THE BLOG

Google Ranking Factors: SEO Is Not Dead

03/09/2015 04:27 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2015

First, stop assuming SEO is dead because the rules changed. If you are a business owner with a website, or a digital marketer offering services, you are aware of how important it is to connect with people interested in the products or services you or your clients offer. You also know the power of search marketing, and how useful a top position a search can be.

SEO criteria frequently changes and becomes more difficult, so many website owners (and so-called SEO professionals) fall out of their practice claiming that SEO is dead - this could not be farther from the truth. Obviously, people are still using search engines to source information, products, and services, therefore, if your website has content people should find, you should still be optimizing your website. The sky hasn't fallen and SEO still works.

Understandably, with the rules constantly changing it becomes more difficult to manipulate top positions, or, many prefer not to follow the rules or have difficulty in adapting to them, so they quit doing SEO. This is a mistake. SEO is alive and well, and its just as powerful as it ever was. The following will provide a general overview of current Google ranking factors you can use to get back in the SEO game.

Watch these Google SEO Ranking Factors Videos to get a comprehensive walk-through of the current, not-so-mysterious criteria that Google and other engines are using to score and rank pages.

In today's landscape of search, one must take a comprehensive approach to digital asset optimization in order to harness the power of search engines like Google to drive business growth. SEO helps to ensure that search engines can locate, index, and serve your website's content to visitors in an efficient manner.

In general, a solid SEO strategy today consists of several key components:

  • Having a strong understanding of "Universal Search" - the search engines' ability read and index a variety of media types for a given search.
  • Ensuring quality elements and good performance metrics in place on your website
  • Understanding and maximizing user metrics (visitor behavior)
  • Creating content that is authoritative and trustworthy
  • Using multiple original, unique images in content
  • Backlinks (focusing on quality over quantity)
  • Leveraging social signals to build brand validity and awareness
  • Branding for SEO purposes

A website's quality, design, content, and usability are huge factors. The performance of a website from a technical and user-experience aspect is becoming a stronger component to achieving top results. There are dozens of things that can be done to enhance a website's performance, such as ensuring it is mobile compatible with responsive design.

The Powerful Advantages of Universal Search

Search engines index a wide variety of content types, including text (blog posts, articles, landing pages, etc), news items, videos, images, even PDF and MP3 file downloads. In recent years, Google has drawn conclusions about user-behavior in search, realizing that searches prefer to see a variety of media formats for a given search query. Which makes sense, because for some search queries, a video or PDF download may answer a user's question more accurately that a local business listing or blog post. The indexing and inclusion of these varying media types is sometimes referred to as "Universal Search", and it is an attempt by the search engine to best answer a specific search query by a user by serving the content it determines is most appropriate, regardless of type.

Inherently, most people know this already, even if they don't understand how Google works or what this process is called. The less obvious advantage website owners have, is the opportunity to include multiple types of media in their website. Because there are so many types of media formats available on the web, and for any given search, it is important to have variety of these types of media content on a website - if one desires to outrank the other types of media for their given search query. The caveat here is understanding the search environment in which one is trying to compete, in order to use the best suited content assets on a given page, or website, to effectively and efficiently satisfy users (and therefore search engines).

It is especially effective in satisfying search engine algorithms to mix content types onto one page; for example, a text-based article illustrated with images and enriched with video content and links to a PDF download a PDF white paper. The combination of these elements is known as "rich media", and such content helps websites rank highly on search engine results pages (SERPS) because the multiple media format combination indicates a valuable resource for potential visitors. This combination of rich media content answers complex user questions in a very efficient manner, and the search engines love that.

Website Performance Factors Influence Search Engine Rankings

Of course, your website must have quality content, and it is of primary importance that your website's content is well-written, accurate, and authoritative. In order to rank highly in SERPs, the search engines must see your website's content as being trustworthy.

Of course, it's never that simple. Website performance metrics also play a large role in SERP positions, because these performance metrics indicate how well visitors can engage and consume your content.

In general, these performance metrics include things like:

  • Site speed
  • Page load times
  • Clean code
  • Image/CSS/Scripts caching
  • File/Resource management
  • Content delivery from server
  • Hosting/Server configurations

For a complete list of website configurations for speed and performance, study the Google Developers documentation on site speed, and use this testing tool to see where you need improvement. There are a number of other typical, static variables that impact performance, such as:

  • Length of URL
  • Video Integration
  • Keywords in description
  • Page loading times
  • Image optimization

The search engines observe these performance metrics via software applications like Google analytics or by data-sharing with browsers like Chrome and Firefox. Regardless of how they get the data, expect that they have it.

Overwhelmingly, the most important of these metrics is the site speed. Web users tend to be impatient, and studies have shown that if a site takes too long to load, it won't appear as favorably in search engine results. A fast website keeps the attention of site visitors and encourages them to browse the content; a page that loads slowly will often drive users away - perhaps toward your competitors. By keeping the site's underlying code clean and up-to-date, developing a stable site architecture, and maintaining excellent file and resource management practices, you can help guarantee quick-loading webpages for your site's visitors.

Do Visitor Metrics Play a Role in Search Engine Rankings?

Yes. User metrics are definitely a part of the modern search engine algorithm. Google and the other search engines can look into what's happening on your website, what visitors are actually doing (not what you 'think' they are doing) and those user actions play a role in the site's position on SERPs. Of the many user metrics, the three most important are:

Click-Through Rate (CTR) From SERPs - Several factors influence this, such as position on a search page, your page title, meta description, and URL information.
Time On Site (Engagement) - How much time visitors spend on individual pages, or on the website as a whole. This can be influenced by content length, media types on the site, and the total number of resources available on the site.
Bounce Rate - a term the SEO industry uses for the practice of a visitor landing on a website and immediately (the industry standard is within 11 seconds) returning back to the search results. This metric has a dramatic impact on your rankings within SERPs because it's a strong indicator of whether or not your website satisfied the user's search query or not.

It is imperative that website owners and site developers engage in user testing. Without actually measuring what users are doing when they visit a site, one can't possibly know how a website is performing. User testing eliminates a lot of useless guesswork. There are many methods for studying how users interact with a website. One of the most popular (and effective) uses eye-tracking software or an actual guest test group. Other methods tracks random users as they navigate around the website, recording factors like their experiences and interactions with the navigation structure and content.

The results of these tests can be eye-opening - remember that users often see and interact with things quite differently on your website than you think they do. Simple solutions like rearranging page elements can have a huge impact on the user experience. It is best to think of user testing as something that should be done periodically to ensure that the site is performing in the way you intend for your site visitors.

How Can I Create Engaging, Trustworthy Content?

First and foremost, the content on your website must be well-written, free of grammatical errors, and 100% unique and original. Content must read smoothly and give visitors the information they are searching for.
The search engines tend to give pages with longer, more in-depth content a higher placement on SERPs (note the length of this article). Long-format articles in excess of 1000 words are the prescription for getting the search engines to see your content as something trustworthy.

It is also very important to demonstrate expertise with a topic. The best way to do that is to ensure that "proof terms" are being used. Proof terms suggest that a website page possesses a holistic combination of semantically relevant words and phrases, lending grammatical credibility on the topic. Consider any Wikipedia page, which inherently contains all the relevant words and phrases a topic is related to.

Proof terms can be considered:

  • Industry-specific terms
  • Insider words - things only subject experts may be aware of
  • Specific words or phrases that relate to the content, demonstrating authority about a subject

Adding proof terms to your content helps a page appear at the top of search engine rankings, provided all other factors and criteria are met.

Can Images Help Improve My Website's Search Engine Placement?

Let's face it - no one wants to be faced with a giant wall of text. Adding images to your articles or web content is a good way to illustrate complex points or to add a bit of flair, but not any image will do. There are several tips to ensure that images help your website perform its best in SERPs.

First, images must be unique and original. Google and the other search engines use image-recognition software as part of their search algorithm, so they know if those pictures have been used elsewhere before.

Second, don't be afraid to use a lot of images with your content. In recent studies, it's been concluded that the best-ranking sites use six images or more per page, on average.

Third, you must maximize your images for SEO purposes:

  • Ensuring keywords or key phrases are part of the image's file name ("keyword-phrase-here.jpg")
  • Adding proof terms in the image's alt text (don't overuse keywords, keep it natural)
  • Using captions or descriptions surrounding the image, including important keywords or proof terms

What Are Backlinks, and Why Are They Important For Search Engine Rankings?

Backlinks are links from other websites to yours, and are incredibly important in the SEO strategy. In fact, these backlinks are seen by many as THE most important aspect of a comprehensive SEO plan.

The mechanism of a backlink is essentially a vote from another website to yours - a vote that says that your website is authoritative enough or trusted enough to link to. As Google attaches a lot of importance to these links when analyzing websites, the more backlinks you have, the better your placement in SERPs. But all backlinks are not created equal - make sure your websites inbound links are from trusted, relevant sources and avoid junk or spam citations.

Search engines like Google can tell the difference between links set up to improve search engine rankings and those that are from trusted, relevant sources. Legitimate backlink sources may include:

  • Directories
  • Press releases
  • Industry relevant sites
  • Industry influencers
  • Blog posts
  • Social network citations/profiles
  • Online articles
  • Social bookmarks

The age of backlinks matter. Links that have existed for a long time weigh more heavily in your website's link graph. Links with longevity suggests that your site is an established voice for whatever topic it covers. Also, new links popping up from legitimate sources, like those listed above, get favorable treatment in SERPs because these indicate a time-sensitive currency.

How Does Social Media Play a Role in Search Engine Rankings?

When your website or website's content gets shared on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, and YouTube, it is considered a "social signal" or "citation" - these social signals carry weight similar to inbound links, and have tremendous power in influencing website rankings in search.

Social signals can include:

  • A Facebook post that gets shared, Liked, or commented on
  • A Twitter tweet that gets retweeted or replied to
  • A Pinterest Pin that gets favorite or repined
  • A Google+ post that is reshared or commented on
  • A YouTube video that gets commented on or liked

Search engines LOVE to see this kind of activity, and these social signals play a large role in a site's placement in SERPs. The activity generated by social media suggests that your website is trustworthy, worth sharing, currently important to people, and is being referenced as a valuable resource.

An important consideration here is that every social signal gets credited to your website without penalty (unless very spam-driven tactics are use - these do exist). In general, you can include links back to your website on social platforms, and encourage website visitors to share your content on social, without fear of repercussions from Google's algorithm, which in other areas of SEO linking strategies can materialize as a penalization or demotion in rankings.

SEO Makes Dollars & Sense

Search engine optimization is a strategy that is fairly easy to implement for most company websites - provided you have a current set of SEO ranking factors and efficiently implement changes. SEO should be considered one of the tools in your digital marketing strategy because its still alive and well and has the power to substantially increase business growth. While doing parts of it here and there can reap good rewards when it comes to search engine placements, it is recommended to take a holistic approach to SEO and consider all factors. The days of being able to manipulate one or two isolated metrics are gone.