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5 Subtle Changes That Directly Impact Your Search Rankings

How responsive design, reviews & ratings, social engagement, HTTPS, and intelligent use of images can push up your search rankings on Google SERPs.

5 Subtle Changes That Directly Impact Your Search Rankings

From using fancy bookmarks to making unsightly dog-ears, nearly all of us had our own unique way of locating important sections within our textbooks back in school. Things remain the same, fundamentally, when it comes to findability, even online.

There are clear markers websites use to help search engines find them easily. These markers keep getting updated regularly – some become obsolete, like Google Authorship – while new ones make their appearance every few months.

Let’s take a look at some subtle markers on your website that directly, if not explicitly, contribute to your search rankings these days.

1. You Don’t Have Responsive Design Yet?

We’ve been hearing about responsive design and its importance to improving website conversions for five years now. Mashable called 2013 the Year of Responsive Web Design. And yet, a paltry 18% of the top 10,000 sites on the web have implemented it.

Image credit: Stephanie Walter, (Modified and Used under CC license)Image credit: Stephanie Walter (Modified and Used under CC license)

Responsive design basically refers to design code that allows a website to be displayed optimally on any device, irrespective of screen size or operating system. The grids that form the backbone of a web page are “fluid” in the case of responsive design. The CSS code uses “media queries” to determine the type of device a user is using to open the page. Based on the device’s specifications, the webpage is automatically resized and displayed so the user can interact with it without having to zoom in and out or scroll back and forth too much. In short, responsive design makes sure your site is optimized for all devices.

Why is that important? It’s important for your site to look as great on mobile devices as it does on a desktop because more people now access the web via their mobile phones than desktops.

The other reason why you need responsive design is Google. For one, Google sends more traffic your way, provided your site has a fully functional responsive design. With the ‘Mobile Friendly’ label that it puts up with sites in the search results, Google ensures that users click on responsive websites more than non-mobile optimized sites.

2. What People Think About You Matters

Since I spend the better part of my days online, subconsciously, I consider the millions of people who dot the web my “friends.” In my experience, crowds have an uncanny ability to be right a large part of the time.

Image credit: Dave Meier, (Used under CC license)Image credit: Dave Meier (Used under CC license)

Turns out it’s not just me. BrightLocal carried out their fourth annual consumer review survey in July 2014, and they found that 88% of respondents trust anonymous online reviews as much as they trust recommendations from friends and family. This trust in strangers becomes even more pronounced among Millennials, according to recent data from Bazaarvoice.

Work this insight into your website. Get your existing users to share their views about your business, and display their reviews prominently on your site. If you don’t do it already, borrow this established practice that e-commerce brands adopt, and solicit product recommendations, reviews, or ratings via a simple email a week or so after the purchase date. That way, the user’s experience is still fresh in their minds and your chances of a detailed and genuine review are higher.

However sending out emails to get a pile of reviews is easier said than done. It’s your job to make the process of rating your business easy:

  • Include a direct link to the review and rating page on your site in your email to users.
  • Create a method of capturing user reviews right inside the email, the way Amazon does it. That way the user does not even have to exit their mailbox to post a review. Easy as pie!
  • Incentivize the reviewers by offering them an attractive reward in exchange for a review. This does not need to be cash. A discount coupon on a future purchase is a great way to ensure a repeat purchase as well as a review.
  • In the case of e-commerce sites, include an “Add your review” section on every product page. Also include a simple rating meter for lazier users who may not be inclined to spend time and effort on a full length review.

Another way to increase credibility for your site and service is by getting in touch with regular users and asking them about their story with your brand. Not a review, but a story. You see, we human beings are hard-wired to go to great lengths to hear a good story. (Hollywood has a lot to thank biology for.) Tap into this affinity for stories by featuring top customers and their story about your brand.

Not all reviews need to be just words, either. Ask permission to publish a real image of the client who gave the review. Also offer details about the reviewers – their names, the firms they work for, etc. Putting identifiable details on a user review lends immense clout to the testimonial. If your client permits, interview them one on one and record a video of the interview. Cull out clips from the interview and post it as a user testimonial on your site. If pictures are more effective than words alone, words that are spoken by a real, existing user face to face makes your brand stand out from the crowd.

3. Amplify Social Media Signals

Social media and search marketing have had a love-hate relationship. They both love to hate each other. Marketers are partly to blame for this situation where brands are forced to pick one over the other, when the reality is actually not as black and white as we would like it to be.

Image credit: Alaric Hall, (Used under CC license)Image credit: Alaric Hall (Used under CC license)

It was not too long ago that Matt Cutts asserted social media had limited impact on search rankings. He claimed social media websites are like gated communities that Google does not really have permanent access to. Hence, expecting Google bots to crawl your social media profiles and improve your search visibility based on the level of engagement with your audience or popularity of your social content is asking for too much. Fast forward one year, and we have the data sharing deal between Twitter and Google, which means you will soon see more tweets in your search results.

Since we have little to no control over the gods of search and social media, all we can do realistically, is to optimize social media in the hope that search giants will eventually have to bow before the social media juggernauts and tie social media more closely to search results.

So what does that mean in terms of direct action items?

  • Include social sharing buttons on all your pages. If you are an e-commerce site, make sure each product page has an easily noticeable social share button.
  • Include social sharing buttons on your email newsletters. Your subscribed email database is your very own private audience that actually seeks out content from you. If this set of brand ambassadors find a piece of content interesting, make sure you allow them to talk about it to their friends easily with a social sharing button.
  • Host your content on a blog that shares its domain with your website. This way traffic that comes to your blog will spill over into your site. The authority that your blog will earn will rub off on your site and its search rankings. Take a cue from how Virgin leverages Richard Branson’s super-popular blog to boost its own rankings.
  • Every piece of content you share on social media must have a URL that links back to your blog or website. That way, you can track and account for which social media platform led to how much growth.
  • Venture beyond the beaten path of social networks like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn to post your content on sites like Reddit, which don’t require you to have fans and followers for your voice to be heard.

4. HTTPS & Security Features

From eBay to Target to Sony Pictures to Anthem, no industry has managed to escape the brunt of brute force attacks and malicious spyware that steal critical user data. As a reaction to the increasingly more expensive nature of these attacks, Google announced in 2014 that it would be placing a premium on website security and would bestow higher search rankings on sites that use the HTTPS data transfer protocol.

Image credit: Dave Meier, (Used under CC license)Image credit: Dave Meier (Used under CC license)

So far, checkout sections of e-commerce sites, banking, financial and tax related websites and government sites dealing with sensitive user data were the only ones to bother with HTTPS. But with this unambiguous announcement by Google, we have seen a definite uptick in the number of businesses moving their sites to HTTPS.

Can you do this slowly, by migrating one webpage at a time? Yes, of course. The trouble there is that Google will only pass on the increased rank to those pages that are HTTPS compliant, not the rest of the site.

Setting up firewalls around your site is a good way to keep intruders out and protect user data. With Google’s emphasis on a secure browsing experience for users, this will be a cheap but effective move to improve search rankings in the long run. It does not have to be an expensive affair, either. Security firewalls, SSL certificates, website scanners all come free from providers like Comodo.

If setting up a fortress around your site seems like too much work for better rankings, opt for managed website hosting. These web host providers offer you built-in security features, maintain regular backups of your site content, and help you troubleshoot if you suspect a security breach. Now that’s a smart way to please Google and offload your hosting worries to someone else!

5. A Picture That Sells a Thousand Words

Social media today is all about images. From Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat to Pinterest, images make social media go round and engagement go ballistic. Why not harness the fascination social media users have with images to improve our central goal of better search rankings?

Image credit: Michal Jarmoluk, (Used under CC license)Image credit: Michal Jarmoluk (Used under CC license)

Every time we talk about a website ranking higher, the conversation invariably centers around various ways to improve the textual content on the site. We conveniently (absent-mindedly?) forget there’s a lot more to websites than just the text. The images that make your site all pretty to look at can do a lot more. These are tools in your search ranking battle. Use them and use them wisely.

Optimizing website images does not stop at ALT tags. Create captions for every image using keywords. Can’t find enough opportunities to use every keyword on your list with corresponding images on your site? No worries. Create text content optimized with your critical keywords and give away free, relevant images to go with it. Voila, not only have you created a resource that more users will benefit from, you’ve also increased the chances of the images being featured in Google’s image search, and gaining ranking brownie points in the process.

Here’s some more image optimization tips to improve search rankings.

Bringing It All Together

Rand Fishkin revealed that one of the lessons he learnt in 2014 was that rankings still mattered very much in the scheme of things. It is very important not to lose sight of the big picture and keep monitoring your current positions while looking for incremental advantages. Simply tracking keyword rankings on won’t cut it. You’ll need to stay on top of all your other digital marketing channels and figure out a way to pinpoint how those are affecting your rankings.

These are just some of the most overlooked changes on your site that can help beat your competition to the top of search rankings. Have more subtle ideas to boost your rankings? Drop a line in the comments below and I’ll be happy to discuss!

Featured Image credit: Internets_dairy (Modified and Used under CC license)

Category Web Dev SEO
Rohan Ayyar Regional Marketing Manager at SEMrush

Rohan is the Regional Marketing Manager for India at SEMrush. He is an experienced digital marketer who has worked both ...

5 Subtle Changes That Directly Impact Your Search Rankings

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