(This post is aimed at business owners and new Moz users studying search engine optimization, not full-time, experienced SEOs. This is an in-depth answer to a frequently asked question in the Q&A forums. If you are a full-time SEO, this is one post you can easily skip.)
Regular readers of the SEOMoz Q&A forum will likely notice that the “general” SEO questions come up again and again as new users struggle with the same questions we have all asked at some point.
- “What am I doing wrong on this page?”
- “How can I improve my SEO?”
- “What/where can I do link building?”
- “Subdomains or Subfolders?”
And the one we will address here:
“Why is example.com outranking me for X and Y keyword, even though…?”
This question has been posted in various forms many times in various forms lately on Q&A. Here are a few:
Non-SEOs, mostly small business owners, come to SEOMoz to learn a bit about SEO and hopefully improve their site. You learn about Domain Authority and Page Authority and work hard to improve your MozTrust and MozRank. Those metrics are readily apparent and easy to track with the SEOMoz trial.
So you sign up for the trial, run your brand new SERP overlay tool and see this:
The Keyword Difficulty score for “credit card debt” here in Australia is 53, which is rated “highly competitive.” Is debtrescue’s very high ranking an aberration? Maybe this keyword is an anomaly and other sites do not “make sense” based on metrics, either. But that is not the case. In fact, this ranking (debtrescue is 2nd on my search, 4th by the Keyword Tool’s search) has the lowest Domain Authority by over 15 points and the 2nd lowest Page Authority by 22 points.
This is not really close – by the stats, debtrescue.com.au has no business ranking on page 1. Just for information, the 9th site (95 DA, 1 PA) is a .gov site so we know why this particular “PA 1” ranks this well.
So you own a business and you are new to SEO. You have looked at the SERP overlay and it makes no sense. You look at the DA/PA chart on keyword difficulty and it is fairly clear that this site does not rank based on metrics. Let’s pull just one more set of data to make the point.
Our target site has nearly the lowest mozrank, by far the fewest links of the non-.govs, the lowest subdomain mozrank by a lot, the lowest Page authority by a wide margin and the lowest domain authority by a mile. The page 2 results for the same search shows a trusted bank site – NAB.com.au – they have a DA of 82, PA of 44. They have 300,000 links.
So our question is clear now – how can a site like debtrescue outrank anything else on page one or NAB on page 2? The metrics all say these other sites should be winning handily.
So what is the magic answer?
That elusive magic answer …
I could give you twenty, maybe fifty possible answers. Unfortunately, I could give you twenty and the right one for your situation may be #21. So let’s ask the question again and then reword it so you can see the problem clearly.
“Why is example.com outranking me for X and Y keyword even though _________?”
The real question is this:
“Aren’t these Moz metrics what count?”
That leads us much closer to the answer: these metrics count, but they don’t come close to telling the whole story.
According to the on SEOMoz, many SEOs think Page Level and Domain Level Link Metrics account for roughly 43% of the algorithm. Over half of your total ranking is determined by factors other than Page and Domain link metrics.
Are you starting to see the bigger picture? How sites rank on Google depends on many factors other than the few you are introduced to when you start learning about SEO. Pagerank, number of inbound links, and the main Moz stats tell a story about your site. Unfortunately, it is like a two-part season finale of your favorite show. You didn’t know there was another part next week and now this?
So what is the rest of the story? What else matters?
If you ask 100 SEOs for the top 50 ranking factors, you will get back 100 completely unique lists. The fact is, we don’t know the whole story. Google can’t come out and tell us the whole algorithm because people would take advantage of that information to rank poor quality sites simply by manipulating the ranking factors and focusing on nothing else.
Here is what we know: Google tracks certain data. You should believe that Google tracks data it finds relevant and reliable. So what can you find in Analytics and with a bit of testing?
Visit duration matters. This metric tells Google that someone found your page and enjoyed it enough to stay on site longer than when they went to your competitor’s site. Duration is a sign of the page’s overall quality and usefulness.
Pages per visit matter. If a user searches for “credit card debt” and visits just one page on the #1 site then seconds later bounces back and goes to #2 where they spend 15 minutes and visit 3 pages, any guess which site Google thinks matters more to that search query?
On page factors matter. The days of putting your keyword keyword keyword on the page three keyword times are keyword thankfully over. This will rarely help you and can actually penalize your site. However, having accurate and descriptive titles that match the content of the page and the user intent of a search? That does matter!
Algorithmic and manual penalties matter. If you put that keyword fifty times on your page, as we discussed above, you will run into an algorithmic penalty. This means Google knows you have “stuffed” the page and will take a bit off your ranking. Do it repeatedly and you’ll get a much larger penalty. If a Google manual reviewer catches you doing this, or a competitor reports you for it, you may get a manual penalty. You will get a notification in your Webmasters Tools about this one and you do need to fix it or suffer a harsh penalty.
Social Share Metrics Matter. Some SEOs believe social metrics matter very little. We have tested these ourselves and found that social metrics matter “some.” If you get three retweets on your link, no, it won’t help you very much. You won’t notice a bump. Get 200 retweets on that same link, have it shared 50 times on Facebook and now it is pinned 8 times? Yes, that will affect your ranking.
Anchor text matters. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying here. Anchor text can be positive *and* negative. If you over-optimize a handful of keywords, it will be a negative effect. If you balance these, include branded anchor text across a variety of link types, it will have a positive effect.
301 redirects matter. Your competitor with the poor metrics may actually have fantastic metrics – on another site. They may have changed domains and redirected all that great SEO juice over to the new site, which looks like it has no value but is absorbing a lot of the value from the previous domain.
We could keep playing this game for a while but we won’t. You should understand that the metrics you start with are a small part (less than half) of the overall picture. We also know of certain “exceptions” to all these rules, such as the ranking bonus new sites get when they first appear on the SERPs. You can’t control how Google sees other people’s sites so try to stay focused on what you control.
For even more information, be sure you go back to Eppie Vojt’s phenomenal “2011 Search Engine Ranking Factors”
Eppie posited that manual penalties may occur because “Google just can’t allow low quality sites to outrank billion dollar brands for high visibility terms” and I tend to agree with him. Sites that do not “deserve” their ranking often fall off quickly or get manual penalties. Ask yourself if this site was there a month ago – and then check whether it still ranks in another month.
When you are done with Eppie’s excellent article and you want to learn even more about how truly bad sites rank, continue your education with Wil Reynolds’ “How Garbage Ranks in the SERPs: A Case Study”
I hope this explanation helps some of you who are just learning and starting your SEO journey. I also hope the more experienced SEOs jump in and give a few of their ideas on ranking factors, why some sites rank well despite their average or even poor Moz metrics.