There is a fair amount of confusion being created in SEO (not surprising) – as to what is actually working and helping sites rank as Google moves into an AI first algorithm coupled with heavy user data monitoring.
In this post, I will summarize some of the key top SEO ranking factors as we move into 2018.
I always like to keep myself updated on what exactly is working in SEO and how it will pan out to be in the months ahead or the year ahead (if we actually see a longer term trend happening).
If you’re doing Client SEO make sure to read the seo audit guide to get a step by step process into doing your on-site seo audits.
I recently read a pdf document by the folks over at SEMrush that gave an in-depth analysis of the key ranking factors moving into 2018 – and that inspired by to come up with this list. Their analysis was from their internal data sets and their internal SERP metrics analysis. Some (a lot) of the information below has been compiled from that – but has also been coupled with my experience in the field.
Do note that these are just the main ranking factors. There are literally hundreds of other ranking factors that each play their role, and that I have not covered in this post.
For those of you who have seen my SEO videos and post of the past like 2016 Ranking Factors, you can see that I’ve already been talking in great detail about most of these factors and how Google has been using them in its core algorithms.
Before we jump head on into the top factors, its important to note that the ranking factors for high volume keywords, mid volume and low volume keywords may or may not be different for each of the factors mentioned below.
This is key – and it is critical that you understand that if you are to maximize your SEO skills.
Just because a specific ranking factor applies to a high volume search keyword does not make it true for mid or low volume keyword and/or long tail keywords!
That said, lets summarize each of the top ranking factors currently as we move into the new year.
The top ranking factors are listed below in no particular order of priority!
Direct Website Traffic
This is one of the most influential ranking factor moving into 2018. And, this factor is why branding is very important for SEO. Google wants and IS measuring direct traffic to your site and non-organic SEO related traffic.
Google realizes that… once people know about your site (and it provides high value to them) – they will type the address directly into their browser to come visit more often (this is called “type in traffic”). And, Google can measure the rate at which this is happening as they are spying on and tracking Chrome data and activity.
This is a very important ranking factor. The more “type in traffic” you have, the better your brand is in the eyes of Google and you get rewarded by Google making your easier to rank in your niche – IF and only IF – your User Experience and User Engagement factors are above average (the higher the better) compared to the top 4 to 5 competitors who are ranking in your niche.
Type-in-traffic gives your domain authority which enables it to rank easily! This applies more to high competitive niches with high search volume.
Of course there are ways to game this metric, and if you want to know how you could influence it positively for your site make sure you sign up to my list as I will talk about this shortly in a separate post and even an SEO video.
User Behavior Signals
User behavior signals include site engagement activities like –
- bounce rate
- dwell time
- average number of pages per session
- termination of search query intent
These factors are very important – and once your site is ranking Google wants to see that you are providing content that is engaging and of high value to visitors, as compared to your competitors in the niche.
Google wants to see more time on site (dwell time), more pages per session or per visit and low bounce rates. This directly influences your rankings and is an indication of your website quality and relevance for users who visit it. There is internal news that Google is using an updated version of Page Rank that the refer to as “Quality Score”.
For high volume keywords it was found that the average amount of time spent on the site was around 40 seconds more than for the low-volume keywords. This can help you decide how much you want to engage with your audience in your niche.
Also on an average it was found that users navigate through three to threeand-a-half pages per website, per visit. For more popular keywords the number of pages per session increased.
Its important to note that it was found that the top 4 ranking sites for various keywords had similar user behavior signals. This means that you can study what the top 4 ranking sites are doing in your niche and try and optimize your site engagement metrics to match them.
While backlinks are still an important ranking factor, they have lost priority on their importance. I am in no way saying that backlinks are dead! I am only saying that its better to focus on other factors on priority over backlinks – at least when you start out with a new website or page.
However, do note that in the smaller niches with low search volume keywords, backlinks do play more of a priority role.
While building backlink make sure you build backlinks of all types and to various pages and with various anchors. Just boosting one type of backlink will not work as well as working on all types together.
High volume keywords still have domains ranking on top that have significantly more referring domains, backlinks, from diverse IP addresses and do-follow links that those ranking low – infact, 4 times as many!
However, for lower volume keyword searches this does not hold true and it seems that backlinks are playing lesser of a role here.
This is evident by seeing the metrics of the top results for these search keywords and noticing that the backlink volumes are not as significantly high as the other searches lower down in the pages. We can conclude that for low competition keywords with lower volume – backlinks are not as important as other factors and large number of backlinks wont give you a significant edge over the competition.
I am in no way implying that backlinks are not important here. I am saying that one must not go overboard and its important to see the backlink volume and profile of top ranking sites in your niche and try not to cross the thresholds set by them. It is very critical that your backlinks are as diverse as possible – and diversity is the key to getting stronger rankings.
SERP Click Through Rate
Your site will get boosted in the SERPs if more people are clicking on it as compared to the other results on the same page IF and only IF you are able to beat the other sites in the the average User Engagement Metrics.
Put simply, this means that there is no point making a spammy looking and click-enticing title – when users are going to bounce back from your page to go back to the SERPs and visit another page that satisifies their intent.
Majority of the domains that are ranking high in popular niches and high volume keywords have https sites. In low volume keywords there is a low percentage of sites with https. This does imply that having https will give you an advantage over your competitors and even Google has recommended this in the past.
Keywords In Content
Majority of sites wanting to rank for specific keywords are putting keywords in the meta title and description tags and in the body content – and it still seems to be one of the most popular SEO techniques.
However, one should note this is not as significant a ranking factor as it once was and there are other ranking factors that have gained prominence over this with the Google algorithm.
Keywords in Anchors
For long-tail keywords (low search and low competition) having a keyword in the anchor can be seen in the backlink profiles and still helps if and only if it is done without any keyword stuffing.
However, for short-head keywords (higher volume and more competition) the exact opposite is true and we are seeing very little ratio of keywords being used as anchors in the backlink profile.
It was found that long content is definitely ranking better for high search volume keywords. Pages appearing high up in the SERPs have on average 1.5 times more content that other pages ranking for low volume searches.
This means that low volume search keywords do not need long form content as much as popular keywords. This is good to keep in mind while building out your site in your niche and it will help you decide how thick your content should be.
Having a video within your content is important. It seems like Google continues to favor video embeds. Engaging videos also cause visitors to stop on your page and watch the video – thereby increasing the dwell time of users on your site and decreases your bounce rates.
Therefore it is evident that there could be a direct correlation here... where a video embed causes these low bounce rates which results in better rankings!
Ever since Google started tracking users through their Chrome browser they have been looking at how visitors find your site.
Visitors land on your site from various sources, such as…
- search results
- paid ads
- social traffic
- direct type in traffic
- through other referring sites (backlinks)
- other promotional activity
The number of visits to your site is a direct ranking factor and the more traffic you get the better your ranking ability and signals get.
However, note that once these visitors land up on your site – you need to make sure they engage with it… which will affect its quality score and as a result increase your rankings even more.
Getting visitors to your site by different methods (not just SEO and organic search results) is key here.
Once, you build brand and get visits – you will obviously need to make sure that the site is engaging enough (provides value and is of high quality) – and therefore your site will get a good quality score… which will improve its organic rankings!
Therefore, building your site and brand awareness is AS important as putting efforts into SEO.
[pullquote align=”left”] The trick here is to follow a sequence by first tightening up your on-page metrics such as content quality, bounce rate, user dwell time, user intent termination etc…. THEN drive traffic to your site… THEN engage in direct SEO activities. [/pullquote]
Branded Keyword searches seem to return sites that are relevant to the brand over being the more popular websites. Therefore, relevance in search results is being seen more in brand searches with the actual brand sites showing up.
It seems as though brand searches do help boost your rankings, and brand searches coupled with primary keywords are something worth looking into. However, the searches have to come from real accounts if you want to really benefit.
It is important to have social engagement signals from popular and active influencers and accounts -more than just regular signals. Each signal needs to have engagement with it – which means you are better off getting signals from authoritative and popular people than just some fake signals from random low engagement accounts. This is somewhat similar to what pagerank was back in the days.
Also, if you have social referring traffic from your social signals or those of others who have established popularity then that will help your site rank in the SERPs. Real accounts, real signals, real votes, real engagement and real click to visit – is what this is all about. Dormant social accounts with dormant signals – do not help in any way whatsoever.
What does this tell us about the future of SEO in 2018?
To summarize whats happening in the future of SEO, its pretty apparent that Google is tracking real user metrics and relying more and more on Artificial Intelligence to measure user behavior on each page.
This means that we have moved into an era where Google can actually tell if a particular page is good or bad without really needing to understand what it specifically is saying and can use general page profile to determine the topic and then use user behavior on the page to measure value of that page for that topic.
The one thing you want to take away from this post, is this…
You can rank a site by pushing non-seo traffic to it and then making sure that users engage and interact on your site (see user engagement metrics above) in a manner that is better than the other top 4 sites / pages ranking in your niche.
If you can manage to do that, then Google will reward your site by ranking it high, and in many cases with fewer backlinks than your competitors!
Did I miss anything? Do you have anything to say? I’d love to hear your views…