Curious about what’s worth the investment this year? Worried about what worthless strategies are burning through your budget?
Here’s a breakdown of which SEO strategies are impacting search rankings and which are proving to be less important as Google’s search algorithms evolve, put together based on information from expert panelists at the SMX East conference and the latest Searchmetrics Ranking Factor study.
Longer pieces of content are doing better in search results. According to SEMrush’s Olga Andrienko, content that ranks in the first three positions of search results is 45 percent longer than content in the 20th position.
How much longer? About 1,600 words, according to Searchmetrics 2016 Ranking Factors report. That’s how long the average piece of top-10 ranking content is.
Does that mean tacking on an extra paragraph or two is going to make your content rank better? No. While there is a correlation between content length and ranking, it’s really a reflection of Google rewarding sites that are publishing well-researched assets that are information dense – rather than shallow pieces that were created just to plug keywords.
Keywords will always have their place in SEO, but their place is becoming a lot less rigid. SEMrush reported that 35 percent of domains that were ranking at the top of search results didn’t have a keyword in the headline. And only 8 percent had a keyword in the anchor text.
This tells us that Google is getting better at reading and understanding keywords in context. You don’t have to use keywords in the headline, the H1 and H2 tags, and anchor text to rank well for them in search results. If you’re using the keywords naturally in the content and providing solid information around the terms and phrases, you should start to rank for them.
In fact, Searchmetrics found no pages in the top search results doing keyword spamming, or keyword stuffing. They were actually using 20 percent fewer keywords than last year as they shift their focus toward writing relevant content that uses a variety of long-tail key phrases and synonyms rather than specific phrases they want to rank for.
Security sites are already performing better, according to SEMrush. Around 65 percent of top-three sites in search are on HTTPS URLs.
Google told marketers a few years ago that security would become more important in the future. At this warning, many businesses moved their content to HTTPS URLs. If you haven’t, and your traffic has taken a hit, this might be the culprit.
Experts agree that links are not as important as they once were. Having links from high-quality sources on your site won’t hurt you, and it will probably still help you, according to Searchmetrics. However, Google isn’t looking at links as the end-all-be-all of SEO authority the way it used to.
As Google has moved away from static search algorithms to dynamic machine learning systems, it gained the power to assess each site on a case-by-case basis. Some sites benefit from links as a social vote of authority. For other sites, it’s not necessary. An app, for example, won’t have any backlinks. Does that mean it’s not a good tool for users? No.
The moral of the story is that Google isn’t using links as a blanket ranking factor anymore. If you’re producing great content that’s earning back links from reputable sites – great. If you’re writing guest posts to reach new audiences – excellent. But if you’re participating in link exchanges solely for the sake of acquiring a few links here and there as part of your strategy, you might consider focusing your efforts elsewhere.
In a further sign that Google isn’t just looking at page-level optimization to determine a website’s relevance, Andrienko stated that user signals are becoming more important this year.
Things like bounce rate and pages per session are having a greater impact on your ranking position.
The top-ranking content in search results tend to have a lower bounce rate, Andrienko explained. But if you go down the page and look at lower-ranking content, you’ll see the bounce rate creep up. There was a similar correlation with pages per session.
User signals are proof that visitors who click your result and go to your page are happy with what they found there. If people stay on the site and click through to additional pages, Google can see that your page was, in fact, relevant for that query. On the other hand, if visitors bounce or exit your site, Google understands that while your site might be well-optimized for that search term, your content isn’t exactly what users are looking for.
SEO is a bigger challenge than ever
The biggest takeaway is that it’s getting harder to draw general conclusions about what ranks well and what doesn’t. We’ve already seen Google adopt Artifical Intelligence as a bigger part of its approach to search. Meanwhile. algorithms are becoming sophisticated to the point that you can’t make hard and fast rules. Rankings are being decided on a case-by-case basis.
What is more apparent for 2017, and years to come, is that the old SEO practices are falling out of favor. You aren’t going to reach Page One for a competitive search term by following outdated rules and ‘best practices.’ More and more, you need someone who can analyze your website and your content and make decisions about what’s best for your company based on your audience.