In June of 2015, some of the smartest minds in the SEO industry gathered to geek out about one thing: SEO ranking factors.
It was known as the SMX Advanced — the Search Marketing Expo. Participants and geniuses included Cyrus Shepard, Rand Fishkin, Marcus Tober, Eric Enge, and Danny Sullivan. Workshops included abstruse topics like “Social PPC & Psychographic Display Intensive” and local SEO strategies for managing multiple locations.
The biggest outcome of the 2015 SMX was, perhaps, the SMX Periodic Table of Ranking Factors, updated and revised. The conference included a full session by Marcus Tober, which covered the most relevant and data-driven ranking factors affecting search marketing today.
Here are the most important things you need to know about ranking, as released in the 2015 SEO Ranking Factors.
1. Understand User Intent, and Satisfy It
As SEO has evolved over the past decade, one thing holds true: User experience is everything.
It used to be SEO strategy started with keywords, and used that as the basis for optimization. Today, you must start with the user’s intent, and allow that to frame your SEO approach.
When you set out to “optimize” a page, focus less on keywords and more on the user’s intent.
- What questions is the user asking?
- What information does the user need?
- What is the user’s main purpose in searching?
Then, seek to answer those questions. You can connect the user’s questions to their intent. Then, you can connect the intent to your topic. And that topic will naturally use the correct keywords.
Keep in mind how this intent translates into direct marketing action.
Many SEOs obsess over “semantic content optimization.” Such optimization is useless according to the experts. Here’s what Marcus Tober said:
Semantic content optimization doesn’t benefit user, as the user just wants their problem solved.
Solve the problem, and you win the search.
2. Get a Backlink from a News Site
Backlinks are still effective. More on that later.
But not all backlinks are created equal. What backlinks are more important than others?
One of the most conclusive findings from SMX was “successful pages have more news links than non-successful pages.”
If you want to get backlinks from authoritative news websites, I recommend the following:
- Press releases, to stay current and visible in front of news sites
- Help a reporter out (HARO), to get direct access to reporters
- Personal branding, to be a go-to authority and spokesperson in your niche
- Industry forums, to maintain a presence where news networks will be sure to look
- Activity community involvement, in order to get mentions and links in local papers
- Blogging about current events, in order to be a source of research and quotation from news sites
3. You Should Still Work on Link Building
Since 2014, many SEOs have been shouting louder for the complete end of link building.
There was a form of link building that was black-hat and spammy. But link building today is important. Link building is not the future of SEO, but it is the present. It just works, as long as you’re doing it carefully.
According to research from Moz (Cyrus Shepard), link correlation — the degree to which links impact search results — has actually risen.
As the algorithm indicates, sites still need links in order to rank.
I advise against old-school link building, but I do recommend the careful and white-hat approach of earning relevant and quality backlinks.
A scalable method of link building is the best approach.
4. Use Relevant Keywords
As I explained above, user intent reigns supreme. What about keywords, though? They still matter don’t they?
Sure they do. But they come secondary to the intent of the user. You can earn search results and user click-throughs by answering the question behind the query.
The findings from SMX provide proof that presence of terms associated with the given topic will improve ranking. You don’t even need to obsess over semantic variants.
In other words, if your topic is hamsters then your articles will probably contain terms like wheel, food, pet, cage, water, size, etc. Should you focus on semantic variants like “small animal,” “rodent,” or “gnawer”? Not necessarily.
By all means, don’t stuff your content with exact match keywords! That’s a sure recipe for spam signals and penalization.
5. Create Interactive Elements
The findings also indicate that interactive element are correlated with higher ranking sites.
What are interactive elements? Marcus Tober suggested buttons and menus, but there are additional interactive elements that can improve a site’s ranking.
Buzzfeed offers lots of interactive content. One of their top posts, “What City Should You Actually Live In” is a great example.
BBC has a great interactive page called “Start Exploring Your Life on Earth.”
Here are some additional interactive content ideas:
- Embedded tweets
- Interactive infographics (example)
- Social sharing widgets
- Longer content
- Outlined content
- List content
If you don’t have the time or talent to make smart interactive pages, don’t worry. Great navigation, a clean interface, and a well-designed site are interactive enough for improved ranking.
The higher correlation of interactive content is probably an indication of how user experience plays such a critical role in search optimization. Interactive elements are helpful for users, and therefore tend to rank higher.
6. Make it Easy to Read
You may not know how to pronounce “Flesch Readability,” but you know good content when you see it.
So does Google. The Flesch Readability scale is a measure of how easy it is for people to read your content. The easier it is to read your content, the better you’ll probably rank.
Over the past 18 months, SEOs have noticed content with the following features tends to rank better:
- Long form: The power of 300-word posts just isn’t the same.
- Readable: Google employs human graders to determine how readable and useful your content is.
- Expert: People can tell if your content is authoritative or weak.
- Layout: Even the way your website is laid out makes a difference in ranking.
7. Use Lists
Lists are great. Search engines love them. Users love them.
Here’s what the SMX experts said:
Presence of unordered lists: If a user is searching for something in a hurry or is on their phone, as SEOs we have to care about this. Structured content allows users to get to their answers as fast as possible. Tober says it is important to view this factor as a hint: “Users enjoy structured content”.
Adding a bulleted list to a blog or page is a great way to juice up your content with a little extra usability and optimal experience.
8. Use HTTPS
Since Google announced that HTTPS is a ranking signal (August, 2014), we haven’t seen huge ranking changes.
Searchmetrics has done the most research on the subject. Their verdict is that “secure connection should be considered.” Is it advised? Yes. Is it critical? Not yet.
Bigger sites have more to lose and therefore, more to gain, by implementing HTTPS.
It’s obvious that HTTPS is growing in importance.
Some brands and businesses appear to have increased their visibility by small percentages since the HTTPS algorithm was released.
If you can implement HTTPS, it’s a good idea to do so.
Just because this information was mined up by the smartest minds in search engine optimization today doesn’t mean they’re 100% correct. However, I would suggest they are pretty darn reliable.
If you take their advice, and implement these actionable tactics, you’re sure to improve your rankings.
What are your biggest SEO insights so far this year?