Google is often as clear as mud when it comes to clarifying the specifics on how it ranks content, frequently championing user experience and "best practices" over clear instructions on how to rank better.
However, their intention is much clearer: Offer value.
It’s a practical approach – by ranking content based on perceived user value, SEO becomes less about manipulation and more about offering value and usability. However, good intentions aren’t enough to land on page one; it requires some savvy on the specifics of what Google is looking for.
How should their algorithm influence my content strategy? Are backlinks still relevant? How are user signals influencing my rankings? While Google may not always be forthcoming in precisely how these factors play out, their search results themselves hint toward some answers.
In this post, I’ll review a study of one million Google search results compiled by Brian Dean of Backlinko in partnership with SEMRush, Ahrefs, MarketMuse, and SimilarWeb, along with some of the implications of what this study means for your SEO strategy.
Bring Focus to Your Content Strategy
Between short and long-form content, longer articles tend to rank much higher at an average of 1,890 words for first page results. This can be due to a variety of reasons, such as the increased topical relevance and social shares of more in-depth articles, but the most valuable takeaway from this is that Google has a clear preference for deep content – which no doubt corresponds to their goal of serving results that offer the greatest user value.
While there are a number of reasons longer pages win out, deep content will naturally entail a greater focus on a subject. This tighter focus helps because your content will target more specific long-tail queries, where there is less competition and, therefore, greater chances of landing on page one.
And even though long-form content tends to be specific, you’re actually targeting a broader audience of potential readers. For example A short 250-word post about “home gardening tips” may be adequate to introduce the subject, but the content is very unlikely to address specific questions that searchers might have when searching for “cold-weather home gardening tips” or “how to prevent weeds in home garden”, and so on.
While the keyword “home gardening tips” may get substantial traffic on Google, there’s far more combined volume in long-tail searches which long-form content can rank for. Given the improved odds of ranking highly, searchers are more likely to actually find a 2,500-word post which offers greater relevance for their specific queries.
Authoritative Backlinks Are Still Relevant
Google has maintained an aggressive stance on dealing with spammy links, with Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller stating that link building will only do, “More harm than good” in a Google+ hangouts chat back in February of 2015.
However, in that same video, Mueller acknowledged that links are still important in their algorithm. And Google’s SERPs are excellent proof.
While Google hates link spam, there’s plenty of evidence in these results to suggest that link building is far from dead. In terms of raw quantity, sites on page one tended to have a substantially higher number of total backlinks than others, with top results averaging around 35,000 (and those in the #10 spot trailing at around 5,000.)
Even as Google continues to add nuance to its algorithm, there is a strong, continued correlation in the total number of backlinks towards top-ranking pages. Another interesting finding is that sites in top positions also had more link authority, which offers further proof that Google is placing value on the quality of links in addition to quantity.
Finally, despite Google’s continued efforts to crack down on link spam, exact match anchor text continues to strongly influence rankings. However, it is impossible to recommend using exact match anchor text as a link building strategy with Google’s next Penguin update rolling out within upcoming weeks.
Reconsider On-Site Ranking Factors
While all of the ranking factors that Google’s algorithm uses aren’t all exactly known, common traits between top-ranking pages reveal some on-site elements that may be important. Some of these elements include:
- Quick loading speed. Faster loading websites are more likely to rank in Google, at least partially because it means reduced bounce rates. Although Google has denied using bounce rate as a ranking factor, speculation is sure to as low bounce rate continues to be a common thread for top ranked sites.
- Shorter URLs. Google has acknowledged that they place greater weight on the first couple of words in URLs. By using short, keyword focused URLs, sites have a greater chance of ranking because it helps Google understand the topic of your pages.
- HTTPS. Among the ranking factors that Google openly advertises is HTTPS, partly due to their efforts to, “make the Internet safer more broadly.” While the connection between HTTPS and rankings wasn’t particularly strong, it is reasonable to expect it will make a greater difference as Google continues to encourage webmasters to make the switch.
In addition to these findings, this survey discovered some factors that aren’t quite as crucial as many SEOs believed. Most surprisingly, the relationship between title tag keyword optimization and ranking was significantly smaller than expected – which makes sense as Google gravitates towards semantic search.
It’s important to note that Backlinko’s methodology excludes local SEO (the search results studied here were done on a national level in the US). However, quality backlinks, relevant content, and user signals will certainly continue to have importance in local search rankings. To discover more about this study, check out the full report here.