The Tools Show: SEO Ranking Factors for 2014 – September 11, 2014

(If you’d rather just listen, check out the podcast here)

Searchmetrics released their annual report about the top Google ranking factors for 2014 recently. And while there is coverage about the report (like this article from Search Engine Land),  Sage decided to go straight to the source. He covers the highlights of the report, explaining and commenting along the way. Ready? I’ll try to do it justice.

The report itself is almost 100 pages of pretty in-depth information about what they found to be the key factors that affected Google search results rankings. It’s a nicely-designed piece, with easy-to-read graphs and charts and good explanations (maybe too good in some cases; Sage gets a little impatient). Definitely worth looking at the full report if you’re into that kind of stuff. (Unlike the latest Transformers movie, according to Sage; apparently the preview is better than the actual movie.)

The first thing that needs to be said about this report/study is that Correlation Does Not Equal Causation. If you don’t remember this logical fallacy from school, basically it means that the people doing the study aren’t Google, so they can’t say for sure that the things they observed as being factors are truly the cause of their high ranking. These factors just happen to be seemingly related to the high rankings of the sites they evaluated.  But most of them make sense relative to other data and information that Google itself has released.

So Searchmetrics analyzed 10,000 “informational search terms” and websites and graphed the Correlations of the top 30 and the averages of the top 10 sites. Here are our top takeaways from the report:

1. The big focus–no real surprise–is that Content  Really is King:

“High quality, relevant content is increasingly the focus of search. This type of content ranks better on average, and is identifiable by properties such as a higher word-count and semantically comprehensive wording, as well as often being enriched by other media, such as images or video.”

What does that mean? It means that you needs to have lots of good quality content to rank well, and that Google is getting better at “semantic search,” which is giving results that aren’t based just on the actual key words, but also the relevant topic someone is searching for. So instead of loading up on keywords, to try and game the system, just have well-written, long-form information about the relevant topic on your pages. (Or, as Greg puts it, “write a Bible on every page.” LOL) This is the behavior that Google is rewarding.

In the detailed section on content, they report that content over 975 words seems to increase ranking, and that sites with over 130 internal links (obviously for larger sites) rank above average.

One negatively-correlated item was the inclusion of on-page ads, especially “above the fold.” These were rare on highly-ranked sites, which is no surprise considering that Google has been pretty open about their lack of love for sites with lots of ads. So you’ll have to decide if that ad revenue is worth Google’s price.

2.  The role of Technology is important but is evolving.

“It seems that the presence of certain onpage technical factors is a basic requirement for a ranking
on the first pages of SERPs.”

Integrated website architecture, more than just plain “SEO” factors, seems to be the goal toward which Google is striving. This should be no big surprise, based on what we’ve already covered, that efforts to use keyword “strategies” are being eclipsed by holistic building of websites around content and helping readers find that content, using onpage tech like meta descriptions, H tags, and internal links.

This boils down to making sure that when you have great content, you are making it easy for people to scan and read–the observed increase in H2 tags I’m taking to heart as a writer to mean that people find subtitles within those long content pieces to be important (which I could already tell you).

And that you have to give folks a reason to click on your link! With so many websites anymore, choosing a “good one” from a Google SERP {Search Engine Results Page} can be time-consuming and frustrating, we all know. But the inclusion of good meta tags and descriptions helps point a searcher to your high-quality content, and the inclusion of your relevant keywords here are going to make more of an impact than a loaded URL.

Other tech-related factors include a fast load time, which the report clocks at 0.99 seconds, but Greg points out is really a relative term, based on your competitors. Yes, we get impatient for large brands especially, but inside a niche, as long as you’re faster than the next handmade, organic cheese bread maker, you should be fine.

3. Social is a bonus: use it wisely but don’t focus exclusively on it.

“Social signals definitely play a role in direct traffic, brand awareness, and the overall online performance of a domain.”

The bottom line for social is that it seems to be used mainly as a signal that new content is regularly being added to a site, and that people are talking about the brand and sharing content. So here we are, back at the importance of content.

No shock that Facebook is the leader in this arena, followed by Google, Twitter, and Pinterest. So keep sharing all those goodies with your followers!

Social media’s true value is in helping develop your brand. By filling out and developing your brand experience, you will increase your value with customers and potential customers, which has a positive effect on your key ranking factors. This is a tidy little positive feedback loop, helping you gain traction in social and search.

The Bottom Line: “Do Good Things”

Become a source of useful and relevant information to your target audience and you will be rewarded.

Content creation can’t “serve two masters” — You won’t win by focusing content on SEO without making it high-quality and relevant.

Greg likens good content creation to a job: if you’re just getting paid by the hour, even if you’re good at your work, it will be ok, but it can’t compare to what you will produce if the subject is something you’re passionate about.

“Content for content’s sake is done.”

My take: People want to hear from and about people. Being a person online is always better than being a “company” (bland, personality-less, boring “content”).

What did you take away from all this? Let us know in the comments!

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