Searchmetrics confirms power of content and social within SEO

By Chris Lee

Google has been fairly clear on the relationship between diverse, quality links, relevant content and social signals, as reported in our recent review of Penguin 2.0. But now, close analysis from search software specialists Searchmetrics has exposed some interesting findings.

According to Searchmetrics’ Ranking Factors 2013 report, so-called “keyword domains”, where the keyword is present in the URL, are less important than previously believed, while Web pages that rank higher in Google searches tend to have more Google+ plus ones and Facebook shares. And while pages with higher quality content rank better, top brand web pages apparently continue to automatically rank in top positions without obeying the same rules as other sites.

The key influencers of ranking

The US-based study analysed search results from Google.com for 10,000 popular-keywords and 300,000 websites appearing in the top 30 search results, and picks out the issues that correlate with a high Google ranking. 

The key findings from the study include:

1) Google+ plus ones correlate more with Google rankings than other social signals

Social signals such as Facebook likes and shares, Twitter tweets and Google+ plus ones all correlate closely with Google rankings.  But Searchmetrics’ analysis found that Google+ plus ones correlate more strongly (a correlation coefficient of +0.4) than any other social media signals.  Facebook shares were the second most closely linked social signal with rankings – a correlation of +0.34. Tweets on Twitter and Pins on Pinterest have lower correlations of +0.28 and 0.29 respectively.

“The pages in top positions in the search results stand out with a very high mass of social signals,” Marcus Tober, Searchmetrics’ founder and CTO, told NMK. “Of course there’s a lot of debate about whether social signals directly influence rankings or are just closely correlated with rankings, because highly ranked pages will get more traffic and so attract more shares, likes, plus ones etc.” 

2) Quality content is important for search rankings

Search experts believe the quality of content on web pages is an important ranking factor because Google is keen to raise the rankings of pages with good, useful information and Searchmetrics said that its analysis seems to support this. Pages with more text and more images are positively correlated with Google rankings (correlation +.11 and +0.08 respectively) indicating that higher ranking pages have more text and more images.

“If we assume that the existence of more text and images is an indicator of quality, then quality content is linked to higher rankings according to our study,” said Tober. “But we actually found that this relationship exists up to a limit of around 10,000 characters – after this the correlation tended to decrease. So you can’t just go on adding text in the hope it will continue to drive a more positive rankings boost.”

3) Keyword domains and keyword links have lost relevance

Search experts have long believed that sites that have a keyword in the domain name, such as carinsurance.com or paydayloan.com, tend to rank higher for relevant searches, but Searchmetrics’ study indicates this is now declining in importance.

The study found that having a keyword in the domain name has only a low positive correlation (+0.03) down from 0.11 in 2012. While having a keyword in the URL or web page address has declined from a correlation of +0.04 in 2012 to an even lower 0.01 in 2013.

4) The number of backlinks remains immensely important

As in Searchmetrics’ 2012 study, the 2013 data shows that the number of backlinks (links to a web page from other sites) remains very closely connected to how the page ranks.

"Pages with more links rank even better," Tober added. "However, it’s not just the quantity that matters, but more and more the quality. The more natural the link profile, the greater the prospect of a positive ranking.”

To get the most benefit, a site needs to have a spread of links that looks natural – not artificially created by SEO experts.

“The SEO visibility of the Web page a backlink comes from is also very important now,” Tober said. “SEO visibility is our measure of how visible a site is within Google searches. So what we mean here is that if a site gets backlinks from  highly visible, high ranking pages such as respected national news sites, then they seem to be more valuable – having more of this type of link is closely correlated with high rankings.”

5) Brands are the exception to many rules

Brands seem to automatically rank higher in Google searches. And the analysis reveals that some features that correlate with high ranking pages, mostly ‘on-page’ factors, do not apply to pages from top brands in the same way as they do for non-brand web pages. 

“Brands rank high even if they fail to fulfill some of the most basic principles of SEO,” Tober continued. “For example, pages from brands are positioned in or near the top of search results even if they have less text on the page and they don’t have keywords in the title.”

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