why every SEO strategy must begin with keyword strategy. First, define which keywords you want to rank for, and then ask the question. Instead of asking "why doesn't my website rank," ask "why doesn't my website rank for [given keyword]." This question will get real answers.

For example....

  • Why doesn't my website rank for "best light roast coffee?"
  • Why doesn't my website rank for "digital analytics reporting software?"
  • Why doesn't my website rank for "Nob Hill deli?"

Now you're on to something, and now you can start to reshape your website in a way that focuses on keywords. Start targeting keywords instead of merely hoping for more traffic.

2. Your website is not mobile optimized.

Since the release of Google's latest algorithm, mobile optimization is more important than ever before.

According to analysts, mobile usage has outstripped desktop usage. There is a strong likelihood that a hefty percentage of your potential users are conducting searches on their mobile devices.

Guess what. If your website is not mobile optimized, you won't show up in mobile search results. It's that simple. Google explained that their algo update is "boosting the ranking of mobile-friendly pages." That positive turn of phrase has an unstated negative corollary. Google demoted the ranking of non-mobile-friendly pages. To rank a site higher means that some site has to rank lower.

If your potential users are using mobile devices, your site needs to be mobile optimized. Using Google's tool, you can, in five seconds, find out whether your site is mobile-optimized or not.

3. Your website is slow.

Slow websites are dangerous. Why? For one, a slow loading site can kill conversions. In addition, users expect sites to load fast. Furthermore, slow sites don't rank well.

Could this be why your website isn't ranking? Mobile or desktop, it matters not--speed is the crucial ingredient for higher ranking and better traffic.

This shouldn't come as a shock. Since 2010, Google has downgraded the ranking of slow sites. Today, the algorithm assesses the speed of a website, regardless of how a user is trying to access it.

If your website is slow, it makes sense that it's not ranking. Improve your speed, and you'll most likely improve your ranking.

4. Your website doesn't have the right content.

Perhaps the central reason why websites don't rank is because they don't have the content to support it.

Some people think, "Let's get a website up," and expect rankings to take care of themselves. It doesn't work that way. Gaining rank requires the output of content. But not just any content will do. It has to be "the right" content.

And what is "the right" content? Content that has the following features can be considered "the right" content.

  • "Fresh" content. A website that has frequent updates will generally outrank a website that has stale content.
  • High quality content. As proven by Quality Rating Guide, Google rates the actual quality of your site's content and ranks it accordingly.
  • Lots of content. Long content generally gets top-rank in the SERPs. Homepages, landing pages, and content pages with more than 2,000 words has a greater chance of ranking on the first page of Google.
  • Visible content. I recently analyzed an ecommerce site that was not ranking for their target terms, even for their own branded merchandise. The problem? The content was only visible by clicking on tabs, reducing the indexation and ranking of the content. The solution? Make your content visible; don't make users click.
  • Above-the-fold content. Web crawlers assess the importance of a given keyword by its placement within the web page. Keywords that appear near the top--i.e., above the fold--are more likely to be considered important, and therefore ranked.
  • Tagged content. In addition to the placement in the source code, web crawlers also grade the relevance of content based on how it's identified. The most important tags for SEO are the title tag, and the H1 tag.
  • Semantic content. Don't expect to rank if you are stuffing your content with keywords. Instead, you should use your keyword sparingly and add other relevant keywords. If you are targeting the term "conversion optimization," for example, then you will probably want to use semantic variants such as "CRO," "split testing," or "conversion rates."
  • Regular velocity content. Are you publishing content frequently? Webmasters have identified a cause-effect relationship between the publication of content and the ranking of the given content.

If you don't have a content strategy, your site's lack of ranking makes complete sense. The web is content-driven. By embracing and implementing content marketing, you will start to see your rankings rise.

Final thoughts

Every webmaster, marketer, and entrepreneur wants their website to rank higher. Don't be too surprised if you aren't at the first position. The list of four main culprits above should clue you in to where you've gone astray.

The ability to rank is a composite of many factors, but these consistently loom large as major hurdles.

What does your website need to fix?

Published on: Jul 16, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.