It’s rare that any company reveals its trade secrets. It’s especially rare for tech giant Google to do so. But last month, they did just that during an online Q&A session when Google search quality senior strategist Andrey Lipattsev listed the three most important factors they use to rank websites and web pages. Content and links tied for number one, and RankBrain, the new artificial intelligence system that helps to sort and deliver a large number of the search engine’s results, comes in at number three.
While Lipattsev didn’t exactly explain how the Google algorithm or RankBrain work—that will never happen—he did provide three keys to better search engine rankings. Now it’s just a matter of using them to unlock your website’s potential and maximize your online marketing efforts.
Ranking Factor One: Content
We’ve been hearing for some time now that quality content is the path to higher rankings. But what does that look like, exactly? It means that in order to rank well, the content on your website needs to be relevant to what searchers seek. Imagine that! It sounds so simple, but amazingly it’s something many brands in the B2B space (and sometime large ones) get wrong.
How do they get it wrong? That’s simple, too. All too often content on a website is written without the benefit of any buyer persona work, any keyword research, or any focus on communicating in a way that prospects (and searchers) think about a product or solution they might need. If you want to rank well, understanding your customers, how they think, what they need, and what you do that delivers and, most importantly developing messaging that speaks to that is the key to ranking well.
But content quality factors expand well outside linguistic mechanics and the words on the page. Numerous search engine optimization (SEO) factors come into play when striving for quality content. At minimum, the title tag and header tags must be optimized, and your images should include unique descriptions and tags. Additionally, how your links are structured within the body of a post is important, too. Writing corporate blog content? Make sure you know these things and/or that the contract writers to whom you outsource do—otherwise, your content won’t deliver the results you seek.
Ranking Factor Two: Links
Speaking of linking, type of links Google is referring to as being the second most-important ranking factor are inbound links, also called backlinks. Outbound links are important too, but they don’t have quite as much power to influence rankings as inbound links do.
When a high-quality site links to yours, it’s essentially an endorsement, sort of like a colleague giving you a reference. Just as a good reference can help you get a job, a good backlink lets Google know your site is worth looking at, and perhaps worth a higher ranking than others in your vertical.
Notice I said “high-quality site.” Backlinks from just anywhere aren’t enough, and in some cases, can even be detrimental. For example, if a spammy, get-rich-quick website links to your site, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for you and your business.
But be careful in how you judge your inbound links. You may get a link from a high-quality site, but it’s from a website or business that has nothing whatsoever to do with yours. That’s not going to help your rankings much, either. Relevance is just as important for your backlinks as it is for your content. All of these considerations apply for outbound links, too.
As such, having an ongoing backlink strategy is, or should be, as much of an integral component of your content marketing efforts as the development of the content itself. If you’re not actively pursuing quality backlinks, start.
Ranking Factor Three: RankBrain
It almost sounds like a comic book supervillain, doesn’t it? Actually, RankBrain is much friendlier and beneficial—as long as your content sounds natural. In October 2015, Google senior research scientist Greg Corrado said the third most-important signal in search query results was RankBrain. This artificial intelligence system is part of the search engine’s overall search algorithm, called Hummingbird.
Unlike content and links, RankBrain focuses on search queries rather than on-site content. It uses machine learning to interpret language used in queries in order to return more—and more relevant—results. For example, if you search for a phrase containing “TV show,” RankBrain may include results that include a related word like “episodes,” even if that word wasn’t included in the original search.
Because RankBrain is handling these sorts of interpretations now, and can “guess” based on context, your on-site content can, and should, sound much more natural. You no longer have to be concerned with including several iterations of your keywords in your content in an attempt to cover all your ranking bases. In a nutshell, if you understand your audience, and write content for that audience that sounds natural and down-to-earth, you’ll be in good shape.
It will be interesting to see how RankBrain and Hummingbird continue to evolve. For now, the best thing you can do is ensure your content and links are of the highest quality possible, and that you’re creating content for people, not computers.
What to Do From Here
Now that you know just how much importance Google places on content as a ranking factor, your path is clear. To evaluate where you stand, perform a content audit to determine whether your existing content meets the high-quality standards Google—and your audience—expect. If this is outside your comfort zone, or you simply don’t have the time, hire a professional.
Next, consider building checklists to ensure all new content created from here on out takes all those factors into consideration from the get-go. Adopt a DIRTFT (Do It Right The First Time) policy, and be assured all your new content will do its job to help your site rank.
When you do that content audit, make sure to include a link audit to evaluate all the links coming into your site. While you have no control over who links to your site and from where, you can take action if you find poor backlinks that are having a potentially negative effect on your site’s rankings. Also, as mentioned earlier, create a linking strategy as part of your overall content strategy that will ensure you continue to build quality backlinks on an ongoing basis.
Writing content is easy. And there’s all kinds of mediocre content out there that proves that. Writing effective content, however, is an entirely different matter. Knowing what your audience seeks, and how to write content that both resonates with them and ranks well in search, well, that’s what makes this part of what we do as marketers an art. And not just anyone can do that. Which makes what we do even more fun.
Image credit: Tookapic