Most Important SEO Factors in 2017

Another year, another set of SEO factors to consider and implement as search engines have constantly fine-tune how they serve search results. As marketers, we ought to keep abreast with these changes.

We are all aware that there are over 200 individual factors search engines, particularly Google, consider as part of the criteria in ranking. As much as we’d like to cover them all, it’s impractical to do so knowing that we expect search engines to tweak them over time. That is why last year’s SEO strategies may not exactly fit today’s ranking standards so it’s best to at least take them in a grain of salt when implementing.

Out of the 200 or so search ranking factors, we try to focus on the ones that are highlighted by studies conducted by notable organizations such as SearchMetrics, Backlinko and SEO PowerSuite.

1. Content
Andrey Lipattsev, Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google, confirmed in a Google QA session in March that content (along with links) is the most important ranking factor out there. While this should not come as a surprise, we should also understand what is the new meaning of content.

While optimizing for content in the past means usage of target keyword on H1 tag or in page title, Google is leaning towards relevance and not necessarily on the inclusion of target keywords within content. A study by SearchMetrics found out that a little over half — 53% to be exact — of top 20 results for certain queries have those keywords in their title tag. Likewise, less than 40% of landing pages from the list made use of embedding the keywords into the H1 tag.

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This percentage has been dropping over the years, the study said.

So, the inevitable next question becomes: what does content within this context really mean? The short answer is “comprehensive.”

To understand this concept better, consider queries such as “domestic violence.”

Top result is Wikipedia’s entry on this topic which has over 14,000 words. It is very comprehensive to say the least, including definition, forms, demographics, influences, and so on. Next ranked pages have over 800 and over 700 words which aren’t as diverse but probably get a good amount of inbound links or other favorable search signals.

This result appears to be consistent with Hummingbird update which focuses on semantic search, placing premium on relevance and in-depth focus on user intent on a fairly generic term. That says enough to debunk the idea of sprinkling keyword instances across the body content using keyword density techniques.

How to optimize for content:

1. Select the right keyword you can handle — overly broad terms are likely going to require more information. For a keyword like “Mong Kok” you might need to include sub topics such as what attractions you can find there, how to get there, where to buy decorative fish, bike parts, flowers or shoes, as well as where to find good food and what safety precautions you need to consider when you are there. If you drill down a bit to, say, Mong Kok Stadium or Mong Kok MTR station, you might need less comprehensive information in your content.

2. Identify thin content already ranking and expand them. This can be done by providing a short list of keywords and performing queries on them. Thin content to me are pages of information that can be enriched further. This is important because think content, while ranking high and attracting traffic, would likely prompt visitors to look elsewhere for more information.

For example, if you wish to create content about Mong Kok, but that’s too broad and too long to build, try small pieces of content such as attractions in Mong Kok, bus stops in Mong Kok, MTR exits in Mong Kok which can have their own pages and linked from your main article. Such so-called thin articles can then be made comprehensive and primed for higher search visibility.

2. Inbound links
Ever since Google separated itself from the old search engines in the 90s, links have been pivotal in that regard. Now it remains one of the most important search ranking factors. Yet, even though bad link building practices (comment spam, link farm, etc) proliferated to take advantage of this, search engines have made adjustments accordingly (hello Google Penguin update).

While the premise on more quality of links trumps quantity of links remains, it’s also true that if a page acquires multitude of links from varying degrees of diversity — based on C-class IP addresses, types of websites, anchor text, and even how they are formatted — with common theme and decent domain authority, they are poised to ranked prominently.

Obtaining good rankings based on this factor takes around this route:

a. you create page with good content
b. it ranks well and attracts traffic
c. traffic likes your content and links to it
d. your page further stabilizes ranking to withstand competition

As a result, your page gets important ranking signals: increased quantity of backlinks, improve page authority and further diversify link source.

How to optimize for backlinks:

1. Create good quality content (see How to optimize for content above)
2. Promote content. You can share on social media or utilize paid advertising so content reaches your desired audience. Hopefully, they’ll reciprocate and get you the desired link quantity and diversity.

3. Improved User Experience

Google has been using factors related to user experience such as loading speed, site security and mobile friendliness as search factors. It only makes sense as Google tries to align its mission of providing the best search experience possible.

Backlinko’s study in 2014 confirmed the strong correlation between first page Google rankings and the use of secured http. SearchMetrics likewise confirmed that 45% of top websites utilize the HTTPS encryption, up from 12% in the previous year. And if you are not aware, sites that failed to switch to HTTPS have now been marked as unsafe in Google Chrome.

As more and more people access content through mobile phones, Google in its ability to adapt well with user experience issues (such as site security and page loading speed), is quick to make this adjustment which is one of the biggest changes observed in search engine optimization realm in 2016.

The mobile-first experience should not be misunderstood as Google’s check on mobile-friendliness of a website. This means Google will primarily crawl the mobile version, instead of the desktop version, of the website and use it as criteria for ranking.

Research has revealed that virtually all of the top 100 visible domains have mobile-friendly versions. This means if your website still isn’t responsive or has no mobile version, you’ll kind of long shot to get rankings, if this SearchMetrics study is to be used as benchmark. And even if you finally get that responsive site issue resolved, you’ll have to deal with Google’s mobile-first user experience.

How to optimize user experience for search:

a. Check Mobile-Friendly Test to see if Google can recognize your mobile-friendly website.

b. Test your pages using PageSpeed Insights. Fix any issues that it may encounter such as reducing file sizes, resolving uncompressed content, and other elements that slow the page loading.

c. Switch to HTTPS encryption.

As stated in the introduction, search engine optimization is an ever-evolving industry and a moving target that we marketers need to keep abreast on. But as Google and other search engines push for more relevance, usability-friendly and more clever ways of delivering search results, we can only speculate that other factors that help human users improve their experience will be counted in the next round of updates.

But as the moment, let us focus on these items to improve our website for search engine visibility.