Wrong Page Ranking in the Results? 6 Common Causes & 5 Solutions

Posted by randfish

Sometimes, the page you’re trying to rank – the one that visitors will find relevant and useful to their query – isn’t the page the engines have chosen to place first. When this happens, it can be a frustrating experience trying to determine what course of action to take. In this blog post, I’ll walk through some of the root causes of this problem, as well as five potential solutions.

Asparagus Pesto Rankings in Google with the Wrong Page Ranking First

When the wrong page from your site appears prominently in the search results, it can spark a maddening conflict of emotion – yes, it’s great to be ranking well and capturing that traffic, but it sucks to be delivering a sub-optimal experience to searchers who visit, then leave unfulfilled. The first step should be identifying what’s causing this issue and to do that, you’ll need a process.

Below, I’ve listed some of the most common reasons we’ve seen for search engines to rank a less relevant page above a more relevant one.

  1. Internal Anchor Text
    The most common issue we see when digging into these problems is the case of internal anchor text optimization gone awry. Many sites will have the keyword they’re targeting on the intended page linking to another URL (or several) on the site in a way that can mislead search engines. If you want to be sure that the URL yoursite.com/frogs ranks for the keyword “frogs,” make sure that anchor text that says “frogs” points to that page. See this post on keyword cannibalization for more on this specific problem.
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  2. External Link Bias
    The next most common issue we observe is the case of external links preferring a different page than you, the site owner or marketer, might. This often happens when an older page on your site has discussed a topic, but you’ve more recently produced an updated, more useful version. Unfortunately, links on the web tend to still reference the old URL. The anchor text of these links, the context they’re in and the reference to the old page may make it tough for a new page to overcome the prior’s rankings.
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  3. Link Authority & Importance Metrics
    There are times when a page’s raw link metrics – high PageRank, large numbers of links and linking root domains – will simply overpower other relevance signals and cause it to rank well despite barely targeting (and sometimes barely mentioning) a keyword phrase. In these situations, it’s less about the sources of links, the anchor text or the relevance and more a case of powerful pages winning out through brute force. On Google, this happens less than it once did (at least in our experience), but can still occur in odd cases.
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  4. On-Page Optimization
    In some cases, a webmaster/marketer may not realize that the on-page optimization of a URL for a particular keyword term/phrase is extremely similar to another. To differentiate and help ensure the right page ranks, it’s often wise to de-emphasize the target keyword on the undesirable page and target it more effectively (without venturing into keyword stuffing or spam) on the desired page. This post on keyword targeting can likely be of assistance.
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  5. Improper Redirects
    We’ve seen the odd case where an old redirect has pointed a page that heavily targeted a keyword term/phrase (or had earned powerful links around that target) to the wrong URL. These can be very difficult to identify because the content of the 301′ing page no longer exists and it’s hard to know (unless you have the history) why the current page might be ranking despite no effort. If you’ve been through the other scenarios, it’s worth looking to see if 301 redirects from other URLs point to the page in question and running a re-pointing test to see if they could be causing the issue.
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  6. Topic Modeling / Content Relevance Issues
    This is the toughest to identify and to explain, but that won’t stop us from trying :-) Essentially, you can think of the search engines doing a number of things to determine the degree of relevancy of a page to a keyword. Determining topic areas and identifying related terms/phrases and concepts is almost certainly among these (we actually hope to have some proof of Google’s use of LDA, in particular, in the next few months to share on the blog). Seeing as this is likely the case, the engine may perceive that the page you’re trying to rank isn’t particularly “on-topic” for the target keyword while another page that appears less “targeted” from a purely SEO/keyphrase usage standpoint is more relevant.

Once you’ve gone through this list and determined which issues might be affecting your results, you’ll need to take action to address the problem. If it’s an on-page or content issue, it’s typically pretty easy to fix. However, if you run into external linking imbalances, you may need more dramatic action to solve the mistmatch and get the right page ranking.

Next, we’ll tackle some specific, somewhat advanced, tactics to help get the right page on top:

  1. The 301 Redirect (or Rel Canonical) & Rebuild
    In stubborn cases or those where a newer page is replacing an old page, it may be wise to simply 301 redirect the new page to the old page (or the other way around) and choose the best-converting/performing content for the page that stays. I generally like the strategy of maintaining the older, ranking URL and redirecting the newer one simply because the metrics for that old page may be very powerful and a 301 does cause some loss of link juice (according to the folks at Google). However, if the URL string itself isn’t appropriate, it can make sense to instead 301 to the new page instead.

    Be aware that if you’re planning to use rel=canonical rather than a 301 (which is perfectly acceptable), you should first ensure that the content is exactly the same on both pages. Trying to maintain two different version of a page with one canonicalizing to another isn’t specifically against the engines’ guidelines, but it’s also not entirely white hat (and it may not work, since the engines do some checking to determine content matches before counting rel=canonical sometimes).
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  2. The Content Rewrite
    If you need to maintain the old page and have a suspicion that content focus, topic modeling or on-page optimization may be to blame, a strategy of re-authoring the page from scratch and focusing on both relevance and user experience may be a wise path. It’s relatively easy to test and while it will suck away time from other projects, it may be helpful to give the page more focused, relevant, useful and conversion-inducing material.
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  3. The Link Juice Funnel
    If you’re fairly certain that raw link metrics like PageRank or link quantities are to blame for the issue, you might want to try funnelling some additional internal links to the target page (and possibly away from the currently ranking page). You can use a tool like Open Site Explorer to identify the most important/well-linked-to pages on your site and modify/add links to them to help channel juice into the target page and boost its rankings/prominence.
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  4. The Content Swap
    If you strongly suspect that the content of the pages rather than the link profiles may be responsible and want to test, this is the strategy to use. Just swap the on-page and meta data (titles, meta description, etc) between the two pages and see how/if it impacts rankings for the keyword. Just be prepared to potentially lose traffic during the test period (this nearly always happens, but sometimes is worth it to confirm your hypothesis). If the less-well-ranked page rises with the new content while the better-ranked page falls, you’re likely onto something.
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  5. The Kill ‘Em with External Links
    If you can muster a brute force, external link growth strategy, either through widgets/badges, content licensing, a viral campaign to get attention to your page or just a group of friends with websites who want to help you out, go for it. We’ve often seen this precise strategy lift one page over another and while it can be a lot of work, it’s also pretty effective.

While this set of recommendations may not always fix the issue, it can almost always help identify the root cause(s) and give you a framework in which to proceed. If you’ve got other suggestions, I look forward to hearing about them in the comments!


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