SEO Basics: Ranking for a Keyword

     

Published: December 16, 2019

There’s a lot of talk in SEO and marketing circles about ranking for particular keywords. Much of the conversation centers around which keywords to choose, how to understand competitive keywords, how to make use of less-competitive or long-tail keywords, and how all these words will help potential customers find you. But, what does it all mean? What is ranking for a keyword? How do you make it happen? Let’s take a look.

What is “Ranking for a Keyword?”
Your keyword ranking is the position your web page has in a list of search results for a specific search query. In other words, when someone does a search using Google or another search engine, he or she will type what they’re looking for or what they want to know about into the search bar. The most important words of that query are keywords, and the page that returns all the links to possible answers is the search results (sometimes called SERPs, search engine results page). Search engines will push the pages that are most likely to contain the best solutions to the top of the search results and those that are less satisfactory toward the bottom (or, rank those pages for the person searching).

Nerd Note: Keep in mind that only a page can rank for a keyword, not an entire website. Your website can be leveraged to boost the rank of a single page, but Google and other search engines only display links to pages in the list of results, not entire websites.

The internet as a whole is approaching 5 billion individual pages. That means it’s impossible for a human being, or even a team of humans, to read these pages, determine what they are about, and assign a value or rank to them. Instead, search engines use algorithms, or computer programs that measure the importance of website pages.

In the earliest days of search algorithms, the programs simply counted the number of times certain words appeared on a page. The more frequently a word appeared, the higher the importance assigned for that particular word. It’s easy to see how that method can be manipulated, so algorithms have been continuously improving to include a variety of factors that add up to a page’s rank.

What Influences a Page’s Rank?
We’ll focus this section on Google’s algorithm as almost 90 percent of searchers are using Google and the various other search engines split the remaining users. Much of what makes up the Google algorithm is intentionally kept a secret as Google’s main priority for its search engine is providing the best products for its customers (that would be searchers) rather than pages that have been manipulated by businesses to reach the top of the list even if the page content would be unsatisfactory to the searcher. By protecting the algorithm’s secrets, they can protect the integrity of the results.

That doesn’t stop people from diligently working to find out what Google is looking for, and Google is happy to provide some direction for businesses that want to improve the quality of their websites. In short, it’s important to communicate the purpose of a web page in the following areas to improve keyword ranking:
  • Title Tag. This little bit of code tells Google what to display as the title of a page (and therefore the words searchers will click on) in a list of search results. It should be descriptive and contain the most important keyword you want the page to rank for.

  • URL. This is the physical address of the page, and it should show the hierarchy of the page’s information along with the keyword you’re trying to rank for.

  • Alt Text. If a web browser fails to load an image, the alt text is what displays in its place and the text that’s used for screen readers used by the visually impaired. It’s also the text that search engines use to understand what your image is about so put the keyword here, too.

  • Backlinks. These are links from an outside website to your content. They work like a vote from the public in favor of your content, and the more influential the site, the stronger the vote. You get these by asking nicely for them and by promoting your content so others will see it and link to it.

  • Content. This is the meat of the page and ultimately the most important factor as it’s what searchers have come to your page to see. It should contain the keyword along with many close variations of the main keyword.
This is, of course, a super-basic list to help you understand page rankings better. To get a closer look at each of these factors, a few more that will help boost your SEO, and how to optimize each factor, start here: Deciphering Some Technical SEO Best Practices (Be sure to follow the links at the bottom of this page for even more information). Optimizing content is a slightly larger conversation and we have an entire list of resources for content marketing.

How to Rank for a Keyword
Ranking for a keyword requires a bit of research, a bit of technical knowledge, and a lot of persistence. Remember that there are going to be tons of companies with the same objective you have and the best competitor will win. In many cases, everyone has excellent information to share with readers; presenting that information in the best way possible is the way to gain traction and boost your ranking. Here are the basic steps to rank for a keyword:
  1. Set a Good Foundation. Before you can even consider ranking for a keyword, it’s critical that your website is strong, utilizes the best technology needed to load pages quickly and on a variety of devices, is easy to navigate, and looks pleasing to visitors. (Read more about building a strong website.) Google cares very much about all of these things.

  2. Choose the Right Keyword. Ranking for keywords is a competitive activity. Ranking for the hottest search terms can be tough, especially for smaller companies without a huge budget to dedicate to SEO and for new businesses who are just getting the ball rolling. You don’t want to sink a bunch of resources into keywords you’ll never rank for. Find one with a good search volume, but not so much that it’s too competitive for your business. Once you’ve built up some momentum for less-competitive keywords, you can try aiming for bigger ones.

  3. Do a Little Recon. Do a Google search for the keyword you’ve chosen. Who has the current top spot? What do their ranking factors (titles, URLs, content) look like? How big are the businesses in the top spots? National brands are far more difficult to knock out of the top spots than small businesses. How can you improve on what is there, or how is your content different?

  4. Reverse Engineer. The chosen keyword might seem an obvious choice to you, but remember to consider user intent, too. Which words are people using to search for these keywords? Which helper words (location, type, size, color, details) are people likely to attach to get better search results? The more specific your keyword, the better you’ll be able to match their intent with your content and achieve a higher rank.

  5. Execute a Plan. At this point, ranking for the keyword will require creating and disbursing the actual content that will rank for the keyword. It can be a blog, article, product page, video, or graphic. Determine what it’s going to be, how you will create it, what resources you need to get the job done, and where you want to promote it. Then, execute that plan.

  6. Analyze and Optimize. Web pages may be static in location, but the contents and elements on the page are always ripe for improving. Use tools to check how your pages are ranking for specific words and to see what other words you may be ranking for. If you’re not ranking for targeted words, make sure you’ve followed all the optimization best practices and that you haven’t chosen keywords that are too competitive.
Good News: It’s a Snowballing Effort
This may seem like a long and complicated process that requires tremendous effort just to get one measly page to rank for a keyword. The good news is that over time, your efforts are cumulative. It might seem like an incredible amount of energy is needed to get the ball rolling; however, once it’s moving, that momentum will help lift the rest of your pages as your site gains authority, links, and content. Plus, it’s lasting. Unlike paid ads that drop off the radar as soon as you stop feeding the meter, pages that climb the ranks from solid SEO efforts tend to stay there.

Categories: Search Engine Optimization
Tags: SEO, Search Engine Optimization