Summary: If you’re struggling to claim the top spot on Google, here are 5 not-so-obvious ways to capture people’s attention and grab traffic that you might have missed.
“What is the best way to appear at the top of Google search results?” That’s the question on every business’ mind, and the answer is not as simple as it once was. Google is constantly changing their algorithms and developing new features, and marketers need to adapt their search engine optimization (SEO) strategies if they want to be found.
Long gone are the days when Google used a simple interface and presented your query with 10 simple search results. The only search engine still clinging to the “ten blue links per page” format is DuckDuckGo.
The search engine results page (SERP) looks a lot different today. Instead of 10 titles to choose from, searchers are presented with a slew of options to click on. These changes stem from innovations Google has undertaken in search, such as:
- Improved AI, semantics, natural language processing
- Integration with Maps, Google My Business
- Updating for the smartphone standard
- Holding websites to a higher quality standard
- A menagerie of responsive contextual information formatting (Featured Snippets)
When we turn to Google, it’s clear that people want quick answers and most users won’t go beyond the first page. Over 1/4th of us click the very first result:
There are steeply diminishing returns for subsequent SERP positions. Of course, every website wants to be #1 for its associated topics or market. But there are dozens of sites competing for that rank, so clearly some sites have to settle for #2, #5, or even (the horror!) the foggy, uncharted water of page 2. So, how do you claim a top spot? How do you increase your visibility on Google? If you’re stuck on page 2, should you just give up?
Even, if you have heavy competition for a keyword, there are still a few ways to gain more visibility on search. Here are 5 ways you can inch closer to the front page.
1. Claim Featured Snippets
A Featured Snippet on Google’s results page is a special section near the top of page one with information formatted differently in context to the search query. The purpose of this is to answer the user’s query as directly as possible, presenting the information in a structure that is practical for the kind of information sought.
There’s a whole range of these. Some snippets just answer a simple query right there in the SERP, getting right to the point for math equations, calendar queries, and weather reports:
Some Snippets return a list, for queries searching for “top ten” answers, step-by-step how-tos, or whenever a list of tips is available for the query:
The FAQ box, called “people also ask,” is a common Snippet showing related queries:
There’s the ever-popular shopping Snippet when the query is likely targeted at making a retail purchase. Google will show several products in the query category from several outlets:
Another common Snippet is the map pack, showing localized information for a business near the user. If Google is aware of the user’s location, it will pick up to three close local listings complete with maps integration:
We’ll explore the maps feature more later on. Finally, Google will usually combine several Snippets in one shot, for a combination of Snippets in one page:
Snippets are becoming more common as Google comes up with better information structure features and integrates these with relevant results. Behind the scenes, several things need to happen to generate a Snippet:
- The information has to come from a trusted, established source. You’ll see Wikipedia, IMDB, .gov sites, and large retailers appear often in Snippets.
- The information has to be laid out in a way that Google can crawl it and recognize its context. Schemas help with this part.
- Then Google has to have a Snippet template feature all set up for this kind of query.
Thus, if you’re posting a blog article on how to for filing a tax payment extension, you’re better off using the HOWTO schema format with all the relevant tags. Not only will this help you feature for “how to file a tax payment extension,” but using the “prepTime” tag will help Google to use your information to answer the query “how long does it take to file for a tax payment extension.”
We have a whole article devoted to just Featured Snippets and how to rank for them. But in brief, getting these Snippets pushes you to the top of search results, sometimes even above paid ads. See it as Google’s little award badge for providing high-quality information that it can be proud to serve users. Claiming a snippet can be as simple as having a question in a header tag (<h2>, <h3>, …) and the answer in a brief paragraph right below it. The question you’re answering should be a query you anticipate users searching often.
Or it can be a matter of formatting and structure, as with Schema we mention. However, any regular HTML list feature will be enough for Google to recognize as an ordered list. Some whole list articles (top ten college STEM courses) will be enough for Google to just condense the titles from the top ten listings and display that as a list. “Here’s the short and sweet answer, and here’s the link to find out the rest of the story.”
Like we mentioned earlier, Google is always evolving. In early February 2021, some have reported that Google Search may be showing fewer featured snippets. At this point, we’re not sure if this trend will continue or not, but we’re monitoring the situation.
2. Target Long-Tail Keywords
We’re back to keywords again, but we’re aiming for specialized niches this time. Long-tail keyword practice falls neatly into a set of criterion:
- Use phrases of at least three words
- Be more specific than broad keywords
- Mix broader keywords for context to specific keywords
- Vary the phrasing to cover different synonyms users might type in
- Include location keywords to provide more context for brick-and-mortar stores
Your keyword strategy should hone in on the actual words your customers use to find products or services like yours. Ranking for high-volume broad keywords may feel great, but it doesn’t always bring in high-quality leads. You need to focus on the keywords that actually result in paying customers.
For example, “depression” is a popular target keyword, returning prescription medications and medical advice. “Teenage depression” is also pretty broad. By the time you get to “treatment for panic disorder in teens,” that’s a more specific query with less competition. Someone using that phrase is more likely to book an appointment.
Another example is finding different contexts for the query. Starting again with “depression,” you can address “depressed students on university campuses,” “depression related to drug addiction,” “depression in soldiers with PTSD,” and so on. You can also use long-tail keywords to rank highly for emerging topics when it’s first becoming popular. “Depression related to isolation due to COVID pandemic” or phrases to that effect, may have less competition from those big websites that haven’t updated in a while.
Remember, just because you’re targeting the niche doesn’t mean you can’t also get traffic for the broad term. You can have a whole site about treatment for depression, then have individual articles on the specific niches. All of these are linked together by your site structure, assuming you’ve done your homework there.
3. Create Paid Search / PPC Campaigns
“Hey, that’s cheating!” Well, sometimes it is more practical to pay up and count on Google’s ad listing to pipe you to the top. There are several pros to using pay-per-click (PPC) ads:
- SEO isn’t free either. Paying content writers to pipe out reams of content costs money too.
- PPC ads can generate leads quickly.
- You can use the ads to increase brand awareness on the SERP while your SEO strategy gains traction.
- Managing your PPC strategy will give you important insights into the best keywords, titles, and offers to use for your SEO strategy.
That last bullet point bears emphasis: SEO and PPC can work in conjunction to drive traffic growth. This is often overlooked because businesses don’t always appreciate that half of marketing is gathering and understanding data. Analyzing what worked and didn’t work in a PPC campaign gives you new insight that you can apply to your SEO and content marketing strategy.
Getting started with a PPC campaign is cheaper and easier than you might think. Give it a try if you’re looking to get immediate visibility.
4. Claim Your Google My Business Listing
If you have a business where physical location matters the most, grabbing your Google My Business (GMB) listing is essential. It is free and comes with great features to help show off your business to prospective clients. It is integrated with maps, which we mentioned earlier, helping you pop up in Google Map Pack at the top of the SERP.
We have a whole article about Google My Business listings and how to optimize them. We’re pretty fanatical about advocating for them because they are a guaranteed shortcut to the front page. Provided you have the excellent business sense to not set up shop in an over-saturated market (you’re not the 49th podiatrist in Freemont, are you?), your odds of appearing for local “near me” searches is high. Especially if you create an engaging GMB listing.
Google My Business and its Maps listings won’t help with searches that aren’t localized, but for any local search with high buyer intent behind it, you’re covered.
5. Optimize Your Meta Descriptions and Title Tags
This is often an overlooked factor. While Google’s search bot uses the best AI, whose algorithms they improve all the time, it still helps to contextualize your web page. One way to do that is through your title tag and meta description. When you include your target keywords in those locations, it signals to Google—and searchers—what your website is about.
The Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress can help you manage your meta description for a blog post.
When you fill in this meta description, Google typically takes that for the paragraph filler together with a title tag from the page and combines it into an organic search result.
“Hey!” says Google’s web-crawler bot, “This page must be talking about financial aid and college!” It’s so important that the keywords are in the title tag and meta description. Not only that, the actual web page uses the keywords in the H1 and H2 header tags. Google’s AI can be a little dense sometimes. You have to draw lots of attention to the topic. Just be careful not to be spammy and stuff keywords everywhere. Use them naturally to help the reader navigate your content and find the information they need.
When scanning the SERP, searchers are looking for the best website to answer their questions. A compelling page title and meta description can help you stand out from the crowd and capture their attention.
As technology has evolved and the web has moved along with it, many of the SEO rules have changed. Times used to be that sheer volume of keywords was all you needed, and Google honored more trusted, established websites. Now, Google is favoring mobile-friendly, fast websites with flat site architectures. Beyond that user experience, they want websites with high-quality content that actually answers people’s questions. The “what” is not as important now as the “how.”
The Internet is more competitive now than ever, but the good news is that it rewards the savvy business more. A lean site with a strong SEO strategy can climb above the old showboat websites that are still following old practices. It’s like a little David and Goliath story, and it’s not often in the business world that you get one of those!