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A Beginner’s Introduction to Keyword Ranking in SEO

Written by James Parsons • Updated September 20, 2023

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Keyword Ranking in SEO

SEO is packed full of concepts that range from easy-to-understand and intuitive all the way up to complex uses of statistics and counterintuitive data analysis. Luckily, today’s concept – keyword ranking – is one of the former, with a little bit of complexity, making it worth talking about. So, let’s dig in.

If you ask any marketer or site owner what their goals are, you’re going to get a few variations of the same answers. “Grow revenue,” they say, or maybe “improve customer retention.” What many of them list, if not as their first goal but at least as one of the top three, is “Rank #1 in Google.”

That’s what keyword ranking is, in a nutshell. Let’s explain it in a bit more detail, including all of the little edge cases and twists that make it not as simple as it seems.

The Simple View of Keyword Ranking

The simplest definition of keyword ranking is exactly what I wrote above: ranking in the #1 search result spot on Google’s search.

The trouble is, there’s a variable there. No one can ever rank #1 in all of Google. It’s about specific queries and specific searches, and all of those center around one thing: a keyword.

To put things simply, you need a keyword to make a query, and you need a query to make a search results page. Each and every search results page has a ranking and an order for websites to appear in the results. The position your site is in these results is your keyword ranking for that keyword.

“A keyword ranking is an unpaid position in search engine results for a relevant search query.” – Semrush.

Sites that say they “rank #1 in Google” are picking specific keywords they can use to make that claim. Given that there are an infinite number of combinations of words and letters that can make up keywords, there’s always going to be that bias. After all, a landscaping company probably won’t rank highly for “shoes,” and a show company likely isn’t even going to show up for landscaping queries.

Google Keyword Rankings

The higher your website shows up in the search results, the more likely you are to get attention, clicks, and traffic, and the more likely you are to capture attention and sell products. It’s well-known that over half of all search traffic just goes to the top search result, and anything past the tenth or so result might as well not exist.

Note: The boundaries are muddier these days than they used to be. Google has gotten rid of pagination in their search results and opted for an infinite scroll. Combined with their ever-increasing saturation of infoboxes and other “rich media” surrounding search results, people are more used to scrolling past a bunch of less relevant stuff to get to the good results.

So, the simple view of keyword ranking is this: you pick keywords relevant to your brand, and you see where you rank for them. The better you rank, the better your business is positioned in the search results.

How a Site’s Keyword Ranking is Determined

A site is ranked in the search results according to Google’s algorithm. This isn’t a simple topic, but since this is a beginner’s guide, I’m going to gloss over most of the tricky details.

Basically, Google looks at a site and pulls specific information about that site to analyze. That information includes a ton of different details, such as:

  • The text content on the site and how it relates to the keyword.
  • The general purpose of the site.
  • The popularity, size, age, and other details about the site.
  • Details that would make the site more or less valid, like a regional proximity to the query (that is, if someone searches for “shoes in Portland,” Google will prioritize local Portland shoe stores over national or non-local stores.)
  • Technical details about the site, like how accessible it is, how fast it loads, if it’s available on mobile, and so on.
  • Broader SEO data about the site, like the number of different relevant domains linking to the site.
  • Whether or not the site has copied content from other sites that likely published it first.
  • Other signs of spam or malicious behavior like keyword stuffing, thin and garbage content, or obviously purchased backlinks.

There are well over 200 different things Google looks at when determining how a site should rank. They perform this analysis in part for the site as a whole, in part for the site as it stands in comparison to similar sites, in part for the site as it relates to its chosen topics and keywords, and in part according to a huge document of guidelines for human judgment.

Google Search Results Website Page Quality Guidelines

All of this is a hugely complex algorithm built up over time with three goals:

  • To provide a high-quality selection of possible results for any given query and
  • To avoid being easily abused or gamed and
  • To satisfy user needs.

How well Google has managed to meet these goals changes over time. The recent dissatisfaction with Google search shows them on a downswing, so we’ll see how they adapt and claw back to quality before someone else beats them to it.

Dissatisfaction With Google Search Results

Why am I only talking about Google? Truthfully, there are dozens of search engines out there. So, why am I just talking about Google? For years, Google has maintained a stranglehold on search, with around 90% of search traffic going through them. Recent issues have seen that drop to closer to 80%, but even 80% of all of humanity’s searching activity is still huge.

So, we talk about Google because Google sets the stage. Other search engines either try to work as close to Google as they can or have some unique reason why you’d use them over Google. That said, there are still unique examples of search engines that have their own ways of working and their own rankings. Amazon product search, YouTube video search, and so on are good examples.

A huge amount of the effort a marketer spends on a site is focused on getting that site to rank better for relevant keywords. What, then, are relevant keywords?

Picking Keywords to Monitor

A keyword can be something short and simple, like “shoes.” If you search “shoes” on Google, you’re going to get top results from sites like DSW, Zappos, and Amazon. While your brand might, eventually, be able to rank #1 for that keyword, it’s pretty unlikely any time soon.

Conversely, you could have a longer, more specific keyword like “blue ballet shoes” as your target. If you search for that, you get a bunch of images and product listings, and you have brand names like Amazon, Nordstrom, Macy’s, and Walmart on the top page. But there’s a lot more room here for your listing to be up among them since Google puts more flexibility into product-focused searches.

Keyword relevance is a huge part of keyword ranking. You don’t need, or want, to rank for keywords that aren’t relevant to your business. A landscaping company wants to rank for landscaping services they provide and for informational keywords that build their authority. They don’t want to rank for things people aren’t going to search for or things they don’t care about.

Monitoring a Set of Keywords

To use a very simple example, imagine you’re a landscaping company with services ranging from lawncare to earthmoving. Which of these keywords are the ones you would want to target?

  • “Digging a garden pond”
  • “Lawncare services near me”
  • “Best overalls for landscaping”
  • “Virtual landscaping game”
  • “ow8nv5yp8we5”

The first one is great! It’s a good service a landscaping company might provide and can be a good keyword to rank for, especially if there’s not a lot of local competition for the service.

The second one is also pretty good, but you aren’t actually going to be ranking for “near me” in a query. Google looks at the information about the person performing the search, where they’re located, and implicitly substitutes the location in; your company should rank for “lawncare services near [city name]” instead.

The third one is probably not a useful keyword to rank for, even though it’s related to landscaping. Why? People searching for that topic are likely looking to buy overalls so they can do the work themselves. So, unless your company sells those overalls, it’s not terribly valuable to you.

The fourth one is not relevant, even though it’s about landscaping. The people searching for it have no interest in real landscaping, just the game they want to find, so it doesn’t help you to rank for it.

The fifth one is an extreme example; it’s a keyword that currently has zero search results. If you used it even once, you’d rank #1 for it. But why would you care to? No one is going to search for it, and it’s not relevant to you, so it’s just meaningless clutter.

Learning how to find keywords, and more importantly, learning how to vet and analyze those keywords, is a crucial part of marketing. I can help you with finding the keywords – that’s the whole point of Topicfinder – but vetting them is a more individualized process.

Search Results Nonsense, Ads, and Position Zero

So here’s another question: How important is ranking #1 for a keyword these days?

The answer here depends on the type of query. I have two examples to show you the dramatic difference.

First, search for “keyword ranking guide” and look at the results.

Keyword Ranking Guide Search Results

For me, I have, from the top down:

  • A knowledge box snippet from Semrush. This is usually called Position #0.
  • Google’s “People Also Ask” box.
  • Position #1, occupied by HubSpot’s blog.
  • More organic results from Search Engine Journal, WordStream, WordStream again, Moz, Backlinko, and BrightEdge.

This is a pretty low-key range of search results. There aren’t even any ads. The only oddity is Position #0. Well, that and WordStream getting two organic results in a row. Google didn’t use to allow that.

What is the so-called Position #0? A while back, Google decided to start scraping relevant answers from organic results and displaying one at the top, outside of the usual range of organic search results. It’s not technically the #1 position because it’s a special box above it, so people gave it the moniker Position #0. It’s effectively Position #1 these days, though.

Now for the other, more drastic example. Search for “blue ballet shoes,” and what do you get?

Blue Ballet Shoes Google Search Results

For me, it’s:

  • A bar of sponsored product listings.
  • An ad from So Danca.
  • An ad from Tieks.
  • Image results in an info box.
  • Your organic result #1 with bonus images from Amazon.
  • Your organic result #2 with bonus images from Nordstrom.
  • More product listings.
  • The “People Also Ask” box.
  • An “explore brands” box with more brand suggestions.

Even if I block ads, that’s still a good chunk of space taken up by things that aren’t the #1 organic result. Users would have to scroll pretty far down to even find the so-called #1 result.

Google has been adding more and more “rich functionality” to their search results, and you see this in all sorts of queries. You’ll often see things like embedded maps and location listings, reviews, business profile bars, sidebars from sites like Wikipedia and IMDB, and dynamic content like movie showtimes, all depending on the kind of query the user is searching for.

Suffice it to say that, while striving for the #1 search result is important, it’s more important for some kinds of queries than for others.

Actionable Intelligence: How to Use and Care About Keyword Rankings

The theory is great, but what does it all matter? Let’s get into a few specific, actionable tips on keyword ranking.

To make use of keyword ranking, the first thing you want to do is figure out what your keywords are. There are a bunch of ways to do this, but one of the easiest is to use the Google Search Console to see what keywords your site is actually ranking for and how people are finding you. That’s a good place to start.

Second, track your rankings. There are a bunch of good tools to try, including AccuRanker, Semrush, Ahrefs, SERPWatcher, and SEOPowersuite; feel free to give them a try and find one you like. Keep an eye on your rankings.

Using Topicfinder For Keyword Research

Finally, take action. Look for keywords where the competition is weak and you have a good chance at pushing through a good ranking, write excellent content to do it, and see how it goes. Do experiments to see if you can improve rankings for existing content. Go broader, go deeper, and try new things, but stay focused on your niche. You’ll develop an idea of what works and what doesn’t over time. You can even use Topicfinder to give you a ton of ideas to start!

And, of course, there’s always more to learn. The internet abounds with deep-dive guides on every single aspect of search marketing, and you can always leave a question right here in the comments if you want. Let me know!

Written by James Parsons

James is the founder and CEO of Topicfinder, a purpose-built topic research tool for bloggers and content marketers. He also runs a content marketing agency, Content Powered, and writes for Forbes, Inc, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, and other large publications. He's been a content marketer for over 15 years and helps companies from startups to Fortune 500's get more organic traffic and create valuable people-first content.

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