Getting Ahead in Google: Dare to Be Different

by / Thursday, 21 June 2012 / Published in Search Engine

I recently did a site audit for a client who was wondering why they were having a hard time showing up in Google. When I read through the information they sent me and took a quick look at their website, it was obvious to me what the problem was: They simply didn’t deserve to be there.

Let me explain…

They have a fairly small local company that sells some common but specific types of office furniture. While they have a niche for the type of furniture they sell, for the most part it’s nothing that you can’t buy at most of the large office-supply stores such as Office Depot and Staples.

In the information they sent to me, they told me that they don’t do much (if any) marketing. Their website didn’t look horrible, but it had lots of technical issues. The category and product pages were very sparse, with very little information about the products, and nothing beyond the typical manufacturer’s description. The company had never built a brand for this website because it was one of a few sites they owned that sold slightly different lines of products. And — more important — I couldn’t find any unique selling proposition (USP). Oh, sure, they said that they had great customer service, but then, I don’t know of any business that says they have crappy customer service!

To get them to understand what they were up against, I showed them what the organic Google search results were made up of for a general phrase relating to one of the products they sold. For the most part, Google was showing mainly huge, major brands showing up on Page 1. If you think about it from Google’s point of view, why would they show this site’s product page before the ones they were currently showing? There was nothing unique or compelling about the site or what it was offering. There was nothing that set them apart from the others selling the same exact products at similar prices. Plus, they were an unknown entity compared to the big stores that everyone knows about due to their expensive marketing efforts.

Google Loves Diversity

What I noticed (and have noticed for many years) is that Google generally likes to show different types of pages within their search results. So sometimes you’ll see a page that is a directory of other sites, and one that is a main category page, one that is for a specific product, etc. But for the most part there will be something useful on the pages that they show first. At least, that’s what they shoot for — something that goes above and beyond a simple manufacturer’s description of a product that is seen on every site that sells the product. And something that perhaps the other sites on the first page didn’t have.

Big Brands Burst to the Top

For my product search, Office Depot came up No. 1 with a great page containing tons of different types and styles of the product as well as a way to compare them all. It’s also a trusted brand that people recognize and would expect to see showing up early in the search results.

Staples came next, with a page that wasn’t quite as comprehensive as Office Depot’s. And in all honesty it wasn’t much better than what my client’s site had on their main landing page for this type of product. The difference, however, was that Staples has spent millions marketing themselves and people know of them and link to them. Where they have a toolbar PageRank of 5, the page from the site I was reviewing had no toolbar PageRank at all (due to a combination of technical issues and there being very few other sites that link to this particular site). Because links are one of Google’s most important measures of quality, this one could not compete with a large brand that contains links naturally.

Showing next were the shopping results. My client did have a shopping feed, but their items didn’t seem to show up. Within the feeds that were showing up, again, most of them were recognizable names, and most also had 5-star reviews attached to them. It was pretty obvious that those were the ones that Google tended to show first.

Next in the regular organic results was a Walmart page for one specific product of the type I had searched for. But it also listed many other types on the page with nice large graphics, prices, comparisons and reviews. That one was a much better page to show than the site I was reviewing — it was easy on the eye and very comprehensive.

Next came an Amazon specific-product page. They too have branded themselves as a major company you can trust, and therefore they have a high number of links giving their product page a high toolbar PageRank.

Home Depot was next to show a specific type of the product, which also had high reviews. In fact, 20 reviews were listed right there on the page, which is extremely helpful to people looking to buy.

The next result was not a large brand! It was a smaller company’s home page that Google was likely showing because they specialize in selling only the very specific type of product I was searching for. Their home page had built up a good amount of link equity, which was probably why it was the page that Google chose to show. Not only that, but they had set themselves apart from the other sites I had seen thus far by having some cool videos about their specialized products. (Sadly, other than the videos, the site had done a lot of keyword stuffing, but hadn’t yet got caught by Google’s Panda/Penguin!)

The next few sites were OfficeMax, an eBay reviews page, and another site that specializes in the product. Then there was a page from a site that was really ugly, but it had a lot of information regarding sizes and pricing that was not on many of the other sites.

Eventually, on Page 3 of my search results, I found a page from the site I was reviewing. Given the zero amount of marketing they had done compared to their competitors, and taking all of the above into consideration, Google got it right. Most people would likely have preferred to see the pages that were in the top 10 over my client’s site.

What to Do?

I had many recommendations for this client. First, they had to fix the technical errors that were keeping them from getting ahead no matter what else they did. Next, I explained how they needed something in addition to the boilerplate text that every other site that sold those products used. Perhaps they could include additional information of their own. They could include recommendations as to who might want each particular product. They could also allow their customers to write their own reviews of the products. Basically, anything that would add value to the product pages would set them apart from the competitors. This in turn would make it more likely that Google would show their pages higher in the search results than they currently did because they would have something those other pages didn’t have.

Also, because it was going to be so difficult if not impossible to compete with the likes of Office Depot that have spent millions of dollars marketing their businesses, they needed to find some less competitive keyword phrases that would still bring targeted traffic.

Need to Branch Out

I recommended that they optimize all their product pages for more than just one phrase in the content and title tags. Still, I was skeptical that a site such as this — where almost all the phrases that related to the products were fairly competitive — would be able to compete with the big dogs for those terms. Therefore, it was critical for them to also branch out into long-tail keywords: those that get very little traffic on their own, but when taken in aggregate can bring significant targeted visitors to the site.

The way to target long-tail traffic is to provide interesting content to people who are thinking about purchasing the types of products they were selling. This could be done as extra resource pages on the site, and/or through a blog. I felt that, for this type of site and products, comparison pages would be ideal. There were lots of similar products that could be very confusing to a new buyer.

I also recommended that they ask their customer service people to put together some lists of the questions they often receive, and then address them on the site. And I looked at their Google Analytics for questions that got people there in the first place, and found at least 90 different ones they could use for various purposes.

Is any of this easy? Absolutely not! It takes time to make your website Google-worthy, but in the age of furry black-and-white animals such as Pandas and Penguins just waiting to take a bite out of you, this hard work is exactly what is necessary.
Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area
since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen.

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