5 reasons why rankings are lying and how to fix them

Your “pretty good” rankings look pretty good. 

Except they’re not. At least, not when you dig beneath the surface a bit. 

You’ll quickly realize that the “pretty good” ranking is actually more of a mirage, an oasis in a sea of fierce competition that means you’ll unlikely, if ever, get to drink from the firehose of traffic you so desperately seek. 

Here’s how to uncover whether your “pretty good” rankings will likely drive revenue soon, or whether you’ll need to fix some short-term pain to achieve the long-term ROI you deserve. 

Problem 1: Top 10 isn’t good enough – top ~3-5 minimum should be

Pull up your current organic keyword rankings. And feast your eyes on all these “pretty good” rankings you’re picking up for the highly relevant keywords you seek.

Looking pretty good on the surface, right?

Picking up a couple of top 10 rankings and then more top 20 to 30 rankings should bode well for the future.

The keyword in the last sentence is “should.”

Let’s look again, expanding the list out and then try to focus on what you don’t see

Give up?

No top five rankings!

But why is this bad? 

Two reasons:

  • This hints at a lack of topical authority. You could argue that many top 20–30 rankings do bode well for the future. However, without topical authority, you’ll always face an uphill battle to deliver on the long-term ROI you’ll need to justify all the time, effort and expense it’s realistically gonna take.
  • The second issue comes down to organic click-through rates. On average, the top five positions get ~70-80% of all clicks. This means getting stuck ranking outside the top five might only net you a fraction of the clicks you’ll actually need to drive 7+-figure customer acquisition. 

Ranking in the top 10 is a nice start. 

But it’s not good enough because position 10 probably gets the same sliver of traffic that position 20, 30 or 100+ might – which is zero.

And that’s a bad sign – especially when combined with these next few problems.

Problem 2: Your ‘good’ content isn’t actually aligned with what searchers actually want.

Big brands catch all the breaks.

They can publish mediocre content on their giant site and typically do “pretty well.”

Everyone else? Can’t. Here’s why.

Let’s take another random SERP example.

Say your current page is an opinion article, a how-to or even a landing page.

Now, let’s look at the actual content types currently ranking:

SERP overview for terraform alternatives

Uh-oh! Your article might be written well by real subject experts. (None of that surface-level AI garbage).

It might be full of the technical babel-speak your ICPs adore.

But, it ain’t gonna rank as-is! Not likely and not anytime soon.

So, while it might be “good enough” for top 20 right now, that’s in no way a guarantee it’s ever gonna see the top coveted positions 3-5 that actually deliver 80%+ of results for this keyword.

Problem 3: Keyword cannibalization means on-page optimization is off, too

Analyzing underperforming content with a balanced scorecard will immediately make some of these problems more obvious.

Because when you lack topical authority (little-to-no top five rankings) and have search intent + content mismatch issues, you’ll often also see keyword cannibalization (or “pretty good” rankings for a relevant keyword that makes it seem like you’re on the right track, yet will almost always hold you back long-term).

This is a bad sign.

Because generally speaking:

  • When you’re writing and optimizing a single piece of content for a specific keyword or topic. 
  • You (should) be covering semantically related subtopics, related questions and additional content types (images or video) specific to those keywords or topics.

So even if you have one piece of content picking up multiple “pretty good” keyword rankings, you’re highly unlikely to ever rank well enough (top five) for those additional keywords. (Unless you’re seeing lots of SERP overlap.) 

The easiest way to spot this issue is when you see a good, in-depth article that’s optimized well for the primary keyword target and yet optimized poorly for the secondary or tertiary ones you’re now cannibalizing.

In other words, this:

Kubernetes CRD article - on-page optimizationKubernetes CRD article - on-page optimization

Great content, on-page optimization and search intent alignment for one keyword.

Yet, double-checking on-page optimization for the secondary cannibalized keywords now makes this content ordinary by comparison.

There are lots of missing “top topics” or semantically related concepts that should be covered in this article. 

And “average” optimization overall relative to the competitors who’re almost always likely to continue out-ranking you if this issue isn’t addressed.

These three problems covered so far are extremely common but focused almost exclusively on how well you’re doing keyword research + content strategy.

In other words, all factors are 100% in your control and are already on your own site.

And yet, we haven’t even touched on off-site strength issues!

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Problem 4: Your competition is incredibly fierce

Keyword difficulty (KD) is a biased, incomplete metric at best – and a completely misleading or lying one at worst. 

Look it up in nearly every keyword research tool. What you see is not a true measure of competitors’ content quality or domain strength but primarily the quantity of referring domains to each content page ranking in the top 10.

This is a giant problem because you’ll see false positives. 

You’ll be seduced into selecting a keyword or topic because the “KD” says “easy” or “low” when it’s anything but that.

Take a gander at the screenshot below for one of these “lower KD” keywords, and now parse out the number of referring domains from the actual brand and domain strength of the current top 10:

SERP overview for generative AI businessSERP overview for generative AI business

Recapping the above screenshot illustrates:

  • Crazy-strong domain-level strength.
  • Strong page-level strength (dozens to hundreds of high-quality links to each content piece). 
  • Giant brand names (Gartner, HBR, BCG, McKinsey).

I mean, c’mon. It should be immediately obvious already.

Search is a zero-sum game. For you to win, others have to lose. That means you need to unseat these competitors. (See “Problem 1” above.)

And so what are the chances of doing just that, on this SERP, with these competitors? Especially if you’re not already a giant brand (household category leader + DR 90+)? 

Slim to none. Or next to impossible.

Either way, it’s a terrible SERP to compete for most mortal brands.  

And yet, we’re still not done unpacking this SERP competition angle just yet, either.

Problem 5: The quality and quantity of referring domains are out of your league

Now, let’s put all these problems together.

There’s usually not just one reason you’re not ranking in the top five. There’s lots of them playing out on the same keyword + content match you’re trying to improve.

And that all becomes a lot more challenging when facing an arms race in referring domains.

The SEO Catch-22 most don’t like to acknowledge is that the best-converting keywords on the web (i.e., the ones that generate the most revenue for your business) are also the most competitive and difficult to rank for (i.e., which means it’s going to require a bigger investment and take longer to show meaningful results).

Once again, let’s look at an example to visualize these issues:

SERP overview for best live streaming platformSERP overview for best live streaming platform

The brands are big, domain ratings are high and the content is good and well-aligned with search.

Likewise, the quality and quantity of referring domains in the top five are also extremely strong.

This means that, in an ideal world, you’ll need:

All before ever writing a single word for this topic!

Otherwise, you’re just setting yourself up for failure (or at least, months-to-years of waiting and getting yelled at by bosses, investors, spouses and more).

Don’t settle for mediocre rankings

“Pretty good” rankings are just that. They’re a decent jumping-off point.

But they’re not always a good sign that:

  • You’re on the right track.
  • Your SEO + content strategy is going to work long-term.
  • There’s still not a ton of distribution required to drive results anytime soon.

Pretty good rankings are like a mirage.

They seem nice on the surface. They could be a good sign.

Or, they could actually hint at deeper problems that will continue to sacrifice results for months and years to come if they’re not fixed ASAP.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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