SEMrush’s “Ranking Factors Study 2.0” confirms yet again that there is no single “open sesame” tactic that will magically net your site’s URLs the top placements in the Google search results. I am sure that this is terribly disappointing for site owners and practitioners who have long-sought to replace solid valued and valuable content, technical excellence and a commitment to the user with a magic bullet tactic.
This study and other similar studies that look for keys to unlocking the Google algorithm increasingly confirm the need for a holistic, user-centric approach to search.
The SEMrush study used a 600,000-keyword worldwide data set and examined the first 100 SERP positions for each keyword. To crunch this big data and reveal the importance of the ranking factors, it applied a machine-learning algorithm called Random Forest. This methodology is one of the most effective machine-learning regression models used for predictive analysis. As the name implies, random forest is decision-tree methodology that teases out the most significant factors. Those with a statistical interest will find SEMrush’s choice of this methodology interesting.
What Were the Results?
The study identified 17 factors that influence how a page ranks in the Google SERPs. The study found that direct website traffic is the most influential ranking factor. A high volume of users directly navigating to the site is a key indicator to Google that the domain has authority and value.
What drives an individual to directly navigate to a site? The answer is easy: content and presentation that users value. The study shows that user behavior signals, such as time on site, pages per session and bounce rate influence rankings. They are indicators of site quality and its relevance for users. It should be noted that the study authors point out that the factors are intertwined, so focusing on a single factor does not strongly influence the overall result. They all fit neatly together.
What About Links?
The study shows that backlinks and link profiles are still key factors in rankings. The volume of referring domains, volume of backlinks and referring IP addresses are key metrics. The authors caution that “all the metrics of the backlink portfolio are interconnected, and a blind manipulation of only one of them will not increase your rankings, unless you also work on the other metrics.”
A well-orchestrated digital marketing effort can yield a surprising number of quality links. It has been my practice to focus on quality, and let the quantity flow from the overall value of the site’s offering as enhanced and exposed through the total marketing effort.
Does Content Matter?
The research clearly shows that content is crucial to ranking. There is no magic bullet length. If the content is irrelevant to the user’s query, it doesn’t matter how long it is — it will still be irrelevant.
The message is clear that by creating relevant content, you can improve your ranking. The research indicates that pages that rank higher have longer content, on average. This is particularly important for high search volume competitive keywords. For long-tail keywords, don’t scrimp on the content. Narrow your focus and cover the topic in depth, and you will be rewarded.
The Key Takeaway
The study also looked at on-page optimization factors and the impact of Google’s push to make the Web more secure by rewarding secure sites and shaming insecure sites. The results make interesting reading and, in my opinion, this entire study is a must-read for search marketers.
The key takeaway for me is that given the importance of direct traffic and user experience, that building brand awareness and enhancing user experience is as important as a strong SEO program. A holistic approach to addressing the dynamics of generating search traffic is essential.