This post picks up from Understanding SEO Right Now: Part 1.
In Part 1 we established the history of Google, and where it is heading. But what is relevant for us right now?
A few key points and refreshers from my previous post and some general concepts:
Search Engines use algorithms to rank websites by subject and relevance. The criteria for evaluating websites are commonly referred to as Ranking Factors. Google calls theirs PageRank.
Primarily PageRank is determined by a robot that crawls websites (the Googlebot). The reason for this is simple, information on the web is so staggering large, a team of humans would not be able to conduct this themselves. Note however in the quest to fool black hat techniques (essentially cheating the system) and improve semantics, Google does employ Human Quality Raters - people employed to check and refine searches.
The PageRank algorithm is one of the best kept secrets on the Internet. If the exact definition of the influence factors relevant for good ranking were known, they would be rendered irrelevant as they could be manipulated. And that manipulation would mean any relevance would be removed (i.e. bad for the user).
Ranking factors are therefore constantly evolving in an effort to reduce the ways black hat SEO causes negative manipulation.
The above explains why there is so much conjecture in SEO. In order to determine basic factors, it involves analysing huge amounts of data to look at cause and effect, and generating a hypothesis from this data, and then keeping vigilant to see how this changes over time.
What Influences PageRank in SEO?
With all of the data below, I have pulled this from analysis by Searchmetrics, a provider of search and social analytics. These guys deal with huge data sets, and are great at crunching the numbers to define trends.
There are four key areas that need to be factored in when it comes to ranking well on Google Search - On Page Coding, On Page Content, Backlinks and Social Shares.
All diagrams show the map of positive correlation, so the further right, the more powerful the factor in question.
This is the absolute basics of SEO, and refers to the way in which a platform is built and the structure of your site.
Googlebot is a machine. It needs certain variables to be standardised so that it can crawl a page and return data.
Think of a book. If it was presented without a title, contents page, headings and chapters, it would be pretty useless to the majority of readers (and pretty hard to find), so these basics need to be fulfilled.
Having good on page coding will not increase your SEO Rankings!
This just levels the playing field - having bad on page coding will down rank you if you don't meet the criteria, but it won't improve it, so we start from this base.
What's Important Right Now
Make sure content is understandable with correct sign posts. Have a meta description, H1 and H2 tags, and presence of keywords in description, title and H1 on each page.
Keyword density no longer applies, however it is important to have keywords in your content. It is better to have keywords in the title and description placed as close to the front as possible, as this shows some positivity (we call this latent semantic indexing).
Fast load times are measured both via a crawl, as well as Google looking at things like Bounce Rates and Click Through Rates on the site itself. It does seem that the highest ranked sites have faster load speeds, so this is likely a factor. Think about any forced video loads or heavy flash elements you may have on your site that slow down the experience, and try and get rid of them.
Lastly, Google considers using key tags in your site as an example of quality (essentially tags in your code that connect pages through reference). So good to have and use:
rel="author" - not quite having an influence yet, but will soon
rel="connonical" - does help
rel="no follow" - is a factor
Ultimately, content is what matters, as this is what people are searching for! We are providing a solution to the thing they are looking for.
Google is trying to bring the most relevant content to match a search, so this investigation for relevance is constantly adjusting to bring the best experience.
Content factors can be broken down simply as content quality, linking, and advertising.
What's Important Right Now
The more images and video on a site, the better. Google really ups sites with a lot of this content, set up with correct tags and meta information.
Sites with lots of internal links seem to rank better. This means things like strong menu structures that make sense to a user, or lots of internal links on the footer. Also internally linked keywords as link text.
The shorter the page title, the better it seems the correlation to the raking. Keep it short with keywords.
Website with a higher word count now seem to be ranked higher (again, showing the preference for content). Note, this is not necessarily the case for Brand Sites, as these are automatically ranked high (most likely by human raters).
Websites with a longer HTML code appear to rank higher than pages in lower positions. This seems to negate after 80,000 characters are reached.
In 2012, integration of Adsense or ad blocks on a site seemed to have negative implications on rankings - better ranked sites has less advertising than those ranked lower. This appears to have now moved closer to a neutral impact (probably as Google is attempting to make a lot of money from Adsense).
This is probably the most important SEO metric on the off-page level, outside of social signals (see point 4).
Ranking of a website is still ultimately determined by the number of backlinks and quality of the linking structure, blended with a social signal count. So this is hugely important for a sites visibly.
Websites that rank in top search result positions tend to have a high number of backlinks. But more importantly these are relevant and high quality ranked links. Top ranked websites have high portions of regular links, "nofollow" links, as well as backlinks with stop words.
What's Important Right Now
Links that have been "artificially" keyword optimised appear to have been discounted in favour of a "natural" link profile. Google has changed site ranking because of this - the Google 'Penguin' update really did a lot of work to kill rankings of sites using nefarious techniques like link farming (getting a large number of fake sites to link to your website).
This really stresses avoiding black hat techniques - do things naturally, or you run the risk of destroying your sites PageRank.
You require a portion of multi-word anchor text links (the text hyperlinking to your site), and "nofollow" links (links from things like comments sections on sites). Google seems to now correlate "unnatural" to having high levels of URLs always linked with the same keyword or anchor unless it is a brand term (as it would be expected to use a brand term when linking).
Backlinks from URLs with high SEO visibility are more valuable than websites with low SEO visibility. This has not changed in any way.
Websites with more backlinks rank higher. However, quality is now as important as quantity.
Google's algorithm, as well as its quality raters are getting better at unmasking link farms. So keep it white hat.
Websites that rank in the top positions on Google have a large number of social signals. In other words well ranked URLs have many shares, likes, comments, plus ones and tweets.
Conversely, the worse the ranking, the lower the number of social signals.
It's that simple.
What's Important Right Now
Both Facebook Likes and Tweets are showing higher correlations than last year.
Google+ and Pinterest however also correlate very highly. Google+ is definitely also growing massively - it is being promoted heavily by Google itself.
Google+ really has switched from a Facebook competitor to the social layer over Google products including SEO. This can affect results based on the fact you are logged in and using Chrome, as this reflects your search history. Content on G+ also gets indexed straight away.
Of all the ranking factors, social signals are the strongest in terms of correlation with better rankings - these are an absolute must to drive positives SEO.
How This Should Be Applied
After reviewing the above, remember that no single factor is a magic silver bullet. Good SEO requires ensuring there is a good solid blend of all of these factors in play, and that you are creating the quality content your audience desires.
One of the simplest ways I have seen to hammer this home is the following:
In this scenario, we are not giving an opportunity for people to engage, be social, or a reason to link back to us. Not good.
It stands to reason that success is driven by doing the opposite:
Apply this mindset, along with a good blend of ranking factor correlations, and you are along way towards SEO success.
If you noticed, I used the phrase "Understanding SEO Right Now" in the title of this post. Google is always adapting their algorithm and evolving PageRank, so take these factors with a grain of salt as they may change.
A good adage for SEO (and digital as a whole) applies here:
"The only constant in SEO is that it is constantly evolving".
Don't get stuck in a slow iteration cycle. Aim to be agile when it comes to your strategy, and follow this simple process:
- Define the metrics for success
- Implement improvements
- Measure impact
- Create new improvements
- Prioritise improvements based on the market and your personnel
How do the above Ranking Factors affect your overall strategy for your platform?
What key changes in your platform approach are required to ensure you give your organisation the best chance for success?