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Trusting your experience when it comes to Google’s search-ranking factors

5 min read

Marketing Strategy

Google uses more than 200 factors to determine how high your website should rank in search-engine results. What are the factors, and which are most important to rankings? Google isn’t always clear on that, leaving search-engine marketers to identify the most important ranking factors through experience and research, in addition to the limited information Google provides. Experience and research don’t always match up with information Google provides, though. In fact, sometimes Google officially states that something is not a ranking factor when experience and research suggest it is.

Google +1s

In October 2012, the head of Google’s Webspam team, Matt Cutts, said in a Google Hangout, “Right now, there’s not really a direct effect where if you have a lot of +1s, you’ll rank higher.” However, recent correlation studies from Moz, Searchmetrics and Netmark report that Google +1s are a factor with one of the highest correlations to high website rankings. In fact, Searchmetrics reports Google +1s as the top ranking factor. Moz reports them in the top two, and Netmark reports them in the top five. Cutts responded to these reports in August 2013, stating, “If you make compelling content, people will link to it, like it, share it on Facebook, +1 it, etc. But that doesn’t mean that Google is using those signals in our ranking.”

Cutts makes a convincing point. But, if it’s true, then it makes you wonder — why isn’t Google using +1s as a ranking factor? Think about it: Google uses algorithms to rank sites. Those algorithms need numbers to produce results, numbers that represent the quality of website content. If the number of Google +1s is an indication of quality content, as Cutts suggested, why wouldn’t Google be using them as a ranking factor?

Exact Match Anchor Text

Early in 2012, Cutts announced Google would soon be implementing what is now referred to as an “over-optimization” penalty. This meant that if Google felt there was an unnatural number of links on the Web pointing to your site from keyword-focused text, they would penalize your rankings. And they followed through. There’s no question that Google penalizes sites with too many exact match anchor text links. Still, Netmark reports exact match anchor text links in their top two highest correlations. Moz reports exact match anchor text in their top seven. Interestingly, Searchmetrics reports exact match anchor text links near the bottom of their list. However, they add, “It should be noted that in absolute terms, backlinks with a keyword clearly dominate the backlink portfolio of well ranked websites.”

Google PageRank

We don’t question whether Google PageRank is a factor in search engine rankings. We question how important of a factor it is. For many years, PageRank was considered to be very important, and Google updated it about every quarter. In the past few years, PageRank updates have become less frequent, and speculation grew that PageRank would soon disappear completely. This speculation was fueled by Google. In October, Cutts said he would be surprised if there was another PageRank update in 2013 and that “the PageRank indicator will probably start to go away a little bit.” At that point, it had been eight months since the last update. Then, just three months later, Google updated PageRank.

What should you believe?

With such mixed signals, how do we know what’s important for our search engine optimization strategies? The first thing to keep in mind is that correlation does not equal causation. Moz, Searchmetrics and Netmark all state this in their reports. A positive correlation suggests there is a relationship between two factors whereby when one factor increases, the other factor also increases. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one factor causes the other. Furthermore, based on the method used in these studies, only a correlation of 0.8 or higher is considered a very strong relationship. The highest correlation in any of the three studies was Netmark’s report of .431 for Google +1s.

That’s not to say these studies are worthless. On the contrary, they are very helpful. Because Google provides limited information about ranking factors, we’re often left grasping for straws. If there is any kind of relationship between a potential factor and rankings, we want to know about it so we can explore the relationship further.

So what should you do?

The most common answer we get from Matt Cutts on what affects search rankings is some form of this: “As long as you have great content, you should do well in Google.” So, that’s where we should always begin when planning a search engine strategy.

  • Create a user-friendly website and fill it with content created to please people first, not search engine robots.
  • Focus less on building exact match anchor text links and more on distributing quality content that shows you are the authority on the types of products and services you provide. If you provide content that’s very relevant, you’ll naturally begin to rank for very relevant keywords.
  • Execute well-planned email marketing and social media strategies to ensure your quality content is well-distributed. Foster true engagement within your social networks and you’ll naturally get those Google +1s.
  • Stop using PageRank as a measurement of how well you’re doing. The end-game for SEO is getting qualified website traffic, not a high PageRank. You get good traffic when you provide good content and engage with your target audience. Focus on executing a well-planned, well-rounded digital marketing strategy, instead.

Have you noticed any discrepancies between what Google says about search engine ranking factors and what you’ve actually experienced?

Lori Aitkenhead is the digital marketing manager at Paveya, an Internet marketing agency that specializes in helping small businesses succeed through inbound marketing. You can reach her on Google+, Twitter or LinkedIn.