Last November, SEMrush.com made a splash with a new study alleging that the top four most important ranking factors for SEO had nothing to do with keywords or backlinks and everything to do with user behavior.
Think about that. For years and years, search engine optimizers have focused mostly or exclusively on tweaking keywords or building backlinks. And those things aren’t even in the top four most important ranking factors.
The study involved over 1,500,000 users, 3.6 billion keywords, and 4 trillion backlinks. I find it somewhat amusing that we need to engage in scientific studies to find out things Google could simply tell us, but that’s where we’re at!
So what are the the top four ranking factors?
- Direct website visits
These are visits to your site that were not referred to from another website. Most commonly, these are visitors that enter your website address in directly, are linked from an email or text message, or in some cases come from a location that for whatever reason doesn’t specify a referrer.Having a lot of these indicates to Google that your content is good enough to be shared in a natural way.
- Time on site
This is a measure of how long visitors actually stay on your website. The reasoning goes that if they spend a lot of time there, your content must be very relevant to what they searched. It is also Google’s way of making sure that your content is thorough and not just superficial.
- Pages per session
This is a measure of how many pages a visitor traverses throughout your site when they visit. If this is high, it’s a great indicator that your site is of high-quality. Nobody would waste their time on a site that was terrible.
- Bounce Rate
This metric reveals what percentage of visitors leave your site without ever clicking through to any other page. It is not, as many believe, a measure of how many visitors immediately exit. Nor does a high bounce rate necessarily mean your content is bad or irrelevant. For instance, if you have an article that perfectly answers a question in detail, your visitors may stick around quite a while to read it, and then leave once they have their answer. That’s perfectly normal.But, if your bounce rate is really high, say, on your homepage, you might have a problem.
What do all four factors have in common? They are all part of user behavior. They aren’t part of an arbitrary algorithm. They reflect genuine human interactions with your website.
So what does that mean for you?
It means that first and foremost, you must create content that appeals to actual humans and provides them with tremendous value.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. If you’re throwing together articles in hopes of gaming the system and generating huge amounts of traffic for your site, you’re doing it wrong. Likewise, if you’re trolling the web and spamming links back to your site, you’re doing it wrong.
That’s not to say keyword research and content promotion / backlink generation isn’t still important, because it is. After all, rankings factors 5-8 are all related to backlinks. And keyword research can lead you to what people are actually searching for, and also to better ways to provide useful content that people don’t already have access to. A great SEO strategy will still involve all of those things.
But the most important thing in SEO is to focus on producing quality content that engages users and has clear utility. Anything short of that, and you’re wasting your time.
To view the full results of the study, click here.