Every year since 2012, SearchMetrics has released an annual report titled, "SEO Ranking Factors Study". This exhaustive report analyzes the top 30 search results for 10,000 keywords and going through almost 300,000 URLS to find changes in SEO ranking pattern from the previous year, track marketing data and see how old trends perform in a newer, faster world.
While much of the information highlighted in this report are continuations of trends that have taken shape in earlier years, some of these points are very surprising, and all of this data sheds an important light on how and why we use the internet.
Since I started using Searchmetrics years ago I've been able to improve my websites rankings a ton by knowing what's the good, bad and ugly behind the scenes and these following 9 tips are what I found to be most interesting to me and my site.
9. Higher ranking positions (especially the top spot) are now reserved for shorter URLS. We can now say goodbye to keyword domain names, which now take up just 6% of the top 30 search results for 2015, down from 9% in 2014. It turns out that higher ranking spots on search engine results pages (SERP) have shorter URLs - position 1 is reserved for the shortest URLs, because that's usually where homepages rank.
8. The average font size for top ranking websites is 12 - 14 pt. This is the first year that SearchMetrics has started factoring in font size in their study, but it seems like a logical development given how many different screens are available to Internet browsers now. A good key to remember is that smaller displays deserve larger font sizes
7. Longer content has become an industry standard. The average word count in HTML has increased 25% since last year. Now, top ranking pages have an average of 1140 words per page. Not only has the sheer number of words increased, but the content has become more complex and holistic, with more integrated media.
6. Strong correlation between time spent on site to number of clicks. The strongest ranking websites often yield longer visits. One good way of optimizing the time spent on a site is by leaving internal links, embedding videos, and posting long and quality rich content.
5. Backlinks are becoming less important, but they indicate why sites do well. For a long time, links served as a crucial indicator of SEO and ranking. However, this is no longer the case - it's become much easier to manipulate the number of backlinks that a site receives and sends out, and the way that users navigate the Internet has subtly shifted the way links are used. As such, the trend towards linking is on the decrease. However, it's still a substantial ranking factor. SearchMetrics indicates that URLs that rank in positions 1 - 4 usually have noticeably older backlinks, implying that older and more established sites rank highest; while URLs in the middle of the list on SERP typically get backlinks from news sites, which indicates that search engines prefer current content.
4. Social signals indicate success. While Google has always maintained that social signals don't directly factor into a site's ranking, it's hard to ignore that the almost all the sites that do well have more Like buttons, Twitter feeds, Pinterest pins, and +1s. More importantly, many social buttons usually indicate that the website is a brand, or that they regularly produce more content, which is the cause to their success. Pages that do well on social media also do well.
3. Technical elements are important because they contribute to user experience. While not typically the first thing one notices about a well ranking website, the appearance of H tags, interactive functions, concise and relevant meta descriptions, large photos, loading and HTTPS encryption are all important factors of search engine ranking. All of these functions help organize information on a page, engage user activity, clearly outline a page's intent and information on the SERP, protect a user's information, and provide high quality visuals. As such, technical elements (and the list is growing!) are extremely important primarily because they enhance the user experience on the site.
2. Mobile searches are changing the game. As Google announced in May 2015, "More Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries including the US and Japan". For the first time, mobile searches have no overtaken computer searches, and this introduces and reprioritizes certain ranking factors, such as responsive design, less external links, font size and URL length.
1. Quality content, not keywords, is king. Like links, keywords have always been considered an integral part of search engine ranking. However, just like links, they have been too easily manipulated, and now they are showing their decline. Rather than trying to string together as many keywords as possible, it's more efficient to concentrate on relevant content, using more related terms, proof terms (which are common words which appear across all articles relating to the topic), and high semantic density. And, as content has become more holistic, the number of "keywords" has decreased, but the number of relevant terms on a page have increased. All of this contributes to more comprehensive content across the top-ranking sites on Google's SERP.
What else did you learn from the study?