This is a common question that web site owners and developers often ask. It can be hard to digest whilte trying to figure out why a competitor’s site is outranking yours. Especially when said site appears to be of lower quality than your own. As Matt Cutts offers some thoughts in this video, it’s important to remember:
1) You can’t see 100% of a competitor’s backlinks – Whether you’re using SEOmoz, Ahrefs, Screaming Frog, Majestic SEO, or the latest links report from Webmaster Tools, it’s important to remember that different reports pull up different links from different sources. As Matt explains, your report might have pulled up “spammy” backlinks from a low-quality site but missed some more relevant links from authoritative sites. Looking at one report won’t tell you the whole picture and you always have to remember that there is an element of the unknown.
2) An incomplete competitor analysis – While backlinks may not tell a complete story, there are other forms of marketing that you can’t account for because they’re not immediately available. For example, how would you know how much a competitor is investing into a paid search campaign? Are they using TV ads or aggressive e-mail blasts or traditional mailing ads?
If this teaches you something, nowadays, it’s important to diversify your marketing campaigns and integrate different types when possible so that you aren’t overly reliant in one area, if it suddenly fails.
3) Google’s algorithm and updates aren’t perfect and are a continuous work in progress – Even Matt has to admit and agree that there are some things that Google’s algorithm can’t account for. For example, a hacked site that is using illicit tactics in order to gain rankings isn’t something that a single update targets. But consistent updates may help clear up SERPs of sites who clearly manipulated their backlinks. It may take awhile for Google to catch up when it comes to that particular industry.
4) Risky tactics can’t and don’t achieve rewards that last forever – Do high rewards for high risks sound like a good strategy for your business? Think again. In some industries (such as online pharmaceuticals, car insurance and online gambling) the market is inundated with players who rely on these tactics in order to maximize their profits in a short amount of time. The site might rank well, but in the long-run it cannot last. How long will you see these people in the top spots? A few weeks? A few days? This is not a business model you want to take after.
5) The mystery of how Google works – With over 200 updates last year, it’s almost impossible to predict what Google’s next move is. Your best bet is to practice white hat SEO tactics and review Google’s quality guidelines as they apply to your website.