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Getting Ahead in Google: Dare to Be Different

June 13, 2012

I recently did a site audit for a client who was wondering why they were having a hard time showing up in Google. When I read through the information they sent me and took a quick look at their website, it was obvious to me what the problem was: They simply didn't deserve to be there.
Image Credit: GollyGForce
Let me explain...

They have a fairly small local company that sells some common but specific types of office furniture. While they have a niche for the type of furniture they sell, for the most part it's nothing that you can't buy at most of the large office-supply stores such as Office Depot and Staples.

In the information they sent to me, they told me that they don't do much (if any) marketing. Their website didn't look horrible, but it had lots of technical issues. The category and product pages were very sparse, with very little information about the products, and nothing beyond the typical manufacturer's description. The company had never built a brand for this website because it was one of a few sites they owned that sold slightly different lines of products. And -- more important -- I couldn't find any unique selling proposition (USP). Oh, sure, they said that they had great customer service, but then, I don't know of any business that says they have crappy customer service!

To get them to understand what they were up against, I showed them what the organic Google search results were made up of for a general phrase relating to one of the products they sold. For the most part, Google was showing mainly huge, major brands showing up on Page 1. If you think about it from Google's point of view, why would they show this site's product page before the ones they were currently showing? There was nothing unique or compelling about the site or what it was offering. There was nothing that set them apart from the others selling the same exact products at similar prices. Plus, they were an unknown entity compared to the big stores that everyone knows about due to their expensive marketing efforts.

Google Loves Diversity

What I noticed (and have noticed for many years) is that Google generally likes to show different types of pages within their search results. So sometimes you'll see a page that is a directory of other sites, and one that is a main category page, one that is for a specific product, etc. But for the most part there will be something useful on the pages that they show first. At least, that's what they shoot for -- something that goes above and beyond a simple manufacturer's description of a product that is seen on every site that sells the product. And something that perhaps the other sites on the first page didn't have.

Big Brands Burst to the Top

For my product search, Office Depot came up No. 1 with a great page containing tons of different types and styles of the product as well as a way to compare them all. It's also a trusted brand that people recognize and would expect to see showing up early in the search results.

Staples came next, with a page that wasn't quite as comprehensive as Office Depot's. And in all honesty it wasn't much better than what my client's site had on their main landing page for this type of product. The difference, however, was that Staples has spent millions marketing themselves and people know of them and link to them. Where they have a toolbar PageRank of 5, the page from the site I was reviewing had no toolbar PageRank at all (due to a combination of technical issues and there being very few other sites that link to this particular site). Because links are one of Google's most important measures of quality, this one could not compete with a large brand that contains links naturally.

Showing next were the shopping results. My client did have a shopping feed, but their items didn't seem to show up. Within the feeds that were showing up, again, most of them were recognizable names, and most also had 5-star reviews attached to them. It was pretty obvious that those were the ones that Google tended to show first.

Next in the regular organic results was a Walmart page for one specific product of the type I had searched for. But it also listed many other types on the page with nice large graphics, prices, comparisons and reviews. That one was a much better page to show than the site I was reviewing -- it was easy on the eye and very comprehensive.

Next came an Amazon specific-product page. They too have branded themselves as a major company you can trust, and therefore they have a high number of links giving their product page a high toolbar PageRank.

Home Depot was next to show a specific type of the product, which also had high reviews. In fact, 20 reviews were listed right there on the page, which is extremely helpful to people looking to buy.

The next result was not a large brand! It was a smaller company's home page that Google was likely showing because they specialize in selling only the very specific type of product I was searching for. Their home page had built up a good amount of link equity, which was probably why it was the page that Google chose to show. Not only that, but they had set themselves apart from the other sites I had seen thus far by having some cool videos about their specialized products. (Sadly, other than the videos, the site had done a lot of keyword stuffing, but hadn't yet got caught by Google's Panda/Penguin!)

The next few sites were OfficeMax, an eBay reviews page, and another site that specializes in the product. Then there was a page from a site that was really ugly, but it had a lot of information regarding sizes and pricing that was not on many of the other sites.

Eventually, on Page 3 of my search results, I found a page from the site I was reviewing. Given the zero amount of marketing they had done compared to their competitors, and taking all of the above into consideration, Google got it right. Most people would likely have preferred to see the pages that were in the top 10 over my client's site.

What to Do?

I had many recommendations for this client. First, they had to fix the technical errors that were keeping them from getting ahead no matter what else they did. Next, I explained how they needed something in addition to the boilerplate text that every other site that sold those products used. Perhaps they could include additional information of their own. They could include recommendations as to who might want each particular product. They could also allow their customers to write their own reviews of the products. Basically, anything that would add value to the product pages would set them apart from the competitors. This in turn would make it more likely that Google would show their pages higher in the search results than they currently did because they would have something those other pages didn't have.

Also, because it was going to be so difficult if not impossible to compete with the likes of Office Depot that have spent millions of dollars marketing their businesses, they needed to find some less competitive keyword phrases that would still bring targeted traffic.

Need to Branch Out

I recommended that they optimize all their product pages for more than just one phrase in the content and title tags. Still, I was skeptical that a site such as this --where almost all the phrases that related to the products were fairly competitive -- would be able to compete with the big dogs for those terms. Therefore, it was critical for them to also branch out into long-tail keywords: those that get very little traffic on their own, but when taken in aggregate can bring significant targeted visitors to the site.

The way to target long-tail traffic is to provide interesting content to people who are thinking about purchasing the types of products they were selling. This could be done as extra resource pages on the site, and/or through a blog. I felt that, for this type of site and products, comparison pages would be ideal. There were lots of similar products that could be very confusing to a new buyer.

I also recommended that they ask their customer service people to put together some lists of the questions they often receive, and then address them on the site. And I looked at their Google Analytics for questions that got people there in the first place, and found at least 90 different ones they could use for various purposes.

Is any of this easy? Absolutely not! It takes time to make your website Google-worthy, but in the age of furry black-and-white animals such as Pandas and Penguins just waiting to take a bite out of you, this hard work is exactly what is necessary.


Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, Jill Whalenan SEO Services Company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen

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Post Comment

 Dan said:
Hey Jill,

Enjoyed reading your breakdown of how you audited a client's site - I go through a similar process albeit in a less concise and more haphazard way lol.

Tell me, do you have a flowchart or bullet list that you use to logically go through each website audit?

 Pete said:
Welcome to the world I have been in for 13 years. There's so much misinformation out there it's staggering. Truth is, Google won't ever rank a small player for a big keyword, period. All of the little guys are going to lose the organic game for high-profit keywords because none of them can compete for mind share, which is the only way to get "legitimate" links. They have to chase the relatively small long tail. I have had 100s of clients the past decade, and guess what....those people don't really make any money online. Those clients I have been able to help get high rankings for big keywords do. Everything else is crumbs. And even if my clients get occasional big crumbs, next thing they want is more big crumbs. "What have you done for me lately?" they ask. You know the routine.

"Coming up with new content", especially for consumer products on an e-commerce site, is a constant struggle and its frankly a lot of hooey. I mean seriously, how much content is REALLY valuable to the end user? Do we really need pages of content all about the latest innovations of L-Shaped desks? About how single serve coffee works? About how to find the best running shoe?

Suppose you create these comparison pages for your client. Well then, now that idea is used up. We don't need anymore comparison pages on the web, so I guess the next little guy selling furniture is out of luck. Any more ideas? No? That's because there aren't any really useful ideas left.

Bottom line the customer needs very very little actual "crawlable" text on a web site to make good decisions. People don't read anything anyway. So in the end we are all just creating gobs of useless garbage just to rank higher in Google. So doesn't that make us all spammers? And why does Google keep insisting that we do this? Aren't they begging for more spam?
 Alex Miranda said:
Hi Jill,

As point out exactly what many of my clients are going through. Website owners really need to be educated with their website content and what makes it unique. So many times I get a client who wants to rank on a search term which I know will not be able to rank because of:

1. Their a new site and their site has no authority
2. Improper site structure
3. No call to action
4. Not going after high traffic targeted keywords

As we all know, we could make this list super long. Just today I had a client who told me a third world SEO would rank his site for the term " Personal Injury Attorney". The client assured me that because they told him that they could definitely rank him, he was going to give it a try. I gave him my blessing and told him that he should at least add a robot.txt file and an xml sitemap....seriously can't make this up.

I am glad you write these post because I sent him your link and am waiting for his response.

Keep up the great work Jill!!

PR Underground
 Jill Whalen said:
Thanks guys!

@Dan, I do have my own personal checklist of things I go through when doing site audits, but it's not something I make public. Honestly, it needs an overhaul with all the new things Google's been doing. I've been adding new stuff into my site audits at a frantic pace, but I haven't had a chance to update my checklist.

@Pete, you're exactly right that much of what gets added in the name of SEO is utter useless crap, and I have always advocated against doing that. But I don't believe that we've run out of actual USEFUL content yet. It's a question of being creative. See our HQW this week for all the great ideas people came up with.

@Alex, glad I could help!
 Katherine Andes said:
You are so spot on in your recommendations, but I have found very few clients willing to put the effort into that level of detail work. One client I recommended something similar for last year, called me last week, finally, with a go ahead to start writing the content. But that is so rare ... The good news is that for those who will take the time and make the investment, they have a good shot at getting high rankings ... even with the big guys. Because even the big guys haven't figured out how to optimize well for all the possible keyword combos ...
 Jill Whalen said:
@Katherine I hear ya! But you know what? Those that won't put in the work, also won't succeed. So whatever. They can claim that the Internet just doesn't work for them, instead.
 Cleofe Betancourt said:
" was obvious to me what the problem was: They simply didn't deserve to be there."

That one line sums up the #1 hurdle any SEO/SEM faces: clients who don't "get it". Thank you for sharing some of your thoughts on how to improve this client's ranking. Granted, they will likely never rank for what they believe are their ideal(and surely high volume/overpopulated) keywords, but you give them options to make a dent organically.

I will definitely be resharing this with our followers!
 Jill Whalen said:
Thanks  Cleofe!

I think these days part of the problem is that companies and websites such as this particular client who have been around for 10+ years *used to* rank for the competitive terms. So now they feel like that's normal. But now that all the big brands are online and throwing tons of money at it, it's just no longer true. That's the reality small companies have to live with and deal with.
 Pete said:
@Jill, sorry, but based on my many many hours of study there is no proof at all that being creative and developing new content ideas has anything to do with a web site's ranking for the more competitive terms. And I would argue that "creative content" on a web site, built to target long tail terms, is merely useless fodder. Again, how many web pages do we need on the internet that compare different L-shaped desks? More than 1? More than 2? More than 10? HUNDREDS of companies are selling l-shaped desks on the web. One imagines that eventually we will run out of truly useful content.

I can show you client after client that comes to us in need of help on competitive terms. The vast majority of the Page 1 rankings in Google are web sites that have absolutely ZERO "creative" content. They merely have web sites with products, prices and short descriptions. The things they do have in common are:

1. Legacy. They have been around for years (and often their sites show it!). Can't do anything about that. Nobody can make their site older than it is.
2. Links. Being around for so long, they have old links from established sites like Yahoo and DMOZ. And they have managed to get legit AND non-legit links over the years as well. And there is no doubt in my mind that Google rewards sites that continue to get clicked. If you have been getting clicks for 10 years, do you think Google's algorithm assumes your site is of good quality? What's the little guy just starting out going to do?

I just find it amusing that all of the "ideas" on this site are very high-level. "Research what your customers want, then write content for them." OK, 95% of all customers want the same thing: do you have the product I want? Is the price fair? And what do I do if I have a problem? That covers 95% of all of the useful content on a web site. Everything else is just fodder to attempt to rank higher in Google (spam). BTW, we are guilty of getting spammy-like ourselves, having worked within 100s of industries since 1999. Just being honest.

p.s. This is not a criticism toward you. It's more one toward the SEO community in general. I love your newsletter, and have been a subscriber for many years....and I have sent your name to dozens of partners, employees, prospects and more. I am merely challenging the status quo.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Pete, while I thank you for your detailed comment, I never said "that being creative and developing new content ideas has anything to do with a web site's ranking for the more competitive terms."

I said that they most likely would NOT rank for the competitive terms regardless of what they did.

In addition, I agree with you on articles that provide just "high level ideas" which is why I provided specific ones in this article (and to the client).

Therefore your comment doesn't apply to most of this article, imo.
 Pete said:
@Jill, sorry if I stated inaccuracies. I don't intend to stir anything up. Would love to hear others opinions, but I should take my discussion elsewhere instead of cluttering up your page. Thanks!
 Jill Whalen said:
Pete, the funny thing is that I *agree* with you. Which is why I want it to be clear that it's not what my article was saying!
 Don Campbell said:
This is a fantastic article Jill. I really like the way you turned this customer interaction into a story. It is such a great example of how small businesses need to think if they want to rank for their products and services in the search results.

Thanks for sharing it!
 Julie Larson said:
I agree with Don Campbell - it is a fantastic article! I don't think most clients think about whether or not their site deserves to be on the first page of Google. They just think it should be there.

Thank you for sharing! :)
 Diana Ratliff said:
I have a client I've been helping with SEO for more than a year - his site has been #1 for a national keyword, but now it's slipping in the rankings.

He's been removing products, hasn't blogged in more than 6 months, and has not responded to my suggestions for content, press releases etc.

You're right on - Google is simply seeing less and less evidence that his site deserves to be in that top spot. Doesn't matter that my client says they're "better" than the site that's number one.

Thank you!