Not too long ago, I was wrapping up several hours of consulting when something amazing jumped out of my mouth. I almost immediately cringed when I said it because it’s one of those things that backs you into a corner. It’s kind of like a prophet wondering if his prophesies will come true or not. Once spoken, you’re either going to look like you have amazing foresight or are a complete jackass.
But the more I thought about what I said, the more I realized how much I truly believed it. It was actually a turning point in the conversation. Not just for me, but for my client as well. Kind of a game-changer, that realization that everything you’ve been doing is now viewed in a completely different light.
So what was this incredible insight? “You can win anything with engagement.”
Lets me go back and give a little context.
My client is trying to break into a competitive industry and finding it very difficult to push their site into the top 20 rankings. It seems that only very particular types of sites are able to do it and, well, they don’t have this very particular kind of site.
Together, we were exploring options for what they can do. Of course, one option was to try to make their site one that becomes that very particular kind of site, though this wasn’t necessarily the direction they intended to go.
We talked quite a lot about visitor engagement and various ways they could build that up on their site. That topic came up several times over several hours of conversations and emails, and toward the end, that’s when I said it, that great little nugget of truth: You can win anything with engagement.
It took a while for that to really sink in for me. Was it true? Did I just lead my client down a fool’s path? Will he come back to me in several months and tell me he followed my advice and it didn’t work? Will he accuse me of being an SEO fraud?
I doubt it. Because I believe it’s true.
Let’s look at this from the search engine perspective. Search engines want to rank sites that their users – aka searchers – find valuable. In fact, their goal is to put the most valuable Web page into the top position, the second most valuable page into the second position and so forth.
Looking at billions of Web pages and billions of queries, Google knew immediately that on-page relevance wasn’t enough of an indicator. So they started using linking signals as a way to tell if the site was something that got people’s interest. Well, we all know how that worked out for Google. It became the world’s most relevant search engine, but that also made links a commodity to be gamed.
That leads to engagement.
Let’s assume for a second that Google has all the engagement data it could ever want (it doesn’t, but play along.) With that data, Google and other search engines can tell what sites truly are more popular by virtue of the level of engagement against other sites in similar industries. Combine that with links and on-page optimization (and 200 or so other signals), and the search engine has a pretty good idea of the user value of any given site or page.
So here’s the question, if Google knows what two pages are about – one being perfectly optimized and the other not – and the not-so-optimized version has tons of engagement, which one would Google want to rank higher?
My money is on engagement.
Do the same with links. The not-so-linked site has much more engagement, which will get the higher ranking?
Again, my money is on engagement.
Of course, it’s not that cut and dried (SEO never is) but you get the gist, which is this: search engines care about what is most relevant. And relevance can be measured pretty accurately by engagement.
As I mentioned above, Google doesn’t have all the engagement metrics it wants. In fact, it has a hard time getting some important engagement metrics. But don’t let that count engagement out. Google is working pretty hard to get the information it needs. It has some, and in many cases, some is enough.
In a competitive market, you may not be able to match the big guys on links or traffic, but if you build your site right, you can win on SEO and engagement. That may not tip the scales immediately, but press on. “Out-engage” your competition and you can be sure the search engines will notice.