I'm sure you'll agree with me when I say:
It's always exciting to see new research into Google.
There's something about being given an extra level of clarity that's just, well…addictive.
It's easy to get swept up in this excitement, and addiction, and lose sight of the bigger picture. It's easy to take this new research as fact and make it into your new law. Hell, it happens in every niche around the world. But there's something important you need to remember:
Unless it comes from Google, it's not fact.
And, it all needs to be questioned. Which is exactly what we've done for you with Brian Dean's 1 Million Search Result Analysis.
Understanding What We’ve Done…
Brian’s research is really thorough on this topic. I mean, one millions results is nothing to be sniffed at.
But, as with all data from third-parties that aren’t Google, there’s still no saying whether it’s 100% accurate or not. Although, the results do line up with popular belief about search.
In this article, then, we’ll explore:
- What the results mean for you as an SEO
- What actionable steps you can take to implement it
- Whether it’s essential for you to actually act on any individual step
If that sounds good to you, read on and learn how to maximise this data, for the best results you can get…
Result #1: “The Number of Referring Domains Has a Very Strong Influence on Rankings”
“Backlinks remain an extremely important Google ranking factor. We found the number of domains linking to a page correlated with rankings more than any other factor.”
In an SEO climate where the question, ‘Is backlinking dead?’ is constantly thrown around, it’s good to see that all of your link building efforts will actually pay off. Because, as Brian pointed out in his research, it was the biggest correlating factor.
Now, looking at this through a no-hat lense, that means that getting links through any and all means available to you should be your first port of call for any site. Old, new or otherwise.
- Guest Blogging
- Paid Links
- Private Blog Networks
Are all still fair game and beneficial for your site. Regardless of what Matt Cutts says on the topic.
But that doesn’t mean that any link back to your site is going to pay dividends for your search rankings. As Rand Fishkin of Moz points out, “Backlinks that scale easily and that don't also add value for searchers have been dying for a long time.” And, they’ll continue to kill your site if you keep building them.
So while you should be focusing on getting as many links back as possible, that doesn’t mean you should get any link that’s possible. Because your brothers Bait and Tackle website just isn’t relevant to your clients car rental business. In fact, there’s also the argument that low-authority but relevant links are better than slightly higher authority, but irrelevant links.
The key tip here, then, is to focus on:
- Building a diverse set of inbound links
- Getting them from relevant sites even if they’re lower authority than you’d like
- Where your competitors are getting links from and building them from those sources
Result #2: “Authoritative Domains Tend to Rank Higher in Google’s Search Results”
“Our data also shows that a site’s overall link authority (as measured by Ahrefs Domain Rating) strongly correlates with higher rankings.”
This result doesn’t just prove that domain authority is important for you, it also proves that Google is bias against you. Let me explain…
Think about walking into a shopping mall when you go on vacation. What do you look for? The shops you know and trust, or the ones that you don’t? The latter, always. Because you want to know that you’re buying from a reputable source. The same with choosing food in the food court, you look for somewhere you know won’t give you food poisoning.
Google seems to work in the same way. If you search for, say, Digital Photo Frames, the top results are the biggest retailers that sell them. And, the same goes for any product you search:
Because Google wants to be seen to be providing you with not only the most relevant, but the most trustworthy content in your eyes, too. Which means they’ll often rank shit content from a big brand ahead of the quality content from your small business.
Let’s take a look at this search for ‘How to build your social media following’. The number one result comes from Forbes:
Where the content is really light , and, frankly, pretty useless as a number one ranking; ‘Follow like minded people’ isn’t exactly a wake up call for changing your social media strategy, is it?
While much deeper on this fourth page is this post from Wishpond that outlines 60 actionable ways to increase your social media following, with examples and guides:
Buffer, the dedicated social media blog only comes in at number four, which is completely absurd too.
But this also proves Brian’s theory that, “the domain that your page lives on is more important than the page itself”. So building your overall site authority is key to getting higher rankings, and ranking first, if you’re in competition with the big vendors (of content, products et al.) might not ever be an option.
Result #3: “Publishing Comprehensive, In-Depth Topical Content May Improve Rankings”
“We discovered that content rated as “topically relevant” (via MarketMuse), significantly outperformed content that didn’t cover a topic in-depth. Therefore, publishing focused content that covers a single topic may help with rankings.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, while the data is convincing, it’s inconclusive .
It’s true that since the Hummingbird update Google can ‘understand’ your content much better. And, semantic search has brought about a new way of looking at what makes content ‘topical’.
But, as the graph itself shows – and as the examples he used in the article show – as long as you have domain authority and relevant backlinks, you can still rank on the first page with less in-depth topical content.
There’s also the fact that topicality, like relevance, can mean many different things to different people.
Now, I’m not a big Matt Cutt’s proponent, I don’t find everything he says to be trustworthy. But something that does seem to ring true – as marketing principle as much as anything else – is when he said:
“If marketers focused more on relevant content with the user in mind, or focusing more on the reader in general, work as an SEOer becomes that much easier”
Meaning that the content you create should match the content your audience has become accustomed to. It’d be odd, for example, if Buzzfeed started churning out 1,800 epics every week, when you were just looking for a quick laugh about your home town.
So, while there may be correlation here, I don’t think it’s causation. And if you keep working on building accessible, easy to crawl content that is relevant and linked to by authorities, this factor won’t matter too much.
Result #4: “Long-Form Ranks Higher in Google’s Search Results Than Short-Form Content”
“Based on SERP data from SEMRush, we found that longer content tends to rank higher in Google’s search results. The average Google first page result contains 1,890 words.”
The long form vs short form copy debate is one that has waged war on the Marketing and Advertising worlds for years.
It used to be that before the internet age anything over 500 words was long form copy. In fact, even just recently, I’ve had conversations with exec’s who think 800 words is still too long for a blog post.
And, as Copyhackers point out, Seth Godin outranks God with super short content:
Now, let me take off my copywriters hat and look at this from an SEO point of view.
Long Content does perform well. It’s always performed well. But, what counts as long content?
Boost Blog Traffic, OkDork and Matthew Woodward all create long content regularly. But it’s often in excess of 3000-4000 words. While sites like Buffer create content that’s 1,250-1500 words, and occasionally up near that 1,800 word mark.
That would suggest that there has to be a good mix of them. And, it would be interesting to see what the Median and Mode numbers of the content were as well. So as to get a bigger, clearer picture than just the average.
However this result is going to tell people that they need to focus on 1,800 words or above for their content, which I don’t think is true. The lesson here is something different:
You need to create the longest, relevant content to your audience.
For example, look at the self help site Tiny Buddha. Their articles are between 800-1,500 words, as per their submission guidelines.
Now, they don’t need to write 3000 word epics, because that’s too long for their audience. Nobody in their audience wants to read a blog post of that length, on any of these topics. They want a quicker, insightful boost of motivation and to then head off back into their work.
But a blog like the Canva Design School one looks for an absolute minimum of 2,000 words for the authors.
So the Tiny Buddha 1,500 word post would still be short form content to them, and any competitor sites in the same niche.
The point I’m making, which I hope is abundantly clear, is that long and short form comes down to your audience. Especially as Google doesn’t actually have an opinion on long or short form content, at all.
If you’re creating relevant, linkable content that boosts your position as an authority in your niche – and is the best you can possibly produce – that fits your audience and your niche, you get to decide what long and short form content is. But always go for the longest you can.
After all, I doubt there are many Dog Walkers writing 1,800 word blog posts or on site content, but they’re still ranking for their terms, aren’t they?
Result #5: “HTTPS Is Moderately Correlated With Higher Rankings”
“HTTPS had a reasonably strong correlation with first page Google rankings. This wasn’t surprising as Google has confirmed HTTPS as a ranking signal.”
As Brian pointed out, there’s a huge push from Google themselves for people to HTTPS domains. And, while it may not be the biggest ranking factor now, it’s definitely going to be one in the future, consider Google official endorsed it as a ‘signal’.
But, this begs the question for you, “Do I need to make the switch to HTTPS?”, which I’m going to answer for you now:
The big worry here is that, because moving to HTTPS is like switching to a completely new domain, it’s going to negatively impact your SEO. That, for all intents and purposes, you’ll lose the SEO you have in place. But, as Google themselves have said:
“Over time, we may decide to strengthen [HTTPS as a ranking signal] because we’d like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web”
So at some point it’s probably going to negatively affect your SEO. At least right now you have the power to control what happens. And, yes, it will be time and labour intensive. And you’ll have to get someone to reach to get every link pointing at your site updates and changed. But, the words, “Suck it up!” come to mind. It’s better to do it now than have rankings stripped from you after an algorithm update.
And, if you’re outsourcing this work, it’ll be cheaper now while it’s not in demand.
Result #6: There is No Correlation Between Schema Markup and Rankings
“Despite the buzz around Schema, our data shows that use of Schema markup doesn’t correlate with higher rankings”
While Brian might not have found any benefits of using Schema Markup, there are other studies that suggest that it does.
For example, as SearchMetrics discovered, sites with Schema Markup rank four places higher than those without it. As well as the fact it’s been alluded to on many occasions. And, they can be quoted as saying:
“Structured data markup” is a standard way to annotate your content so machines can understand it. W hen your web pages include structured data markup, Google (and other search engines) can use that data to index your content better, present it more prominently in search results , and surface it in new experiences like voice answers, maps, and Google Now.”
And, as Bill Slawski of SEO By The Sea noted, Google have been filing patents on how they can reduce duplicate content by using Schema markups. Which means that while Schema Markups may not help you get onto the first page, they’re probably going to become a much bigger ranking factor in the future.
One of the big problems I encounter with SEO – especially those I come into contact with using SERPed – is that they focus on the here and now. What will get you rankings today? Instead of looking at SEO, and ranking sustainability as a whole process.
- Make pages easier to crawl
- Improve semantic search
- Add (perceived) relevance and topicality to your pages
So don’t write them off based on this data. I’d recommend that you keep using them, or start incorporating them now, because while this data shows that they won’t boost your rankings right now, they won’t hurt them either.
Result #7: Shorter URLs Tend to Rank Better than Long URLs
“I typically recommended that people use short URLs for the sake of better on-page SEO”
There’s nothing to contest here, really.
Shorter URLs outperform longer URLs, it’s pretty simple. And this probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to you as an SEO. Because they’re easier to interpret and understand by Google.
Now, Brian’s article offers a tutorial on how to shorten your links in a WordPress site, so I won’t repeat it. But what if you’re not on a WordPress site , and you use a competitor like Joomla!, Drupal or Jekyll? Luckily, I’ve got you covered here:
But, sadly, I couldn’t find a comprehensive link shortening strategy for Drupal. The only thing on offer is creating links like Bit.ly does, but aren’t permanent to your page.
Result #8: Content With At Least One Image Ranks Higher Than Content That Lacks an Image (But Using Lots of Images Doesn’t Make a Difference)
“Content with at least one image significantly outperformed content without any images. However, we didn’t find that adding additional images influenced rankings.”
From a pure SEO point of view, I’d agree with this statistic. That you need at least one image, well formatted, to get a ranking boost. But don’t let this statistic hold you to just one image. Because having images can do so much more for your content.
For example, Canva and BuzzSumo research found using an image every 75-100 words can have a big increase in your social shares:
And there’s the fact that image captions will get read 300% more than any of your body copy. So, if you’re trying to keep people on page and reduce bounce rates – which appear to be directly correlated with rankings, regardless of what Matt Cutts says – they’re worth adding throughout your posts.
If you’re creating longer copy – as suggested in the a point above – adding more images makes the content less intimidating and easier to read or understand. So, more people can take the value from your content and link back to it.
Result #9: Using An (Exact) Keyword in Your Page’s Title Tag Has a Small Correlation With Rankings
“Despite Google’s many Penguin updates, exact match anchor text appears to have a strong influence on rankings“
Every year Google edges closer to Semantic Search and away from the, “Hey, is this keyword on that page?” mindset of years gone by. And, while keywords will always be important, it’s the way you use them that will change as time goes on.
As shown here, the exact match keyword in your title is nowhere near as important as it was five or six years ago. Now, Brian says here:
“Including your target keyword in your title tag may help with rankings for that keyword. However, because of Semantic Search, the impact doesn’t appear to be nearly as great as it once was.”
While I agree with the sentiment, I think it needs to be said that you should drop keywords from your title tags at your own risk. I’d suggest that you just make a shift to long-tail keywords if you’re not already. Meaning, the need to put in high traffic keywords has decreased, but the need to drive organic traffic through keywords in general hasn’t.
Result #10 + #11: More Total Backlinks (From Authorities) = Better Rankings
“We found that pages with the highest number total backlinks tended to rank best in Google.”
Okay, this doesn’t need much explanation from me. This is one of those unwritten rules of SEO that we all kind of go, “Well, duh!” to. But it’s nice to have a little more confirmation of the fact.
But, remember, your links need to be quality, relevant and (preferably) from authorities in your niche. That doesn’t give you a free pass to go and start spamming again.
As is shown by the correlation between link/domain authority and higher rankings:
Result #12: Low Bounce Rates Correlate With Higher Google Rankings
“We discovered that websites with low average bounce rates are strongly correlated with higher rankings.”
I wanted to act a little surprised with this result, but I really can’t. While there has never been an official correlation with bounce rates and rankings, I’m going to go out on a limb and just say that’s one of Matt Cutts’ lies.
Bounce rates have to have some impact on rankings, it just makes sense.
Let’s look at the higher levels of personalisation that come with every important update. Having bounce rates to indicate whether your site is right for a person or not was always going to impact whether you show up in their rankings. And, SEO doesn’t happen in a vacuum, does it?
Now, not everyone who visits your site is going to find what they want. So, you’re never going to achieve perfection in this, either. But it’s definitely a great indicator. Meaning if you do want to compete at the top, you’re going to need to focus on this a whole lot.
That's All, Folks…
Okay, you made it through all of that article. Hats off to you!
But now I wan't to know – what do you make of Brian Dean's results?
Let me know in the comments…