It is 2020; now more than ever, businesses understand the value of digital marketing. While traditional media is still a good medium to build a brand and attract business, digital marketing channels like search engines can convert, in most cases, multiple times better than traditional media. This means the ROI from search engine marketing far exceeds the ROI from traditional media (considering the lower entry point and cost of search engine marketing).
Businesses also now realize the effectiveness of search engine marketing. They do not need to reach millions of people using traditional media; it is enough to be in front of people that search exactly for their products on search engines like Google, allowing them to generate the same amount of business with less cost. The quickest and easiest way to do search engine marketing is Google Ads (bid on a keyword and pay for every click), but with more businesses realizing its value, the cost per click has become far more expensive throughout the years. For some highly coveted keywords, businesses need to pay hundreds of dollars to receive one click, so it doesn't take long before they start asking themselves this simple question:
How can we climb to the top of Google organic results so that we can save some of the money that we are paying for those expensive clicks?
Answering this question is becoming more complex as the Google algorithm is becoming increasingly sophisticated day-by-day, using hundreds of ranking factors. Google tried to answer this question here (an updated version of how their algorithm works). They divided their answer into five segments, two of them are very popular (but may be 20 years old) that we find many clients are aware of and understand, and the other three segments are relatively new and are more challenging concepts for our clients to grasp.
Old popular ranking factors (heavy weight in the algorithm):
Relevance on web page (on-page SEO):
"The most basic signal that information is relevant is when a webpage contains the same keywords as your search query. If those keywords appear on the page, or if they appear in the headings or body of the text, the information is more likely to be relevant. Beyond simple keyword matching, we use aggregated and anonymized interaction data to assess whether search results are relevant to queries."
This is what SEOs call on-page SEO, it is a simple process that makes sure your content covers a certain question (keyword) well, and that this keyword is included in the tags of the page (title tag, description tag and headers) and mentioned few times in the body of the page.
Quality of content (authority or inbound links):
"We look for sites that many users seem to value for similar queries. For example, if other prominent websites link to the page (what is known as PageRank), that has proven to be a good sign that the information is well trusted. Aggregated feedback from our Search quality evaluation process is used to further refine how our systems discern the quality of information."
This is what SEOs call off-page factor. Clearly it is not enough for Google to look at the relevance of a web page to decide where to rank it, as there could be thousands of pages that are relevant to a single query. They need another layer to apply at the top of relevancy, and that layer is authority or trust, which is driven mainly by the number of quality links pointing back to a website.
A bundle of on-page SEO and link building is how most SEO companies have been selling SEO services since 2000. There is a lot of awareness and content covering those old ranking factors. Most SEO leads that come to us at Search Engine People have heard about those two factors and they believe that they need them to rank well in Google.
New, less popular ranking factors (lighter weight in the algorithm, but growing and can impede good ranking):
Meaning of the query:
"To return relevant results for your query, we first need to establish what information you’re looking forーthe intent behind your query. Understanding intent is fundamentally about understanding language, and is a critical aspect of Search. We build language models to try to decipher what strings of words we should look up in the index."
Google is becoming smarter everyday, understanding the intent behind a query, and also understanding which queries a web page can answer. Sometimes the answer is an image, a map or a video, which is taking even more traffic away from text content. With this smarter query understanding, a web page can aim to rank for fewer queries and instead focus more on providing clear and quick answers (what we call laser-focussed content) for fewer queries.
Back in the day we used to see one page able to rank for a lot more keywords/queries than what we see now. Normally, the answer of the user query was somewhere in that page, but users needed to mine for the answer. But spending more time to find an answer is not a good user experience. Google wants to provide users with quick answers to their questions, and that is where laser focused content shines. In some cases, Google is even extracting the answer from the page, removing the need for a user to even visit that page (featured snippet):
The meaning of the query can also impact the type of content that can rank for it. Text content is not as dominant as it used to be, and there are a lot of other types of content that are showing more and more in the SERP, and taking traffic away from web pages:
- Instant answer boxes (a type of featured snippet)
It is very important to analyze the search engine result page (SERP) for each targeted keyword, and provide the right type of content that has the best chance to rank at the top of Google's results.
Usability of web pages:
"When ranking results, Google Search also evaluates whether webpages are easy to use. When we identify persistent user pain points, we develop algorithms to promote more usable pages over less usable ones, all other things being equal.
These algorithms analyze signals that indicate whether all our users are able to view the result, like whether the site appears correctly in different browsers; whether it is designed for all device types and sizes, including desktops, tablets, and smartphones; and whether the page loading times work well for users with slow Internet connections."
This is what SEOs refer to as conversion rate optimization (CRO) or user experience (UX) optimization, and this where we have a lot of resistance from clients when bringing up UX as an issue that hurts ranking. They frequently point out examples of websites that are not as good as theirs, but are still outranking them. Since user experience is not the heaviest ranking factor, a higher authority website can still beat a website with better UX. However, it is cheaper to score ranking points by improving UX than improving authority, not to mention that UX improvement is part of CRO, which can lead to more conversions using the same traffic.
I was so happy recently to see John Mueller (from Google) Tweeting about this, and underling how design and functionality can be clearly ranking impediments if not done well.
Context and settings:
"Information such as your location, past Search history and Search settings all help us to tailor your results to what is most useful and relevant for you in that moment."
The key point to focus on here is location: it is more difficult to rank on national or international levels than before. Even at Search Engine People, we used to rank very well for SEO across Canada, but now we rank well only in our main area of operations (Greater Toronto Area and perhaps Ontario). It is recommended for most businesses to target keywords with the formula: what do you do + where do you do it, then leave it to Google to rank generic keywords in your area of operations.
Now, understanding all about new and old ranking factors, the right process any website needs to follow to rank well in Google is:
- Keyword research that identifies relevant keywords that a website can rank for with it is current level of authority and the business area of operations (geolocation).
- SERP analysis to understand what type of content can rank for each query and find out which quires trigger featured snippets.
- Building laser focused pages to target those keywords and conduct a good user friendly on-page SEO optimization.
- Ensure the website has a professional design and is optimized for a good user experience. This includes usability, functionality and a quick load time.
- Start a link building campaign to improve the website authority.
It has to be followed with the same order above if there is a budget limitation. If your budget is not an issue, link building and UX can start from the get-go.
At Search Engine People we have structured our SEO department to cover all of Google's main ranking factors. Our versatile team now consists of:
- A keyword research, intent and SERP analysis specialist (a shoutout to Martha)
- SERP optimization, Google News optimization and featured snippet optimization (a shoutout to Josh)
- Content writers that understand how to provide user friendly quality content that is optimized well for search engines (shout outs to Ruhi, Vanessa and Amanda)
- Web developers with a lot of experience around popular CMS like WordPress and Drupal, website performance, and hosting (a shoutout to John)
- A tracking expert (GA, GTM and call tracking) (a shoutout to Victor)
- Technical SEO specialist that can assess if a website is crawl-able, indexable, loads fast and is error-free (a shoutout to Ruud)
- A graphic designer (a shoutout to Nigel)
- A CRO specialist (a shoutout to Mike)
Our team can take your SEO to the next level. It is undoubtedly a more challenging level to reach compared to how SEO was done few years ago, but at SEP we embrace new challenges head-on. It is always rewarding for our team to see their work resulting in top Google rankings for their clients; it is our joy to help you!