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Top 7 Ranking Signals: What REALLY Matters in 2018?

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Anna Crowe
Anna Crowe SEJ STAFF
Top 7 Ranking Signals: What REALLY Matters in 2018?

Every year it seems Google gives us a new ranking signal.

In 2014, HTTPS became a ranking signal.

In 2015, mobile usability became a ranking signal.

Then, 2016 shifted content development as RankBrain came onto the scene.

And, in 2017, there was a more significant push for more HTTPS websites.

Now, in 2018, mobile page speed looks to be the next big ranking signal to focus on.

All that said, John Mueller assures us that “awesomeness” is the key to ranking in Google.

But, with over 1 billion websites online today, how do you create awesomeness?

One thing I know for sure is that all of these ranking factors are all shaped to create a better, more awesome user experience.

With Google evaluating sites based on hundreds of ranking factors, knowing where to aim your SEO strategy in 2018 for the biggest bang might seem impossible.

But good news: Ranking signals are going to continue to adapt to the user.

This means that new SEO trends already surviving have roots in the current algorithm — and with a little creativity and SEO savvy, it’s entirely possible for you to rank well in 2018.

While ranking signals are far from limited to just seven, the factors highlighted in this post are ones I consider to be the most important for this year.

Here are the ranking factors that will really matter in 2018, and why.

1. Publish High-Quality Content

“I don’t need quality content on my website to rank,” said no one ever.

The quality of your website and blog content is still crucial for 2018. Content still reigns as king.

As Rand Fishkin pointed out in a Whiteboard Friday, content that is optimized for keywords still holds valuable SEO power.

Your content needs to provide valuable information. Creating pages with no real value can come back to haunt you, thanks to Google’s Panda and Fred algorithm updates.

Pages like this portal site.

fred-algorithm-ranking-signal

Or, this.

poor-user-experience

Even big names like eBay and Apple aren’t worthy of the content crown. Thin content hurt both brands.

High-quality content is about creating pages that increase time on page, lower bounce rate, and provide helpful content for the user.

Blog pages like this and guides like this are the type of high-quality content search engines, and users want.

High-quality content pages must do more for today’s SEO than just be well-written and long-form. They also have to cover the following areas to increase their presence in SERPs:

Search Intent

Knowing users’ search intent is essential to creating pages that drive organic traffic.

CoSchedule saw a 594 percent increase in traffic by reshaping their SEO content strategy to be more aligned with searcher intent.

To understand what your target searchers intent is, you need to dive into your Google Analytics to see what users are looking for.

Reports like Site Search and User Flow can give you an idea of what your customers are searching for.

user-flow-ranking-signals

You can also view Search Analytics report in Google Search Console. This report will give you insights into what people are clicking on the SERPs to get to your site.

Keyword Research

Despite the word on the street that keyword research is not needed to rank, keyword research still supports quality content creation. Unlike traditional keyword research, today, keywords serve as a content creation roadmap.

Through competitor research and data mining, you can uncover keyword gems that have average search volume, but high click-through rate for your audience.

Check out how Chris Hornack, founder of Blog Hands, saw an 80 percent increase in traffic after performing keyword research.

So, as the industry continues to whisper about the negative impact of keyword research, you need to identify your primary keywords and bucket them into topics suited for your searcher.

Andrea Lehr, Brand Relationship Strategist at Fract, shares insights on how she buckets her keywords here.

Voice Search

According to Google,  72 percent of people who own a voice-activated speaker say that their devices are often used as part of their daily routine.

It’s evident that since the growth of AI assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Cortona, a new way of searching is coming.

Optimizing for the way people speak can feel like going to your first yoga class.

You’re looking around at what other people are doing, trying to breathe deeply while holding your lotus cup above your head, meanwhile, you’re just waiting for savasana. #Awkward.

I get it. And, Dawn Anderson does too. She offers some awesome tips on SEO for voice search, including thinking about how people ask questions and understanding local queries and intent.

And, Brian Dean recently shared his insights into optimizing for voice search after reviewing 10,000 Google Home results.

Rich Snippets

Rich snippets use schema to markup your text and data for better visibility in Google search results.

Rich snippets could mean photos or ratings on your result (which is standard for recipes) like this.

image-snippets-ranking-signal

Rich snippets can increase your click-through rate and lower your bounce rate because it gives users more of a preview of your content before they click on it.

If SERPs are the front door to your business, your content pages are the interior, showing users that your website (and therefore, your products or services) are worth their time.

By building high-quality content for your website,  you create a warm and inviting place for your users and search engines to make themselves at home.

2. Make Your Site Mobile-Friendly

Remember when a mobile version of your website, hosted at m.URL.com was the recommended thing to do?

While it won’t always harm you now, more websites are moving away from this mobile website method and toward building responsive websites instead.

Even though Google has said they don’t publicly favor any one set way of doing mobile websites (whether it’s responsive, dynamic, or separate URLs) when it comes to rankings, a responsive website is their recommended format.

Google has stated that responsive design helps their “algorithms accurately assign indexing properties to the page rather than needing to signal the existence of corresponding desktop/mobile pages.”

Whenever you can make it easier for a search engine to improve its results, do it!

3. Create a Secure Website (HTTPS)

Almost a year ago, Dr. Pete J. Meyers wrote that 30 percent of page-1 Google results that Moz studied were using HTTPS.

While not switching to HTTPS  won’t necessarily harm your website, there have been several changes since Google first announced HTTPS as a ranking signal back in 2014.

In 2017, Google announced that its Chrome browser (which 45 percent of us use) would begin to flag sites as “not secure” in the URL bar starting July 2018 when they aren’t HTTPS.

Here is what Chrome will look like when you implement HTTPS:

https-signal-ranking-factors

All of this shows that Google does think HTTPS is essential.

However, switching to HTTPS (and SSL, as they work together) can also bring a lot of canonicalizing issues to your site if not done correctly.

Link-Assistant’s Head of SEO, Yauhen Khutarniuk, shared insights into how they made the transition from HTTP to HTTPS. He touches on why and how you need to take extra special care of canonical tags.

Even though it hasn’t been shown to make a significant impact on SEO by itself, the Chrome update may mean that switching your site over (by experienced people) in 2018 is worth it.

4. Improve Your User Experience

User experience (UX) has an impact on SEO.

If you don’t think about UX, your website will end up in the trash next to the TV dinner and mushy peas.

In fact, 38 percent of people will stop engaging with a website if the content and layout is unattractive.

Main Street Host, a digital marketing agency, saw a 66 percent increase in page views to their attorney profile pages by updating the content and optimizing call-to-action buttons.

And, Ezoic saw 186 percent increase in earnings per 1,000 visitors after creating a better UX.

Rover is a good example of a solid user experience:

rover-user-experience-ranking-signal

Search engines look at dwell time as a signal to see the amount of time a user spent on a site before clicking the back button to return to the search results.

Designing a user experience that pairs nicely with your SEO is vital if you want to succeed in the SERPs. It’s like choosing which Backstreet Boys song you want to sing karaoke to. Even if the performance is good, if the song off, no one will sing along with you.

Site Architecture

Site architecture is a related component of user experience and has a significant impact on SEO.

John Doherty of Credo claims, “One of the biggest changes I can make is fixing their site architecture.”

He goes onto to discuss a website where he switched the URLs from a tag page to a subcategory page to link higher in the site architecture. He was able to increase organic sessions by 74 percent and pages per session by 41 percent.

Here is an example of proper site architecture:

site-architecture-ranking-signal

Not only does site architecture help users find what they are looking for with better website navigation, but it can also help search engine crawlers find more pages on a website.

In a nutshell, your websites should be dead easy to use.

All pages and navigation should be laid out as simple as possible. It should take a user only three to four clicks to find any page on a website. While this isn’t always possible to large sites, there are ways to help users search and find pages internally that can ensure they find what they need.

5. Optimize Your Page Speed

Finally, Google announced page speed will be a Google mobile ranking factor starting in July.

With Google’s mobile-first index also slowly rolling out this year and last, mobile continues to be Google’s new preference.

The slower your sites load, the more visitors and revenue you’ll lose out on.

For Amazon,  just one second could cost it $1.6 billion in sales each year. And, The Telegraph, a British publication, found that a four second delay reduced page views by 11.02 percent.

Why take that risk?

There are tools available to test a website’s average page speed. And, many fixes are relatively easy if they are done by someone who knows what they are doing (e.g., not everyone knows how to “minify JavaScript”).

page-speed-insights-ranking-signal

Faster loading pages lead to a better overall website experience, hence Google’s move toward making it a mobile ranking factor.

6. Master Your On-Page Optimization

Closely related to user experience is the on-page optimization, which deals with the technical “behind the scenes” components of SEO. These facets have been around for years and still make a significant impact on your website’s visibility and SERP position for your target keywords.

Mockingbird saw a 62 percent increase in organic traffic by merely updating H1 tags. And, Brand New Copy increased organic traffic by 48 percent by cleaning up metadata and internal linking structure.

Worth it? I think so.

Optimizing your website can help your existing high-quality content get found faster by search engines and users.

Below are some of the ways that on-page optimization will still make a major impact in 2018:

Metadata

This information includes your title tag and page descriptions – the information about your sites that users see in the SERPs.

As SEJ reported in December, Google officially increased the length of meta descriptions from 160 to about 230 characters. However, I don’t recommend a full rewrite all of your existing descriptions.

Google sometimes pulls content from the page and dynamically inserts it as the description in SERPs when it better matches the user’s query. Here is how that might look:

meta-description-ranking-signals

As it stands, write the best titles and descriptions for your pages that you can, but keep in mind that it won’t always be used.

Schema

Schema markup is another “hidden” component of a website that tells search engines more about your content.

Created in 2011, there are now almost 600 different types of information you can include.

Schemas make it easier for search engines to identify the essential information on a website. For instance, there your  schemas for a local business might look like this:

<!-- FOOTER -->
    <div class="footer left">
        <div class="footer-top left"></div><!--/footer-top-->
        <div class="wrapper">
            <div class="footer-widgets-content left">


                <div class="footer_box left">
                    <div class="footer-widget-holder"><h2>Get to Know Us!</h2> <div class="textwidget"><div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/LocalBusiness">
<a itemprop="url" href="http://www.toybraryaustin.com"><div itemprop="name"><strong>Toybrary
Austin, TX</strong></div>
</a>
<div itemprop="description">The Toybrary is a toy lending library and kids' birthday party venue that
also offers drop-in
childcare in Austin, TX</div>
<div itemprop="address" itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/PostalAddress">
<span itemprop="streetAddress">2001 Justin Lane</span><br>
<span itemprop="addressLocality">Austin, </span>
<span itemprop="addressRegion">TX </span>
<span itemprop="postalCode">78757</span>
<span itemprop="addressCountry"> USA</span><br>
<span itemprop="telephone">5127654174</
span>
</div>
</div></div>
 </div>                           
                </div><!--/footer-widget-->

In a session, “How to Stand Out in Search with Structured Data” at Google I/O, Andrew Valente of Google shared a sample of the case studies that show how Schema markup and rich results help increase engagement and clicks online.

Rotten Tomatoes saw 25 percent higher click-through rate on pages with markup. And, the Food Network saw 35 percent increase in visits for recipes with markup.

Schemas are what help Google display rich snippets in search results, still making them an important part of SEO in 2018.

You can now add schema to a page’s header using JSON-LD. Use a generator like this one from Hall Analysis for basic markup needs.

Internal Link Structure

Internal link structure helps users and search engines better find pages.

Corey Morris, Vice President of Marketing for Voltage, talks about prioritizing your internal linking structure in five different areas:

  • Helping users.
  • Managing link flow (e.g., where the traffic goes once it gets to your site).
  • Building a roadmap around specific content topics.
  • Canonicals.
  • Prioritizing indexing of particular pages.

What this means is your strategy for how you are linking to different pages on your site should be user-centered first, then you can focus on how to drive traffic to a fundamental set of pages.

Think about how internal link structure can help guide users toward completing a conversion from signing up for your newsletter to completing a request for a live demo.

7. Earn Relevant & Authoritative Backlinks

Links will continue to be one of the leading SEO components if you want to rank well in 2018.

Ignore those who say you can achieve success without backlinks. While some sites absolutely can and have, it would be silly not to pursue these powerful link building strategies in 2018:

  • Client case studies: These are shared by the client and can include exciting information about how they achieved their results, which can help others.
  • Expert roundups: These can sometimes be overdone, so focus on valuable information that isn’t found anywhere else
  • Infographics: These still get shared heavily online and are a great way to provide an instant view of data on a specific topic. It can be fun and informative, and usually, are republished on other blogs and shared on social media.
  • Other content that highlights influencers: This could include podcasts or video interviews.
  • Industry surveys: Many publishers do annual industry surveys, which have become well-known (and well-cited) each time they are released. Content Marketing Institute’s reports on B2C and B2B content marketing are frequently linked to by other publishers and writers wanting to illustrate their points.
  • Free content or tools: This could include long-form content such as e-books, or useful tools like quizzes and personalized reports that give users the helpful information they didn’t know before. A good example of free tools are all the calculators on Dave Ramsey’s site.

While backlinks may lose their value over the next few decades, they are still an active ranking signal.

Your Turn

Ranking signals all flow together to help SEO marketers create awesomeness. This means a more comprehensive, sophisticated SEO strategy for better SEO in 2018 and beyond.

As the mobile-first index, page speed ranking factor, and other changes continue to roll out this year, rest assured that SEO which focuses on quality over short-term gains is what will help you move up in the SERPs.

More SEO Ranking Resources:


Image Credits

All screenshots taken by Anna Crowe, March 2018

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Anna Crowe

Anna Crowe

Features Writer & Product Marketing Manager at Search Engine Journal & Hello Anna Co.

Anna is the Features Writer & Product Marketing Manager for Search Engine Journal and an SEO-whisperer at Hello Anna & ... [Read full bio]

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