What is the state of SEO? The only good answer is that it’s complex, and it is getting more complex all the time.
According to Google’s Matt Cutts, Google makes 1 to 2 algorithm adjustments per day. That’s right: the most popular search engine makes about 500 algorithm adjustments per year.
Many of those adjustments are small. But some are major.
Take for instance, news that emerged just days ago about RankBrain. RankBrain is Google’s name for a machine-learning system or artificial intelligence used to help process its search results. It’s the most recent change to rock the world of SEO.
RankBrain, we learned, is in place and is now the third most important ranking factor.
“For years the two main Google ranking factors were the words you used on your website pages (keywords) and links to your pages (inbound links from other relevant pages). But as of this summer, there’s a new kid in town called RankBrain. With RankBrain, Google is now applying artificial intelligence to interpret what a searcher is looking for and to provide search results that attempt to give the searcher what they are looking for, regardless of whether the specific words actually appear on your page. In other words, RankBrain has become one of the main SEO factors, along with the content on your site and links to your site, to determine how well a page ranks.”
So says Sage Lewis (an experienced SEO professional and co-owner, with his wife, of SageRock) in a recent presentation.
It turns out that Microsoft’s Bing also has machine learning-;something called RankNet. No one is quite sure to what degree Bing uses its artificial intelligence or for how many search queries.
One thing is clear: artificial intelligence adds even more complexity when it comes to determining how to make SEO improvements to your site.
If this all sounds confusing, it can be. SEO is a highly technical area. But let’s discuss a few things that many SEO professionals agree on:
- Are links still worthwhile? Yes, it seems that links to your page from third-party sites, and to some degree internally from your own site, still matter. Links signify the importance of that page. Link schemes, however, such as buying links or blatant link exchanges or lots of links from spammy sites, eventually backfire and hurt your site.
- Does content matter? Yes, content on your pages matters-;a lot. Even though artificial intelligence may fill the gaps between words, the content on your page is very important. But it’s not just a simple matter of slapping some words on a page. The content must be sufficient, (i.e., a page with more than a few words and not “thin content”). It must be findable by search engine spiders. It must be high quality, e.g., well-researched content. For certain queries it must be fresh. These kinds of quality factors regarding your content really matter in determining ranking.
- Are keywords dead? No, keywords are not dead. Keywords on your pages still matter. Keyword stuffing, (i.e., attempting to manipulate search results by stuffing a page full of the same keywords) is dead, though. Manipulative techniques such as applying excessive strings of words on a page, or showing humans one set of words but showing search engines another set of words, can negatively harm your site.
What else matters?
- Location: If you search for pizza, you’re likely to get results for pizza parlors in your local area.
- Mobile friendliness: This matters for results returned on mobile devices.
- How long your site has been around: Older sites tend to be more trusted than brand-new ones.
- User engagement: This includes whether or not people regularly “favorite” your site and how long they stay on pages they visit.
- Site architecture: This includes the ability of search engines to crawl your site and read all your pages. Also: do not have duplicate pages.
- Overall quality: Quality sites tend to be more trusted and thus highly ranked over low quality sites. (Think of the difference between WebMD.com for medical information, versus an anonymous blog filled with typos.)
These are by no means all the factors that matter. The SEO landscape is more complex than ever. That’s all the more reason you need to stay up to date, or hire an SEO professional to assist you.
For a good outline of the factors that many professionals believe affect search rankings, see the periodic table of SEO Factors. It’s worth exploring.