Google is notoriously tight-lipped about its ranking factors, and that doesn't look set to change in 2018.
It’s no secret that SEOers base their entire careers on educated guesses, experimentation and speculation.
Will Google ever disclose their algorithms? Who knows.
Will you ever reach page one? With hard work and perseverance, yes.
Back in October last year, I wrote a post about what to expect in 2018.
And I think now is as good a time as any to re-assess where we are in terms of SEO.
It’s safe to say we’ve established a few certainties since early 2018: Google is now less tolerant than ever when it comes to unscrupulous black hatters, voice search continues to proliferate, and new search features have transformed the way we expect to see answers.
All in all, with the rate of evolution on the SEO landscape, it's prime time to act and rejig your strategy.
So, let’s get straight into it.
SSL certificates are more or less mandatory
Okay, so an SSL certificate isn’t actually mandatory (yet), but it’s as good as.
Most of the pages occupying the top 3 spots on page 1 of Google are HTTPS which means they are secured by an SSL certificate.
This means data passed between the web server and browsers are encrypted and secured. Chrome now offers warning signs to users for sites that are not HTTPS, which can negatively effect a user’s experience and dissuade them from staying on your website - and we all know what that means for SEO.
Google takes security seriously. Its mission is to present its users with valuable, secure content and web pages. By not having an SSL certificate, it doesn’t matter how good your content is, as long as it’s unsecure you'll jeopardise your chances of being positioned above certified domains.
Before you order your SSL certificate, you’ll need to prepare your server and ensure you have a unique IP address. There are detailed instructions on how to obtain your SSL certificate at SSL Shopper, but it’s relatively simple.
Latent semantic indexing
Yes, that was my reaction too.
This might be new to some of us, but it’s important - especially when talking content - so listen up.
How exactly does Google determine how relevant, valuable authoritative your content is?
How does Google know that what you’re talking about is accurate, comprehensible and matches the user’s intent?
Latent semantic indexing (it’s a mouthful, so let’s go with LSI for now) is a technique for natural language processing, and it’s used by Google to assess the quality and authenticity of your content.
LSI determines your content and its context, along with user’s intent in relation to specific keywords. This is achieved by ‘semantic linking’, so, understanding which other keywords are related to a specific keyword. Semantic linking enables Google to achieve a richer understanding of your query, and present users with the most accurate content.
For example, a customer searching ‘apple store’ will not be presented with the nearest supermarket, but indeed, the nearest 'Apple' store.
LSI can therefore be used to inform your keyword strategy. One of the easiest ways to conduct LSI-keyword research is through a simple Google search which volunteers a list of similar search terms related to the keyword. These are also readily available in the ‘related searches’ box at the bottom of the SERP.
There are also free tools such as LSI Keyword Generator tool available online which can be used to take your keyword research one step further.
Simply put, keywords alone are no longer enough. We have to go deeper, dig into user intent, context, and related searches to enrich our SEO efforts and keep on climbing the results pages.
Whilst there's been much debate on the certainty of a relationship between SEO and social shares, the sheer amount of activity happening on social media means we'd be naive to ignore it.
In a recent post, OptinMonster points out that social media is not a direct SEO ranking factor, but the correlation between social signals and ranking position is extremely high. Too high in fact, for us to ignore.
So much happens on social media channels now, and there seems to be a platform for everything. Video, recruitment, images, content. Ultimately, social was designed for mass sharing, and many of us use social media platforms as search engines themselves, so it’s only right that Google takes into account social signals.
It's inevitable that increased social activity will impact your SEO, but content promotion is often overlooked as a method for nurturing your SEO. Social media might not be a direct ranking factor for Google, but it does amplify other ranking factors that will favour SEO.
Having a effective content promotion strategy is vital to strengthening social engagement. And this goes hand in hand with influencer outreach. Having your content mentioned and shared by influencers in your field has a dramatic impact on your authority and ranking abilities.
Posting regularly and tailoring your content for each of the relevant platforms is another important factor. It has been found that most of the high positioning content on Google correlates with high volumes of social signals.
In 2016 Google introduced its RankBrain algorithm. It represented another step in the evolution of online search, earning it a place on this list.
RankBrain uses machine learning technology to deliver more accurate search results and to focus on user intent. RankBrain helps Google understand context behind a searcher’s behaviour, therefore providing better results.
SEOers have speculated that, thanks to RankBrain, a query now goes through an interpretation model which can apply factors such as the location of the searcher, personalisation, and which words determine the searcher’s true intent.
But for now, RankBrain is one of many ranking factors and while it is predominantly used for long-tail keywords, (and naturally, voice searches) there is a possibility of a future where Rankbrain is the number one ranking factor.
RankBrain leads us yet again in the direction of richer, higher quality content, built around phrases, semantic linking and topics. The more we use this formula to build out our content, the better. Think of opportunities to link to supportive content and semantically-linked content.
Ensure you clearly state the purpose of the content, who it is written for, and what it should be used to achieve so that machine learning tools can easily uncover the relevance and meaning of your content.
This brings me swiftly to my next point.
Topics over keywords
Disclaimer: keywords are not dead.
Please don’t discard your entire keyword strategy. Yes, they have lost some leverage to topic cluster marketing, but this doesn’t mean they no longer matter. They will still be useful in developing your topic clusters, pillar pages and semantic links.
The trick is to view the bigger picture and focus on building the richest batch of content for a core topic, to which your keyword is closely related.
Topic clusters aim to strengthen your site’s architecture, making it easier for Google’s algorithms to crawl the content and determine its meaning and relevance.
Lastly, we have dwell time. Dwell time is a metric that determines user engagement, session duration and CTRs. But it is not to be confused with ‘time on page’ or bounce rate. Here’s how it differs.
Dwell time combines the two metrics of session duration and bounce rate; it is an amalgamation of bounce rate and time-on-site. Therefore, factors that contribute to a healthy dwell time are optimal bounce rate, moderate session time and strong SERP CTRs need to be measured and analysed closely to improve dwell time. Are you answering your searcher's question? And is your meta description adequately explaining the content of your page?
Back in 2006, there were around 200 signals that could determine your ranking. Now, there are thousands - most of which we can’t be entirely sure of. But for now, the best we can do is monitor and test, while of course, providing value, answering questions and producing remarkable content.
It’s no coincidence that the term ‘user intent’ keeps on reappearing, and we can’t stress its importance enough. Focus on topics and consider the wider contextual picture, always keeping in mind your searcher’s intent. What do they want, how do they want it, and what do they want to do with it?