As technology advances, search engines can refine their ranking algorithms to better determine relevance and return results that better align with searcher intent.
Because these ranking algorithms are constantly being improved and refined, search engine ranking factors are always evolving. Factors that might once have had a huge impact on search rankings may no longer matter all that much, and new ranking factors (such as mobile-friendliness or HTTPS) can emerge to reflect changing technologies and user behaviors.
So, what are the most important ranking factors today, in 2018? A panel at SMX East, “SEO Ranking Factors in 2018: What’s Important and What’s Not,” sought to answer that question. This panel featured data from large-scale studies performed by SEMrush and Searchmetrics, as well as case studies and practical advice for adapting your SEO strategies to current realities.
SEMrush Ranking Factors 2.0
The first panelist was Olga Andrienko from SEMrush, who shared the results of a large-scale study on ranking factors that examined the top 100 positions for 600,000 keywords. Keywords were grouped by search volume into the following categories:
- Very High: 10,001 monthly searches and up
- High: 1,001 to 10,000 monthly searches
- Medium: 101 to 1,000 monthly searches
- Low: 1 to 100 monthly searches
SEMrush looked at on-page factors, referring domains and traffic data, then compiled their findings to see which ranking factors appeared to be the most important. Here were some of their findings:
Website security (HTTPS)
SEMrush found that 65 percent of domains in the top three positions for Very High volume keywords are already secure. Although it’s not a huge ranking factor, Andrienko recommended switching to HTTPS to help with conversions and building trust.
SEMrush found that content length generally had a positive correlation with search rankings; content for pages in the top three positions is 45 percent longer, on average, than content in the 20th position.
Even so, Andrienko did not recommend simply writing a ton of content in order to rank better — the key is to write sufficiently long content that is relevant and matches user intent. Look at what your competitors are doing, and figure out how you can create content that provides more value to users.
SEMrush had some interesting findings with relation to keywords. They found that:
- 35 percent of domains ranking for high-volume keywords don’t have the keyword in the title. This suggests that Google’s algorithms are getting better at understanding context/synonyms, and/or that keywords in the page title are becoming a less important ranking factor.
- Very few links contain a keyword in the anchor text — in fact, even among Very High volume keywords, only 8 percent of link anchors included a keyword. This may suggest that keywords in anchor text are not a major ranking factor, but it also might be a reflection of SEOs adhering more strictly to link-building best practices that see anchor text links as spammy.
SEMrush exclusively studied website traffic’s impact on rankings. They found that the number of visits matters for high-volume keywords.
Interestingly, search traffic specifically did not appear have any impact on rankings; however, direct traffic does.
The SEMrush study also looked at various user signals, including:
- bounce rate. Overall, bounce rate is low for the top three positions but gets higher as you go down — this could suggest that top-ranking sites have more relevant content, better site speed, higher user trust and so forth.
- pages per session. Higher pages per session correlates with rankings, too.
Andrienko suggested that Google does not directly take user signals into account, but that if they’re low, that means users aren’t engaging with your site as they should be.
High-quality link building is still super-important, both in terms of referring domains and “followed” backlinks. Andrienko noted that backlinks matter, especially for sites targeting keywords with fewer than 10,000 monthly searches.
What factor is most important?
Interestingly, SEMrush found that user signals and (direct) website traffic were actually the highest predictors of top rankings. Andrienko theorized that this was because top-ranking sites (i.e., those on page 1) are all doing on-page optimization well, meaning that Google needs new criteria to differentiate among these sites.
Why General Ranking Factors Are Dead!
Next up was Marcus Tober from Searchmetrics. His company also analyzed ranking factors, but rather than look at factors by keyword search volume, he looked at factors by general trends versus individual industry/niche trends.
Tober noted that, while there are broad, general trends in terms of overall ranking factors, specific industries and niches seem to weight certain ranking factors more heavily. Here are some of Searchmetrics’ findings:
Everyone is improving their page load time across the board. While this isn’t a massive ranking factor, it’s important to see how you compare to your competitors so you don’t get left behind.
Like Andrienko, Tober found that keywords in titles are not that important. Indeed, only 48 percent of top-ranking (position #1) websites have their keywords in the title tag, suggesting that Google is getting better at judging relevance without this factor.
Searchmetrics also found that word count for top-ranking pages is increasing. Both Tober and Andrienko note that word count correlates with rankings, but they also advise to not just “go big” on content and hope for an increase in rankings.
Tober found that different ranking factors seemed to be weighted differently depending on the query itself, so Searchmetrics broke out ranking factors by industry in their study (specifically looking at e-commerce, finance, health, media and travel).
The study looked at how ranking factors within each of these industries were weighted against the average — this provided some insight into which ranking factors are most relevant for each of these industries.
For example, HTTPS is a bigger deal for finance sites, as those require more user trust; however, it does not seem to be as heavily weighted for travel sites. Usage of images, on the other hand, was not so important for finance websites but had a larger impact for travel sites.
The point here is user intent: What does the user want? That is naturally going to be different for different industries.
It isn’t just different industries that have different ranking factors, and Searchmetrics also looked at more niche types of websites to see what trends they could fine. This included dating sites, SEO services sites and recipe sites.
Again, Tober found that certain ranking factors were weighted differently based on niche. For example, HTTPS usage is high among SEO sites but not among dating and recipe sites. On the other hand, use of structured data and Schema.org markup was highest among recipe sites — likely because recipes have valuable rich snippets associated with them in SERPs.
Overall, Tober’s message was that ranking signals are relative to your industry and niche, so consider what your users need when considering how you structure your site and create content for your pages. He echoed Andrienko’s call to look at your competition and see what they’re doing.
How to put these findings into action
The final speaker was Herndon Hasty, digital marketing manager for The Container Store. His presentation was more focused on taking the data and findings from previous speakers and providing practical applications. He used case studies to illustrate his own findings, too.
Site speed is a longstanding ranking factor, and it’s becoming more important as mobile usage continues to rise. Here are Hasty’s main recommendations for improving site speed:
- Caching. Find more elements on your site that you aren’t currently caching or that you should be caching for a longer time period. (Basically, this ensures that the page can load faster for anyone who’s been to your site before.)
- Managing your tags. Remove vendor tags you’re not using, and be sure to have the latest versions of the tags you are using.
- Image optimization. Hasty believed that image size is the biggest factor impacting site speed. Any time you can shrink an image, it’s going to improve your page speed. Don’t use images that are too big — load large versions only when customers want it! Whether it’s product images, repeated elements or logos, make sure you fit images to their exact space.
SEOs have been working on securing their sites ever since Google announced back in 2014 that HTTPS would provide a slight ranking boost.
When switching to HTTPS, you do need to consider site speed, as it will slow down the site a bit — but many still believe the switch is worth it, as there may come a day when Google makes HTTPS a requirement, similar to the mobile-friendly update.
The unfortunate part about switching to HTTPS is that it carries all the risks and challenges of a site redesign but without any of the fun.
Because you’ll need to implement HTTP to HTTPS redirects throughout your entire site, this does at least present a great opportunity to take care of any URL changes that you want to make.
The biggest element that often gets missed in an HTTP to HTTPS migration is canonical tags. Updating your canonical tags is critical, as your site can experience a loss of traffic and site performance due to out-of-date canonicals.
Somewhat contrary to the findings above by SEMrush and Searchmetrics, Hasty has found that titles can have an impact and do make a difference, especially for lower ranking pages.
Meta descriptions are, of course, not a ranking factor, but they can improve click-through rates. What works in meta descriptions? It’s different for all niches and industries, but Hasty has found that including the following in your meta descriptions tends to increase performance:
- Free shipping/returns.
- Brand names people know.
- “Official site” (a trust signal).
- Promotions and sales.
Changes to search engine results pages (SERPs) can really drive down click-through rates — featured answers, more/larger rich snippets, product listing ads and the addition of a fourth text ad to some SERPs have all led to less above-the-fold page real estate for organic results.
These are things you largely can’t control, but you can still adapt your strategies to this changing reality. For example, Hasty recommended seeking “instant answer boxes,” also known as featured snippets. These are showing up for more generic terms and take up 15 to 90 percent of above-the-fold SERP space — plus, your digital assistants will read these in response to voice search.
To obtain a featured snippet, you need to be on the first page, but you don’t even need to be in the top five. Hasty suggests using structured data where possible, too — this will help you capture the correct search intent as Google gets smarter and better at understanding query intent.