How Do You Rank on Google?

Google’s algorithms are better-focused than ever, according to a new study from Searchmetrics.

In its fourth annual Google ranking factors study, the enterprise platform looked at the top 30 search results for 10,000 keywords and 300,000 websites on Google. According to Marcus Tober, founder and chief technology officer at Searchmetrics, the findings simply confirm the current trends.

“Understanding user intention and creating unique, relevant content is more vital than ever before,” Tober says. “It is also visible that backlinks are continuing to decrease in relevance. Looking ahead, as the proportion of search queries from mobile  devices continues to grow, it will be interesting to see what effect this has on the rankings.”

Some factors Searchmetrics saw positively affecting the rankings include mobile-friendliness; social signals, such as Facebook likes and Tweets; and backlinks, though the latter will likely decrease in importance. The study focuses on three other main areas:  

1. Technical

Technical factors are still most important when it comes to ranking in Google. Compared with last year, the search volume of domain names has increased strongly. While brands often rank higher because of their inherent visibility, brand searches, with or without extra keywords, also influence non-branded searches.

Other positive ranking factors include a domain’s SEO visibility; the frequency of H2 tags, in addition to H1 and meta description; a strong-but-short URL, which is worth thousands of keywords; and site speed. In addition, HTTPS encryption, which Searchmetrics included in its analysis for the first time, also impacts sites positively, though it’s not necessary for sites that don’t deal in sensitive data.

On the other hand, Keyword domains are no longer the strong ranking factor they once were. In 2014, 9 percent of the URLs in the top 30 included a keyword in their domain, a number that decreased to 6 percent this year. The proportion of pages using Flash is also significantly lower in the first two SERPs on both desktop and mobile.

2. User Experience

The internal link structure is important for both the crawlability of the Google bot and the user experience – CTR, bounce rate and time spent on site are three factors in ranking, after all. Last year, there were 131 internal links within the top 10 rankings; this year, there are 150. The same is true for optimization, which also includes factors such as responsive design, font size, and interactive elements. Bulleted lists also seem to be ranking factors, as they appear in half of the second-ranked sites and 40 percent in the top 30.

However, while the number of images helps rankings, the number of ranking sites with integrated videos has fallen from 2014. As of last summer, Google only plays video thumbnails in the SERPs; the dominance of YouTube also makes it difficult to rank. Searchmetrics also found that a large number of ads hurts ranking. Pages other than the first two search result spots, which are generally a brand page and Wikipedia, have an AdSense percentage of more than 10.

3. Content

While the content from the top 30 ranked pages has become more extensive – the word count for the top 10 pages averages 1,285, 25 percent higher than last year – less complex and more holistic, with more sites using proof terms and relevant terms.

Just as with the technical aspect of websites, keywords have become less important within content as well. Searchmetrics found that the percentage of pages that have the keyword they want to rank for as an external link’s anchor has fallen, especially toward the top of the rankings. However, keywords are much more important within internal links.

The full study can be found here.

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