Ever wondered why a site doing almost everything poorly is ranking above you?.

By Posted in - Marketing Advice & Insight on February 11th, 2014

A phone call earlier today prompted me to write this article – so it’s hot off the press, or so to speak. An old friend of mine (a PR guy) got in touch to see if I could help with an SEO problem. He’s been working for a new law firm that has a 6 month old domain, which is competing against 6, 8 and 10 year old domains. It’s taken a long time to compete with them, but they’ve been building a community – a forum, a blog, a resources page etc. – and they’ve been doing really well, moving from page 7-8 to position #4 on page 1, for one of the most expensive and highly searched keywords ever – “lawyer”.

Until about a month ago when, out of the blue, they started losing rankings to spammy sites and pages that had fewer links, poor content, no social signals and no obvious long-tail, or more “conversational,” keyword phrase targeting. “Why the f### are sites that are doing almost everything poorly ranking above us when we’re doing everything right?”

The cold hearted, cynical answer is that it might be because they’re actually doing something right that your not. But that’s dodging the question. I can think of at least a dozen cases where sites doing things badly just rank, and it’s not because they have some secret ingredient that you’re missing. The reason why people end up asking “why are they ranking ahead of us” questions is because they’ve already taken every ranking factor into account, and what they’re seeing still just doesn’t make sense.

I’ve been in the trenches long enough to know that not everything that happens in the battle for rankings make sense. The simple answer as to why a page might be beating you is because we just don’t know exactly how Google’s algorithm works. The best we have is an educated guess and sometimes that guess is too imprecise to give a full explanation as to why one page beats another. That’s the truth. You can only talk with confidence about things you know, things you have seen. Anyone can waffle on about theory – it’s the practice, the reality of what’s actual happening that counts.

So I told my friend about another friend of mine (an SEO guy) who has been working for a client trying to get their site on page 1, for another expensive and highly searched keyword – “hosting”. A similar thing had happened – they started losing rankings to spammy sites – and the SEO guy was pulling his hair out. The client (who sells hosting packages) was losing money because their site – a valuable digital asset – had fallen from position #3 on page 1 (where they had been for 18 months) to circa page 6 and with it traffic had bombed out. Disaster! The situation went on for two months and then, in a bizarre twist of fate, an SEO plug in on the site failed, prompting my friend to reinstall it and, at the same time, rewriting the site title and meta description (snippet).

“I actually phoned a copywriter friend of mine in New York and asked him to write me a new title,” he said. “It was 1am (in Manhattan) and he (the copywriter) was half way through a bottle of Jack Daniels (bad day at the office), but he came up with a gem, which I used immediately – I’d tried just about everything else!”

What happened next was amazing. Within 48 hours the site had climbed 2 pages and by the end of the following week it had surfaced half way up page 2. At the time of writing it was back on page 1. Some of the spammy sites were still there, but the hosting site had returned to where it belonged. Who can figure? Not me, although in hindsight I can’t tell you the number of search results for companies I’ve come across that lack the one thing that might bring me to their websites: an effective title and meta description.

According to Google and lots of so-callled content marketing experts, titles and meta description tags are NOT important to search engine rankings, but are extremely important in gaining user click-through from SERPs. Not sure if I believe the latter, but one thing is true – the meta description tag serves the function of advertising copy. It draws readers to a website from the SERP and thus, is an extremely important part of search marketing.

Crafting a readable, compelling description using important keywords can improve the click-through rate for a given webpage. These short paragraphs are a webmaster’s opportunity to advertise content to searchers and to let them know exactly whether the given page contains the information they’re looking for. The meta description should employ the keywords intelligently, but also create a compelling description that a searcher will want to click. Direct relevance to the page and uniqueness between each page’s meta description is key. The description should optimally be between 150-160 characters.

So, how can you produce meta descriptions that’ll entice searchers to click?

Write like a journalist/ salesperson and think like PR. When I used to work as copywriter my old boss used to hammer the finer points of the craft into my young thick head. I think the message eventually hit home because some of my copy actually started to work. I had the instruction “Use action-oriented language,” taped to my typewriter (yes that’s how f###### old I am (49 actually).

We are talking about “call-to-action copy” — which, if you think about it, is exactly what a meta description is — because it tells the reader exactly what they can do if they click. Consider starting your meta descriptions with verbs like “Learn,” or “Discover,” and follow it up with specifics of what exactly they’ll get if they click. You also need to provide a solution or benefit i.e. tell the searcher what they can expect by clicking on your link. The last thing anyone wants to do is to have to click the ‘Back’ button because what they clicked on didn’t match what they expected or wanted. Write a short sentence previewing the content or telling the searcher why they should visit you site or page or read your post. This is your chance to sell them on what you have to offer — informative, valuable content.

You also need to make the title/meta copy specific and relevant. The average searcher knows a predictable, generic meta description when they see it in the SERPs. That’s why it’s so important to use descriptive words and do your best to connect with your target audience and let them know what they’ll get from clicking through on your search result. Oh, you also need to keep all of this under 155 characters, although Google doesn’t actually measure by characters — it measures by pixels. That is, it’ll cut off a meta description after a certain width – and you see a lot of those in the SERPS. Anyway, food for thought and of some value I hope.

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