Google Webmasters has started a new video series designed to dispel SEO myths – called SEO Mythbusting. The first episode debuted May 15th, and in it, Martin Splitt, one of Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst speaks with his guest about how search engines work. As part of the discussion, he discusses how Google chooses relevant pages for its millions of searches every day, and the three most influential factors that webmasters need to consider when attempting to rank for any given keyword.
How Google Determines Relevance
Splitt says, “We have over 200 signals to do so. So we look at things like the title, the meta description, the actual content that you’ve got on your page, images, links… All sorts of things. It’s a very complicated question to answer what ranks you best, but yeah… we look at a bunch of signals.”
When asked about the top three things that someone should consider, Splitt responds with content, meta data, and performance.
Content is King – Number One Ranking Factor
“So… us being developers, originally, you probably want me to say, oh use this framework or use that framework… that’s not how it works.
You have to have really good content. And that means you have to have content… that serves a purpose for the user.
It’s something that users need and/or want. Optimally they need it and want it, like ice cream.
So, if your content says where you are, what you do, how you help me with what I’m trying to accomplish, that’s fantastic.”
Focus on the purpose of the page and build the content around that, rather than focusing specifically on the keyword.
If someone is looking for a Blue Soccer Ball, Google tends to rank product pages that are exact matches for Blue Soccer Balls. Google knows users are happier with pages that are direct matches to what they are looking for.
In the case of product page, the purpose is to provide accurate information about the specific item for sale. For a better user experience, add the ability to compare products.
When it comes to searches related to a topic rather than a product, Google ranks pages a bit differently, which is why many online businesses struggle with their SEO. It can be hard to take the focus away from the keyword and see the purpose of the page.
That’s where taking the time to match user intent to the keyword phrase matters. If you write content based on the phrase itself, rather than the stage of the buyer journey that someone would use for that phrase, you’ll miss the relevancy mark.
“So the second biggest things is [to] make sure that you have meta tags that describe your content, so have a meta description because that gives you the possibility to have a little snippet in the search results that let people find out which of the many results might be the ones that help them the best. And have page titles that are specific to the page that you are serving. So don’t have a title for everything. The same title is bad.
If you have titles that change with the content that you are showing, that is fantastic. And frameworks have ways of doing that. So consult the documentation but there’s definitely something that helps with the content.”
This means you need to pay special attention to the title and meta description. Using a template and automation can make it look and feel like cookie cutter content – which isn’t the best approach. But, tools like the Yoast SEO plugin use placeholders that make sure the title and meta descriptions are unique, and still follow automation.
For example, Yoast will take the WordPress post title and will automatically use it as the page title, with the site name appended to the end. Unless you create a custom meta description, it will automatically pull the first 160 characters of the blog post to use. You also have the option to create a unique page title for the meta data. This is particularly helpful if you want to create a blog post headline to encourage clicks, that doesn’t necessarily feature your keyword – because you can create the variant that features your keyword in the actual page title, instead of using your WordPress page or post title.
For years, the SEO community has understood that the meta description itself is not a ranking factor, but with the word from a Google employee that a meta description is part of the top three things to consider – even ahead of links. It’s a fairly good indication that Google has changed something.
Your website’s performance has been a top SEO factor for a long time. John Mueller, a senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google has said that as a ranking factor, performance (page speed) does not override other factors. In a Webmaster Hangout, Mueller says:
“…the good part is that we have lots of ranking factors. So you don’t have to do everything perfect.
But that also means that you run across situations like this where you say, Google says speed is important but the top sites here are not so fast therefore it must not be important.
So for us it is definitely important. But that doesn’t mean it kind of overrides everything else.
You could imagine the fastest page you can think of is probably an empty page, right? But an empty page would be a really terrible search result if someone is searching for something really specific.
It’s really fast but there is no content there. The user wouldn’t be happy.
So we have to balance all of these different factors. The content, the links, all of the signals that we have and kind of figure out how to do the ranking based on this mix of different factors that we have.”
Ultimately, because performance is a soft ranking factor, if you’ve nailed everything else, and the user experience will suffer because Google chooses not to show this site, you may still rank well even if your site speed is lacking a bit.
If the user expects to see a slow website, then that’s what Google will display.
A better way to look at it is performance is a top SEO factor, but it’s not often a top algorithmic ranking factor.
Splitt says, “Performance is fantastic, we’re talking about it constantly but we’re probably missing out on the fact that this is also good for being discovered online.” Google wants to be sure that people clicking on your website are getting the content quickly, so it’s not just about making your website faster, but making your website more visible to others, too.
While the full Google algorithm will never be released to the public, SEOs have been working for years to identify what influences rankings. Most of us had a pretty good idea about how content and site speed do influence rankings – and we use this knowledge to help our clients. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the Mythbusting show to share more insights with you as they come along.