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Discovering ways to improve your Google rankings

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How to Reverse Engineer the Top 10 Google Results

Understanding what Google wants

The secret of SEO today is to understand what exactly Google wants. You may hear some SEOs saying that you need social signals, press releases, editorial links etc. etc. To guess like this is inaccurate and dangerous. The only surefire way is to analyze your competition and see what they are doing and see why they are successful.
Google uses many signals to calculate search engine positions. This information is, of course, top secret, but by looking at the sites that already rank we can look at:

  • The type of backlinks that Google expects
  • How smaller more focused sites can compete with huge authority sites
  • How the geographical location of your web host server can affect rankings
  • The average backlink ratios (e.g. Start Page vs. Deep Link) in your niche
  • The acceptable Domain-Wide Link Detox Risk (Domain DTOXRISK™) for your niche
  • How Google determines the relevancy of your site

Table of contents

The Plan

Every day I read about people who think that Google has treated them unfairly. More often than not people complain about the sites that rank on the first page saying that they don't deserve to be there. Google isn't perfect, but it is getting better. It is not often that we see a really spammy site ranking well for a popular keyword like we did in 2012.

So how does Google decide who is going to be on the first page? Google is algorithmically driven and looks at many factors to determine ranking positions. Even in a hyper competitive niche like pharmacy, weight loss or payday loans Google must show results on the first page that keep users happy and make Google their search engine of choice.

I am going to take a keyword example , examine the pages found and see what we can learn about the results that Google shows.

Google's Algorithms

It states here :

... Google’s algorithms rely on more than 200 unique signals or “clues” that make it possible to guess what you might really be looking for. These signals include things like the terms on websites, the freshness of content, your region and PageRank.

It is a difficult job to try and work out what exactly Google is looking for, so the aim is try and look for some of the major signals that Google is likely to use to provide us with their Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

Villas for sale in Mallorca

For this example I decided to pick a search keyword close to my heart, 'villas for sale in mallorca', I'd love to live there one day and  it is a keyword that I am likely to Google. For those of you unfamiliar with Europe, Mallorca is a small island which is part of the Balearic Islands. The Balearic Islands are an archipelago of Spain in the western Mediterranean Sea. Mallorca is a favorite destination for the British and the majority of foreign property buyers in Spain are British. A search for this keyword on Google.com in English for all countries gives this result for the Top 10:

  1. http://www.rightmove.co.uk/overseas-property-for-sale/Mallorca.html
  2. http://www.rightmove.co.uk/overseas-property-for-sale/Palma-de-Mallorca.html
  3. http://www.balearic-properties.com/
  4. http://www.primelocation.com/overseas/property/spain/balearic-islands/majorca-mallorca/
  5. http://www.kyero.com/browse/mallorca-property-for-sale-loc55563pag1ppp20slt0srt4
  6. http://properties.aplaceinthesun.com/spain/balearic_islands/mallorca/
  7. http://www.firstmallorca.com/en/properties
  8. http://www.prestigeproperty.co.uk/pages/mallorca_property.asp
  9. http://www.sothebysrealty.com/eng/sales/ml-esp
  10. http://mallorcapropertyhouse.co.uk/

Keywords in the URL

Looking at the results we can see that most URLs do seem to contain related keywords, such as 'property', 'spain', 'balearic','realty' and the alternative spelling of Mallorca, Majorca. It is interesting to note that the word 'villa' is not in any of these results. Clearly Google does not require all the keywords to be contained in the URL. However it is clear that the structure of RightMove.co.uk makes it very easy to understand what the page is about. The top result is a page called Mallorca.html in a directory called /overseas-property-for-sale/.

A JUICE Analysis at Page Level

To examine the 10 URLs I found, I pasted them into the JUICE Tool and got this result:

Juice

Here I was analyzing the actual pages, rather than the domains, that were found in Google. The interesting point here is the BL column: the top 2 results (both from RightMove.co.uk) and the result at #6 have no backlinks whatsoever. It seems the days of frantically building deep links are well and truly over. Links to the whole domains, seen in the BLdom column are a different matter . Our winner in 1st and 2nd place is RightMove.co.uk that has more backlinks than any of the others. So now we should do some further analysis at domain level.

The Quick Domain Compare (QDC)

In a moment we are going to use the Competitive Landscape Analyzer  (CLA). The CLA can have an input of 10 competitor domains which can be compared against your own domain.  As the top 2 places are occupied by the same domain we now have a spare place, so I'll introduce #11 from the Google results.  At #11 is:

www.thinkspain.com/properties-in-spain/3/4/54

and for the sake of our experiment we can say that our site is the one that ranks at #12:

http://www.realtor.com/international/search-listing/Palma-de-Mallorca-Baleares_SP_CSP003738j1

Realtor.com is actually a huge site with phenomenal traffic, but Google only chooses to rank this at #12. If we have a look with the Quick Domain Compare (QDC) we can see some more details, showing how Realtor.com compares with our top 5 domains:

QDC results

Even though Realtor.com ranks for an incredible 622,512 keywords, there are two things that make it stand out.

  1. Realtor.com has a Power*Trust=25, whereas our winner RightMove.co.uk has a very strong Power*Trust = 35. Power*Trust is certainly a very good metric to keep an eye on.
  2. Realtor.com is hosted in the US whereas the others are all hosted in Europe. RightMove.co.uk at #1 is hosted in the UK and Balearic-Properties.com at #2 is hosted in Spain.

The Competitive Landscape Analyzer (CLA)

To make further analysis I set up the CLA like this:

CLA setup

Classifying the Keywords

After running the CLA there was a lot of keyword classifying to do, which was not quite as obvious as it first seemed. I had decided to use Realtor.com as if it was my own domain. The term ‘Realtor’ is not one that I am very familiar with. Realtor is a trademarked brand name that is short for The National Association of Realtors. While the term real estate agent describes anyone who is licensed by their state to work in the real estate industry, Realtors are members of a national association. After some research I realised that many people may search for ‘realtor’ rather than ‘real estate agent’ not realising that it is a brand keyword rather than a money keyword. This is excellent branding work from Realtor.com. I classified 'realtor' as a brand keyword.

CLA Results

The Domain Statistics table shows what you would expect, Google favors the domains with the higher Power*Trust, but with a few exceptions:

CLA Dom Stats

The result that did surprise me here was the 9th result MallorcaPropertyHouse.co.uk which has a low Power*Trust and only 12 Referring Root Domains. Looking at the site it does seem to have a very clean looking, responsive theme, thus providing a good user experience. By using this Google query:

site: http://mallorcapropertyhouse.co.uk Villas for sale in Mallorca

we can see if our keyphrase exists on the site. It does not, but a semantic version of it is evident in the Google results. Google helps us out a little here by making the keywords from your search bold as well as the related keywords:

Mallorca property house

It seems that ‘Properties for Sale in Mallorca’ is an acceptable related keyword to ‘Villas for sale in Mallorca’. The Google search has found a related keyword on the homepage of the site and all is well. If we look at the homepage of the site we can see the text, which is actually an H3 heading, 'All properties for Sale in Mallorca'. Below the heading are links to seven inner pages, one of which is, 'Villas / Houses in Mallorca'. This shows that Google has found some very relevant content which it ranks in the Top 10 with hardly any backlinks and no keyword stuffing.

Mallorca property house

Brand, Compound, Money and Other Anchor Text

The CLA shows the ratios of anchor text links with an easy to read histogram. The very dark green bar represents the average of the Top 3 sites, the dark green one is the average of the Top 5 sites and the light green one is the average of all the domains. The orange bar represents 'you' which in our case is Realtor.com:

CLA brand

These ratios are different in every niche, in every country, for every keyword and for every language. In our example, I would be aiming to have anchor text with 79-83% brand keywords, 3-5% compound keywords, 8-12% money keywords and 4-6% other keywords.

Follow vs. NoFollow Links

Sites that have all DoFollow links look highly unnatural and can get devalued by Google. Most normal sites have a mixture of DoFollow and NoFollow links.

CLA follow

To rank in this niche I would be aiming for 78-82% Follow Links and 17-21% NoFollow links.

Text vs. Image Links

A normal site will have a mixture of text vs. image links. It surprised me that in our example there are quite a lot of image links:

CLA image text

To rank a site here I would be aiming for 55-66% text links and 33-44% image links. The average is being pushed high by RightMove.co.uk who have a whopping 52% of their links as images. Many of these do look a bit dubious such as this DoFollow one in the footer of a Scottish Estate Agent:

Cairn estate agent

I can't see any reason why Cairn Estate Agency would have such a link on their site, unless they were being remunerated somehow by RightMove.co.uk. Later you will see that I ran a Competive Link Detox report which showed this link to trigger the SUSP11 rule: Sitewide Footer Link detected, a typical way that paid links or 'friend' links are artificially placed.

Link Location, Deeplink Ratio and more

So far we have understood that the sites which Google ranks in the Top 10 have similar ratios to each other. Our example of Realtor.com (the orange one) has been standing out and not blending in with the rest. Even though it is a huge authority website, for our phrase it ranks the worst. There are lots of factors that Google take into account when calculating SERP positions, but certainly the ones we have looked at so far show us what Google expects. This pattern continues when we look at the Link Location:

CLA link location

...and the Deeplinking Ratios:

CLA deep linking

With the CLA we can optionally choose to include extra metrics like social votes from Twitter, Facebook and Google+, Dmoz and Wiki Links and much more. In each case you can take a look at your link profile and see how you can improve it to blend in with your competition.

Common Backlinks

It is highly likely that results on the Google SERP will share some common backlinks. The theory here is that domains with more common backlinks will be rewarded for their relevancy.

The goal of Google is to give a good user experience by providing relevant results.  For example this page you are reading now will probably not rank well for the phrase 'Villas for sale in Mallorca' even though I have mentioned the phrase several times. It is unlikely that LinkResearchTools.com will share any common links with our examples. For somebody wanting to buy a villa in Mallorca, LinkResearchTools.com would be a bad experience, for somebody learning about SEO it will hopefully be the opposite.

This is one area where Private Blog Networks (PBNs) completely fail to work as it is highly unlikely for competitors to have common links from a PBN. We can discover more about common backlinks using the Common Backlinks Tool (CBLT).

CBLT Commonality

Certainly the Google #1, RightMove.co.uk has the most common backlinks, 391 with PrimeLocation.com coming second with 380. Between these in the Google SERP is Balearic-Properties.com which has just 20 common backlinks. If Google is taking the common backlinks into account then they are almost certainly taking into account the topic and content of the site too. RightMove.co.uk and PrimeLocation.com both focus on UK properties with an international section, whereas Balearic-Properties.com only have properties on the islands of Mallorca and Ibiza. It would not make sense for Balearic-Properties.com to have as many common backlinks as RightMove.co.uk.

You can filter the CBLT Results Table to find the best links with the most commonality. Whilst doing this I did spot a Hungarian Link Directory, LinkPark.hu that was linking to 7 of our 10 domains. This looks very spammy, so now is a good time to take a look at the Link Detox Risk (DTOXRISK™) of these domains.

Competitive Link Detox (CDTOX)

The CDTOX compares your domain with 10 competitors and determines the risk associated with their backlinks. In this example our domain is Realtor.com which is compared to the 10 domains that we used above. As these sites are all ranking well for a popular keyword, we are not expecting any high Domain-wide Detox Risk scores (Domain DTOXRISK™) here. Generally a Domain DTOXRISK™ of around 700 is OK. A Domain DTOXRISK™ > 1000 is where we start to see problems, but this will always depend on the niche and some other factors. The total average is 784 which is about what I would expect:

CDTOX tachometer

The winner, RightMove.co.uk has a below average Domain DTOXRISK™ of 284. RightMove.co.uk do have some questionable links, but they seemed to be outweighed by many good ones. CDTOX shows:

  • 1052 Links with Low Link Audit Priority
  • 5869 Links with a Medium Link Audit Priority
  • 422 Links with a High Link Audit Priority

Balearic-Properties.com do not fair so well, with a high Domain DTOXRISK™ of 1385. CDTOX shows:

  • 49 Links with Low Link Audit Priority
  • 280 Links with a Medium Link Audit Priority
  • 280 Links with a High Link Audit Priority

In these examples we do not know if any of these sites are using a disavow file. RightMove.co.uk do not need to worry about this at the moment, but Balearic-Properties.com do. Without a disavow file Balearic-Properties.com are heading for Google Penguin hell. PrestigeProperty.co.uk also have a high Domain DTOXRISK™ of 1402, but I would hope that a company of that stature would protect themselves with a good disavow file.

Conclusions

Link Detox Screener

Here are the main takeaways:

  • It is no longer necessary to have your exact keyword in your URL, but some related keywords seem to help
  • It is not necessary to have backlinks to an inner page for it to rank
  • Power*Trust is always going to be a major factor in ranking, but other factors do matter as well
  • Hosting a site in or near the country where your target audience is seems to be a good idea.
  • A smaller less powerful site can rank alongside a huge site if its content is more focused to the search query
  • Keyword stuffing is no longer necessary or advised. Using a few related keywords in your content is a much better idea
  • User experience should be one of your prime considerations when creating a website
  • You should always monitor your site's backlinks and try to blend in with your competition, paying attention to the average link ratios for your niche. Pay particular attention to brand vs. money anchors, NoFollow vs. DoFollow, text vs. image links, startpage vs. deeplinks
  • Acquiring common backlinks seems to be a very good idea
  • There are quite wide variations in the Domain DTOXRISK™ for the domains that rank in the Top 10. Although there is no direct correlation with ranking, you should try and have nothing higher than an average Domain DTOXRISK™
  • Having some bad, high risk links is OK as long as you have plenty of good ones too

It is important to realise that your backlinks will change over time and Google will adjust their algorithms every day. For this reason you should monitor your link profile on a regular basis. I would recommend that you use, at least, Link Detox on a monthly basis.

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Rick Lomas
Rick built his first website in 1997 when the main search engine was Altavista and the word Google didn’t exist. Since then he has learnt SEO from the ground up and has lived through every update Google has thrown at us. Rick now has a great deal of knowledge about healthy link maintenance and link risk assessment. In these days of manual and algorithmic Google Penguin penalties it is more important than ever to monitor your backlink profile very carefully, this is where his expertise is invaluable. Rick is from the UK, but has lived in the French Alps since 2001. Rick is available for SEO Audits, Google Penalty Removal and Back Link Health Monitoring. You can also use Rick to help you find powerful expired domains. Find out more at Indexicon.com.
Rick Lomas
Rick Lomas
Rick Lomas

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16 Comments

  1. @lnkresearchtool on February 23, 2015 at 11:34 am

    Discovering ways to improve your Google rankings http://t.co/3smqbK3BMy

  2. @Bojan_Miljevic on February 23, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    How does Google decide who is on the first page? http://t.co/OzrlandEri via @LnkResearchTool

  3. @serpolytics on February 23, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    How does Google decide who is on the first page? http://t.co/52G5LnNFuZ

  4. @Irfan84_Yaqoob on February 23, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    How does Google decide who is on the first page? http://t.co/fL5TalhN4q via @LnkResearchTool

  5. @adeelzahor on February 23, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    How does Google decide who is on the first page? http://t.co/FqJ2zFJ1HX via @LnkResearchTool

  6. @GamblingAffPro on February 24, 2015 at 2:33 am

    An insight into how Google may decide which sites appear on the first page #seo #google http://t.co/Vc38UvbnpJ

  7. @mmhemani on February 24, 2015 at 4:33 am

    @ricklomas this is mind blowing: http://t.co/MSpbeSPI7Y i am your newest and probably the biggest fan 🙂

    • Rick on February 24, 2015 at 9:45 am

      Wow! Thank You!

  8. @linkmyseoworld on February 24, 2015 at 6:49 am

    RT @adeelzahor: How does Google decide who is on the first page? http://t.co/FqJ2zFJ1HX via @LnkResearchTool

  9. @EJDijks on February 24, 2015 at 9:59 am

    How does Google decide who is on the first page? http://t.co/5ppB8ov6KR #SEO

  10. @WebsiteValueOT on February 24, 2015 at 10:00 am

    RT @EJDijks: How does Google decide who is on the first page? http://t.co/5ppB8ov6KR #SEO

  11. @JavieRuizGago on February 24, 2015 at 11:12 am

    How to Reverse Engineer the Top 10 Google Results – http://t.co/J75Xk2OCpg

  12. @hellosocialyou on February 24, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    “User experience should be a prime consideration when creating a website.” SEO considerations via @lnkresearchtool http://t.co/dOgn71TC46

  13. @marccloutier89 on February 24, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    How does #Google decide who is on the first page? http://t.co/ODeUIZulGu via @LnkResearchTool

  14. Tommy on February 25, 2015 at 9:27 am

    We know backlink is important but do we really need to disavow every low quality links? Can’t Google determine which link is bad and good?

    • Rick Lomas on February 25, 2015 at 11:21 am

      Tommy, you don’t have to disavow every bad link, but you should aim to have a similar Domain-wide DETOXRISK as the sites on the first page of Google. If this means disavowing a lot of useless and potentially harmful links, then do it. If you have been doing 2011 style link building then this of utmost importance. Just blend in and then try and do just a tiny bit better 🙂

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