By Tyler Smith
Can’t find your website in search results? You’re not alone. Millions of sites struggle to carve out space for themselves on search engines. If current traffic is low, you might be wondering if that’s hurting your chances at moving up the ranks.
Although the total amount of traffic isn’t going to influence your search rankings, traffic does play a significant role in where your website appears in search results. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that the more popular your site is, the better.
According to SEMrush’s Ranking Factors research study, there are 17 key factors to be aware of, listed below in the order of importance:
1. Direct website visits
2. Time on site
3. Pages per session
4. Bounce rate
5. Total referring domains
6. Total backlinks
7. Total referring IPs
8. Total follow backlinks
9. Content length
10. Website security (HTTPS)
11. Total anchors
12. Keyword in anchor
13. Keyword in body
14. Keyword density
15. Keyword in title
16. Keyword in meta
17. Video on page
Taking a glance at this list makes one thing clear: traffic plays a major role in your website’s success. But Google is more focused on how users find your website and what they do on it than how much measurable traffic your site is getting.
Let’s unpack how the top ranking factors affect your search engine optimization (SEO), and how you can take advantage of this knowledge to improve your rankings in search results.
If you’ve ever looked into your website’s analytics and checked where your traffic is coming from, you may have noticed many users coming from the nebulous “direct traffic.” To gain a better understanding of what exactly direct traffic is, let’s look back on another SmartBug Media™ post: The Difference Between Direct and Organic Search Traffic Sources.
In that post, Amber Kemmis explains that direct traffic is defined as visits with no referring website. Traditionally, direct traffic is attributed to users manually entering your website’s URL into their web browser or clicking on a bookmarked link. Today, however, the story behind direct traffic is a bit more complex. Direct traffic can come from your employees who type in the website URL, customers who frequently visit your website, people who have bookmarked your website, emails, mobile traffic, links in apps or software, and unsecured HTTP sites.
Direct traffic is key to your ranking. The SEMrush report states that even after adding five new ranking factors to their report, direct website traffic is still the most influential. That is, when many users go to a website directly, it signals to Google that the domain has high authority and value.
SEMrush was able to come to this conclusion after excluding organic search and other traffic data, which led to a noticeable connection between direct visits and the page position on the search engine results page (SERP). They concluded that Google prioritizes domains with more authority and consequently more direct traffic when ranking the high-volume keyword group.
The importance of direct traffic means that organic rankings are not the only thing you should be concentrating on. Your brand awareness fuels direct visits, so building a strong brand image should be an essential part of your promotion strategy.
Just earning more direct traffic isn’t going to spring your website to the promised land of first-page search results. You also need quality traffic. Google is paying attention to factors that suggest that your website addresses users’ search needs. Three of the top five ranking factors look at what users do once they land on your website.
Time on Site
The number two ranking factor, according to SEMrush’s research, is how long users spend on your website once they land there. Are users reading your content or do they spend 30 seconds on the site and leave? Low time on the site indicates to Google that your website isn’t fulfilling the needs of users’ searches. On the other hand, users who spend a long time on the site likely found what they were searching for and are spending time reading your content.
You want to make sure that your website is optimized for not just high search volume keywords but also relevant keywords. For example, if the site is for a senior living facility, you don’t want it to be the top result for at-home care companies.
Pages per Session
The third most important ranking factor is pages per session, or how many different pages a user looks at while they are on your website. Google looks at this because it is an indicator of engaging content, clear website navigation, and an obvious user path.
SEMrush’s report shows that as we move toward the top of the SERP, there are more pages per session for every domain. The number of pages per session is similar, on average, for the first four results.
Similar to time on site, low pages per session indicates that your site isn’t providing the information to the users who are looking for it, or at least not making the relevant information easy to find. Confusing website navigation will harm your pages per session.
Your website’s bounce rate is the number of users who leave your website after viewing a single page. Users bounce from every website, but if the majority of your users bounce, that’s an indicator that something is off.
According to SEMrush, 49 percent is the average bounce rate of the domains ranking in the top three of search results. Furthermore, the study concluded that the higher a page’s position, the lower its bounce rate.
A high bounce rate indicates to Google that the page has low relevance to searches. If your bounce rate is high, you may need to consider the keywords you’re currently ranking for and ensure that they sync up with your offer.
Once again, to help your site improve each of these ranking factors, make sure your site has relevant, engaging content that is clear and easy to navigate. When someone lands on your website, the path to solving their problem and becoming a customer should be straightforward.
Ranking factors five through eight all relate to your site’s referral traffic. This is traffic comes to your website via links on other websites. These could be partner sites, directories, articles, or blog posts (among other sources). SEMrush’s report confirms that all of these factors directly influence each other, so your positions are unlikely to change if you boost the values for one factor but ignore the others.
Here’s the breakdown of how Google interprets your referral traffic:
Total Referring Domains
If you doubt the power of referral links, consider this statistic from the SEMrush report: 10,000 is the difference in the number of referring domains between the second and tenth positions for high-volume keywords in search results.
Your referring domains are very much related to the total number of referring IPs (ranking factor seven). Although the total number of referring IP addresses may not be exactly equal to referring domains, they are connected, so referring IPs influence the rankings of the particular domain in the same manner.
This means if you're trying to rank for a popular keyword, you need to have an online presence that promotes sharing your content. There are many ways to grow referral links, from guest blogging to manually reaching out to content creators. You’ll want to put effort toward increasing your site’s total number of referral domains.
Backlinks are links on other websites that drive back to your site. The difference between the referring domain and backlinks is that a referring domain could have multiple backlinks to your website.
SEMrush’s research uncovered that the more backlinks a domain has, the higher its the position is on the SERP. Just as referring IPs relate to referring domains, total follow backlinks is connected to the total number of backlinks that the domain has and influences the domain rankings in the same way. Follow backlinks refers to links that haven’t been marked “no follow” by the link poster. Links marked “no follow” lose their SEO advantage.
Once again, building links to your site not only will increase your referral traffic but will also increase your ranking in search results.
Out of 17 main ranking factors, the top eight all relate to your website traffic. Although you certainly want to make sure your site is following the rest of the ranking factors noted in the SEMrush report, you first want to look at your current traffic and make sure it’s healthy. Are users coming from the right sources? Do they appear to be engaged with the site? If you notice a high bounce rate and no referral traffic, it’s worth reassessing your SEO strategy and making sure you’re targeting the right traffic.If you’re thinking that this all sounds like a lot of work, you’re not wrong. Fortunately, we have a guide that can help you diagnose any SEO issues that might be preventing your website from being on top. Download our How to Diagnose & Overcome Competitive SEO Challenges guide today!