The influence of RankBrain is making it harder than ever to understand which factors are affecting Google rankings.
In a recent survey, search professionals could only predict which site would rank higher (when presented with two competing pages) less than 50% of the time. In other words, their expert predictions were no better than a coin toss.
As Google’s machine learning technology RankBrain grows as an influence in rankings the predictability of search results looks set to become even more tricky. By definition, machine learning moves the Google algorithms away from a fixed set of human defined inputs, and even their own engineers have admitted not knowing exactly how RankBrain is functioning.
So the question is if we can no longer rely on a clearly defined set of ranking factors, can we still optimize our content for search? Surveys such as Searchmetrics’ still provide us with some useful insight and Technical SEO and link metrics still have a huge part to play when it comes to SEO. However, when it comes to creating great content for search you need to be thinking about the following factors.
#1 Match searcher intent
Extensive keyword research is still a critical part of SEO, however, you now need to go much further than simply mining all the phrases people might type into search engines around your products, services or niche. When targeting your web content towards particular queries, you need to consider:
- At what stage of the user journey is the searcher? A user at an early research phase will probably expect longer form content that discusses the merits of a range of product solutions. In contrast, somebody who is ready to buy would prefer to be taken directly to a product page that includes essential information such as price, availability and delivery.
- Do you have content for every stage of the journey? Grouping keywords by intent and mapping these to your existing pages can help you identify any content gaps.
- What type of content is already ranking for a specific query or query group? If your content targeting these queries doesn't match, then consider targeting that search with a different page.
- Does your content also answer related queries? Answering closely related queries with your content will broaden your opportunities for ranking. Look out for ‘people also ask’ suggestion boxes within the SERPs.
#2 Build topic relevancy
It’s important to remember that Google does not look at your pages in isolation when determining your relevancy for a particular topic. To rank well you need to be seen as an authority within your niche. Topic relevancy can be achieved through:
- Content - The more quality content you have dedicated to a subject the more likely it is that individual pages will rank well for terms around that topic. Research common questions around your topic and build out content that satisfies all of those queries.
- Internal links - Linking between pages on a particular topic will help Google to establish a topical connection between these pages.
- External Links - Links from pages or sites that are relevant to your topic will increase your site’s topic relevancy in the eyes of Google.
#3 Focus on user experience
There is considerable evidence that Google is using user experience metrics such as bounce rates, time on page and user engagements to influence their search rankings. When assessing your pages, you need to consider the following factors:
- Does the page match the searcher's intent? There is no value in driving low-quality traffic to a page as this will inevitably increase bounce rates.
- Is relevant content immediately available? Tabbed or accordioned content can harm user experience if it makes content difficult to find.
- Is content digestible? Breaking content down using paragraphs, page headings and ordered/unordered lists can greatly enhance user experience.
- Do you make use of rich elements such as video and images? These kinds of page elements are proven to increase engagement.
- Have you checked your page speeds? Pages that are slow to load result in a poor user experience that will harm user engagement and conversions.
#4 Optimize for clicks
Google’s Hummingbird algorithm already lessened the importance of targeting specific keyword terms within our page content. Keywording within elements, such as page titles, still has SEO value, but there’s also plenty of evidence that improving CTRs has a direct impact on SEO. Write your titles and meta descriptions for users in a way that encourages clicks when displayed in the SERPs.
- Include USPs and CTAs - Tell users not only what they will find on your page but also why they should visit or how it will help them. A good structure to remember for your descriptions is what it is, why it’s awesome, plus, a call to action.
- Learn from your PPC campaigns - Including phrases and CTAs that have worked in paid search ads into your titles/descriptions will also increase your click through rates from organic search.
- Include keywords - Although meta descriptions do not directly impact rankings in the same way as page titles, our data from PPC campaigns shows us that including keywords in search ads positively affects click through rates.
#5 Test, analyze and refine
In the post, RankBrain world different industries, topics and search terms can have different ranking factors applied to them. This makes across the board best practices for SEO much less relevant than they once were.
Because we can no longer predict which factors will be at play, it becomes increasingly important to test different strategies to find what works for your niche, a stage of the funnel or a particular search intent. Testing search engine optimization activity is tough due to the sheer number of variables involved in SEO success, however, there are some things you can do to make this process more successful.
- Have test and control groups - Test pages or groups of pages before making wholesale changes to your site. You can only measure the success of an SEO change by comparing the results to similar pages that haven’t been updated.
- Define your measurement metrics - When trying different approaches, it is essential that you establish what you are trying to achieve and how you will measure success. Simply measuring ranking changes is not enough.
- Think beyond SEO – Related to the above, simply measuring the impact on organic search visits ignores other factors that may determine if an apparently successful test should be rolled out. Other things a change could impact include goal conversions, revenues, bounce rates or PPC quality scores.