Link Building

SEO Study: Backlinks Decline as Ranking Factor

In a practice as complex and seemingly indecipherable as search engine optimization, the clues gleaned from large ranking factor studies can shine some light. To this end, Searchmetrics, a search marketing company, released its annual Google ranking factors study this week.

Among the most important findings, Searchmetrics discusses: content relevance and user intent; user signals from Google’s own product set; technical and architectural factors; and backlinks. But hold on, some of the conclusions will surprise you.

For example, while the quality and quantity of links coming into your pages from other sites is still important, Searchmetrics finds that it’s not the most important factor like it has been in the past. Depending on the search query the user enters, the highest search results may not have a larger number of links than other pages that rank.

Depending on the search query the user enters, the highest search results may not have a larger number of links than other pages that rank.

Searchmetrics attributes this decline in backlink importance to the rise in mobile, citing the prevalence of social sharing and app usage in mobile as opposed to linking behaviors that were traditionally the measure of value in desktop rankings. “Backlinks do remain a part of the algorithm, but they are now just one of many contributing factors and no longer the driving force pushing webpages to the top of Google’s rankings,” Searchmetrics stated.

Relevance and Intent

One of the major foci of the study, however, was content relevance and user intent. Based on the keyword that an individual searcher types into the search bar, and the personalization applied to that individual searcher, Google may judge the intent of a keyword search to be different and thus the resulting the search results page may also be different. This is not new.

Google has been saying for years that SEO needs to focus less on the keyword and more on the content relevance and value to the user. However, the crossover point between keyword dependence and content relevance primacy hasn’t been felt yet. Searchmetrics says that that time has arrived: “The keyword itself is therefore no longer the decisive factor in determining the actual ranking for a search query. Our analysis shows how strongly the relevance of the content to the search intention influences the Google ranking.”

To read more about how content relevance and value are tied up in the overall SEO picture, see “SEO: Creating Great Content for Ecommerce.”

That all assumes that a site is operating on a solid technical foundation optimal for ranking, and that the internal structure of the site is optimized to indicate its content relevance and importance. On the technical side, factors like site speed, HTTPS hosting, file size, internal linking, and mobile-friendliness all come into play in this area. In fact, Searchmetrics asserts that this is the only area of search that still relies on hard and fast rules across the board: “Except for important technical standards, there are no longer any specific factors or benchmark values that are universally valid for all online marketers and SEOs.”

Multiple Data Sources

Searchmetrics also points to Google’s own vast product set as feeders into ranking results, citing Google’s ability to pull user intent data signals in from diverse products such as the Chrome browser, Google Analytics, and the Android operating system on smartphones and tablets. By analyzing how individuals interact with different content across different Google products, it is “possible for search engines to draw precise conclusions regarding user satisfaction – and regarding whether or not the search result was able to fulfill the user intention.”

Lastly, Searchmetrics announced the dissolution of its own annual analysis, in favor of a more targeted series of whitepapers — which the firm will launch next year — based on search ranking factors by industry. “Ranking factors that apply equally to all industries have ceased to exist. This is primarily because the content requirements depend so heavily on different user intentions.” This will be good news for ecommerce SEO because their rankings factor findings will no longer be skewed by other more content-heavy industries like health care.

Other findings of interest include the following.

  • Brands buck the trend. The URLs with the highest content relevance are those on positions 3-6 — versus 1-2. Why? Because Google recognizes that known brands, which may not always have the highest ranking factors otherwise, win clicks based solely on brand recognition or preference.
  • HTTPS rules. Almost half of webpages in the top 10 now use of HTTPS encryption. This is an especially important finding for ecommerce sites.
  • High marks for social. The correlation between social signals and Google ranking has remained similar compared with previous years. Does that mean that strong Facebook or Twitter success causes high rankings? No. It simply means that the pages that tend to rank well also tend to perform well in social.
  • High click rates. The pages occupying positions 1-3 have an average click rate of 36 percent. That’s 44 percent for position one, 34 percent for position two and 30 percent for position three. Note that the percentages will add up to more than 100 percent across all positions because searchers may click on more than one result on a search results page.
  • Keywords not always in title tags. In 2016, just 53 percent of the top 20 URLs included the keyword in their title. In ecommerce, this reportedly decreases to 43 percent, according to the Searchmetrics study.

For more details, download the complete report, “Searchmetrics Ranking Factors – Rebooting for Relevance.” You might also be interested in the last ranking factors study done by Moz, another search marketing toolset, “Search Engine Ranking Factors 2015.” Unfortunately, Moz only completes its study every two years; the most recent report is from 2015.

It’s always important to consider the data source when discussing findings. Sharing information freely that has been gleaned from the practice of SEO and the analysis of the resulting data is an honorable tradition carried on by the leaders in the industry. However, it is not done entirely altruistically.

Searchmetrics is one of the larger search marketing platforms in the U.S. Its goal is presumably to sign on new subscribers to its service, in addition to providing the search industry with the information in this report. To the end, the report includes references to tools that Searchmetrics offers that allegedly will make managing some of the most important factors of SEO more efficient and effective. This article is not an endorsement of Searchmetrics or its toolset.

Jill Kocher Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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