Reading articles to keep up with the latest SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) trends each day, very little surprises me. Even if it’s an insightful read, it’s usually the same old information with no clear signals to take action.

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However, I recently received an email containing the SEMrush Ranking Factors Report for 2017 and not only was it insightful, but it made some bold statements that made me reconsider some of my basic SEO knowledge. In the summary, it read “The influence of the on-page SEO factors proved to be insignificant, so their status as major ranking factors can be dismissed.” At first, this made me panic a little - did it mean the grounding I had built in SEO over the past few years was invalid?

Well no, but it’s a clear sign that ranking factors are evolving and we need to make sure we keep up.

Those learning about SEO usually begin with the basics of on-page factors and are taught that to rank on results pages you need to tick certain boxes. Make your meta data relevant, have enough keywords on your page, structure your page using heading tags and make sure any content types used are optimised. Whilst I believe these factors still have their place in optimisation, this study has opened my eyes to a shift in Google’s (and potentially other search engine) choices when it comes to ranking top positions from content to engagement factors. This is not to say we should abandon on-page factors as these common practices give us a good grounding, but instead we must strengthen engagement factors on these basics that have been ticked off.

With tools such as Google Analytics we can access data on user behaviour and engagement with our sites very easily so it makes sense for search engines to place more importance on this. By placing sites that have been proven to engage users in the number one position on search results helps Google to do its job well. It is in Google’s interest to elevate these sites, as good engagement implys a user’s questions has been answered and they are not returning to the results page to click on another site.

Although Google has not officially confirmed the weight of user behaviour signals, there are a few things we can monitor to ensure we are ready if they do:

  • User behaviour – how a user behaves on a site reflects how engaged they are and can give us key insight into a website’s success in fulfilling the goal of a user. The study suggests bounce rates on landing pages, a user’s session duration and the number of pages they visit during this time were significantly better for the sites placed higher up the Google results page.
  • Website visits – excluding organic traffic from search engines, those in the top positions had significantly more visits suggesting that building awareness of your brand off search engines can still positively affect rankings. Monitoring traffic by channel grouping will highlights areas of opportunity to increase traffic outside of search engines.
  • Referring domains – we already know that Google rewards sites that have a high number of relevant quality referring domains, but this factor now seems to be taking more prominence above on-page factors. By using a tool such as SEMrush to monitor the number of unique domains referring to your site, you can track those of a higher quality and find opportunities to gain more.

Overall this report is a clear signal that SEO ranking factors are moving away from on-page factors, placing more weighting towards those people visiting sites and how they interact with it. This shift towards user experience affecting rankings will offer people better results, forcing those involved in website planning who have not considered user experience from the start to make changes.

Although SEO is evolving constantly, I believe this is an exciting time for organic search as results keep improving, something that is important when we are demanding more than ever from search engines.