A frantic call from an agency I work with: “My client wants to know why the websites of companies X, Y and Z rank higher than her website on Google. They don’t even offer the same service!” It’s a frequent lament.

Rank in Google’s SERPS (search engine results pages) is a touchy subject for internet marketers and SEO. Now that all results are personalized, based on your search history and social media interactions, there is no definitive way to measure rank. On the other hand, watching your online visibility tank is a miserable feeling.

Being near the top of page one or two in the SERPs means a huge difference in traffic to a website, thus in the potential to turn prospects into customers. What’s a website owner to do?

Don’t Panic

When you need an answer NOW, there are a few things you can check. A thorough review of the website is actually what you need, but your client or boss doesn’t want to hear that. I will lead you through a process that, more often than not, highlights one or more probable cause. This article focuses on how your webpage compares to your competitors.’ In the next article, we’ll look at some technical issues that are important to the page’s ability to compete in search results.

One caveat: Any answer is speculative. Search results are a product of at least 200 factors; we don’t know exactly what they are and how they are weighted. (I know, your client or boss doesn’t want to hear this, either.)

Of the SEOs who monitor results, Moz has led efforts to understand them, and its annual report of ranking factors is a great starting point to look for clues.

Check page authority

From Moz’s annual report, Page Authority (PA) tops the list of factors that could influence rank. Page Authority indicates how much a page is linked across the Internet, and it “measures the predictive ranking strength” on a scale of 1 to 100. What this all means: if the PA for your page is 28 and the competitor’s PA is in the 30 – 40 range, the competitor’s page will probably rank higher in Google. The larger the difference, the more this is likely.

So, our first investigation is going to find out the PA of the page you are worried about, and compare it to similar pages on competitor’s sites, using Open Site Explorer (OSE).

From the search results page, take a few of the offending URLs – the pages listed ahead of yours – to Open Site Explorer. Enter the URL of your page (the one you’re worried about), plus the competing URLs. In the tab, “Compare Link Metrics” you should see at a glance the PA for each page.

 

In turn, the factors that seem to influence PA are the other metrics you will see on the OSE page, known collectively as the “link profile.” One in particular that we are interested in, is the Total Linking Root Domains.

How many websites link to yours?

Links to a page are like votes in a popularity contest, and links impact the search results; however, if a page has dozens of inbound links but they come from just a couple of websites, they don’t carry much weight. The page has a better chance in search results when there are links from multiple high quality websites (especially from government – .gov – and education – .edu sites).

Scroll down from Page Authority, and you’ll see the number of Total Linking Root Domains for your page, and how this compares to the competitors. There is usually a close correlation, i.e. a page with a small number of linking root domains seldom has a high PA.

Note: If your page seriously lags behind the others, don’t rush out and buy links! That’s a risky tactic that will do more harm than good. If SEOs come to you with offers to catapult your page to the top with hundreds or thousands of links, just say no!

There’s no such thing as an easy fix when it comes to link building. If you have been ignoring Google’s mantra to publish desirable content, and the marketing world’s mantra to use social media to bring readers to it, then consider this your wake up call.

Next week, we’ll look at some technical – and semi-technical – things you can explore for more answers.