Google is a mysterious beast: constantly evolving rules and guidelines, regular algorithm updates and penalties that can bring down an entire online marketing strategy. It can feel like a full time job keeping up to date with Google’s latest desires and it’s enough to drive some marketers and website owners up the wall.
There are approximately 200 factors that Google takes into account when ranking pages on your website, but exactly how its algorithm works is of course a tightly-guarded secret. Luckily, with a whole industry dedicated to decoding Google’s secret sauce, there is no shortage of reports, expert comment and original research to help you improve your rankings.
A really great example that I used in a recent training session is this infographic from the US-based search analytics company, SearchMetrics. After analysing 300,000 URLs the firm’s SEO experts pulled together a list of the search signals that showed the strongest correlation with higher rankings.
Correlation is of course not the same as causation, but it’s still useful to look at what successful sites are doing well and try to find ways to emulate them. Here are my 5 takeaways from the SearchMetrics report. I’ve embedded the graphic at the bottom of my article.
The essentials are, well, essential
A lot of companies invest vast sums in complex, multi-layered digital marketing strategies, but then overlook the on-page SEO basics that should form the foundation of any web strategy. As the SearchMetrics report showed, your website is unlikely to see any drastic improvement just by optimising your URLs and H1 tags, but the negative ranking effects that stem from not following on-page best practice can be really damaging.
My tip: Ensure all pages, especially key landing pages, have a well-optimised H1 tag and meta description- it could be the difference between your landing page appearing on the first page or the second.
Quality content is king
As Google’s algorithm continues to evolve and learn, the quality of your content – and how much of it you have – will become an ever stronger ranking factor. Google is smarter than ever and knows how to sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’ when it comes to page content. Some of the big ‘movers and shakers’ between the 2012 to 2013 reports include word count, text character count and the use of rich content, such as images and video.
My tip: Longer word count is encouraged, however long character counts can be harmful. Look to use professional vocabulary and do not ‘waste’ words in an effort to impress Google. Build richer landing pages that not only offer in-depth, unique text, but also related images, graphics and video.
H2 tags – SEO Dark Horses of 2014
H1 tags have always been one of the quick wins for website audits. They’ve also been the target of black hat SEO tactics – such as, stuffing the H1 tag full of keywords to trick Googlebot into assigning extra value to a page that in truth does not hold much value. Thus enters the H2 tag. The H2 tag is part of Google’s ‘supporting evidence’, so to speak. If the H1 keyword tells Google what the page is about, the H2 tag provides added information which backs up the claim in the H1 tag. Between 2012 and 2013, having relevant keywords in the H2 tag has doubled in importance as a ranking factor, whereas having a keyword in the H1 has dropped by 100%. Take that, black hatters!!
My tip: Make sure all content sub-headings are tagged up correctly as H2s. It could give your site more of a boost than you’d think this year.
Backlinks are getting smarter
It has been common practice for some website owners and SEO agencies to buy up backlinks from dodgy websites, link farms and other bad neighbourhoods on the internet in order to get a quick win in the search rankings. Google wants backlinks to be a genuinely useful ranking signal, so has been working hard to remove the shortcuts.
Due largely to the Google Penguin updates, the quality of your backlinks is now much more important than the quantity. And like ignoring on-page SEO, doing backlinks badly can have a negative impact on your rankings, with Penguin still on the hunt for evidence of manipulated link profiles. Check out our Google Penguin infographic for more on this.
My tip: Creating highly shareable content, such as expert interviews, video blogs and infographics are all great ways to encourage natural linking. You should also exploit your existing commercial relationships to find genuine opportunities to acquire quality backlinks.
Social Media (in particular Google+) is on the rise
For me, the standout statistic from the SearchMetrics report was the rise of social media. While this may be a good example of correlation over causation (sites that do well in search also do well in social, but that doesn’t mean social shares lead directly to better rankings), social has to play a big role in your online strategy this year.
That’s particularly true of Google+, which is a big favourite on our team. Now with the highest positive correlation to the top ranking sites, Google’s social platform was the big breakthrough signal of 2013 and it is quickly on its way to knocking Facebook of its perch as the king of social media. Google is ranking those websites with more frequent social signals (likes, shares, retweets, plus ones) on average higher than those sites without a social media presence. If you want to understand more about how this relationship works, check out this recent post from my colleague Rob on social signals and search.
My tip: Embrace Google+ like a new best friend. It may be less user-friendly and offer lower engagement right now, but it has grown by 788% over the past year and is the one social media site Google has unfettered access to (and can therefore mine for search signals). Make sure your business has a Google+ local listing, a Google+ company page and that your content is set up with Google+ authorship. Don’t miss the boat!
By Alistair Rathbone