Straight Talk on SEO: The 15 Factors That Really Affect Your Site’s Search Engine Rankings
If you own or manage a website, then you have undoubtedly been contacted with offers promising to “increase your website’s search engine rankings though search engine optimization.” I receive messages like this daily with promises that range from the surprising to the absurd. If you take these solicitations at their word, they make search engine optimization, or SEO, seem like a magic cure for your website marketing needs – but what are you really getting if you decide to hire a company to provide SEO services for your website? While there are many reputable firms that provide search engine marketing and optimization services, there are just as many scam artists who are looking to capitalize on business owners’ ignorance of what really goes into achieving improved search engine rankings. The truth is that the algorithms that determine search engine rankings are complex – and they are always changing. There is no “silver bullet” for improving rankings, no one thing you can do that will, by itself, get you the results you desire. Unfortunately, many companies present SEO this way – as a quick fix that offers guaranteed results. Like most things in business and in life, it sounds too good to be true because it is. In this article, we will explore 15 factors that affect how search engines rank your website so that the next time a company contacts you with an offer to “optimize your website for the search engines”, you can ask exactly which of these things they will be addressing as part of their plans and make better decisions for your website’s digital marketing initiatives.
We will start with the most important factor when it comes to search engine rankings – content. This is what it is really all about. Search engines want to deliver the best results for searchers, results that will link to quality content that is relevant to that searcher’s query. More so than anything on this list, quality content is the key to improved search engine rankings. If you have quality content, your site has the best chance to be found by searchers and rank effectively in search engines. Most SEO companies that are looking to make a quick buck on your website will not address your content strategy, yet any true initiative to address rankings and overall success will begin by looking at your content to make sure that it is unique to your site, relevant to what your audience is looking for, and that you have a plan to produce this quality content on a regular basis.
2. Site structure
The way your website is built plays a role in how search engines will rank that site. Code that is clean and well-structured allows the search engines to crawl the site effectively and find what they are looking for. On the flip side, older sites whose code is convoluted and outdated will make it more difficult for search engines to crawl that site. Any time you make it more difficult for the search engines, you negatively impact your rankings.
3. On-Site optimization
This is what most SEO companies are referring to when they say that they will provide “optimization services” for that site. There are, indeed, a number of best practices that can be applied to the way specific web pages are built, but on their own, these on- site optimization techniques will only have a minimal effect – and if your website was built by a reputable agency that understands search engine best practices, then many of these on-site optimizations should already be in place. These techniques are important and should be part of a bigger overall plan if you hope to get the most out of the website, but you need more than on- site optimization for your site to truly be successful.
4. Inbound links
An incredibly important factor in rankings is links to your website from other sites. These links count as a “vote of confidence” for your site and search engines see those votes of confidence as proof that your site is quality – but not all links are created equal! A link to your site from a popular site that has a similar subject matter is a great link to have. The popularity and standing of that site, coupled with the fact that it shares subject matter to your own, make these links very valuable in the eyes of search engines. On the flip side, spammy links from bogus websites or “link farms” will not help you. In fact, those bogus links may harm your rankings! If a company contacts you promising 10,000 inbound links, run away quickly! What they are doing is “link building” using these link farm websites. While you may get short term results from these initiatives, you risk being penalized in the long term once the search engines discover where those links came from. What you want are quality links from reputable sites that like your content (yes, again it comes down to quality content).
5. Download speed
How quickly your website loads is another factor search engines have begun considering in their rankings algorithms. A fast-loading site is not only good for the user experience, but it really can improve rankings as well.
This is a factor that is tough to control. The length of time your domain has been registered does play a role in rankings. A website that has been around for a while has been able to build up inbound links (see above), it has grown over time, and the search engines know that it is not a flash-in-the-pan site. Search engines like longevity, so if you registered your domain name years ago and have had a quality site up since that time, this will help you in your rankings now.
7. Frequency of updates
Search engines like sites that are attended to regularly. When those search engines index your site and see that it is constantly changing and being added to, they take that into account in a positive way for their ranking considerations.
8. Mobile device support
More and more these days, mobile devices are playing a role in our websites’ success and search engine rankings are just another way these devices are making themselves known. Google’s best practices recommend using responsive web design to deliver websites to a variety of devices. Building a website that delivers an experience suited to the wide variety of devices available today ensures that when searchers find your site, whether they are on a desktop computer or a mobile phone, they get a quality experience. Search engines want sites that deliver these experiences and mobile or multi-device support is becoming an important factor in rankings.
9. Social media
We’ve already discussed the value of inbound links, so it is not surprising that links from social media and conversations being had on social media have also begun to impact search engine rankings. A strong presence on social media sites with links back to your website can drive traffic to your business and boost search engine rankings.
Paid search engine advertising is one way you can get exposure to searchers quickly, while your site’s organic rankings improve over time. While Google has stated that they do not reward sites that advertise with their search engine by increasing their subsequent organic rankings, the reality is that paid ads can get you more exposure, which can lead to additional inbound links or social media mentions, which can then improve overall rankings. So whether or not you believe that Google does not reward companies that spend ad dollars with them, the process of taking out these ads can absolutely bring you traffic now and improve your organic placement over time.
11. Geographic location
Search engines have realized that many searches are local. If you are in Boston and you search for a plumber, you do not want listings for plumbers in Texas. Different searchers in different parts of the world will get different results for the queries they make, so the geographic location of your company will play into your rankings.
12. Browsing history
Similar to the fact that location will influence your site’s rankings, so will previous visits to your site. If a searcher has been to your site before, Google will often give that site preferential treatment for future searches, thinking that they may wish to visit the site again. The reality is that your overall browsing history plays a big part in the results you receive. Eli Pariser talked about these “filter bubbles” in a TED talk he gave in 2011.
If your site caters to visitors who speak different languages, having pages presented in those languages can absolutely help if searches are being conducted in that language.
Search engines cannot index and rank your site if it is down. Server uptime will play a role in overall rankings. If your server environment is unreliable and often down for maintenance, not only will you risk turning customers away if the site is offline for a time, but you also will eventually impact your rankings if search engine bots visit your site and find it unavailable.
We end the article where we began, with content. While every item in this list will influence your search engine rankings, the reality is that it starts and ends with content. If you really want to increase search engine rankings, look to the factors and tips covered in this article, but be sure that above all else, your content is the best that it can be.
What about meta tags and keywords?
As mentioned earlier, search engine algorithms are always changing. Factors like Meta tags and “keyword density” no longer play a role in how search engines rank websites, yet there are still professed SEO specialists out there hawking these outdated methods. If the company you are speaking with about SEO services is pitching “keyword density” but is not addressing your content plans, or any of the other factors covered in this article, that is a sure sign that you should look for a different provider.
Quite a few factors contribute to search engine rankings, and while the ones presented in this article are all important, there are doubtlessly other things that we are not even yet aware of that search engines weigh when they rank websites for their search engine results. To truly improve your site’s rankings, you need to do more than add some keywords or tweak your pages’ code - you need to have a long term strategy that will address the items on this list today, while also being prepared for changes tomorrow.