By Jennifer Lux
At the genesis of Google’s search engine algorithms, near the end of the 20th century, ranking signals were as simple as matching keywords and counting backlinks. Today, Google changes its search algorithm upwards of 600 times a year and rolls out at least one notable update annually. When this happens, search results may shift significantly, resulting in big changes to organic traffic. While keywords have long played an important role in these updates, simple search terms are taking a backseat to other ranking factors as they rise in importance and contribution to the overall SEO landscape.
In fact, there are over 200 ranking signals or components that currently make up Google’s secret search algorithm. How do you begin to prioritize optimization tactics to impact your rankings?
As we usher in a new approach to SEO, you might wonder, “Are keywords dead?” Not quite, but new factors should be considered alongside the rising sophistication of search. These are 10 essential factors to consider when creating a comprehensive SEO strategy:
Google has become a far more sophisticated tool than a keyword matching system, with the rise of AI and machine learning that can infer the intent of site content. By drawing conclusions about the meaning of content, using technology that interprets word phrases and matches synonyms, Google is able to make actual keywords secondary to their true meaning. This very shift was the impetus for HubSpot’s new approach to keywords with topic clusters and pillar pages.
2. Keyword Placement
It's true, keywords aren’t as valuable as they were in years past, yet it's important to note that the placement of keywords and their synonyms is important. This includes using keywords or their related phrases in page titles, URLs, meta descriptions, image descriptions, body copy, image filenames, and heading tags.
In December of 2015, Google started giving weight to HTTPS pages. Just last month, Google took things a step further and began notifying both website owners and visitors of security holes when forms are running on non-HTTPS sites. A recent study by Moz found that 74% of Page One results on Google came from security websites. The bottom line is to make site security a priority. Getting an SSL certificate involves a simple protocol and will continue to be an important ranking factor amid a climate of regular cybersecurity hacks and breaches.
4. Schema Markup
This structured data is a defined tagging structure that can be added to HTML to pull valuable information from your site into search results. This type of microdata encourages your listing to display rich and compelling snippets in search engine results, or in the knowledge panel on the right side of search, and compels human browsers to click through to your website.
There is strong evidence that Google gives ranking preference to sites with faster site speed or page load time. In addition, because robots have a short predetermined time to crawl a site, slow site speed can result in fewer pages indexed and therefore poorer domain authority. Use Google’s site speed tester to know how your website compares with others and receive recommendations for improvement.
6. Site Structure
Create an XML sitemap and submit it to Google. Although this won't compel Google bots to crawl your site any differently, it will help you to identify indexation problems as well as sending signals to Google about the quality of your pages.
7. User Experience
Signals to search engines about a good user experience include a low bounce rate and an average session duration longer than industry benchmarks. These metrics tell search engines about a user’s satisfaction while including the users’ experiences alongside navigation, content, calls to action, and accessibility. Search engines also take into account the number of additional websites a user might visit in the same search session to understand whether their question was answered to full satisfaction on your webpage. These usability and engagement metrics are a signal to Google of a positive user experience, which is awarded in search result rankings. How can you support a positive user experience? By creating the kind of content sought by your personas, in an engaging format, with a logical next step. Use clear navigation to reflect on the customer journey on your website so that your site’s user experience contributes positively to search results.
8. Mobile Optimization
Back in April 2015, Google announced plans to expand its use of mobile users' experiences as a ranking signal. Today, most industries require a “mobile-first” marketing ecosystem. Not only is mobile optimization an important ranking signal for Google, but making your site mobile-friendly can lead to better engagement on mobile devices, which also improves rankings. Reference this Mobile Friendly Test to verify your site's ability to meet Google mobile criteria.
Both internal and external links are important to SEO. Websites are designed to link to good quality resources, so if your site has a high number of credible and relevant inbound links or backlinks, it’s a sign to Google that your site must contain valuable content. Links from sources with domain authority equal to or greater than your site will be especially helpful to your domain authority, which can help your site rise in search results. Internal linking between pages on your site is also good for SEO, as it can help search engines understand the purpose of your pages, and can establish site structure for crawling spiders when using a strategic URL structure.
10. Ease of Crawling
Using software to identify broken links, 404s, and duplicate content is essential in ongoing SEO efforts. Improper redirects, and lack of “no follow” meta tags when needed, could result in a poor user experience, high bounce rates, and a less-than-optimal customer journey. Using verification sites such as Moz, Screaming Frog, Xenu, or Google Search Console to regularly check and fix these issues is the ticket to maximizing your search engine potential.
Keywords might not be dead, but successful SEO requires more sophisticated tactics than ever. Consider these 10 factors as you continue to optimize your SEO strategy in the evolving search ecosystem.