How to Rank on Google

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How to Rank on Google

 

I

f you’d like to know how to rank on Google, you need to understand SEO.

SEO stands for search engine optimization. And it’s a set of practices used to increase a website’s visibility on search engines like Google.

In this guide, we’ll explain what you can do to improve your rankings and grow organic (meaning unpaid) Google traffic.

How Does Google Rank a Page?

Google has shared some ranking factors (more on those below) publicly. And many SEOs have discovered suspected ranking factors via tests and case studies.

But webpages don’t just go from published to appearing in search results. Here’s an overview of how Google ranks a page.

Google discovers and ranks content in three stages:

  1. Crawling: Google finds pages on the internet with automated programs called crawlers. After a page is found and crawled, Google downloads everything on the page. This includes text, images and videos.
  2. Indexing: Google analyzes the text, images, and videos on the page. Then, Google may choose to store the information in its index (a database of webpages).
  3. Serving search results: Google will show results from its index that are relevant to what someone is searching for.

Here’s a visual overview of the process:

An infographic showing how search engines work

Now, let’s get into some more specific Google ranking factors.

What Are Google’s Ranking Factors?

A ranking factor is something that can affect where (or whether) your webpages appear in results for terms users are entering into search engines.

And your SEO rankings are dependent on search engine algorithms.

There are many SEO ranking factors. And Google has confirmed some of them. Here are a few examples:

  • Content quality: Quality content is relevant, engaging and useful to your audience. Google uses various signals to help determine content quality.
  • Backlinks: Backlinks are links from other websites that point to your own. Backlinks from other websites can help Google verify that your content is reputable.
  • Mobile-friendliness: A mobile-friendly website looks good on mobile devices. Mobile users should be able to easily read text, view images, and navigate the site. Mobile-friendly pages may rank better in Google’s mobile search results.
  • Page performance: Google uses a large set of metrics to measure page speed, responsiveness (how a website design adapts to different screen sizes), and visual stability.

Let’s take a look at how you can apply what we know about ranking factors to get ranked on Google.

How to Rank Your Website on Google in 7 Steps

Now that you have a basic understanding of how Google ranks a page, let’s talk about the specific things you can do to rank on Google.

1. Use Keyword Research to Find Opportunities

The first thing you need to do is perform keyword research. Which is the process of researching keywords you think your audience would use when searching on Google.

The end goal is to get your target audience to your website by producing content that targets those keywords.

For example, let’s say your business sells pet food online.

Keyword research will help you find terms you can (and should) target in your content. Like “freeze dried dog food” and “organic cat food.”

But what does the keyword research process look like?

Here’s how to approach it.

Create a List of Seed Keywords and Conduct Research

The first step in choosing which keywords to target is creating a seed keyword list. This is a list of broad search terms that are related to your business.

To start coming up with ideas for your seed keywords, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What are the products and services we offer? And which ones do we want to promote the most?
  2. What are some high-level keywords users might type into Google to find our products or services?
  3. Will users be looking across the whole country? Or only in a specific region, state, or city?

After you’ve come up with ideas, pick one to start your research in Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool.

Simply enter that seed keyword into the tool’s search bar and click “Search.”

"pet food" entered into Keyword Magic Tool search bar

The next screen will show you a list of related keywords along with their keyword search volume (the average number of monthly searches a keyword gets), Keyword Difficulty (a metric on a scale out of 100 that measures how difficult it would be to rank in the top 10 results for a given keyword), and more.

Keyword Magic Tool results for "pet food"

You can look into more specific keywords that will likely be great opportunities to target in your content by using the suggested groups and subgroups in the column to the left.

If you start with “pet food” as the seed keyword, you can expand the group “Buy.” And then click “Dog” to get keyword ideas that incorporate those terms as well.

Results for "pet food" expanded by group "buy"

Check the box next to each keyword you’d like to add to your keyword list, and then click “Add to keyword list” and choose which list you want to add these keywords to.

“Add to keyword list” button highlighted

If you haven’t started your keyword list yet, click on “Create a first list.

“Create a first list” named "dog food pet food"

To find even more terms your target audience is searching for, click the “Related” tab.

“Related” tab for "pet food"

Or you can get keyword ideas from your competitors.

Open the Keyword Gap tool and enter your domain and the domains of up to four competitors. Then, click “Compare.”

Keyword Gap tool

You’ll see an overview of how you compare to your competitors in terms of keyword rankings.

Keyword Gap tool overview report

Scroll down to the table and select “Missing.” Which will show you all the keywords your competitors rank for but you don’t.

"Missing" tab in Keyword Gap tool

This list can reveal keywords you’ll want to incorporate into your content.

Compare Your Keywords with Competitors’

with the Keyword Gap Tool

ADS illustration

Choose a Primary Keyword

Using your list of keyword ideas, you’ll now want to choose the main one (your primary keyword) to target in a new piece of content.

In the Keyword Manager tool, open the keyword list you just made.

You’ll be taken to the “Table” tab and will see all the keywords you added. Along with several metrics such as keyword search volume and Keyword Difficulty.

"Table" tab in Keyword Manager tool

Next, go to the “Clusters” tab. And click on “Cluster this list.”

Clustering keywords groups them based on what searchers are likely trying to find. And allows you to effectively target more than one keyword for a given page.

Once the list has been clustered, you’ll see something like this:

"Clusters" tab in Keyword Manager tool

For every cluster, you’ll see metrics like the total number of keywords in the group, the average number of monthly searches a given keyword receives, and Keyword Difficulty.

You’ll want to use the cluster name as your primary keyword.

Some clusters will be labeled as “high ranking potential.” These may be the best clusters to prioritize because they have a Keyword Difficulty similar to the keywords your domain already ranks for and a relatively high search volume. Which may lead to faster results.

Identify Secondary Keywords

Now that you’ve chosen a cluster, you can open it up and see the keywords that are related to it. And use these as secondary keywords.

"Clusters" tab for "dog food pet food" keyword list in Keyword Manager tool

Secondary keywords are additional keywords you can target with the same piece of content. To improve your chances of ranking for multiple keyword variations.

Since Keyword Manager automatically grouped all of the keywords in your list into clusters, you don’t have to guess which keywords are related to your primary keyword.

Now, you can make sure these keywords are peppered throughout your content in a natural and helpful way.

2. Create Relevant and High-Quality Content

The key to ranking on Google is creating high-quality content that aligns with search intent—the intent or goal of the person searching.

For example, are searchers looking to learn how to do something? Or are they looking to make a purchase online?

Generally, there are four main types of search intent:

  • Navigational: The user wants to find a particular page. Example navigational keywords are “twitter login” or “nike contact.”
  • Informational: The user wants to learn more information on a certain topic. Example informational keywords are “how to change my ac filter” and “how to make organic cat food”.
  • Commercial: The user wants to do research to inform a purchase. Example commercial keywords are “best fish oils” or “purina organic cat food reviews.”
  • Transactional: The user is ready to take an action like making a purchase. Example transactional keywords are “buy yoga mat” or “get an insurance quote from geico.”

When it comes to creating SEO content, it’s important to analyze search intent before creating the content.

One way you can do this is by using the Keyword Overview tool.

For example, enter the keyword “pet food” into the tool to see what the intent of the keyword is.

Keyword Overview tool shows "commercial" intent for "pet food"

In this example the intent is commercial. Which means the user wants to do some research before deciding what to purchase.

So, your content should cover the information they’d need to make their decision. Such as product reviews and comparing products.

Here’s an example of a search that has commercial intent:

An. example of "pet food" search with commercial intent

What to Focus on to Help Your Content Rank on Google

Google recommends creating content that’s helpful, useful, and written for people (as opposed to being only written for search engine bots) to best meet users’ expectations.

Let’s dive into each of these recommended elements:

Content That’s Original

Original content is unique and valuable to your readers. And Google is looking for content that has more value than what’s already available in search results.

But originality also means the content wasn’t plagiarized or taken from other sources. In other words: You didn’t steal someone else’s content and put it on your website.

You can still include quotes from other webpages. If you’re quoting an article, simply cite your source to give them proper credit.

Like this:

An example of John Mueller's quote on Semrush Blog

Content That’s Helpful to Users

Your content should actually be helpful to the people who are reading it.

Google mentions that they’ll prioritize content that’s helpful. Which means it demonstrates Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-E-A-T).

E-E-A-T isn’t a direct ranking factor. But it is part of Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines. These guidelines are used by real people who review Google’s search results.

Here’s a simple overview of what E-E-A-T represents:

  • Experience: The author’s personal experience on the topic
  • Expertise: The author’s topical expertise and knowledge
  • Authoritativeness: The overall reputation you have in your industry
  • Trustworthiness: The use of factual accuracy, trustworthy sources, secure online payment systems, and reliable customer service

You can evaluate this by asking yourself these questions about your content:

  • Does it answer readers’ questions?
  • Does it have extra information that the top-ranking pages are missing?
  • Is the content writer an expert on the topic?
  • Has the content been fact-checked?

Tip: There’s a great list of questions from Google that can help you to gauge how useful and reliable your content is.

Content That’s Written for People

Google recommends considering who created the content, how the content was created, and why the content was created.

  • Who: Make it clear who the author of the content is and include a byline or short bio
  • How: Share details on how the content was produced. For example, if a study was done, mention what data was analyzed in the study. Or if AI was used to create the content, an AI disclosure may be appropriate in some cases.
  • Why: Make it apparent that you’re creating content for humans and that it’s useful to them

It’s worth mentioning that leveraging AI to write content isn’t against Google’s guidelines as long as it’s being used appropriately. But generating content primarily to manipulate search rankings is against Google’s spam policies.

Plus, AI tools (like the one pictured below) can have “hallucinations” that lead to inaccurate information.

ChatGPT's response to "Why do we need AI-generated content?" query

Hallucinations “are when a generative AI model outputs nonsense or invented information in response to a prompt,” according to Google. This issue hasn’t been solved yet.

At the very least, you should be fact-checking content that was written by AI. But ideally, you’ll add your own expertise and experience rather than relying on AI to completely write your content.

Google has made it clear that content should be written for humans—not search engines.

If you are creating content only for SEO purposes, you’re not thinking about the people who will be reading and using it.

Content written for people means making the content read naturally. And adding keywords where it makes sense naturally (as opposed to forcing keywords to just so search engines see them).

We recommend creating content with people in mind first. And SEO second.

With this mindset, you’ll be able to create content that satisfies people and search engines.

3. Implement On-Page SEO Best Practices

After you’ve written your content, you’ll want to leverage on-page SEO. Which means optimizing elements on your webpages to give them the best chance of ranking.

You can do this before publishing your content. Or afterward if you’re making improvements to content that’s already published.

There are lots of on-page elements. We advise starting with these first:

Title Tag

The title tag isn’t visible on the page itself. But search engines can read it. And it shows in both the search results and in your browser tab.

Here’s an example of what a title tag looks like:

A title tag on Google SERP

Title tags are a ranking factor. So, you’ll want to include the target keyword.

Best practices are to include the target keyword at the beginning of the title tag. But you want it to read naturally, so that doesn’t always have to be the case.

And we recommend making title tags about 50-60 characters in length. If title tags are longer than that, Google may truncate them in search results.

Just know that Google can still read the end of your title tags even if they’re longer than the recommended length.

Meta Description

Meta descriptions are used to describe what a page is about. Think of them as a short summary of a page’s contents.

They’re not visible on the page itself. But search engines can read them, and they show in the search results directly under the title tag element.

Meta descriptions aren’t a direct ranking factor. But they can help to increase click-through rate (CTR).

Here’s an example of what a meta description looks like:

A meta description on Google SERP

It’s best to keep meta descriptions under 105 characters to ensure they don’t get cut off in Google’s search results.

URL

Including the target keyword in the URL is important because it shows users what the page is about. URLs are also a minor Google ranking factor.

URLs shouldn’t be excessively long or complicated. Long or complicated URLs are harder to read. And they look unattractive.

Here’s a good example of a URL: domain.com/blog/what-is-seach-intent/

Here’s a not-so-good example of a URL: domain.com/2023/06/01/what-is-seach-intent-and-how-to-optimize-your-content-for-the-right-search-intent-based-on-googles-search-results/

Adding things like dates into a URL can make it become outdated quickly. And it can be confusing if the page is updated at a later date.

H1

The content title on a webpage is often an H1. This is the top level of header tags (which run from H1 to H6).

Unlike the title tag, the H1 is visible on the page.

Some H1 best practices include:

  • Making sure each page has an H1
  • Using only one H1 on each page
  • Including your target keyword in the H1
  • Keeping each H1 under 60 characters

Subheadings

Subheadings (H2, H3, etc.) indicate different sections of content that live under the main heading. They provide structure and a logical hierarchy to your content.

Subheadings also help Google understand your content better, break up the content, and make it easier for people to skim and find what they’re looking for.

Here’s what a page with subheadings looks like:

"How to use subheadings in content" infographic

Subheadings can influence rankings. So, consider adding the primary keyword and secondary keywords to a number of the subheadings.

But in a way that makes sense. And only if they actually describe the content below them.

For example, you could mention your primary and secondary keywords in your subheadings like this:

  • H2 = Organic Cat Food (primary keyword)
  • H2 = Natural Cat Food Brands (secondary keyword)
  • H2 = What’s the Best Organic Cat Food? (secondary keyword)

These shouldn’t be overly lengthy, either. Keep them under 60 characters if possible.

Alt Text

Alt text helps to give search engines more information about the images you have on your webpages. Alt text isn’t visible on the page itself, but search engines can read it.

Alt text is also important for accessibility. Because it allows people who use screen readers to understand what an image is conveying.

Here’s an example of alt text:

An example of alt text

An internal link is when you link from one page on your site to another page on your site.

Adding internal links can improve rankings for the pages you’re linking to. And help users navigate your website easily.

When adding internal links, it’s important to use appropriate anchor text—the clickable text that’s used to link to the other page.

Like this:

An internal link with anchor text "fixing crawlability issues"

Anchor text helps tell search engines what the linked page is about. And makes it clear to the user where the link will take them if they click on it.

Here’s an example of how to add an internal link to a product page from a category page:

  • Link from: domain.com/dog-food/
  • Link to: domain.com/products/freeze-dried-dog-food/
  • Anchor text: “freeze dried dog food”

Tip: Our Site Audit tool can help you analyze and optimize your internal links.

Best practices for internal linking are to:

  • Link to your most important pages
  • Link to pages you want search engines and people to find
  • Add internal links from your content, sidebar, navigation, and footer
  • Describe the page you are linking to with the anchor text
  • Add internal links pointing to new content as it’s published

Further reading: Internal Links: Ultimate Guide + Strategies

External links are links from your website to other websites. They can be useful when backing up facts or claims in your content.

You can enhance the user experience and build trust by adding external links to relevant, high-quality, and authoritative sources when appropriate.

Schema

Schema is a type of structured data that helps search engines make more sense of the information on your webpages.

For example, you can use schema to tell Google specific things like:

  • Your content’s main topic
  • Things or entities mentioned in your content
  • Your business name, address, and phone number
  • Products or services you offer

In addition to helping search engines understand your content better, Google may use this information to make your content stand out more in their search results. They do this via rich snippets (also called rich results).

Here’s an example of a rich snippet showing pricing, reviews, inventory and other features:

A rich snippet from T-Mobile page

Google pulls these details from the schema markup you’ve implemented on your webpages.

Further reading: Dive into our beginner’s guide to schema to learn more.

4. Improve Your Technical SEO

Technical SEO is the process of addressing technical aspects of your website to improve SEO.

If your site has technical issues, then it doesn’t matter whether your content is amazing. Because some technical SEO issues can prevent your content from ranking well or even getting indexed.

Here are some examples of technical SEO problems that can affect rankings:

  • Broken pages: Broken pages are pages that used to exist but don’t anymore. If someone tries to visit these non-existent pages on your website, they’ll be taken to a broken page that’s blank or displays an error message.
  • Redirect issues: Redirects are when you redirect a user to a different page than they were intending to go. Many times, redirects are good, like if you’ve changed a page’s URL and need to send a user to the new URL. But if redirects aren’t working properly or are improperly implemented, it can prevent people and search engines from accessing your content.
  • Poor user experience: A poor user experience may include slow page speed, intrusive pop-ups that are hard to close, and not having a web design that looks good on all screen sizes. This can frustrate visitors and discourage them from coming back.
  • Duplicate content: Duplicate content is content that appears on multiple webpages. It can include exact copies or highly similar content. And duplicate content can lead to poor organic performance.

Here’s what you can do to improve some technical aspects of your website for both users and search engines:

Make Sure Google Can Crawl Your Website

Crawling is a prerequisite to getting indexed and ranked.

If Google can’t crawl your webpages, then it can’t index them. So, making sure Google can crawl your site should be a top priority.

You can use our Site Audit tool to find technical problems that could affect your site’s crawlability.

Enter your domain into the Site Audit tool and click “Start Audit.”

Site Audit search bar

Then, go through the site audit settings by following our guide on configuring the Site Audit tool.

Once the audit is complete, open the “Overview” report and click “View details” under “Crawlability.”

Site Audit overview report with "Crawlability" box highlighted

Click on the “Issues” tab. To see a list of crawlability issues that need your attention.

Site Audit "Issues" tab

Each issue will either say “Why and how to fix it” or “Learn more” next to it. Clicking these will give you information on how you can fix these issues.

“Why and how to fix it” box

Find and Fix Technical SEO Issues

with the Site Audit Tool

ADS illustration

Improve Your Site Speed

Next, you’ll want to make sure your webpages load quickly and easily. To ensure a positive user experience and also help your odds of ranking well.

First, it’s important to know that Google has a set of metrics called Core Web Vitals that can be used to measure how a page is performing from a user experience perspective.

Core Web Vitals graph for mobile

You can use Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool to see what types of improvements can be made to speed up your webpages.

The following metrics are measured (among other things):

  • Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): How long it takes for the the largest piece of content on the page to load
  • First Input Delay (FID): How long it takes for a website to respond to a user’s first action. This will be replaced by Interaction to Next Paint (INP) in 2024.
  • Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): Measures how much the layout shifts while the page loads

This part is quite technical. So, you may need to hire a developer to help you implement any of Google’s recommendations if you’re a beginner.

You can improve your site’s speed in a number of ways:

  • Upgrading web hosting
  • Compressing images
  • Loading unused code later on when it’s needed

5. Work on Your Off-Page Strategy

Off-page SEO is a set of tactics implemented outside of your own website that can help improve your rankings.

Backlinks are a good example of off-page SEO.

Backlinks can be very powerful because they’re an important ranking factor. But they can be hard to get.

Usually, building backlinks means you need to reach out to other website owners to see if they’d be willing to link to your website.

If you’d like to start an outreach campaign, try Semrush’s Link Building Tool.

First, you’ll need to create a project and follow the setup instructions.

Once the tool is ready, head to the “Prospects” tab to see a list of websites you can reach out to for backlinks.

“Prospects” tab in Link Building Tool

Next, review prospects. You can study the “URL Type” (which helps you understand more about the domain), “Authority Score” (a measure of a webpage’s overall quality), and “Rating” (a score that indicates how valuable and easy it is to acquire a link from that site).

When you find sites you want to reach out to, click “To In Progress” next to each one.

“To In Progress” highlighted

Then, go to the “In Progress” tab and click the “Contact” button next to a prospect. So you can reach out to them via email.

“Contact” button next to "trustpilot.com" highlighted

You can also gain backlinks with a few other methods:

  • Editorials: Getting featured in an editorial or column
  • Guest article contributions: Writing an article for another website
  • Broken link building: Finding broken links on other websites and offering them an alternative to link to
  • Unlinked mentions: Finding unlinked mentions of your business or brand on a webpage and asking them to link to you
  • Press outreach: Having a journalist quote you in an article and provide a link if they’re willing to. This is usually done through press outreach services like Help a Reporter Out (HARO).

Further reading: Link Building Strategies: 8 Ways to Build Links

6. Monitor Your Performance

Performance monitoring is critical. Because it allows you to see whether your SEO efforts are working.

Some tools we recommend using are Google Analytics 4 (GA4) to track organic traffic and our Position Tracking tool to track changes in rankings over time.

Let’s see how this is done.

In GA4, go to “Reports” on the left side. Then, select “Acquisition” (under “Life cycle”) and then “Overview.”

And select the date range you want to look at in the top right.

This screen will show you which sources are bringing traffic to your website. The “Organic Search” source shows how much traffic is coming from organic searches.

"Acquisition overview" graph in GA4

Further reading: Google Analytics for Beginners: Getting Started with GA4

To get started with Position Tracking, follow our guide on configuring the tool.

If you don’t want to add keywords to track manually, you can add all the keywords from the keyword list you created in the Keyword Manager tool.

In Keyword Manager, open your keyword list. Then, select all of the clusters you’d like to track in Position Tracking, click “Send keywords,” choose “Position Tracking,” and click “Apply.”

Send keywords from Keyword Manager to Position Tracking

In the “Overview” tab, scroll down to “Rankings Overview.”

“Rankings Overview” table

Here, you can see the current rank for all of the keywords you’re tracking.

Over time, you’ll be able to compare current rankings against a previous date. And determine whether you may need to make adjustments.

Start Ranking on Google

Now that you have an understanding of how to rank organically on Google, it’s time to take action.

Equipping yourself with the right tools can help considerably.

Start your free trial of Semrush to try out our tools. Which can help you conduct keyword research, implement technical improvements, and much more.

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