What SEO Ranking Factors Actually Matter?

ranking factors

Having done SEO work for clients for over a decade, we’ve seen the massive changes the field has undergone and continually refine our own strategies and advice to reflect the ever-changing best practices. It can seem like every week there’s a new report from a reputable SEO company breaking down the hundreds of potential ranking factors from those that are most important to those that have at least a minor effect (as well as those that just do not work anymore). But a recent presentation by SEMRush at the prestigious search conference shared some compelling data that we’ve been taking to heart and sharing with our clients. 

Earlier this year, Google backtracked on its statement from November 2015 that the three most important ranking factors are fresh content, and backlinks, but all three remain immensely important. However, as often is the case when Google makes any type of statement about SEO, many take it as gospel and will often alter their entire strategy when the search landscape of today is infinitely more nuanced.  

For instance, when Google announced that switching to HTTPS would help a site’s rankings, many webmasters turned from hopeful to hateful when the laborious change–and the many mistakes that can come with it–showed little measurable improvement in ranking. Nonetheless, as SEMRush found in their analysis of the top 100 positions for 600,000 keywords that 65% of the sites in the top three spots had HTTPS and advised that companies still make the switch who haven’t to help foster trust and improve conversions. 

Additionally, in line with other recent studies of ranking factors, they confirmed that the length of content does indeed play a role as those sites in the top three positions had content 45% longer than those in the twentieth spot.  

Where things got really interesting were their findings in regards to keywords. Namely, 35% of the domains in the top three for high-volume keywords didn’t have the keyword in their page or site title, meaning that Google is likely getting better with their semantic search algorithm’s ability to discern the context and synonyms of these high-volume keywords. Additionally, only 8% of the top three sites included those keywords in their anchor text 35 percent of domains ranking for high-volume keywords don’t have the keyword in the title. SEMRush posited that this could because either keywords in anchor text aren’t a major ranking factor or just simply SEOs finally adhering to Google’s best practices as regard to link building which often see anchor text links as spammy.  

The main takeaway from the presentation was not that SEO’s should hold these findings as gospel, but rather focus on building the best site with the highest quality content possible as Google is now able to do a lot of the heavy lifting once required of SEO’s. SEO is not dead, but it is always changing.