Searchmetrics Annual Google Search Ranking Report 2016
With the rise of machine learning and the complete incorporation of all updates into its core algorithm, Google’s ranking factors have become increasingly complex to gauge on an individual basis.
With Google’s most recent advancement of RankBrain as a core part of its algorithm, machine learning has become a keystone in Google’s algorithm to match the most relevant data to search queries. Searchmetrics “Rebooting Ranking Factors” executive summary explains most important ranking factors.
Searchmetrics says universal ranking signals are a thing of the past; throughout 2016, ranking was largely based on content relevance, which is gauged through user signals. Technical factors still served as a prerequisite for rankings, and backlinks no longer serve as a primary means for ranking.
Determining what ranking signals factor are most important is becoming increasingly impossible as hundreds of factors are in constant interplay during any given search request. Ideally, strong content that answers as many user questions as possible, and provides a positive user experience, will be the most promising strategy to rank on the top page .
The 63-page Searchmetrics ranking report throughly discusses Google’s most important ranking factors of 2016. Following are highlights from the report.
Searchmetrics says that Google is placing a greater importance on content relevance due to the growing influence of machine learning into its core algorithm. Keywords are becoming less important as a ranking factor. Simply typing 400 words around a keyword is not going to work. The Searchmetrics authors used a 0-100 content relevance scale to show how landing pages in the top 3-6 positions tended to contain more relevant content for the given search query than those in lower positions.
The exception to the rule were spots 1-2, which mostly displayed content from recognizable brands, calling it the brand exception. It seems that having a higher content relevance score could largely influence how well individual webpages will rank in a search query.
Word count also remained a major factor in 2016 in Google’s rankings. The data showed that more holistic, detailed content of greater than 1000 words ranked higher in search results because they were more readily able to answer user questions. In terms of desktop searches, content in the top 20 results typically contained a third more content and word count than mobile content. Having a higher word count also meant having greater keyword variety, but as the report showed, keywords have become increasingly irrelevant to content relevance in terms of higher rankings. Only 53% of top 20 URLs even mentioned a keyword in their title, and only 40% mentioned them in their H1 tag.
Google harvests user signals from a variety of sources, such as its SERPS, Chrome browser, Google Analytics, etc., to gather user behavior to specific keyword searches. This information helps to determine content relevance to user intent, and remains one of the highest ranking factors for Google. Among the highest user signals Google utilizes is a landing page’s CTR. Among the top three positions in a SERP, the average CTR is about 36%. The report found–again for the second-straight yea–that the CTR for second page results in the top three were higher than first page results at the bottom.
The report interestingly showed that bounce rates had increased for first page results to an average of 46%. One theory behind this is that Google can now match users with direct URLs that are relevant to their search, and no longer require users to dig through domains to find the information they are looking for. The average dwell time (time spent on page before clicking back to SERPS) also had a major impact on its rankings. Websites in the top 10 results had an average dwell time of about 3 minute and 10 seconds.
As stated in the beginning, having a sound technical foundation will allow it to rank highly. Surprisingly, after many SEOs had brushed off H1 and H2 tags as unnecessary due to rise of schema markup, the report showed that websites could actually rank higher if they have an H1 and H2 tag in their HTML. The amount of websites that used an H2 tag actually increased in 2016. HTTPS has also become a crucial technical factor in Google’s rankings as Google has stated that any website not encrypted with the HTTPS protocol will be marked as unsafe in 2017 by its Chrome browser. The data showed that nearly a third of all websites now use the HTTPS protocol.
Google also tend to evaluate websites with the .com Top-Level Domain higher in results. Searchmetrics says 86% of websites in top 10 positions utilize the .com TLD. Also, URLs have increased in characters in top results spots due to the rise of landing pages being matched to specific search queries as opposed to homepages.
Perhaps one of the greatest changes to occur in 2016 was Google’s new mobile first index. The study showed that mobile friendliness has a major impact on increasing search rankings. 100 out of the top 100 domains had a mobile friendly version of their website. Mobile pages in the first results page tended to load one-second faster than their desktop counterparts, and also tended to be a third smaller in size than their desktop counterparts.
Searchmetrics says the number of total internal links across top ranking websites has fallen dramatically since last year. This is mainly due to the rise of mobile friendly pages, which on average have 40% less internal links than desktop pages of the same keyword set. This can also be contributed to the rise of apps and AMPs in organic results.
Pages on mobile sites are more likely to be shared or liked than to be directly linked to. The study showed that follow, nofollow, and .edu back links did not even average over five for a page in positions 2-10 of a SERP. The authors note that it’s important to understand that internal links can be positive for user experience, assisting in navigation and information structures. External links were still viewed as a positive ranking factor for Google, and could provide a competitive advantage if used thoughtfully and coherently. Once the cornerstone of SEO campaigning, it seemed like for another year the use of backlinks has decreased again.
Finding the right balance between interactive elements and font size is crucial in the mobile and desktop divide. Overall videos can bolster content and make it more relevant for users, but the study also showed that just around half of top 10 result webpages contained embedded videos and only 1% contained self-hosted videos. The study says interactive elements on smartphones is down this year, accounting for the lack of screen size.
The top ranked positions tended to have more social signals than all other webpages in the query. Facebook by far contains the highest amount of user interaction. In 2016 social signals from Facebook tended to be consistently high with webpages that occupied the first SERP. Webpages with high Google +, Pinterest, and Twitter activity tended to occupy the top results page, though the total amount of social signals dropped significantly from the top position to the second with, Pinterest being the highest drop.
The Searchmetrics annual Google search trend report showed a lot of trends that have been occurring for quite some time. The most integral factors that affected webpage rankings were due to the rise of Google’s machine learning to assess user searches with the most relevant results. This resulted to the rise of content relevance as a major ranking factor, and led to more holistic and detailed content ranking higher than competitors.
This year saw the fall of keyword usage in meta tags as a major ranking signal as well as the importance of back links. With the rise of the mobile-first world a number of these changes can be accounted for and the rise of social signals and creating a valued mobile user experience will become more important than ever. The main thing the Searchmetrics authors attempt to convey is that search is no longer static, but it’s like water, meaning SEO experts must now be flexible to every individual aspect of their digital marketing strategy if they want to truly create a successful SEO campaign.