Do you want to beat the competition in the Google game?

Of course you do. In today’s digital-centric world, earning one of those top three slots in Google will drive traffic to your website and front door. Fall below that and your business may as well not exist online and in the real world.

It can be challenging for startups and emerging businesses to rank high in Google. Newer websites don’t have the traction with the search engine that more established ones do.

There is good news on the flip side to that reality. New sites don’t come with the issues that older ones do. They don’t have irrelevant legacy content, older page structures, and slow back end systems.

It may seem impossible to stay on top of the search engine optimization (SEO) game in today’s dynamic, yet mysterious, Google universe. Google keeps adding enhancements and tweaking the rules, but never really shares all the details with the businesses that are trying to compete to win in search.

Here’s what we can confirm about Google’s rules right now. Leverage them to take your business website to the top of the search results when prospective customers look online for the products and services your business offers.

1. Be the best.

If your blog posts, videos, infographics, and other content are the best, Google will serve them up. If you do one single thing to improve your website’s Google ranking, invest in awesome content. It’s the foundation of any Google optimization strategy. SEO can’t be effective without it.

2. Check out your competition.

Do you get a bad taste in your mouth when you find out that a competitor has beaten you to the top search on Google? It shouldn’t.

You should see this as a temporary setback that you can use to fuel your competitive spirit and get better.

If a competitor is ranking higher on the search engine results page (SERP), find out what they’re doing right immediately so you can implement it on your site — except learn from the mistakes in their strategy and do things better.

Don’t let a 2nd or 3rd place finish on the SERPs get you down or frustrate you. Use it as a great opportunity to play the Google game like a pro.

3. Pick the right keywords.

Be selective about which keywords you want to rank for. Focus on ones that relate to your business and differentiate it from your competitors. Use them regularly throughout your site and on your blog. Don’t make the common mistake of selecting too many keywords, too. It will only confuse Google. And don’t overuse them. It will only make Google think you’re still using that formerly popular — and now very frowned upon — tactic of keyword stuffing.

4. Stay trendy.

If your SEO strategy hinges on what’s happening currently, then you’ll doom yourself to only reacting to changes in Google’s landscape. That’s not what the Google game is about. Leverage tools like Google Trends to identify emerging trends on what you should be ranking for tomorrow.

In a digital landscape that constantly in flux, you can’t waste time sitting on your working search term strategy today. You need to be proactive and keep on the lookout for tomorrow’s trending terms and topics so you can get ahead of everyone else.

5. Vary content types.

Many businesses automatically think written word when it comes to site content. The truth is that visual forms of content, such as infographics, maps, charts, and videos, can provide significant SEO value. Many bloggers love linking to this type of content, so it’s great for generating back links.

6. Pay as much attention to your website’s backend as it’s front.

Sure, the actual on-page experience is what, in the end, engages visitors on your website.

But it’s important to get the backend stuff they never see right, as well. If you don’t, the website might deliver a perfect user experience, but Google won’t know about it, understand it, or be able to track it — and if Google can’t serve it up to searchers, then what’s the point?

Never forget small but critical things like:

  • Title tags: Use them to explain to Google what the content on the page is about and include the key words you want to rank for. Bonus points for putting your main keyword near the beginning of the tag.
  • Meta descriptions: These are the page descriptors that show up with Google results. Use them to make it clear what the page is about so people will want to visit it.
  • Headings: Leverage these to break your content into consumable bites (particularly important for smartphones) and provide Google with additional clues about what the page is about.
  • URLs: These should be simple to read and descriptive, and, if possible, include your keywords.
  • Alt tags:Add a description of each image that includes some of your key words.
  • Internal links: Include easy-to-follow links to other website pages that encourage visitors to explore the site and check out more content. This will help prevent bounces, which send a bad signal to Google.

All these things are basic, relatively easy to do, and definitely worthwhile.

7. Prioritize earning back links.

Having a lot of high-authority back links is critical if you want to dominate in search. They’re the links from respected websites to content on your site. They help convey authority on your website, which is a big factor in Google’s ranking criteria.

So why do so few businesses make them a priority?

The most common reason has to do with outreach. Connecting with top tier experts who have desirable website authority can be time consuming and not always so fruitful. Moreover, you’re not the only one looking to get some good links — your competition is likely trying to get back links for their own site.

If you want your outreach to be more efficient and take up less resources on your part, don’t just request a link from your prospect. Try offering them something in return. Perhaps you know someone who can write a great article or shoot an awesome video for them. Know who you’re talking to and get creative about what they could find meaningful.

Tip: One other way you can earn more back links is to create website content that has original data and insights. Subject matter experts will be more open to the prospect of helping with your link building if they get the chance to link to something not available anywhere else.

8. Make sure your content is the appropriate length.

Many have tried to figure out what length of content is the sweet spot for the Google algorithm. They have all failed. To this day, the best length for content is still a mystery. We know one thing for certain, though: content that delves deep into the subject matter is viewed by Google as complete and makes it more likely to perform better than shorter blurbs that don’t get into the meat of the material.

So if you’re going to produce content, the “ideal” length would be the length it would take you to cover a topic thoroughly, without making it too unwieldy for readers who are on mobile.

9. Check all parts of your site are really mobile optimized.

Your website has probably been optimized for viewing on smartphones and tablets to some extent. A half-hearted job isn’t going to cut it though. You need to be 100% mobile friendly. Even just a few less-than-optimal pages can give Google a negative user experience signal and cause your rankings to dip. Google offers a tool that can help you see if your site is fully mobile optimized. Fix any errors the tool finds as soon as you can.

Tip: Another factor that can make or break your search rankings is your website performance page load speed. Tools are available that can help you monitor and make appropriate changes.

10. Don’t always play by the rules.

Google became a powerhouse because users appreciate the quality of service it delivers. Search Google for information and it quickly comes back with something of value, based on what it knows about its users and the websites it tracks.

Google knows their entire operation could come crashing down if it loses user trust by delivering bad search results. What would happen if it started sending users to terrible digital experiences?

Business owners concerned about ranking often get so lost in the minutiae of Google rules and legend, they lose sight of the big picture: Google is ultimately a service business.

It’s important to think big picture every now and then. Ask yourself: What can you do to create the best overall digital experience for the people in your prospect base?

It’s likely that if you do, you’ll rank high in search. When Google sees that a site delivers for its visitors, it will promote it to more people. It’s that simple.

Sure, Google rules play into how you rank online. However, it’s important to step back and experience your digital properties through the eyes of your clients. It will help you see how you can improve them so they meet — and beat — their expectations.