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SEO Doesn’t Have To Be A Shot In The Dark

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To many startups, search engine optimization (SEO) is a task that sits on their company’s back burner.

With features to launch and customers to support, the idea of spending time fiddling with your title tags can seem like a fool’s errand. That’s especially true when there’s no guarantee that your hard work will result in a single additional visitor from Google. That’s one of the reasons that a recent study ranked SEO as the third most important marketing priority for startups (behind social media and content marketing).

Why do startups tend to shy away from SEO? From working with dozens of startups, I’ve found that founders hate the uncertainty that comes from SEO. Indeed, success with SEO can seem like throwing two dice and hoping you roll double sevens.

Yes, there’s an element of uncertainty with SEO (after all, Google doesn’t publicly reveal the factors they use to rank websites). But according to a new ranking-factor study, SEO doesn’t have to be a shot in the dark. In fact, you can prioritize your SEO tasks based on what’s likely to give you the most bang for your buck.

Backlinks, content and page speed are key 

Backlinko recently teamed up with a handful of SEO software companies to evaluate the factors that are most important for success with SEO today. To do this, they analyzed one million Google search results.

Of the 20 potential ranking factors they looked at, five were revealed to be especially important. I’m going to deep-dive into these five important ranking factors, and show you how you can apply them to squeeze more juice out of your SEO efforts.

Content is king?

The study found that the most important ranking factor was number of different websites linking to your page.

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This ranking factor is as old as Google itself.

Despite the fact that so-called “black hat SEOs” manipulate Google with phony links, it appears that this ranking factor remains an integral part of what makes Google tick.

This shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Google’s reliance on backlinks has taken it from two guys in a garage near Stanford to one of the most valuable companies on the planet. And today, Google’s worldwide search market share remains relatively stable. This makes it unlikely Google will completely remove backlinks from their algorithm. This data suggests that, at least for today, backlinks are still heavily relied upon by Big G.

You can prioritize your SEO tasks based on what’s likely to give you the most bang for your buck.

Another interesting wrinkle is that this finding flies in the face of what many SEO consultants recommend: Many SEO agencies preach a “quality over quantity” approach to link building.

While there’s no question certain backlinks provide more benefit than others (for example, a link from TechCrunch is significantly more powerful than a link from your average mommy blog), this study suggests that backlink quantity is also important.

This is an important lesson for founders and startup marketers to learn. As someone who does PR consulting for startups, I notice that many founders shoot for the moon with their link and PR aspirations. In other words, to many founders, it’s “CNN.com or bust.” This new data suggests that this approach may be a mistake. In fact, one of the chief reasons I took Polar to 40+ million pageviews is that I wasn’t overly picky about which sites we got mentions and links from.

If a site looked legit and wanted to cover us, I said, “Let’s do it.” That’s part of the reason I’ve landed 1,300 mentions over the last few years.

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As you can see, a  lot of these mentions were on major news sites. But the funny thing is that a good chunk of these major mentions came as a result of a smaller blog or niche news site writing about us. In fact, this is the exact strategy that Ryan Holiday recommends in his PR classic “Trust Me, I’m Lying.”

Not only are mentions from smaller sites beneficial for startups’ PR, but they can significantly boost your Google rankings, as well.

Slow loading site = SEO death

Backlinko’s new study also found a strong tie between site speed and Google rankings. Using site-loading-speed data from Alexa, they discovered that fast-loading websites significantly outperformed slow sites.

This finding shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who follows SEO. Google has come out and said they use site speed as a “signal in our search ranking algorithms.” Because users hate slow-loading websites, Google doesn’t want to show them to their users.

Fortunately, taking your site from “tortoise” to “hare” is relatively simple. If you happen to use WordPress, there are no shortage of plug-ins that can boost your site’s loading time. Even if you don’t use WordPress, a few quick steps can typically move the needle for most websites:

  • Upgrade your hosting: Cheap $5/month hosting plans like Bluehost aren’t bad, but their servers aren’t typically optimized for speed.
  • Cut image file sizes: For most websites, images are the No. 1 factor that slow down a page. You can usually compress them or reduce their size without sacrificing much in the way of quality.
  • Hire a coder: If you’re not a coder, hiring a pro to analyze your code with an eye on site speed can be a game changer. Most sites have at least some code bloat that can be easily cleaned up.

Long-form content wins the day

Backlinko also found that, when it comes to SEO, content may not be king, but it’s certainly queen. Specifically, their data revealed that long-form content tended to rank above shorter content.

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According to their analysis, the average article on Google’s first page boasts 1,890 words.

Does this mean that Google has an inherent preference for long content? Maybe. The study authors pointed out that this finding was simply a correlation, and they couldn’t say for sure. But they hypothesized that Google would want to show their users through content that fully answers their query. In other words, long-form content.

However, it may be that longer content generates more shares (in the form of tweets, Facebook likes and backlinks). In fact, BuzzSumo found that longer content tended to generate more social shares.

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Considering that shares can lead to higher rankings, long-form content may simply outperform short content in the share department, leading to higher Google rankings.

If you haven’t attempted to publish long-form content because you feel your audience doesn’t have the attention span for it, this finding may give you the impetus to at least give it a shot.

Adding focus to your content may improve rankings

Additionally, the study found that focused content outperformed content that attempted to cover several different topics. Using software called MarketMuse, each article in their database was scored for “topical authority.” A high score represents an article that covered a topic in-depth. A low score indicates that the article skimmed the surface of a given topic.

The authors guessed that Google would prefer comprehensive content. This is because of a fundamental shift in the way Google indexes content. In the last few years, Google has moved away from simply looking at the words on your page to actually understanding what your page is about. This is known as semantic search.

For example, before semantic search, if you Googled “who is the CEO of Starbucks”, Google would look for pages that contained the exact term “who is the CEO of Starbucks” on the page. And they would present 10 links to those pages.

Today, they know the actual answer, and present it to you.

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It turns out that Google may prefer in-depth content, as it gives them a deeper understanding of your content. This study found that content rated as having high topical authority ranked above content with a poor rating.

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The old writing adage “go an inch wide and a mile deep” may also now apply to SEO, as well.

Bounces aren’t just hurting conversions

This research also found a correlation between a low bounce rate and poor rankings in Google.

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According to the study, Google may use bounce rate as a proxy measure of content quality. If someone searches for a keyword, clicks on your page and quickly leaves, it sends a message to Google that your page isn’t a good fit for that keyword.

On the other hand, if you stay on the site and browse through several different pages, it implies that that person had a great experience and enjoyed reading your content. That may push Google to show your page to more people.

While this finding is interesting, there are a few important caveats I should point out.

First, this study didn’t analyze the bounce rate of the specific page in Google. Instead, they looked at the site’s average site-wide bounce rate. This means that there may be pages on a site with a high bounce rate, even though the site’s average bounce rate may be stellar.

Also, being a correlation study, it’s impossible to say whether Google directly measures or uses bounce rate as a ranking signal. A high bounce rate may simply reflect content that isn’t very good.

Regardless, reducing your bounce rate certainly won’t result in lower rankings — and it can boost conversions, as well.

Featured Image: darkday/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE