Since the dawn of search, SEO has always been a moving target. What works powerfully one year can result in a penalty the next. And as new technology and web trends emerge — like social media, smartphones, etc. — more variables and signals enter the fray. Google has kept frustratingly mum when it comes to explaining what exactly goes into their search ranking algorithms, and SEOs often feel left in the dark.
Google has consistently stated that more than 200 critical ranking signals contribute to their page results. These ranking signals in turn have nearly 10,000 sub-signals and variations. That’s a lot for an SEO to think about.
Now Google has revealed the three most critical ranking factors to their algorithms. Last October, Google confirmed that RankBrain, their new machine learning AI, was the third most important ranking factor. But they stayed quiet on two of the most important factors — until now.
Last month during a Google Q&A, Search Quality Senior Strategist Andrey Lipattsev confirmed those two factors:
“I can tell you what they are. It is content. And it’s links pointing to your site.”
Obviously, this isn’t the most earth-shattering revelation, though it’s the most candid Google has been on this topic in a long time. It’s nice to have a succinct bow tied around the mystery of Google’s algorithms; but content, links, and RankBrain are made up of many sub-factors themselves. Now, at least, we know where to primarily focus our efforts.
While we know our focus as SEOs should be writing compelling content and earning strong backlinks, this doesn’t mean technical specifications should be ignored. Maintaining a fast-loading, mobile-friendly site with clean code — along with a robots.txt file and XML sitemap — are absolutely critical. But without relevant and knowledgeable content that serves to enrich a targeted audience, these elements mean nothing.
A little more on RankBrain
RankBrain emerged in October 2015 as one of Google Hummingbird’s key algorithmic factors. It’s Google’s machine learning AI that helps refine search results and deem the most relevant pages for increasingly conversational queries.
RankBrain helps Google deal with unknown or unclear queries and understand how words and concepts relate to one another, like finding patterns among keywords, phrases, and topics.
Ultimately, RankBrain appears to be a move toward conversational search on mobile, with searchers using their voice rather than their keypad.
How to optimize content for RankBrain
RankBrain’s sole purpose is to improve the user experience of Google’s search engine results by serving the best and most relevant results to any and all queries. RankBrain doesn’t add any new ranking signals, but weighs current signals more intuitively. So if you’re already writing compelling content that’s highly valuable to your audience, keep doing what you’re doing.
As RankBrain understands pattern matching in keywords and topics, keyword inclusion, placement, and frequency aren’t as vital as they used to be. Dying are the days of identifying one head term and a few supporting terms, then optimizing your content for those keywords alone.
With RankBrain and pattern matching, a piece of content can rank prominently for a query even if the keywords aren’t included at all in the content copy.
How should I produce my content?
The simple-to-answer yet difficult-to-execute solution is to write content that’s as thorough and as useful to your audience as possible. Find a topic in your niche that’s underrepresented in search and exhaust that topic. Be as thorough and specific as possible. Highly specific content draws a more sophisticated audience ready to convert, buy your product, etc.
Make content as evergreen as possible. Certainly writing about recent trends, news, social happenings, etc., can lend to a temporary increase in traffic. But you’ll get more traction out of your content if it can maintain a long shelf life and be as useful in a year as it is today.
How do I get links?
Links have long been the lifeblood of SEO, and obtaining them is often the most difficult part of a strategist’s life. But at the end of the day, if you write it and share it, they will come.
Earning links is similar to building relationships. First you have to offer content that helps people solve problems, answers questions, provides insight, or is entertaining. Then you have to find likeminded people willing to disseminate this content. The best way to do this is target key influencers in your vertical or niche and engage them. The best way to do this, of course, is using social media.
Find the key influencers for your industry or within the industry on the social platforms best suited for your client or campaign. This will typically be Twitter or LinkedIn. Actively engage them, share their content and thoughts, and reach out to them with opportunities to cross-promote content.
While your ultimate goal is to build links, your primary goal should be to build relationships. This will, in turn, provide you the best links.
There you have it: what you probably already knew but Google was too afraid to tell you. The key to SEO has always been and will always be content and links. So get writing and get building.