Pulling Rank

Pulling Rank

There’s only one officer giving the orders on Google’s ranking battlefield – and that’s the search engine general itself. But why do some sites rank well and others crash, and is there anything affiliates can do to influence matters? SEO expert Nick Garner has the answers.

Published 8th January 2019

Call me pedantic but I love being specific about terminology. To me, SEO means ‘search engine optimisation’ and that means optimising your website for search engines. Why? In my view, ranking isn’t just about optimising for Google, it’s more about optimising for Google’s users. Perhaps a better acronym could be SUO or ‘search user optimisation’, since it’s clear to me that getting rankings is all about optimising your website for people using Google.

So this article is framed around search user optimisation. In it, I will try to explain why some sites rank and others crash.

User engagement and rankings

If you’re familiar with the articles I’ve written over the years, you’ll know I keep going on about user engagement driving rankings. The first meaningful data I saw on this was in 2014 from Searchmetrics, a German provider of SEO tools. Searchmetrics analysed 10,000 of the top key phrases by traffic volume in the US and found overwhelming evidence that clickthrough rate and low bounce rate correlated with rankings. For more, search for ‘Searchmetrics ranking report 2014’. If you’d prefer some more accessible content, try reading a number of articles from Moz on the subject. A quick search for ‘Moz user engagement rankings’ will do the trick.

You may go, “Duh! Of course, top results get more click through than bottom results!” And that’s true, but that’s not the point of the Searchmetrics and Moz findings. They are saying if you’re getting higher than expected click-through rates and dwell time relative to everyone else on that search result, you will rank higher.

Snake oil and links

What do snake oil and links have in common? Well, years ago people used to think snake oil would cure their ailments, and these days people believe links will help rankings even if you have a subpar search user experience. It’s easy to believe in links because once upon a time they worked; and since there’s a whole industry around acquiring them, those link sellers aren’t going to suddenly start saying that their ‘link snake oil’ doesn’t work.

When do links work?

The confusing part about links is that at certain times they do appear to work. When? If a domain is fresh and Google doesn’t know about it, Google will audition that domain on search results to see how users like the content from the site.

However, Google needs a signal since it doesn’t have search user engagement as its primary indicator for ranking a website. Dump a bunch of good links (in my book a good link is one from a website that ranks on Google) and you’ll get auditioned more quickly. By definition Google trusts a website it ranks, so links from ranking websites should pass page rank. And yes, page rank does exist, Google just doesn’t disclose those numbers any longer.

So you have got your fresh site, added those links and Google is getting traffic through to your website. It’s now judging you based on how satisfied its users are.

Gaming Google is dead

I think SEO (on-site optimising your website for search engines) is very relevant, but SEO is a rotting corpse when it comes to optimising your website to ‘game’ Google. That’s why I talk about search user optimisation. Google just wants satisfied users; if they’re satisfied, they will come back and its monopoly will continue. Hopefully by now you’re onside with the argument that engagement drives rankings. If you are, welcome to my world – and if you’re not, well, that’s okay too.

Why do some affiliates rank and others crash?

I’m not going to try to answer specific use cases because there are too many variables here, but I will go through a methodology I use for working out why some sites rank and others don’t. Above all, signals manifested by search user satisfaction – click-through rates, dwell times and repeat visits – seem to drive rankings. When I take this idea about satisfaction driving rankings, I think about why a search user would click on a given result, stay on a given page and return in the future. Every search query is a question. And every search ‘question’ will have different answers and characteristics depending on the country territory and the particular user’s ‘search bubble’ (i.e. those unique search results that are only shown to an individual user).

Some search questions bring up answers that engender a high bounce rate, such as ‘odds for a football match’, and other questions bring up answers that are deep dive, such as ‘how to do betting arbitrage’. Whatever the question is, there will nearly always be a set of search results and a prevailing set of characteristics.

When there’s little differentiation

If you’re an affiliate and you want to rank for ‘online casino bonus’, just bear in mind your page or site is probably very similar to every other casino bonus affiliate out there. All of you have to have a list of bonuses because that’s how you make your money.

But how do you rank? Well, beyond the initial auditioning of the domain, the only real differentiators are:
• attractive title and description tags;
• site experience (colours used, fonts, overall layout);
• brand awareness; and
• Google users getting what they want.

Incidentally, brand awareness is not just being on TV. You can have brand awareness by being seen across numerous key phrases, so people can be aware of your brand even if it’s ‘my-latest-casino-free-bonus.com’.

If Google sees higher than expected click-through rates and relative dwell times for a given search position, it will up-rank that page; if it’s the opposite, Google will down-rank it.

Finally, then, here’s my process for search user satisfaction. I think of two groups of web users. First, insiders: users who have spent more than two minutes on your website. They understand the layout, they’re engaged and you are satisfying them. Second, outsiders: these are Google search users. You have about eight seconds to persuade them to stay.

Clearly, the above-the-fold area on your webpage is for outsiders and you’ll need to consider the following:
• does your site make sense in eight seconds?
• does it offer a compelling pitch and is it worthwhile staying for?
• do users have a reason to come back again in the future?

Gap analysis: ‘Google is right’

For my sanity and based on the research I’ve done, I believe where there is a decent volume of search traffic, the top search results for a search query are most satisfying to Google’s users.

To understand which pages are generally most satisfying, I use Ahrefs (it offers a one-week trial for $7 that will give you all the data you need). Next, I choose a power phrase (‘casino bonuses’, for example, or ‘free bets’) and I download a ranking report for the top 10 sites on that search result.

If you’re comfortable with Excel, I have a spreadsheet with a bunch of pivot tables that helps give detailed insight into what I call ‘power pages’ (details at https://goo.gl/djmdwi). If you are not a spreadsheet person, all you have to do is order the results by ‘page’. You’re looking for the pages that have the most and best search results for the most commercially competitive key phrases.

You’ll notice these power pages can rank for hundreds of key phrases. If you believe Google results reflect search user satisfaction, then the pages with the greatest volumes of valuable search traffic will be the most satisfying and are worth studying closely. Bear in mind the following:
• a search query is a question
• a Google search user wants satisfying answers fast
• how do those other power pages satisfy more than yours?

When sites are similar, it’s the micro-detail in the search user experience that makes the difference. Perhaps these power pages:
• have faster page speed
• make more sense in eight seconds than your page does
• list bonuses in a more coherent way then you do
• feel more trustworthy than yours.

It’s important to put yourself in the mind of the Google search user. Think about the search question they have asked and ask yourself: what satisfies them more than you do? Only when you look at these power pages through the mind of a Google search user will the answers come flooding in.

To recap


• Know which core key phrases you want to target;
• find the power pages that rank across key phrase landscapes; and
• look at the common characteristics of those power pages versus your pages.

Once you’ve done that, ask yourself this: how do those winning pages satisfy Google’s users more than yours do?

Finally, I get that SEO has always been adversarial in that you’re trying to find weaknesses in Google’s algorithms, game Google and rank. But my view is this, think like that and you lose track of what is most important: satisfying the user.

Google needs you. If you satisfy Google’s users, they will rank you!

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