It’s that time of the year again when Searchmetrics releases its annual ranking factors study, which has become a valuable tool for understanding how ranking changes each year and what we can do to further optimise our sites for success.
This year, the emphasis continues to be on content, with high quality, relevance, word count, grammar and media rich content being that which ranks higher. Keywords remain reasonably important, but it was found that these have diminished slightly and the search engines now look for an entire topic, rather than individual words more often.
Backlinks also proved to be an important factor, with the quality and quantity of both being taken into account. Good site structure also proved to be highly desirable for ranking highly, including performance, internal and external linking and the presence of meta information such as titles and descriptions.
Surprisingly, not much has changed when it comes to social. Whilst it is of course an element of ranking well, the correlation between a good search position and social media hasn’t changed much from last year’s study.
When it comes to how accurate the results are, Searchmetrics say:
We are not Google. The analysis and evaluation of ranking factors using our data is not based on speculation, but upon well-founded interpretation of the facts; namely the evaluation and structuring of web site properties with high positions in the search results.
The ranking evaluations of Searchmetrics are exact, fresh and based on huge amounts of data. We aggregate billions of data points on a monthly basis, and provide an answer to the 64-million dollar question, – Which factors distinguish well-placed sites from those with lower positions in the Google search results?
So the results are important to anyone involved in the SEO space and even those not in the profession. Businesses that understand how their site works will be much better placed when it comes to using SEO services and having their site designed and built in the first place.
So without further ado, let’s have a more in-depth look at what this year’s study can tell us.
Rank Correlations 2014 at a Glance
In the graphic from the study below, the x-axis relates to the “correlation coefficient”. This means that the longer the bar, the higher the correlation is between the ranking factor and a good search position. Those without any value indicate that there’s no measurable correlation and those with a shorter bar, the lower the correlation is. Those with negative values should be interpreted by reversing those in the positive range.
Technical SEO – Site Architecture and Performance
Previous studies have noted a rising trend in assessing a site based on its architecture and performance and this is again more pronounced this year. A site that loads quickly is important, as is the following:
- Positioning of keyword in title
- Length of URL
- Use of H1, H2
- Meta description
- Video integration
According to the study, the top 30 sites that were included for analysis all shared similar features that adhered to the above when it came to site architecture. Keywords in the domain name or URL are no longer very important and this is no surprise as this particular correlation has been dropping for some time now. Shorter URLs and domain names continue to rank better than those that are longer.
Keyword positioning then has changed in two ways: it’s now more important to ensure that the keyword is present in the title of the page and that it also has a description, but it’s not necessary that it be present in the URL or domain name, in fact, having the keyword in these positions presents a negative correlation.
However, as the image shows, keywords remain an important part of SEO and should also appear in H1 and H2s, descriptions and content. Of course, it’s still a really bad idea to over use keywords, but now engines also look for multi-word keywords and have become more efficient at doing so.
Site speed has become a more important issue since the mobile revolution took off and it seems that Google is placing more and more weight on performance each year too. The top 30 sites all had good performance in common, with sites ranked in the top positions loading 1/15th of a second quicker than the average.
However, interestingly, it was found that overall, site speeds have decreased, which could be a side effect of responsive web design (RWD). A 2012 study found that RWD sites often load slowly due to a tendency for designers to send an entire desktop site to a mobile device, rather than a pared down version. Whilst this has been recognised and addressed by many designers, RWD site frameworks in the hands of less experienced designers could be contributing to this.
This is speculation on my part though, it’s also possible that due to the media rich nature of modern websites, we simply have larger sites and file sizes than we have in the past.
The study found that the quality of content continues to be increasingly important and whilst keywords still have their place, the use of relevant, similar terms is more useful for ranking than keyword density.
The introduction of Hummingbird has meant that Google bots are now more capable of recognising “semantics and context which can be monitored in the SERPs”. This means that relevance to the site is important, but so too is providing ‘Proof’ terms, which are similar in context to the main keyword. For example, if you use the term ‘search engine’, and also use ‘optimisation’, the latter is the ‘Proof’ word, whilst if you were to use the word ‘car’, this has no relation to the search engine so wouldn’t be considered a ‘Proof’ word.
When writing, often these words that provide context write themselves as most authors do what they can to avoid repetition. With this in mind, it’s not difficult to optimise content in this way and it’s much easier than writing with a high keyword density ever was.
A new feature when it comes to content and ranking in the study this year took into account readability scoring (Flesch Kincaid) and it was found that this had a negligible effect on ranking. However, I would say that it does have a use from a UX point of view, as often the reader is skimming when reading online and so wants a piece that is relatively easy to read. This of course depends largely on your target audience though too, so content should be tailored towards their reading habits, rather than just average Flesch Kincaid scoring. Despite the correlation score being 0:00 though, it was found that the top 30 sites all had good readability scores of around 73/74 which corresponds to a level of comprehension understood by most 13-15 year olds.
Length of Content
The length and output of content is again important in this year’s results. In order to rank well, sites not only need to post content often, they also need to ensure its relevancy and length. The top performing sites post content with a word count of 900+ and this has grown in importance since the previous year.
The addition of images and videos to written content was also seen to be a positive ranking factor this year and the report points out that:
Photos and videos not only make the text more attractive for users, but for Google, this trend is likely to develop positively and be capped at a certain level.
Every Link Has a Value
Internal linking is also a factor that’s important when it comes to ranking and content, so site owners should ensure that this is carried out when posts are put up in order to maintain a good internal linking system.
It’s not just the links themselves that are valuable though, it was also found that internal links which use keywords contribute to the overall usefulness of internal links and ranking factors.
If you use Webmaster Tools and are a member of the Google Authorship program then you may have noticed that the statistics links dropped quietly out of the Labs section recently. Last year, the study found almost no correlation with Authorship and ranking and so it’s no surprise that this continues to be the case this year.
However, the study did find that posts with a photo of the author appearing in search results did gain a higher CTR (which does count towards ranking highly). This is not important now though, as it seems that Google has dropped the authorship program following a campaign of removing said images.
Backlinks Remain Important
When it comes to backlinks, Searchmetrics describes these as “probably the most important SEO metric on the off page side”. Google still uses PageRank, although it’s not updated as frequently as in recent years and according to Matt Cutts is most probably on its way out.
Whilst backlinks remain important, the number of them acquired by a site is no longer given as much weight as previously. However, the quality of the link remains highly important when it comes to ranking. It’s also interesting to note that top sites have a good proportion of anchor text that uses more than one word and a good scattering of nofollow links contained on the site.
So a good site and one that will rank well is one with a more balanced link profile than simply one that has lots of backlinks pointing to it.
- Good internal linking
- The use of multiple word anchor text
- Backlinks coming from sites with a high SEO visibility
- Links from the same country
- Nofollow links
- Quality of the site that links come from
When it comes to social, a Like, Tweet, G+ share or +1 etc., are all indications of good content to Google. The report states however that these are the most easily misinterpreted results as there’s something of a causal effect on rankings. Whilst last year saw a strong correlation between ranking and social signals, this year hasn’t seen much movement on those results, which is slightly surprising given that social has continued to rise dramatically as a digital marketing tool.
What this has meant is that whilst the top sites correlate strongly with social signals, the gap between those at the top and the bottom has shrunk. However, social clues as to when content has been added to a site continue to be important to Google and as such, the use of social media figures highly in ranking.
This year also saw results that prove sites which are optimised for mobile perform better in the SERPs even with the absence of a good backlink profile. This isn’t surprising as more and more of us now search using smartphones and tablets to search on the go.
With this in mind, whilst the top ranking sites will always be the big brands, smaller businesses that develop a good mobile site will do better when it comes to search. However, this shouldn’t be at the expense of site performance and those that develop using RWD should ensure that the designer is au fait with techniques to pare down the site for mobile using media queries or CDNs (content delivery networks).
Content Remains Emperor
All-in-all, the star of the show for 2014 is once again content. This should be produced to a high quality, include multimedia such as images and video, contain internal links and attract high quality backlinks in order to perform at the top of its game in the SERPs.
This is no surprise to many SEOs as the emphasis on content has been growing each year. However, longer content performs better, so it’s important to ensure that it’s developed professionally or by someone internally who knows how to write (and for the web).
Whilst backlinks remain important, these should ideally come from a high quality site and the overall link profile should be a balanced one in order to appear natural to Google and perform well in the rankings.
There’s no huge surprises this year, but it does serve as a reminder overall that good SEO is a sum of its parts. Whilst content is the most important, there’s not any one single factor that can be used to manipulate the SERPs, more that it’s the use of an overall strategy to rise up the ranks.