Rank refers to the position of a website or page in a list of search engine results for a specific keyword. A higher ranking is the goal of a search engine optimization (SEO) strategy; the higher a page ranks for a particular keyword, the more likely users are to visit the site.
Page ranking starts with a process called crawling. This occurs when a search engine sends a team of robots (called “spiders” or “web crawlers“) to collect information about the new and updated URLs—and the content they contain—across the internet. This information is then stored in the search engine’s index, which users access when performing queries. The index is organized according to the exact keyword the user searches and the pages that are most likely to match the user’s query.
A page’s ranking is not universal; in fact, the specific rank a page has on a Google search results page (SERP) will likely be different from that on Bing or Yahoo and vice versa. However, the best practices used to improve the ranking of a page on one search engine will usually benefit the ranking on other search engines as well.
Page ranking history
The term “rank” in this context comes from PageRank, a now-obsolete tool created by Google in 1996. Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, developed PageRank to evaluate every web page on the internet on a scale from 0 to 10. This meant that the most credible pages were given the highest position in hopes that they would answer users’ queries as quickly and effectively as possible. PageRank is often touted as the driving force behind Google’s status as a leader among search engines.
As the internet evolved, so too did Google’s mechanism for ranking web pages. When it was discovered that webmasters were frequently abusing the PageRank algorithm by manipulating page content to obtain a higher ranking at the expense of user experience, Google implemented penalties for sites that were suspected of such behavior. Eventually, this practice became too widespread to monitor effectively, and in 2009, Google removed information about PageRank from its Webmaster Tools documentation. A few years later, Google discontinued PageRank development and began phasing it out completely once Panda was integrated into the main Google algorithm in 2016.
With Panda, there is less public documentation or officially-sanctioned guidance about the criteria Google uses when ranking a page than there was with PageRank. Most of the recommendations about improving page rank are based on speculation, but they’re rooted in observable trends and some of the precedents set by PageRank. In general, Google advises publishers looking to improve their ranking to focus on helping people through content creation rather than using content creation as a means of generating traffic.
Though ranking factors vary by search engine, Google is considered the leading authority on ranking criteria. Estimates indicate that Google uses more than 200 factors to evaluate a particular page’s SERP ranking. All of these factors are tied to how much value the page provides the user, rather than any superficial characteristics that can be manipulated to gain a ranking advantage.
SEO best practices are also somewhat of a moving target as the ranking algorithm is constantly changing. Nevertheless, some factors help a page signal to Google that it is credible and should therefore have a higher rank. These include:
- EAT: An obscure rating of the author’s perceived expertise, authority, and trustworthiness.
- Website security: The availability of a website’s SSL certificate.
- Mobile responsiveness: The page’s ability to adapt to mobile devices while preserving user experience.
- Keyword optimization: The density and placement of the target keyword in the content of the page.
- Backlinks: The number of credible external sites that direct traffic to the page.
- Social media engagement: The engagement the page receives on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Rank checking tools
SEO rank has a direct impact on the overall performance of the page and its potential revenue opportunities. Therefore, marketers have a distinct interest in measuring a page’s SEO ranking over time. Many tools can help in this effort, including:
- Google Search Console
How to improve rank
As mentioned above, there is no formula for improving rank. Many SEO strategies involve testing specific approaches and adjusting them over time. Search engine algorithms are becoming increasingly sophisticated and akin to a human approach to knowledge, so best practices for improving rank are centered around improving user experience. Among many factors in a revolving door of SEO best practices, page ranking can be benefitted by:
- Strategic keyword research: This involves using variations of a keyword that are more likely to be searched.
- Keyword placement: Placing a keyword in the page’s metadata and higher in the content will flag the page content as relevant to the targeted queries.
- Heading structure: Keyword-focused headings within the HTML structure (especially H1s and H2s) will indicate what the copy below it is about and gives readers a skimmable overview of the page’s main points.
- Content scheduling: A site that has a regular cadence for its content publishing signals to search engines that it is a reliable, steady stream of information.
- Avoiding spam. Too much of a good thing can have unintended consequences, and sites that overuse keywords, links, or other content can be perceived as spam.