The Search Mailbag: Climbing the Ranks

The Search Insider gets inundated with reader mail, and while every writer receives a timely response, some letters deserve a public response as well. Today you're witnessing Search Insider history as we dig into the mailbag.

An old friend and public relations pro writes:

Dear Search Insider,

How are you? I'd love some help here. A client just told me, "I type in my company name in Google, and six other sites are ranked higher than us. How can we get higher on the list?" Can you give me some advice on how to answer this question?' --Searchless in Seattle

Dear Searchless,

There are a number of ways to answer the question, and a few of them won't even get you fired. There are several possible reasons.

1) The sites ranking higher are investing heavily in natural search optimization (NSO), an invaluable component of search engine marketing (SEM).

NSO does require an investment. Maybe it's enough to have an in-house webmaster who's well-versed in SEM best practices (if that's the case, spend what you can to keep his or her education current; you'll reap the rewards). For a larger company, there are strong considerations for outsourcing SEM to a firm or agency specializing in search. Either way, it calls for resources, both in manpower and money.

For the outsourcing route, one caveat: Beware of anyone offering a guaranteed No. 1 ranking on search engines. Google itself addresses this in great detail, writing, "No one can guarantee a No. 1 ranking on Google." Read more on this here.

2) There are technological obstacles on the client's site preventing it from ranking higher.

It's possible that Google's spider has a hard time reading the site. A common example is a site relying heavily on Flash. There are ways around this, as it's possible to use various snazzy technologies and still have a highly ranked site. Still, it's in any site's best interest not to slam the door in the spider's face when it comes a-crawlin', and technical fixes can help here.

3) You're not the only one with your company name.

Only one hospital can rank first for Beth Israel Medical Center, so a number duke it out for high placement (here's where local search can help remedy the situation). Similarly, a certain video store chain comes up first for Blockbuster, so Calif.-based Blockbuster Bowling is further down on the page.

Fondly, The Search Insider

Dear Search Insider,

That's all well and good, but what if the client's coming up seventh for an important keyword other than the company name? --Optimized in Omaha

Dear Optimized,

Much of the above still applies, but you broadened the question, so let's explore other possibilities. It could be that the client's site is extremely well optimized, but not for the keyword searched. For instance, say your client sells athletic footwear. The site may be No. 1 for "sneakers," but No. 50, at the bottom of the rarely-viewed fifth page of results, for "running shoes."

The key next step is finding out what people are actually searching for. If most of the searches are for "sneakers" anyway, and those are converting well, then perhaps the client can focus resources on what's working.

It's possible the client's problem here isn't even a problem. Refer back to the Blockbuster example. Considering all the references out there to the video store, a bowling store should be ecstatic over a first-page ranking. Similarly, New York-area sneaker and jeans retailer V.I.M. should be elated in nailing a first-page listing for "sneakers" (interestingly, no major national brand is represented in the natural results, while several listings relate to the 1992 movie of the same name; footwear brands and retailers could benefit from research and analytics on the subject). The silver lining here could be golden.

Best regards, The Search Insider

P.S. Readers, thanks for writing. These are both adapted from real e-mail exchanges. Keep the mail coming.