How to Rank Higher on Google in 2018 [Business Owner’s Guide]

Let me be straight with you:

You’re writing for the wrong audience.

You heard me—the wrong audience. That’s why nobody’s reading.

That’s why the only thing you see in your analytics are the cricket droppings. (Even the crickets can’t be bothered to stick around.)

And it’s totally frustrating to write stuff that nobody reads. I’ve been there. It sucks.

So you turned to SEO and decided to learn how to rank higher on Google in order to get more organic traffic. You’ve been researching keywords, following Yoast’s suggestions, and doing everything the Internet tells you to do. And you’re still not seeing results.

But what if I told you that, if you tweaked a few things, you’d get all the traffic you could ever want?

That is, if you want to succeed with SEO in 2018, you need to start writing for the right audience.

This will make sense in a bit.

But for now, let’s take a quick detour—straight to the horse’s mouth, as it were.

How to Rank Higher on Google (in 2018) Jake Ballinger Consulting

How to Rank Higher on Google, According to Google

We know Google’s 3 most important ranking factors are links, content, and RankBrain. If you want to be successful with SEO in 2018 and rank at the top of the SERPs (search engine results pages), you need to optimize for all three factors.

Google's Top 3 Search Ranking Factors from Search Engine Land

Let’s briefly cover each:

  1. Links: A hyperlink from somebody else’s website to your website. Social media and platforms like Youtube and Pinterest don’t count!
  2. Content: The actual stuff on your website that you produce as part of a content marketing strategy.
  3. RankBrain: Google’s machine learning AI that helps them understand both the context of your page and user satisfaction.

Alright, detour over. Let’s delve into the meat of the matter.

How to Get More Traffic and Links: Stop Writing for the Wrong Audience

You’re making a major mistake with your content marketing.

Most people create content exclusively for their ideal customer avatar—the person who is most likely to buy from their business. The person they’re trying to serve. Their perfect client.

There’s just one little issue here.

If the foundation of Google’s algorithm is the high-quality links that point to your website, why aren’t you writing for the people who have the power to link to you?

Your ideal customer avatar probably doesn’t have a website. And if they don’t have a website, they can’t link to you.

In order to be successful with SEO and content marketing in 2018, you need to write for the people who have the power to link to you. Your niche’s influencers.

Hear me out here—I am not saying that every single thing you churn out has to be for the influencers in your niche. I think a blend of content is the best approach. Pick a percentage that works for you—try 80% for your customer avatar and 20% for your influencers and see what happens.

But how do you find these influencers?

How to Find Your Influencers

Google for them.

Seriously. I want you to open a new tab right now and type the following:

“topic” + blogs to follow (where “topic” is a topic of your choice)

This will bring up lists of curated blogs in your niche. La crème de la crème, if you will.

Your search results should look something like this:

Once you have these search results, I want you to do the following:

  1. Open a new spreadsheet or draw a table in a notebook.
  2. Create two columns: the site’s name and the site’s URL
  3. For each website you found in your Google search, do a quick quality check.
    • Check to see when it was last updated, what the quality of the information is, how many comments they’re getting, etc.
  4. Add any sites that pass your quality check to your table of influencers.
  5. Repeat this process until you have 20-25 high-quality websites with linking potential.

Now that you have a list of 20+ blogs that you can ask for links, it’s time to move to the next step of the process.

Find a Salient Topic

You know that adage in business that says someone else’s success is just proof that you can be successful in the same niche?

You want to adopt this mindset for your content marketing.

Don’t do this for every piece of content you create—that would make the web a very boring place—but do it for your SEO-focused content.

You want to look for a proof of topic in one of your influencers’ blogs.

Here’s how:

  1. Open the blog of a website in your list of influencers
    • Limit your search to the most recent 5-7 posts
  2. Note any common topics or themes you see in a separate list.
    • Note any emotionally charged posts or strong opinions.
  3. Repeat this until you have 5-10 high-quality topics.

If you’re struggling, try these simple formulas to bring up pages.

  • site:[influencer’s URL] + inurl:links + “keyword”
  • site:[influencer’s URL] + inurl:resources + “keyword”
  • site:[influencer’s URL] + inurl:best + “keyword”

These search strings are designed to bring up resource pages on your influencer’s website. (If you don’t have a specific keyword, just leave that out.)

For example, if I found the site Modern Hiker and I noticed a lot of hiking blogs talk about hikes around San Diego, I would search like this:

Now I see Modern Hiker has plenty of pages about hikes around San Diego, so I can add “hikes around San Diego” to my list of salient topics.

Once you’ve found these specific pages, you have TONS of content that your influencers care about AND you can see exactly what they’re linking out to.

In other words, you know exactly what kind of content to create.

There’s another bonus, too.

You now have a goldmine of additional influencers to add to your list.

After you’ve chosen a topic from your list, it’s time to find a proper keyword.

Keyword Research: A Cautionary Long-Tail

You’ve probably heard about long-tail keywords. They’re keywords with low search volume and also incredibly low competition.

In other words, these are the keywords that everyone is telling you to target.

They’re wrong. Do not target long-tail keywords.

Why not?

Because Google now understands search intent.

Here’s an example:

Google understands search intent

These are the featured snippets for two different search queries in Google: “foods that burn fat” and “fat-burning foods”.

You and I know that a fat-burning food is a food that burns fat. These are the same search query.

But Google didn’t always know that difference. And so it would treat “foods that burn that” and “fat-burning foods” as two entirely different queries.

As a result, many companies had entire SEO strategies based on Google’s missing knowledge.

You would see a company that published a blog post optimized for the keyword “foods that burn fat”…and the next day they’d publish a nearly identical blog post optimized for the keyword “fat-burning foods”.

When Google released the Panda update, all the rankings those websites had got totally destroyed.

Needless to say, this strategy of optimizing for specific keywords—the long-tail keyword strategy—is dead.

Here’s what you should do instead.

The Goldilocks Approach to Keyword Research

Optimize for medium-tail keywords and topics.

What’s a medium-tail keyword?

A medium-tail keyword is a keyword that hit the sweet spot between search volume and competition.

In other words, they’re your Goldilocks keywords. Not impossible to rank for, but they’re getting enough traffic to justify your efforts.

In fact, Brian Dean of Backlinko recommends that you focus exclusively on medium-tail keywords in 2018.

By now you’re probably wondering, “that’s great, Jake, but how do I find medium-tail keywords?”.

How to Find Goldilocks Keywords

First, fire up your favorite keyword research tool. You can use the UberSuggest, Soovle, or another free tool. I subscribe to Ahrefs (and I love them dearly), so I’m going to use their keyword planner.

Please, please, please don’t use the Google Keyword Planner. It’s designed for advertisers and not SEO.

Now return to your list of salient topics and enter it into your keyword research tool.

This looks like an amazing keyword—it’s super easy to rank for and it looks like it gets a lot of traffic.

But can we do better?

Ahrefs also suggests the keyword “Best hikes in San Diego”. It looks like the traffic is the same, but let’s take a peek.

This does look like a better keyword, if only slightly—it gets more clicks.

Then it’s decided: I know that my influencers care about hikes in San Diego and I know that “best hikes in San Diego” is a good, low-competition keyword, so I’m going to target that in my next post.

If you also subscribe to Ahrefs, I really recommend you check out the Ahrefs keyword research guide.

Why This Works

To recap, here’s what you just did:

  1. Found the influencers in your niche and decided you’re going to create content specifically for them
  2. Identified some salient topics
  3. Translated that topic into a winning Goldilocks keyword

Since you now know that Google’s #1 ranking factor is links, you decided to stop writing exclusively for your target audience. Instead, you decided that you’d focus your SEO and content marketing efforts on serving the influencers in your niche by identifying a topic they care about and finding a Goldilocks keyword that represents that topic.

Now how do you create content that people want to link to?

Make People Want to Link to Your Content

Did you know that there’s a psychology behind why we share and link to certain topics?

Marketers have known these tricks for ages, but the best part is that they still work.

These are called share triggers, and they’re incredibly powerful.

Share Triggers from Jonah Berger

Have you read the book Contagious by Jonah Berger?

If not, you really should grab a copy.

In it, Berger—a professor of marketing at the Wharton school of business—goes over the six share triggers, which he denotes with the acronym STEPPS.

Watch the video below for a brief overview of these.

Social Currency is the idea that we share things that make us look good.

Triggers are salient, social cues that remind us to talk about something. By associating our content with environmental triggers, we stay top of mind.

Emotions, particularly strong emotions, cause us to share and talk about things.

Public is visibility—when it’s easier to see something, it’s easier to do it. And once we’ve created a common language around your idea or content, it effectively markets itself.

Practical Value is the utility. We are more likely to share and talk about incredibly useful things.

Stories are the idea of wrapping an idea in a broader narrative.

Berger says that content or ideas that contain each of these six share triggers are more likely to be shared and talked about.

You should bake as many of these as possible into every piece of content you create.

Example: Parisian Love Ad by Google

In 2009, Google released one of my favorite advertisements ever: Parisian Love.

(Yes, I know it’s super nerdy to have a favorite advertisement. Remember, I do SEO and content marketing. We do stuff like watch advertisements on YouTube. It’s not weird.)

It’s only a minute long, and I think you should watch it:

Did you get that tingly feeling? Don’t you want to share this?

This ad had the following share triggers:

  • Emotions
  • Storytelling

Even with only two share triggers, you wanted to share this ad. It worked for me—I just shared it with you!

Boost Your Rankings by Optimizing for RankBrain

RankBrain is the final piece of the puzzle. But what is RankBrain?

RankBrain is Google’s machine learning-AI that helps it understand search intent, the context of a page in the search results, and how pleased users are with a specific search result.

There are a couple of metrics you want to optimize for RankBrain:

  • Click-through Rate (CTR): How often someone clicks on your page in the search results
  • Dwell Time: How long someone spends on your page
  • Bounce Rate: How often someone returns to the search results without interacting with your page

You’ve heard the phrase “the riches are in the niches”?

It’s true. Even though it’s business advice, it makes good marketing advice, too. And it’s also good SEO advice.

Think about it: if you’re ranking for a ton of irrelevant keywords, people are going to click on your site, realize that this resource does not help them solve their problem or answer their question, and then they’re going to leave.

That doesn’t signal good things to Google.

RainBrain is supposed to help Google better understand your page and user experience so that the search results get better.

That said, nobody will have the chance to leave your website is they don’t click on it.

And that’s where the CTR-Magnet method comes in.

Get More Organic Traffic (Fast) with the CTR-Magnet Method

Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, went on Twitter and asked his followers to search a keyword he ranks for and click on the result.

Three hours later, his result moved from #7 on the SERPs to #1.

The SEO industry then concluded that your click-through rate—how often a searcher clicks on your website instead of your competitor’s—is a ranking factor.

Today, we categorize this under “user experience signals”, which is the job of RankBrain.

So how do you improve your click-through rate?

Brian Dean from Backlinko did a quick video on this:

Brian recommends mining words from AdWords ads and including them in your Title and Meta Description tags. Since AdWords specialists spend a long of time split testing their copy, you can be confident that any recurring words or phrases you notice have been proven to convert.

If you’re having trouble finding AdWords ads to steal from, you can include some power words. Power words convey a sense of immediacy or simplicity.

According to Brian, the following are examples of power words:

  • Today
  • RIght now
  • Fast
  • Works quickly
  • Step-by-step
  • East
  • Quick
  • Simple

Don’t overdo it—remember, less is more!

Engage Readers by Improving Dwell Time

Dwell time is the amount of time spent on your page.

If you’ve made it to this part of the post, chances are you’re either skimming or you’ve been reading the entire post.

If you’re reading, how long do you think you’ve been on this page?

In other words, I want you to think: what have I done to lengthen the amount of time you spend reading this blog post?

Two major things:

First, I’ve written a decently long post. It takes longer to read this post than it does to read a short post of 500 words.

Second, I’ve embedded video. Every minute you spend watching a video that I included in this blog post is another minute you spent on this website!

And these are two key ways to improve dwell time: create longer content that’s still easy to read, and use video.

Of course, you still have the problem of users arriving on your page and being unsure if it’s the right page to answer their question.

After all, nobody is going to read your post or watch any video if they can’t even get past the introduction.

Kill Your Bounce Rate with Honey Introductions

You’ve written a kickass title and meta description. People are clicking your page in the search results faster than a dog after a squirrel.

But if you don’t let your readers know they’re in the right place, they’ll bounce back to the search results. Not ideal.

Your solution? Write a sticky introduction.

I call these “honey introductions” because they’re designed to get your readers to stick to your page like flies flock to honey.

(Okay, maybe I’m mixing metaphors a bit.)

Neil Patel, on the QuickSprout blog, writes about four methods for crafting awesome honey introductions.

Essentially, these boil down to:

  • Paint their worst fear
  • Create FOMO
  • Use a formula, like AIDA
  • Show a benefit

This boils down to effecting an emotional reaction in your reader.

Great novelists across the centuries have been doing this.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” (The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, 1963).
  • “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez, 1967).
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin, 1813).
  • “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” (The Trial, Franz Kafka, 1914).
  • “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” (If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino, 1979).
  • “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” (The Secret History, Donna Tartt, 1992).

Sylvia Plath situates me in postwar America and piques my curiosity.

Gabriel García Márquez confuses me.

Jane Austin makes a bold statement.

Franz Kafka paints a terrifying picture and induces sympathy for his narrator.

Italo Calvino directly addresses me.

Donna Tartt, the master of clickbait, makes me want to read the next sentence by being tastefully ambiguous and implying the narrator killed Bunny.

Your introduction should elicit an emotional response in your reader and make them curious about what comes next.

Bonus: Help Google Understand What Your Page is About

I’m sure you’ve found totally irrelevant results in Google.

You probably bounced back to the search results as soon as you knew you weren’t in the right place.

What if I told you there was a way to reduce the chances of that happening? If you could help Google understand what your page is about, wouldn’t that be a huge advantage in getting specific, targeted traffic?

Fortunately, there’s a simple way to do this: LSI keywords.

LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing) Keywords are related keywords that help Google better understand your content.

If Google sees the word “Apple” on your page, does Google know if you’re talking about the technology company or the fruit?

But if you include words like “Vitamin C”, “baking time”, and “sugar”, it’s pretty obvious to Google that you’re talking about the fruit.

How do you find the best LSI keywords?

Let’s say you just published a post on bookstores in San Francisco.

So you run to Google the phrase “bookstores in san francisco” and see what comes up.

Google search: bookstores in San Francisco

And, scrolling to the bottom of the search results, you see that Google suggests the following searches:

By including some of these keywords in your post content, you can improve your rankings in Google.

After all, these are terms that are coming directly from Google.

Let’s say that “children’s bookstore in san francisco” is totally irrelevant to your post. If that’s the case, don’t feel pressured to include that keyword.

As you scroll through the search results, you might notice Google has bolded some terms that aren’t exactly your keyword.

Dog Eared Books, Valencia Street, Mission District…these are all LSI keywords! Include them in your pot and meta description to give Google a stronger idea of what your page is about.

That said, I don’t recommend keyword stuffing.

Conclusion: How to Rank Higher in Google

We covered a lot in this post! Here’s what you learned:

  1. Google’s three biggest search factors
  2. How to find and write content for the right audience
  3. How to make that audience more likely to share, link to, and talk about your content
  4. How to improve important RankBrain metrics that will give your content a boost in the rankings

What did you learn? Did anything connect the dots for you? Are you having trouble implementing some of these steps? Let me know by contacting me through my website below.

Jake Ballinger is an SEO and content marketing consultant for environmentally responsible business owners. A lover of travel and literature, he was an early adopter of his favorite invention ever, the ebook. He also writes at his travel blog, Flâneur Files.