The Five Most Important SEO Factors
Important SEO factors have changed in recent years
SEO has changed dramatically in the last ten years as Google continues to expand and refine the ways in which it determines search results. There have been literally hundreds of additions to the important SEO factors they incorporate and consider.
At the core, Google wants to return the most relevant and actionable results for a given query to the user. Their algorithm to do so has evolved over time, starting from an initial focus on keywords and backlinks to determine relevance and authority. It has become an increasingly sophisticated system that now employs more than 200 factors and signals in evaluating which pages in their index should be part of the search results and in what order for a specific query.
From transparent to opaque on important SEO factors
Early in its evolution, Google was transparent about their algorithm and how it determined search results. Not surprisingly, people took advantage of that knowledge and used it to game the system to produce the search results they wanted. As a result, and as their algorithm evolved, Google became more opaque. They spoke more about general principles and less about specifics, leaving many details to be guessed at. Today, while they tell us they use more than 200 factors and signals, we don’t know what they all are. Equally important, we don’t know their individual weight in determining search results. Google tells us about some, and we guess/deduce the existence of others as a result of experiential testing.
Important SEO factors that entrepreneurs can use to improve their ranking
Many of the factors used by Google that we do know about or have guessed at are technical and obscure enough that only dedicated SEO experts will review and work with them. Those are outside the scope of this article. Our focus here is the five most important SEO factors that small business owners or entrepreneurs just getting started can work on to improve their ranking in specific search results. One caveat: you need a basic understanding of how search engines work and the ability to modify some basics on your website (HTML, WordPress). It will also be helpful if you’re comfortable learning a few new tools that will be introduced here.
The five most important SEO factors are keywords, links, speed, mobile support and user experience. We’ll start with the easiest of the five, keywords.
Factor #1: Keywords
This area is most accurately described as “keywords, content and intent“. Intent is now the most important consideration for Google – as in, what is the intent of the user who entered the search query? What do they want to accomplish? Google is moving from matching search queries, keywords and content, to attempting to determine and match the intent of the search query. For example, if the search query is childcare, Google may also return websites that have information on daycare. If the searcher’s location can be determined, Google will return local childcare locations – since it’s most likely that the searcher is interested in local childcare options, making those options the most relevant and actionable.
Holistic view of keywords and key phrases
This doesn’t mean that keywords are irrelevant. It does mean you need to take a more holistic view of keywords. You need to assemble a list of keywords, key phrases and related key phrases that are relevant to your business. Think about the words prospective customers will use in searching for your products or services. Start by defining your product or service, and then consider the adjectives that could be applied to it.
Search queries customers use to find you
Think about the different segments of customers who buy from you, and the queries each one would use in a search. Think about the range of reasons for purchasing your product or service, and what queries would be used by prospects with each one. Google’s Keyword tool (part of Adwords) provides closely related terms as a start. Keyword.io provides relevant keyword suggestions specific to particular platforms and services (for example, Wikipedia, YouTube, etc.) and is free. A third service that is useful for generating related key phrases is AnswerthePublic. Take all of these words and phrases and make up a spreadsheet that lists these terms, with columns for search volume, website page and related words.We’ll go into more detail on “related words” later in this post when we discuss using keywords in your content.
Selecting keywords and key phrases to target
Next step is to decide which of these keywords/key phrases are most important to you. You can check on how many searches are made for each term with the Google Keyword tool. It gives you ranges of search volume, for example “100 – 1000 per month”. For your purposes, those ranges are adequate. Put the keywords and phrases with the most search volume at the top, and draw a line between the search results of above 1000 and those of 1000 and below. The latter is where you want to target your initial efforts, because the higher search volumes are already being targeted by other companies and will be more difficult to rank for. Confirm this by using Google to search for each term and view the current results page. Remember that Google customizes searches based on your history. Use an incognito window in Chrome to eliminate those search history effects.
Long-tail keywords yield best results
The keywords and key phrases that fall into the 1000 and below group are what we call “long-tail keywords”. The phrase “long-tail” can be illustrated with a picture of a cat. The head and body of the cat are composed of single keywords that are very competitive – that is, many companies are already competing for them. As a result, those keywords are difficult for newcomers to rank high for in search results. The tail of the cat represents the two to five word phrases that typify what we refer to as long-tail keywords. 70% of search volume on the web is for long-tail keywords. That is where you are most likely to succeed in ranking high in search results in the short-term.
Matching the key phrase to a page
So now you have a list of keywords and key phrases that you want to focus on. The next thing you want to do is match each one to a page on your website. The key phrase MUST be integral to the content on that page, as we’ll discuss in the next section. If you have more key phrases than pages, select the most important by volume or by business focus. Limit yourself to one per page and do not repeat any. That will ensure that the search engine knows which page you consider to be most important for a specific key phrase.
Adding the key phrase in all the right places
The next step is incorporating that key phrase into the selected page on your website. Some of this is in the metadata, but presence in content is equally important.
The metadata (“data about data”) is the information in the header of your page that tells search engines what the page is about. Your key phrase needs to be in the Title tag and in the Description tag.
Your description is what will be displayed in the search results, so don’t omit it. Make sure it includes actionable information that will motivate the visitor to click through for more details. Include a Keywords tag with your selected key phrase for that page.
For sites built with WordPress, an SEO plugin such as Yoast (recommended) will correctly position the tags, once you’ve completed the keyword, meta-description and title fields for that page.
Weaving the key phrase into the content
Now move onto the content on that page. It’s ideal if the key phrase can be incorporated into the heading, one of the subheadings and included in the first one hundred words of the content, and potentially one or more times later in the page copy or post. In addition, using related keywords in your content helps the search engine identify more about the scope of the subject. The deeper the content on your page, the more weight your page will be given.
Related keywords refers to semantically related keywords, also referred to as LSI keywords. LSI keywords can be identified using the LSI Keyword Generator provided by LSI Graph. For example, for the key phrase “recycled materials”, the LSI Keyword Generator returns almost 50 related key phrases, including:
products made from recycled materials • recycled materials projects • recycled materials ideas • list of recycled materials • examples of recycled materials • why is recycling important • recycled products list • recyclable materials projects • things that cannot be recycled • non recyclable materials • things that can be recycled at home • what not to recycle • recycled material products • examples of recycling projects • recyclable products list • example of reuse • examples of products made from recycled materials • example of recover • importance of recycling essay • advantages of recycling • why is recycling bad.
Your goal is to have rich content that naturally includes a few of these related key phrases. Very important: don’t game this by artificially stuffing key phrases into your content! Your number one goal is making the content on each page valuable to the reader. All of the keywords and related keywords used in the page must support or add to that value. Google will detect if your content reads poorly or does not deliver value when visitors quickly click away. Your ranking in search results will be negatively impacted as a result.
Factor #2: Links
There are inbound links, outbound links and internal links. Inbound links (also referred to as “backlinks”) come from other sites to a page on your site. Google looks at the sites that have inbound links to your site to gauge their authority. If those sites rank high, then the value of their inbound links can be significant. If they are ranked low, the value of their links to you may be nil or could even be negative. The search engine also looks at how many clicks individual links receive and what the subsequent behavior is (for example, after clicking, do visitors bounce back right away?) to gauge their relevance and importance. Outbound links do not carry the relative value of inbound links, but if they enrich the content you are providing, and lead the visitor to additional content of value, they are worth having.
Internal links are between pages on your site. If other pages on your site offer additional relevant information, providing links to them may enrich the visitor’s experience. Search engines judge the value of those internal links by the number of times they are clicked on and subsequent actions taken.
Factor #3: Speed
Speed is important. The rule of thumb is that visitors leave if your page takes more than three seconds to load. Google considers it a critical factor in evaluating your site. They have even provided a tool that evaluates your site for speed, ranks it and provides suggestions for improvement. Check the performance of your website with Google’s page speed test.
Improving performance on your website
Many of the recommendations require the attention of a webmaster, but here are a few general rules. If your site scores 80 or higher, you’re good. A score of between 60 and 80 should be improved to the upper end of that range. A score of below 60 is a negative signal and cause for concern. For sites built with WordPress, eliminate all but the critical plug-ins. Inactivate any that you only use periodically. Make sure you are using a hosting service that optimizes for WordPress. For all sites, make sure you are caching content and consider implementing a CDN through Amazon or another provider.
Factor #4: Mobile friendliness
In mid-2015, Google announced that they would begin increasing the weight given to mobile-friendly websites in their index. Websites that were not mobile-friendly would rank lower for searches made from a mobile device.. Since then, the percentage of searches that originate on a mobile device has steadily increased. Official Google statements now say that they constitute a “majority” of global search queries.
Mobile index will become the default index
Google recently announced that in the next year, their focus on mobile goes one step further. They are building a new index that is “mobile-first”. Specifically, the current index evaluates, stores snippets and ranks your site from a “desktop” perspective. The new index will do all that from a mobile perspective. That mobile index will – sooner or later, and probably sooner – become the default index used in all searches.
To anyone who is looking to improve their rank in search results: Google expects your website to be mobile friendly. They have been slowly increasing the rank of mobile friendly sites in results for searches done from mobile devices and tablets. In the coming year, expect that Google will give higher rank to mobile friendly sites in ALL searches, regardless of device used.
Factor #5: User Experience
Last, but definitely not least is the user experience. Google puts the user experience at the center of its evaluation in every factor we’ve looked at. It accumulates many additional signals that indicate visitor satisfaction (or not) with the results returned by their query. Those signals start with actions taken on the search results page and continue to the pages reached when visitors click on search result links. They include which results are clicked on and how often; the amount of time visitors spend on the page they click through to; the actions taken on those resulting landing pages; the number of times they return and many more indications. They also combine implicit signals such as day of the week, active session duration, visit frequency, or type of article with other signals to improve the reliability of search results.
Click, engage, convert and return – and repeat
If you’ve done the work with each of the important SEO factors we’ve gone over here, then you have the basics in place. Remember that Google uses the amount of time visitors spend on a website in measuring both the relevance and the quality of the user experience. First make sure your site is mobile friendly and fast enough. Then focus on providing your visitors with value that motivates them to click, engage, convert and keep coming back. The more they do, the better your site will rank in the search results.