8 Actionable Takeaways from the 2015 SEO Ranking Factors

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8 Actionable Takeaways from the 2015 SEO Ranking Factors

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?

News backlinks.

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.

8 Takeaways from the 2015 SEO Ranking Factors | SEJ

BBC has a great interactive page called “Start Exploring Your Life on Earth.”

8 Takeaways from the 2015 SEO Ranking Factors | SEJ

Here are some additional interactive content ideas:

  • Embedded tweets
  • Videos
  • Gifs
  • Infographics
  • Interactive infographics (example)
  • Gifographics
  • Games
  • Social sharing widgets
  • Lessons
  • Links
  • Polls
  • Quizzes
  • 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.

Everybody wins.

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?


Image Credits

Featured Image: Bloomua/Shutterstock.com
All screenshots by Neil Patel. Taken September 2015.

Neil Patel
Neil Patel is the co-founder of KISSmetrics, an analytics provider that helps companies make better business decisions. Neil also blogs about marketing and entrepreneurship at... Read Full Bio
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  • Riccardo

    “I do recommend the careful and white-hat approach of earning relevant and quality backlinks”

    Could you be more specific? Thx

  • Michael Martinez

    There are some unfortunate drawbacks to your takeaways.

    1. Understand User Intent, and Satisfy It

    How is the Webmaster supposed to learn user intent, which is determined by the query? Query data is withheld in most queries by Bing and Google so you are asking people to operate in the dark.

    Furthermore, user intentions change both over time and geography. The context of a common query may also change due to news events and the introduction of new brands into query spaces. So even the search engines have to continually update their user intention models, which are wrong more often than Web marketers realize.

    6. Make it Easy to Read

    “Easy to read” has been shown to be counter-productive in numerous studies. There is a “sweet spot” in the readability metrics where content is generally neutral enough to not be spam or too jargonistic, but there are queries where jargon is exactly what the “simple intention” user is looking for (such as a glossary to explain technical terms).

    Content does not rank well because it is easy to read. Content that ranks well may be easy to read, or it may be hard to read.

    8. Use HTTPS

    Right now HTTPS is the single greatest threat to user privacy and security on the Internet for several reasons, none of which is chief enough to be called out as “number 1”. There are a lot of problems with adopting HTTPS and it should NEVER be adopted for the sake of SEO.

    Most people don’t realize that they continue to serve mixed content (sources from both HTTP and HTTPS domains) on the majority of HTTPS sites. Mixed-content disrupts the privacy that publishers want to ensure with HTTPS.

    Also, enterprise and VPN networks are structured to create man-in-the-middle proxies that intercept, decrypt, and re-encrypt all the packets. Users are being misinformed about the privacy benefits of HTTPS, especially in the workplace.

    And then there are the malware attacks being delivered to users from HTTPS Websites that have been hacked. People don’t realize these sites are still vulnerable to being hacked (HTTPS does nothing to defend either visitor or Website against malware or hacking).

    HTTPS is also causing problems with more modern browsers that enforce security strictly; improper HTTPS implementation is a widespread problem and the vast majority of Web marketers do not understand all the complexities involved. It is not as simple as redirecting all the HTTP URLs to HTTPS equivalents.

    No one in the Web marketing industry should ever be advising people to switch to HTTPS for the sake of SEO. That is dangerous advice and there are now way too many open disclosures where Websites have lost visitors and traffic due to HTTPS conversions for anyone to say it’s safe or simple.

    Finally, people should not be using these unscientific correlation studies and Web marketer surveys as the basis for search engine optimization. You might as well be grabbing random roots and herbs off the shelves in a Chinese store to treat medically curable diseases.

    Correlation studies not only do NOT provide insights into cause-and-effect in search algorithms, they are rife with confirmation bias and fail to take even the most basic aspects of the scientific principle into consideration.

    There is a high correlation between migratory patterns of animals and the seasons of the year, but neither the seasons nor the animals cause or affect the other. Migrations occur despite changes in seasonal trends because they are caused by more complex processes.

    There is a high correlation between shark attacks and people swimming in the oceans, but swimming in the ocean does not cause shark attacks (and not all shark attacks occur in the oceans).

    There is a high correlation between people driving on highways and automobile accidents, but not all automobile accidents happen on highways and driving on a highway does not cause automobile accidents.

    Real science uses correlation analysis to identify unexpected patterns in data so that further study and analysis can be justified. The correlations themselves do not explain anything and it is naive for people to take correlation studies and use them to justify irrational approaches to Web marketing.

    • R.Rogerson

      To be fair, it’s not Neil doing the Correlation stuff.

      That said – I think that was one of the more eloquent and enjoyable tear-downs of the Correlation Catastrophe, well worth the read ๐Ÿ˜€
      (I say pretty much the same thing myself quite often.)
      Unfortunately, utterly wasted on the vast majority of people, as they are;
      1) to enamoured with industry names to take any other view
      2) to limited to understand the points made
      3) to desparate to be told of magic bullets and quick fixes
      So chances are Correlation is going to stick around and join the ranks of .edu links giving more juice, and G ranking .com higher than other TLDs ๐Ÿ™
      (In short, greed and stupidity will result in it being a long term sufferance.)

      I also liked the point raised about HTTPS, especially the security/malware side.
      (again, I believe I’ve said similar else where, and it was generally ignored.)

  • Menorca

    I don’t agree with number one. Maybe on Google.com it’s relevant, but on european versions it’s chaos. I’ve created a short comparison between Apple music vs spotify on my blog since on polish search there were no polish results.
    After a month it’s below #20. Maybe “Apple music vs spotify ” is an English phase but there is no alternative for that in my language. And if a user wants to narrow down the SERP to ONLY POLISH he still sees all the English ones. Google very little understands user intent I reckon. What if I don’t understand English?
    Same story with “fitbit charge hr” review we posted, it’s on #70’s for God’s sake in POLISH ONLY results behind results in Swedish, English, Norwegian. This time I REALLY DONT speak Scandinavian languages. Thinking that Google understands user intent I think is wishful thinking, if it can’t even show the language you’re asking it to show.

  • Jake Braswell

    Thanks for the useful tips, Neil!

    Optimization requirements are changing rapidly and sometimes it’s difficult to set priorities. One thing I know for sure is that the times of unnatural link building may end very soon. Highly quality of activities and content is the priority.

    Thanks again for the article!

  • Shahid Irfan

    It is the great post and gives new ideas about to improve search ranking. I observe that users satisfaction is more important than anything.

  • @jacobaldwin

    Hi Neil – thanks for the great article! Didn’t it come out in 2013 that relying on press releases to generate inbound links is a “no-no” (i.e. we should be “nofollowing” press release links) since the links aren’t earned editorial links, but rather advertorial links? Have you seen anything that would indicate this is not necessarily a bad practice?

    • R.Rogerson

      PRs still work – no different than GPs, Forum links etc.
      The same caveats apply as they have for years.

      It’s not the “type” of link that is the problem, it’s the “intention”.
      And that is generally based on Quality of the link destination, Quality of the link origin, the number of such links during X time and the % of such links you have.

      If the vast majority of your links are of type AAA, then G may question it.
      If a fair % of your links come from low-quality sites, then G may question it.
      If a fair % of your links seem to target specific terms, then G may question it.
      If there is a % of links from a specific type/domain within X time, then G may question it.
      etc. etc. etc.

      G are not going to cripple a site just because they have a few PR pieces.
      They might look a little closer if they see something excessive though.
      So, moderation and quality.

  • Dale Limin

    Hi Neil, I always read your post here and also reading your own blog site. On the “You Should Still Work on Link Building”, what are the link building techniques that are still very effective today and will also benefit you in the future? Is it also advisable if your website is new and you will also create backlink to a new website? Thanks.