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Greg Gifford

Greg Gifford Director of Search and Social

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SEO 101 - How Does Google Rank Sites?

One question we hear from auto dealers all the time is “Why don’t I rank higher in Google?” Most business owners don’t understand how Google (or other search engines) work or why their sites don’t show up higher in search results. When you start looking at local results, it can get confusing quickly – and the top ranking results don’t always make sense if you don’t understand how the search engines calculate the results.

Let’s start with a 10,000 foot view. At the most basic level, Google is dedicated to serving up the most relevant results possible to any search query entered. Think about how Google makes its money. Pay Per Click (PPC) ads, right? If Google didn’t provide accurate search results, users would flock to other more reliable search engines… and with less people using the site, there are less clicks on PPC ads – which means less money in their coffers. So Google’s entire revenue stream hinges on providing awesome results so that people will continue to use it.

When someone enters a search on Google, it tries to provide the most relevant results to that question, based on information that it has in its massive servers. To get the information into the servers so that calculations can be run, Google uses automated programs called “spiders” to explore websites and examine the content found. Once the websites have been crawled, algorithms are used to determine how the content on each website relates to possible search queries.

Important Signals Used For Ranking

SEO ranking signalsThere are hundreds of signals used by the algorithms, all weighted differently. While no one outside of Google knows exactly what goes into the algorithm, constant testing has shown us what some of the more important signals are. To be relevant for a certain search phrase, your website needs:

  • The keyword phrase in the title tag
  • The keyword phrase in the H1 heading
  • The keyword phrase in the page text
  • They keyword phrase in the alt text of an image

These are common sense – if you’re not talking about a certain subject on your website, you’re not going to come up in search results for that subject. A great example of this is the age-old debate about using “pre-owned vehicles” instead of “used cars” (I wrote a great blog post about this if you’d like more info). Basically, if you use the phrase “pre-owned vehicles” because you think it sounds better, you’re not going to show up in searches for “used cars” because you don’t have the phrase “used cars” anywhere on your website.

You also have to look at the scope of your search. A search for “used cars New Jersey” is going to be much more competitive than a local search for “used cars South River.” Instead of competing against local dealers, you’ve got every dealer in the state fighting for the 10 spots on page one. You’ve got to optimize for variations on keywords as well, since people won’t always search using the same phrases.

Links to your website are another extremely powerful signal. Google looks at links to your site as “votes” that you have useful content. More links usually means higher rankings. With recent updates to the algorithm, Google has placed less value on the overall quantity of links and more value on the relevancy of links. In other words, a link from a plumber 3 states away won’t count as much for your dealership as a link from a local automotive blogger.

Citations are another important off-site signal for local rankings. Citations are mentions of your dealership’s name, address, and phone number on another website (usually without a link).

Why Is The Guy Across Town Ranking Higher?

This is another question we hear all the time. You do a simple search on Google and not only do you not show up on page one, your competitor across down does… and he’s got an awful website. You know he’s not doing any SEO, but there he sits, near the top of the page.

While it could be any number of factors, it’s most likely one (or a combination) of these:

Your competitor has more links

It really could be as simple as the number of links he’s got pointed to his website. Head over to and run a quick test. Enter your domain name, and then add your competitor so you can compare results. Look at the Domain Authority – this number represents the predicted “strength” of a website, compared to all other websites, on a scale of 0-100. The example below is a real-world example, looking at a car dealer in New Jersey and a few competitors. Notice how the dealer on the right has a higher Domain Authority – and he also has a substantially higher number of inbound links. Since the dealer on the right has nearly 10 times the number of links, it’s easy to figure out why he’s ranking higher.

Open Site Explorer example

Your competitor has more citations

While they’re not as powerful as links, citations are still a very strong signal for local rankings. It’s entirely possible that your competitor simply has more citations than you do. Check your site on – it’s a good starting point for local citation sources. If you want to get more advanced, use Whitespark’s Local Citation Finder (it costs money, but it’s very affordable and worth the cost). Again, run a comparison against your competitor and see how you stack up.

Your competitor has an older domain name

We often hear the “Why don’t I rank?” question from new dealerships. The age of your domain name matters. It can take several months for a brand new site to get indexed fully. Also, age is a factor in citations and links – the longer a site has been around, the more likely it is that it has inbound links and various citations. If you’ve got a new dealership, make sure you use, make sure you claim your location on Google+ Local, Yahoo! Local, and Bing Local.

Your competitor has different inventory

You’ve got to compare apples to apples. The average age of your inventory might be different. You might lean more in the direction of trucks and SUVs, while your competitor sells more highline cars.

Your competitor has more cars

One of the first things we check when we get the “Why does this guy rank higher?” question is the inventory page. If you have 30 cars and your competitor has 100 cars, the odds are much more in his favor. Remember, we’re talking relevancy. If he’s got 3 times the inventory, he’s also got 3 times more pages on his site, and also 3 times the number of listings for all of his exports.

It’s important to realize that none of these are the “silver bullet” – you can’t expect to jump to page one with a simple fix. Many times, it’s a combination of factors that lead to your competitor ranking higher. Google is constantly updating its algorithm, making things even more complicated. Many dealers are still using outdated SEO tactics that haven’t worked in years.

You can’t just throw up a website for your dealership and expect to show up on page one of Google. Those days are long gone. If you want to improve how your site ranks, you’ve got to optimize your site, you’ve got to get links, and you’ve got to get citations. If you’d like help, AutoRevo’s automotive SEO team can take over the strategy and implementation of your SEO efforts. Wouldn’t you rather have an expert in your corner so you don’t have to do it all yourself?

(originally posted over on

Jim Bell
Awesome overview Greg and thanks for sharing. This just seems to be an ongoing issue for most dealers across the U.S. We all want to be #1 in everything and don't really know where to start. Thanks for the great overview.

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