What Really Makes a Difference in Search Today?

Marcus Tober
by Marcus Tober 02 Nov, 2015

By Marcus Tober, CTO and Founder of Searchmetrics

Search is one of the primary ways marketers drive traffic to their online content today.


With Google's algorithm continuously evolving as well as the dramatic rise of mobile search, it is essential that companies keep a close eye on strategies that push up their pages in the rankings and keep them there.


Three important discoveries emerged from an annual analysis (conducted by Searchmetrics) of the top 30 search results on Google.com for 10,000 keywords. The study analyzed common characteristics of pages with a high Google ranking and the factors that correlate with (or are more likely to appear on) these pages.


1) Quality content, not keywords


Content strategies based purely on inserting or including individual keywords within copy are dead. The study shows that the emphasis today must be on creating relevant, high-quality content that is easily understood and comprehensively covers the topic. The average word count of the top 30 pages in search results, for example, increased by 25 percent since 2014, while Flesch readability (which measures how easy or difficult it is to read a piece of text) is becoming more important. This not only indicates that high-ranking content tends to be longer (providing it's relevant and adds value) but should also be easily understood (while accepting that specialist content for expert audiences may, of course, be more complex). In addition, semantic analysis provides evidence that high-ranking pages cover topics in greater depth, touching on a variety of related subjects, which also means they rank for more search terms and topics overall to assist in potentially attracting more traffic.


For example, the proportion of important "proof terms" connected to the main topic identified in the content of the website page in the analyzed search results is around 78 percent, while the average proportion of "relevant terms" (slightly distant but related words) is around 51 percent. So if the main topic or search query is "Mexico holidays," proof terms such as "Mexico hotels" or "Mexico flights" are likely to be common, as well as relevant terms such as "Riviera Maya" or "Cancun sights."


2) User experience matters


Websites that rank higher also tend to offer a more user-friendly experience. They are more likely to use features such as bullet points to present content in a more structured way, as well as more menus, buttons and other interactive elements that help to make sites easier to use. With more people searching on the move, upward of 30 percent of sites appearing in the top 30 now use responsive design to automatically optimize pages for a mobile, tablet or computer experience (the real percentage is very likely much higher as the study only analyzed the most common types of responsive design).


High-ranking pages also tend to include more internal links that visitors can click and follow to find additional related information on the site. Links, however, must point to relevant information that adds value - it is not just about increasing the number of citations alone.


+ Discover several recommendation engines that can increase the number of internal links presented and the relevancy of those links at wsm.co/boost-links.


3) Backlinks still highly correlate with rankings - but their value is declining


Search experts have long understood that search engines use the number and variety of backlinks to a page - from other sites - as a quality signal (e.g. if a lot of other pages point to a page, then it must be valuable and useful). For many years, Google has attempted to clamp down on those who try to game the system by building false (or unnatural) links just for the sake of improving rankings - and it seems to be working.


While backlink features still show a fairly high correlation with rankings, their value is gradually declining. This trend is likely to continue as Google can now better analyze and give more weight to factors such as user behavior and content semantics. There remains a correlation between high rankings and the number of backlinks, but it is lower than last year.


+ For tips on creating content that naturally gets links, go to wsm.co/natural-links.


Interestingly, backlinks from news sites occur more frequently on high-ranking pages - maybe because Google views these links as a reliable indicator of quality (it is more difficult to manufacture false links from online publications) and freshness.


While link building is on the wane, link "earning"¬ù by creating quality content is the way to go. As the research shows, to rank highly, the emphasis is now on good, relevant content on sites that provide a top-notch experience and are technically sound.