How do search engines rank web pages? It’s that all-important question on the minds of business owners around the globe. Many think there’s an elusive (or illusive) secret formula for ranking pages; pure speculation abounds. And more confusing yet is that search engines like Google tell us there are over 200 ranking factors (each factor may have up to 50 variations)! Where do you even begin to determine which organic search ranking factors might be important to your results?
Here’s a good start: industry surveys. Surveys are a way for industry experts to collaborate, compile information, correlate data, and find patterns when reading the tea leaves.
Relevant quality content still reigns supreme but a lot more goes into search engine optimization than content. To be perfectly clear: these surveys do not tell us definitively whether Google uses these factors. They do indicate what is most likely a factor based on content that has achieved higher rankings. Proof? Not conclusively… but it’s crowdsourced data at its finest!
Moz’s 2015 Search Ranking Factors survey comes out every two years, after months of researching and compiling data. Their report covers a lot of bases and in this post we hope to share some of the top takeaways and what they might mean to you and your search engine optimization.
Want to read the whole report? It’s here: Moz Search Ranking Factors
What went into this year’s 2015 ranking factors by Moz? The crowdsourced data survey polled 150 industry leaders, examining over 170 data attributes, 16,521 search queries, and 700,000 unique URLs too (full methodology can be found here). The result? An amalgamation of important tidbits SEOs can use to develop strategies in the coming year.
Key Takeaways from Moz Search Ranking Survey
Caveat: Assume that every finding detailed below is prefaced with a disclaimer such as “apparently” or some other fudge factor. The findings are indicated – not proven – unless and until Google confirms them publicly. With that in mind … let’s dive in!
1. Social Shares Matter!
Speculation abounds about social media shares and how they play into Google’s algorithm for ranking sites. Do they? Don’t they? Google says they don’t (today, anyway), but correlation studies often tout the unique relationship between ranking and shares. Moz’s survey shows us that indeed a correlation appears to exist between social shares and rankings.
Findings: Page-level social metrics apparently influence Google’s algorithm in some way, form or fashion. The quantity and quality of tweeted links, Facebook shares and Google +1s at the page level were examined. Page-level social metrics were rated on an influence scale from 1 to 10. The survey revealed:
- Engagement with content/URL on social networks had a high rating of influence
- Raw count of shares ranked Google + above Twitter or Facebook
- Comments on the page were found to have a higher influence score than Pinterest pins associated with the URL
- Sentiment of the social share had a correlative effect to high ranking websites
Takeaway: Page-level social metrics do matter. Those surveyed think that Google+ is most important, followed up by Twitter then Facebook and lastly Pinterest. Does this mean you should focus all your effort on Google+ and neglect others? Of course not. Social backlinks are important but not just because they simply exist. It’s due to true engagement, so think about who and where your audience is, and see what you can do to entice those users to share your content.
Do you have calls to action in your content? This doesn’t always have to mean a call to action to fill out a lead form or request more information. A call to action could include a call to act socially, as long as it works for user experience. Think about what you’re doing to entice users to share and drive traffic. Social share buttons are a great start but calls to action ask someone to “do” something with the buttons themselves.
Editor’s Note: Martin Laetsch (Act-On’s in-house SEO expert) has a comment about these findings: “It’s important to remember the difference between causation and correlation. The results shown in the chart above are exactly what I would expect if the content in question is high quality. Another way to interpret this data is to say that when content is high quality, it draws more traffic organically and more people want to share it. Is it that the social interaction is behaving as a ranking factor, or is it that the quality of the content is both attracting attention and causing more people to share it?”
2. Authoritative TLDs and Keywords in TLDs
A top-level domain (TLD) is the part of the domain name after the “companyname”. The most common TLD is .com along with .org, .net, etc. TLDs all have a certain set of guidelines, but some TLDs have more than others. For example, .gov or .edu are reserved exclusively for specific government and educational websites. Google has shared in the past how they treat TLDs and how they treat newly created TLDs – “keywords in the TLD do not give any advantage or disadvantage in search”. But what about authoritative TLDs today?
In years past, SEOs understood that some of the most highly authoritative sites on the web were .gov and .edu TLDs. That meant that for many SEOs, the most “attractive” links you could get to your site came from .gov and .edu domains. SEOs would focus their natural link earning efforts on these TLDs, but does that practice still work? The survey said….
Findings: Moz’s survey revealed that domain-level, keyword-agnostic features such as domain name length, TLD extension and SSL certificate had little correlation to boosting rankings. Also revealed: TLDs aren’t as important as many think.
Takeaway: Domain-level features still matter. What has a growingly distanced correlation to ranking, however, is keyword usage in the TLD. With new TLDs (such as .cars, .buy, .family, et al.) Moz’s results show that it might not be as important to get your keywords in the TLD as one might think. Not only that, if your efforts are focused solely on .edu sites you should start the process of diversifying. While links still matter only focusing efforts on one specific TLD over another isn’t recommended.
3. Links Still Matter!
Google’s algorithms, and those of many other search engines for that matter, were built in a way that almost requires links in order to function. SEOs have always wondered when the links-based algorithm will be changed. Moz included this all important question in their survey.
Findings: Not surprisingly, year after year we continue to see that links still matter. Page-level and domain-level link authority matters. Data continues to show that some of the highest correlations between Google rankings is the # and quality of links to a given page.
Takeaway: Examining how your site performs from a backlink perspective still matters. Earning new, authoritative links both at the page-level and domain-level continue to achieve higher rankings. Business owners who take their SEO seriously are recommended to examine and improve the current state of their links in the coming months. Consider these resources:
- Conduct unlinked brand mention research. Don’t know how? Read my post here.
- Learn a bit more about how beginners can start building links today using Act-On’s Newbies Guide to Link Building.
- Start on these 3 Ways to Start Earning Links today for more information too!
- Dig into this link building resource page chock-full of information.
4. HTTPS – Don’t Believe the Hype
I can picture it just like it was yesterday. The summer of 2014, yet another announcement is shared by Google’s team. What is it this time? HTTPS is now a ranking signal – cybersecurity professionals rejoice! Industry-leading security decisions such as moving your site to HTTPS encryption were finally given their stamp of approval by Google. SEOs took action and waited. And waited. And waited some more. What did Moz reveal?
Findings: Correlation data reveals that HTTPS has few correlating effects on rankings. There haven’t been noticeable improvements … yet, anyway.
Takeaway: Considering a switch to HTTPS? Still consider the switch, as encrypting has many other benefits than a hoped-for ranking improvement. But don’t run out and spend a ton of money in hopes that you’ll move from #2 to #1 as a result. Think about the other advantages and plan accordingly if you really are considering an encryption move. Just like Mobilegeddon, the announcement of ranking being influenced by HTTPS wasn’t as big as the hype – but the benefits in the end result in a better user experience. And we still think that if you create a better user experience, Google is likely, sooner or later, to reward that, to some degree (if only a small one).
There are quite a few takeaways from the Moz survey this year and we only scratched the surface. We recommend taking the time to go through the report and understand what each of the page-level and domain-level specific factors mean for your website. This year is the year to take a hard look at your search engine optimization and evaluate the areas of needed improvement to boost your rankings, improve organic traffic and get your site to rank better.
And because this year’s survey does provide proof that social shares matter, we wanted to give you access to our eBook, Does Social Media Affect SEO? This eBook will help you explore the correlation between social media and search rankings and provides you with tips and a checklist for how to increase your search rankings.
Have some additional findings or observations to share from the survey? Leave us a note in the comments below!