Search Engine Ranking Factors 2015: The Lowdown

As the SEO community are probably aware, Moz releases the results of a biennial study of ranking factors. We thought we'd wade in here, as an agency who find this stuff more interesting than your average geek.

To the SEO community this is very valuable information and is certainly a better summary than just telling us to focus on content. However, for the brands we are trying to increase the visibility of, and to other marketers who aren't faced with SEO every day, it can't always be the easiest of information to digest -- so we've pulled out some key takeaways and looked at what's important now vs. then!

The background

First... to tell you how the data is collected. 150 search professionals including some well-known names in search like Peter Meyers, Ian Lurie, and Rishi Lakhani have contributed to the study to demystify what does and doesn't work in Google's algorithm in 2015. This year has also gone further to look at the future of search and what their predictions are based on what's gone before.

What's important in SEO now?

  1. The top three things that you should be concerned with is domain-level link features, page-level link features, and page-level keyword & content-based metrics. The overall message here is that the importance of authoritative links across your domain and into pages aren't any less important. Interestingly, when looking at 2013 approximately 40% believe this to be in the top two most important ranking factors, but in 2015 a page-level keyword and content based approach is closing the gap.
  2. User usage and traffic/query data is more important that domain level brand metrics now. Agnostic features (content length, readability, open graph mark-up, uniqueness, load speed, age etc.) are proving more of an influence in SEO as well. What this means is that the technical SEO areas are of increasing importance and investment in this area should be taken into careful consideration.
  3. The experts are not as concerned with the page level social metrics as much as previously thought. This is the least likely factor to affect ranking, whereas in 2013 it was considered much higher an influence.

The most influential is the quantity of unique linking domains to the domain. Interestingly Rishi has said:

"Topical relevancy has, in my opinion, gained much ground as a relevant ranking factor. Although I find it most at play when at page level, I am seeing significant shifts at overall domain relevancy, by long-tail growth or by topically-relevant domains linking to sites. One way I judge such movements is the growth of the long-tail relevant to the subject or ranking, when neither anchor text (exact match or synonyms) nor exact phrase is used in a site's content, yet it still ranks very highly for long-tail and mid-tail synonyms"

Therefore, relevance of long tail traffic is a real telltale sign that domain authority has an influence on ranking. The other two things we should be focusing on are the relevance of the linking domains and the authority the domain carries - of course it's not all about quantity.

This looks at link metrics to the individual ranking page, such as number of links, PageRank, etc. The most influential in this area is the raw quantity of links from high-authority sites.

The depth and relevance of these links across the domain has been increasingly important to be able to identify natural link acquisition and spammy link building tactics.

Dennis Goedegebuure says "high-quality links still rule rankings. The way a brand can earn links has become more important over the years, whereas link schemes can hurt a site more than ever before".

The other two things we should be focusing on, are again the relevance of the links to the page and the relevance of the linking domain to the page. We always talk about quality and relevance to determine quality links and this really stems from how good the content strategy of the website is. If there is a solid content strategy, with a content amplification plan of key content assets you should naturally be attracting links from the most relevant pages and sites.

Page-Level Keyword & Content-based Metrics

This looks at on-page optimization of keyword usage, content quantity/quality/relevance, etc. The most influential is the keyword being present in the title. Pretty basic in my opinion, but it highlights the importance of getting pages right from day one and the semantic set up of pages for rich content.

This is an ever important aspect of on-site SEO, but is it about Google building up an understanding of our page or getting them ranked highly? Peter Myers makes a good point here, saying "keyword usage is vital to making the cut, but we don't always see it correlate with ranking, because we're only looking at what already made the cut. The page has to be relevant to appear for a query, IMO, but when it comes to how high the page ranks once it's relevant, I think keywords have less impact than they once did. So, it's a necessary but not sufficient condition to ranking."

The other two things we should be focusing on are that the keyword appears in the main content area and that the page has close variants of the keyword. Keywords! Something that really hasn't changed but as content has become more and more important, we are continually aiming to optimise it and this should be taken into account during any content creation, ideation, or execution.

We've given a rundown of our own version of the results ranking one (the most influential) to nine (the least influential):

What do the results mean for you?

One of the main things to continue to focus on is not just the formulation of great content, but to simultaneously look at the channels it is being promoted to and the tactics employed to maximise its reach. Our focus is so much on creation of content, we still need to be optimising this and part of the planning process should always involve what content is going where.

It is also not just about what can make us great in SEO, but what is negatively going to affect the sites we are trying to rank? Whilst the top ones are coming out as total number of unnatural links to pages, duplicate content, thin content, and over optimisation, it is also important to look at ones we may not naturally think about, but can be easier ones to look at and make a positive change to. These include broken links to 404 pages, total amount of advertising on pages, duplicate title tags, and slow page speed. It is about prioritising the pages you want to rank for and going through this checklist to ensure we aren't hindering our SEO efforts.

2005 vs. 2015

We have looked at the results and done a bit of a comparison of our own. It got us thinking about the change of ranking factors. Moz started doing this 10 years ago so let's look at what was important in SEO then vs. now!

In 2005 just 12 Search experts took part in the survey. Back then there were 100 unique ranking factors. The results of this are shown below:

Top 10 Ranking Factors in 2005:

  1. Title Tag (4.57)
  2. Anchor Text of Links (4.46)
  3. Keyword Use in Document Text (4.38)
  4. Accessibility of Document (4.3)
  5. Links to Document from Site-Internal Pages (4.15)
  6. Primary Subject Matter of Site - (4.00)
  7. External Links to Linking Pages (3.92)
  8. Link Popularity of Site in Topical Community (3.77)
  9. Global Link Popularity of Site (3.69)
  10. Keyword Spamming (3.69)

Keyword spamming -- it's great to see that in there! What's also surprising is to see just how much of it is on-site focused and the transition of importance from on-site to off-site. A simpler time, the sites that focused their efforts on number 8 there probably have grown more so than others over the last 10 years.

The panel of 150 also took to predicting the future of Search and some interesting insights based of growing trends and their own studies. Of course, there were the usual insights around mobile to play a more key role and features that have stayed as ranking factors for years continue playing a key role but a couple of key things that require focus on in the future are location becoming more important role as mobile grows and apps and webpages playing a role together to add weighting in the SERPs. The experts have made the predictions and the graphic below shows the outcome.

What do you think?

Do you believe in Moz and the data? Is Google changing the way we rank and do SEO in 2015? We'd love to hear where you are going to be focusing your SEO efforts over the next 12 months...

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