Discover why Google sometimes chooses the wrong page to rank for a keyword, and three ways to fix the issue.
What you're going to learn:
John is furious. Looking at the screen once again he begins cursing it all – the search engine, the ranking report in front of him, even his SEO skills. What makes Google rank the wrong page for the keyword all the time, he wonders.
Why does it continue to mess up his site’s search visibility so much?
It can’t be his fault, can it? He’s done everything by the book, after all. He’s included the right keyword in the copy and created a page that users must find relevant… But the wrong page is ranking for the keyword anyway.
Unfortunately, a lot (and, most likely, Google did not cause the problem at all… John did.)
I hear stories like the one above far too often. Clients and prospects complain that no matter how hard they try, they can’t get the right page to rank for their desired search terms.
Why? And is there a solution or a way to prevent it?
Yes, there is. But before we go any further, we must discuss the issue in more detail.
Well, let me show it to you. I recently noticed this very issue in my ranking report too, actually.
The page (it’s the guide to writing SEO-friendly headlines I published on this blog if you’re wondering,) targets a well-defined phrase, after all. If you look at the content, you’ll see quickly that there can’t be any confusion regarding what the page is about.
Yet, as you can see, a completely irrelevant page that shows up in rankings – It’s the second page of my blog’s archive.
(Now, to be fully transparent, the issue must have been a blip on Google’s side this time. The wrong page ranked for a day only, after that everything went back to normal. One factor that immediately revealed that the issue mightn’t be because of my doing was the sudden massive ranking drop [68 spots.] The next day, the page went back to its usual page one ranking. Nonetheless, the screenshot illustrates the problem quite well.)
Overall, the issue is beyond irritating when it happens. Hell, it can frustrate the heck out of you, in fact, and for a reason.
The page, most likely, doesn’t rank anywhere (or it’s far from the first page, at least.) The reason for that is simple, it’s not relevant enough to warrant ranking high in SERPs.
Even if the page manages to attract some impressions, it, most likely, doesn’t entice users to click it. Once again, it’s not relevant to their search intent. The SERP listing, based on the meta-title and meta-description tags, doesn’t relate to the topic the person’s interested in either.
And so, nobody clicks to your page.
Now, this goes without saying. With low rankings and CTR comes hardly any benefit of showing up in SERPs. You get no search traffic. What goes with it, you get fewer signups, leads, sales…
There are three symptoms of wrong pages ranking for target keywords:
1 – Pages that mention your brand name rank higher than the home page.
Homepage plays an incredibly powerful role in your SEO. It attracts the most visitors and serves as the entry point for all branded searches.
Why, because, providing that you’ve optimized it well, it will rank for your business name or brand.
Seeing other assets, often loosely related to your brand or business name, appearing in SERPs for branded searches suggests the issue.
2 – An older page ranks for a relevant keyword
Another scenario – A page you’ve created a long time ago is still in the SERPs. A new, fresh and more in-depth content you’ve published on the topic recently is nowhere to be found though.
For example, Google often confuses this page on one of my client's sites, and rank completely different one instead.
Both pages might be targeting the same keyword, which might suggest another problem – the keyword cannibalization. But if you’ve done everything well, the newer page should be ranking, nonetheless.
3 – You see system pages or blog articles instead of the current content in the index
You can see this particular issue in the screenshot I included above. In spite of having a proper page dedicated to the topic and targeting the keyword, Google decided to rank a blog archive, a page with hardly any value at all, suddenly.
For the purpose of this guide, I’m going to assume that you know what your most valuable Google queries are.
(If not, you can identify them in the Google Search Console easily. Log in to your GSC account. In the left sidebar, click on Performance. GSC should display the Queries report by default. If not, select it from the main column top navigation.)
With the list of queries at hand, check what pages rank for those in Google.
1 – Check your ranking report.
Most rank tracking tools show the landing page, the first search result on your domain they’ve encountered in SERPs
Note, they can refer to it differently, though. My rank tracker calls it URL.
Other software I have access to calls it an Indexed URL and requires you to click into the keyword to see it.
Nonetheless, the ranking URL is there somewhere in the ranking report.
All you have to do with this information is to assess whether that’s the page you wanted to rank for the keyword.
2 – You can also check it in the GSC directly
When reviewing queries, click on the specific search term in the Google Search Console, and then, change the targeting to Page (in the top nav menu again.)
GSC will show you which pages show up in SERPs for that phrase.
Note that at times you may see more than one page in the report. That’s why I prefer to look at the ranking report as it includes the topmost page.
3 – Search for those phrases in Google
Finally, you can simply use your key phrases in the search engine to evaluate which of your pages will show up.
I admit that it’s a good process as any. Well, maybe except for the manual labor it requires. It could also provide irrelevant data if your location and target market don’t match.
But all things considered, it’s as good method as any other.
Each of the methods I listed above reveals which page is ranking for your target keywords now. However, as you’ve seen from my example above, the ranking URL could be a blip. So, I always recommend you also review the ranking history per keyword, if you have access to it.
Here’s another example from my site. Notice how an irrelevant page jumped into SERPs, then disappeared again.
I honestly can’t explain why Google switched from one page to another temporarily. However, reviewing the ranking history tells me that this was nothing but a blip.
That said, if the other, irrelevant page had stuck as the main ranking URL, I’d know that I have a problem.
You have three options:
Actually, the first thing to do is to check whether there is a relevant (or better, if you will) page to rank for the keyword.
If so, can Google crawl it at all? Could the page be blocked by the Robots.txt file? Run the page by a web crawler to find out.
For example, when evaluating a client’s site lately, I discovered their main content resulting in an error code.
Clearly, a page that doesn’t exist (or cannot be crawled) won’t rank, right?
But the solution isn’t always as simple as getting Google to crawl and index the content, unfortunately.
Often, you have to dig deeper into the issue. Here’s how.
Evaluate how you interlink to the page. Can the Googlebot access it when crawling the site at all? Even if so, how many “jumps” would it have to make to get there?
I’ve found that, sometimes, linking to the page from a higher-level asset (a page closer to the homepage in the site’s architecture) does the trick too.
Review (honestly) if the page is good enough to rank.
Now, I admit that this is a bit controversial method but at times, you have to honestly assess whether the content you’d like to rank is, in fact, authoritative enough for Google to pick it.
The above has nothing to do with how you or your SEO consultant have optimized the content. I’m talking about the information you’ve included. Does it match the user intent for that keyword? Does it provide the information people would want to find there?
You can assess it by comparing your content with top-ranking pages for the keyword.
Visit pages ranking on Google’s page one, make a note of what type of information they provide (hint: I typically list all their sections and look for commonalities) and check their format too.
Within minutes you’ll know how close or far off from them is your page.
Updating or rewriting the page then if often enough to convince Google that this is the asset that should rank for the keyword.
Let’s assume that you do have a better page for the keyword. Google can rank it too and you have ensured that it matches the user intent.
First of all, you need to boost its authority. I recommend you try three things:
But what if that doesn’t work either? What if, in spite of doing all of the above, a wrong page still ranks for your target keyword?
Well, then, the last option is to get rid of that less relevant page.
However, I wouldn’t advocate deleting it. The page is ranking already. Google considers it a valuable resource (although for a wrong keyword.) It suggests that you can use this page to drive traffic, nonetheless.
You’ll have to try two things with it, though.
Now you know how to overcome the issue when a wrong page is ranking for the keyword.
About the Author
Pawel Grabowski is a freelance SEO consultant helping SaaS businesses grow their organic traffic and revenue with SEO and content.
Learn more about Pawel here.