Social Media, Backlinks and Classic SEO: U.S. and UK SEO Ranking Factors 2012

June 7th, 2012 | Analysis 63 comments

The biggest unknown in SEO is always the algorithm. Many myths and rumors surround the “what” and “how” of Google results. Although SEO experts won’t be able to know the specific algorithm used, by examining the data you can figure out how best to influence results.

At Searchmetrics, we continually aggregate billions of data points a month and naturally look for the answer to the question: “Which factors are relevant for a good ranking in Google search results?” With this study, from February and March 2012 data, we get closer to the answer based on an analysis of 10,000 selected top-keywords, 300,000 websites and millions of links, shares and tweets. This analysis compares potential ranking factors and thus website characteristics with corresponding Google rankings in both the UK and the U.S. by assessing their statistical correlation. For example, if there are many pages in the top positions of analyzed SERPs with keyword title tags, then we have identified a high correlation.

The data shows that all of the factors that have a positive effect on SEO in the U.K. also have a positive effect on SEO in the U.S. although to different degrees and perhaps in a different order of importance from other variables. Likewise, the same factors that have a negative impact in one country have a negative impact in another. We will explain the strong shared trend, surprising results and differences between the two regions.

A few highlights from our analysis

  • Social media signals show extremely high correlation: social signals from Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are frequently
    associated with good rankings in Google’s index. This is interesting in particular for the UK, which
    hasn’t had such a strong correlation with social signals up to this point.
  •  Too much advertising is detrimental: for the first time we are seeing sites with too many advertisements struggling to rank well. However, the problem correlates only to AdSense adblockers.
  • Backlinks are still important but quantity is not the only important thing: even though the number of backlinks is still the most powerful factor, links with stop words and ‘nofollow’ should also be included in the link-mix.
  • Brands leverage classic SEO signals: apparently pages with strong brands do not need be as concerned with the areas of title tags, headings etc. According to our figures, this group operates under different rules.
  • Keyword domains still frequently attract top results: despite all the rumors to the contrary, keyword domains are still alive and well and are often in the top rankings.

Please see our U.S. and UK Whitepaper for more details.

Factor Overview

The clearest way to present the correlations between different factors and Google search results is Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient.

 

The larger the bar, the greater the correlation. The correlation coefficient is displayed on the x-axis.  Greater values along the x-axis (e.g. Facebook Shares) have a positive correlation (the more, the better) while lower values (e.g. Keyword position in title) have a negative correlation. Therefore, we can say that the largest correlation occurs between Facebook Shares and the lowest between the “number of words in text” for the U.S. and “keyword position in title (words)”.

Between the UK and U.S. some strong differences appear, specifically in the order of a factor’s importance. For instance, the number of words in the text has a large negative correlation in the U.S. and has less than half the correlation in the UK. This may be due to the fact that more highly ranked sites in the U.S. have less text-rich sites then do their counterparts in the UK.

Data collection

Data for this study was collected in February and March 2012. In the results, you can see the effects of various Panda Updates, which have significantly changed the look of results since the start of 2011.

One impact over time is that, for the UK, social signals have jumped in importance this year, almost having the same impact on search as they do in the U.S.

Social signals are as strong as ever

Facebook and Twitter signals correlate as follows with higher rankings in the U.S. and the UK:

U.S. Data:

UK Data:

In the case of social measures, the U.S. and the UK are in lock step in terms of importance of various factors. ‘Shares’ appear to have the strongest association, followed directly by the number of backlinks in the overall summary. Twitter is far behind these values but is still the 6th strongest metric in our analysis behind Facebook and the number of backlinks. A note on Google+: analyzing Google +1s with a Spearman correlation, we found a significant result of 0.41. From this we can assume that the quantity of +1s has the strongest correlation of any of the metrics analyzed in the study.

Advertisements might be an obstacle

Too many and/or excessively clumsy advertisements were presumed to be a factor in the Panda Update and its successors. The data in this study support this assumption as all our analyzed advertisement factors returned a negative correlation. The negative correlation was slightly stronger in the UK (-0.05 vs -0.04 for the U.S.).

General AdLinks (common integrations e.g. Commission Junction, AdSense and others) are slightly less negative than the use of AdSense alone. However it is important to note that the correlation value above is for AdLinks for all integrations including AdSense. If we take the % trend for AdSense integration and all other analyzed competitor networks according to rankings, we arrive at a surprising conclusion:

U.S. Data:

UK Data:

We can clearly see that AdSense advertisements drop sharply among the top rankings. However, all other forms of advertisement that we analyzed have in fact remained consistent. The bottom line is, then, that only AdSense has a negative correlation.

Backlinks are still SEO gold – but standards are rising

Regardless of the rising power of social media, backlinks remain one of the most critical factors in achieving good rankings.

The correlation data supports this – following Facebook metrics, the number of backlinks is the factor that most strongly correlates with good rankings.  Moreover, there still appear to be other quality factors at play when dealing with backlinks:

U.S.  Data:

UK Data:

These figures indicate that the proportion of nofollow links correlates more strongly with rankings than the proportion of links containing keywords in the U.S., but there is almost no difference between the two in the UK. Even the proportion of links containing a stop word can have an effect. This strong correlation for factors that seem to suggest a more natural link structure illustrates a trend suspected by many SEOs, that dull, perfectly keyword-optimized links are often no longer effective and that another strategy is necessary.

Brand power endures

For a while now, the rule among SEOs has been that brands enjoy a ranking advantage and that its particularly worthwhile if you can establish yourself as this type of brand. However, the ‘brand’ factor is difficult to establish in large-scale data analyses. In the end, it is nearly impossible to ascertain the thematic criteria for a brand without access to a search engine’s algorithm. However, it’s not entirely impossible.

For a few of our analyzed on-page criteria, the effect of brand-power is obvious and even seems to turn the ‘conventional’ SEO logic on its head. This is noticeable with the following elements, all of which (surprisingly) feature a negative correlation:

U.S.  Data:

 

UK Data:

The core message of this graph is that the less often a keyword appears in the headline or title and the fewer the words in the text, the better a page will rank. In addition, text quantity has negative effects in both countries. This is quite surprising at first. However, if you look at the precise trend of these metrics for the top 30 places up until right before the top result, the factors follow this correlation. However, in first place, the natural niche for brands, the factors do not apply as much.

“For many sites owned by brands, such as sony.com and nike.com, the ‘conventional’ SEO logic is turned on its head,” explains Marcus Tober, CTO and founder, Searchmetrics. “When we looked at sites that are in the top position on page one of Google – the natural position occupied by brands – they tend to have less text on the page, particularly in the U.S., and fewer keywords in headlines and titles.” Once the top sites are netted out, these factors have a fairly neutral or, in the case of quantity of text, only slightly negative effect.

Keyword domains & URL keywords

The power of keyword domains has been known for years and is still clearly visible in our analysis:

U.S. and UK Markets in Lockstep:

Keyword domains correlate much better with high rankings than results from just any random start page. The correlation with keyword domains is also significantly higher than the correlations for keywords in the rest of the URL title. Although Google has repeatedly emphasized that these sites will slowly weaken in power, this does not yet seem to be the case.

Additional on-page factors

We have tried to examine as many factors as possible for their potential impact, at least as far as is possible with such a large sample base. Besides the factors than have been summarized in the main points above, there are still a number of other identified factors that differ little from the expected results or not at all.
Of these the following on-page factors can be included:

U.S.  Data:

UK Data:

Although you might think that pages with a lot of multimedia content would tend to rank better (possibly also indirectly through better user signals e.g. social media links), there was only a slight positive correlation for both U.S. and UK markets in our analysis between rankings and sites with more images (where all images except placeholders were counted).

Just as unexpected is the negative correlation between rankings and text length in the U.S. (In our UK analysis, quantity of words has little effect.) Title length and keyword title position (according to character and word) featured slightly negative correlations. This corresponds with the experience that keywords placed earlier   tend to be more strongly weighted and individual keywords have less weight in longer titles.

Be careful about drawing conclusions: correlation ≠ causation!

We would like to emphasize that this does not in any way guarantee that corresponding factors have an effect on rankings or that they are even used by Google as signals. Questions like “does a site receive social signals because it ranks well or does it rank well because it receives social signals?” are absolutely valid and cannot be answered unequivocally with the current data.

Some information regarding our data

For the U.S. dataset we selected an extremely large keyword set of 10,000 search terms from Google.com U.S. However, we did not just include the top 10,000 search terms according to search volume, since they contain a disproportionately high number of brand keywords, which might have distorted the assessment of many other key factors. Instead our reference dataset includes:

  • A mix of different keywords with, if not the largest, then at least generally high search volumes,
  • Around 1 in 10 are keywords that were identified as navigation-oriented according to our logic,
  • The rest are a mix of keywords from a variety of CPC areas to best cover transactional (higher CPC) and information oriented (lower CPC) searches as well as the hybrids in between.
  • The assessment was limited to organic searches – AdWords, Universal Search OneBoxes, 2 to 7 packs, sitelinks, iGoogle integrations etc. were not included.
  • The analysis’ 10,000 analyzed keywords lead to 30,000 SERPs with 300,000 titles, descriptions and URLs.
  • The ranking sites’ content included 14.68 GB in data, 92,672 AdSense blockers, 338,562,612 Facebook comments, 3.04 billion shares and 8.1 billion likes

For the UK dataset: For our dataset we selected an extremely large keyword set of 10,000 search terms from Google UK. However, we did not just include the top 10,000 search terms according to search volume, since they contain a disproportionately high number of brand keywords which might have distorted the assessment of many other key factors. Instead our reference dataset includes:

  •  A mix of different keywords with, if not the largest, then at least generally high search volumes,
  • around 1 in 10 are keywords that were identified as navigation-oriented according to our logic,
  • the rest are a mix of keywords from a variety of CPC areas to best cover transactional (higher CPC) and information oriented (lower CPC) searches as well as the hybrids in between.
  • The assessment was limited to organic searches – AdWords, Universal Search OneBoxes, 2 to 7 packs, sitelinks, iGoogle integrations etc. were not included.
  • The analysis’ 10,000 analyzed keywords lead to 30,000 SERPs  with 300,000 titles, descriptions and URLs.
  • The ranking sites’ content included 14.68 GB in data, 97,884 AdSense blockers, 248,603,582 Facebook comments, 2.0 billion shares and 7.0 billion likes

Download our free Whitepapers now!

Dies ist nur ein Gravatar

Who’s writing this stuff? My name is Marcus Tober and I’m the founder of Searchmetrics. Because we really love to analyze every kind of online data, we can give you more insights than any other company in SEO, SEM and Social Media. It’s not a job, it’s passion. You can find me also on Google+ .
Show all articles from .

Comments (31)

Comments (63)

  1. 2012/06/11

    Informative Post. But a Googler said said that the company will analyze plus one clicks “as a signal that influences the ranking and appearance of websites in search results”. I have seen more results from Google plus and twitter but nor from Facebook for first few pages for my search query reg. whatever.

  2. 2012/06/12

    Interesting analysis that is for sure, Will be interesting too see if social signals will even be more of an important factor in the years to come, I mean with Google+ elements coming into play in a bigger way?

  3. 2012/06/19

    The most valuable backlinks are ones that you get without having to ask or pay for. I’m referring to natural links, of course. Natural links are an indicator of great content. It means that people are linking to you because they find something of value on your website.

  4. 2012/06/25

    Great information – thanks for sharing! Can you clarify what the “Facebook total” includes or refes to?
    Thanks!

  5. 2012/07/03

    Steve is right, but of course when the competition are hard at work creating backlinks, you have to do the same. I would say though that manual link building and placing links only where they are likely to be used (i.e. useful to the audience) is a mid ground.

    Like Brent, it would be good to know what ‘Facebook Total’ includes (likes and shares?)

    thanks for sharing though. this is great info..

  6. 2012/07/03

    Social signals have already played a big factor with many of our clients with Google+ and Twitter making the biggest impact so far. But as Steve mentioned, the real value comes with quality sites linking to you naturally because of the quality your site provides its users.

  7. 2012/07/08

    Social signals now seems to rule the ranking on SERP. All the top 6 factors (Facebook shares, No. of backlinks, Facebook total, Facebook comments, Facebook likes, Tweets) relate to socialization. Backlinks can also be considered as social contacts of a website.

  8. 2012/07/11

    well done guys . Great insight. Increasing evidence on social signals is always interesting to see. For me the role of what technology plans in this sector is becoming increasing important and scaled research projects like this really showcase just how much valuable data we have at our finger tips in this fascinating industry.

  9. 2012/07/19

    Wonderful analysis, very informative. I believe that in the future eventually many results will be personalised, especially for competitive industries, hence social signals in ranking factors are not surprising.

  10. 2012/07/22

    This amazing stuff and vital for any serious IM. It doesn’t say much for all time spent creating good on page SEO.

    Social signals are definitely the way to go, for now.

  11. 2012/07/24

    Thanks for this good information ..

  12. 2012/07/25

    thank you very much for this valuable info.

    Regards

  13. 2012/07/27

    Great breakdown, very interesting information. I have to agree with the majority and say I have a hard time not seeing social signals becoming even more of a dominate factor. Thanks for the article.

  14. 2012/07/28

    that is good news

  15. 2012/07/28

    frst time i come here

  16. 2012/07/28

    thanks guy’s

  17. 2012/07/28

    news arabic

  18. 2012/07/30

    Hi ,my opinion is that a corelation is sometimes just a corelation.
    It is not always because of A , then B happens, it can be that A and B happens at the same time, but because the reason C.

    So , there is a corelation between social signals and rankings, not means that social data is a ranking factor. Because in your study, at the first eye, it seems the most important factor is social data. it is not convincable, yeah.

    And how you counts the social shares for a certain website?
    could you share with more details.
    And the backlinks are checked by what tool?

  19. 2012/08/01

    As the last paragraph says, I think it is important to remember that correlation doesn’t equal causation. There’s probably a few different possibilities, all of which may be true to some extent:
    1. The factors listed above cause better search engine rankings
    2. High-quality pages cause both better search engine rankings and the factors above
    3. The statistics above are skewed by some larger sites that do well in search engine rankings (e.g. Wikipedia) that have a bunch of images, no ads, non-optimized titles, etc.
    4. Possibly something I didn’t think of…

    It would be interesting if future studies were done to try to figure out to what extent each of the above possibilities were in fact the case.

  20. 2012/08/11

    Hi,
    I cannot agree more on how much the standard of backlinks have gone up in order for them to have any positive affect on Google serps after its recent algorithm updates. It is inevitable that search engines are in fact getting smarter.

  21. 2012/08/12

    wow.. Outstanding article. I haven’t seen before a graphic of importance of social backlinks. Well, too many interesting things about ranking factors especially the negative factors.. Humm, have to bookmark this article – too complex to understand it from the 1st go :)

    thank you far sharing,
    Helmuts
    Media Tower Limited

  22. 2012/08/23

    This was very interesting to learn.. I am a bit suprised that social signals are the biggest ranking factor..

  23. 2012/08/24

    I tried and tested this before and found that Google +1′s has the biggest effect on rankings compared to other social sites. I chose a page on my site that had no backlinks and didn’t rank. Then generated over 200 +1′s which helped my page rank 48th without the need of link building.

  24. 2012/08/30

    I am very surprised of a negative correlation Kw in title tag. That is very odd.

  25. 2012/09/06

    When were these data sets acquired? Was the data collected prior to the April updates?

    If even only some of the data was collected prior to the Panda and Penguin updates early this year then the conclusions made from the study may no longer be applicable.

    Although Google, and Matt Cutts, suggested that less than 3% of searches would be affected by those updates anyone in the SEO industry is well aware that the impact was huge across the board.

    In many of my niches I am seeing inferior, low quality websites and mediocre sites with sneaky redirects and zero backlinks holding on to prime positions in the SERPs.

  26. 2012/10/03

    Keeping a website compliant with algorithm changes seem to be more fluid everyday. What occupied a small amount of time in the past is becoming a full time job.

    Many thanks for the article.

  27. 2012/11/29

    I’ve tried this with my own site and I’ve found that Google +1′s seems to have the biggest effects for each post depending on what the keyword is and how competitive.

  28. 2012/12/02

    Thanks!

    Are there all types of site (news, blog, shops…)?
    “10,000 selected top-keyword” .. sites

  29. 2012/12/04

    This is a fascinating report on how Google is using Social Metrics more and more to determine rankings. Google has been moving away from factors that users can “change over-night” and has moved to factors that cannot be easily manipulated (distribution of links and quality social signals). As they perfect their system we will continue to see these play a greater role in rankings. Thank you for taking the time to compile this information.

  30. 2013/02/14

    Please do more because I really enjoyed reading your article on Social Media, Backlinks
    and Classic SEO: U.S. and UK SEO Ranking Factors 2012

  31. 2013/05/20

    Interesting research, it is good too see that the number of backlinks does still have a good correlation to ranking, but further to that thank you for sharing the social media sharing data some very interesting stuff in that area.

Trackbacks (32)

Comments (63)

  1. 2012/06/08

    [...] study examined the results for 300,000 Web sites and 10,000 keywords to determine the relationships that [...]

  2. 2012/06/08

    [...] Searchmetrics just released a study today on SEO coming to the conclusion that Keyword Domain names still attract top results and that Social Media and Backlinks are very important in SEO results. [...]

  3. 2012/06/14

    [...] Social Media, Backlinks and Classic SEO: U.S. and UK SEO … [...]

  4. 2012/06/14

    [...] and sharing your content.  It’s not just me spouting this out either.  Here’s a graph from Search Metrics recent study of online ranking factors in the UK.As Search Metrics are keen to point out, [...]

  5. 2012/06/14

    [...] my friends over at Search Metrics put out an interesting study that looked at some ranking factors and came to the conclusion (as have others) that social activity correlates well with Google [...]

  6. 2012/06/15

    [...] my friends over at Search Metrics put out an interesting study that looked at some ranking factors and came to the conclusion (as have others) that social activity correlates well with Google [...]

  7. 2012/06/16

    [...] my friends over at Search Metrics put out an interesting study that looked at some ranking factors and came to the conclusion (as have others) that social activity correlates well with Google [...]

  8. 2012/06/21

    [...] my friends over at Searchmetrics put out an interesting study that… and came to the conclusion (as have others) that [...]

  9. 2012/06/21

    [...] and languages,” said Marcus Tober, CTO of Searchmetrics. “Our recent comprehensive survey of Google in five different countries across 10,000 keywords revealed that there are subtle and [...]

  10. 2012/06/22

    [...] Vous trouverez l’étude complète sur le site de Searchmetrics. [...]

  11. 2012/06/26

    [...] The study, completed in February and March of 2012, consisted of analysis of “10,000 selected top-keywords, 300,000 websites and millions of links, shares and tweets”. The results were shared as correlation coefficients. The 5 factors that had the greatest positive correlation coefficient to search results were: [...]

  12. 2012/06/28

    [...] Social media signals from Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are frequently associated with good rankings in Google’s index (SearchMetrics.com). [...]

  13. 2012/07/04

    How much does Facebook and Twitter affect a site’s SEO rankings?…

    Google uses more than 200 search ranking signals as a part of the search algorithm. Social media is one of them so it’s hard to predict how much does social media affect a site’s SEO Rankings but following image should help you understand much better a…

  14. 2012/07/04

    [...] – a Searchmetrics revelou um estudo dos Fatores de Ranking no Google para Estados Unidos e Reino Unido e podemos verificar a importância das Mídias Sociais, [...]

  15. 2012/07/05

    [...] – a Searchmetrics revelou um estudo dos Fatores de Ranking no Google para Estados Unidos e Reino Unido e podemos verificar a importância das Mídias Sociais, [...]

  16. 2012/07/09

    [...] you need to keep in mind is Blog readership is more important than SEO. Specially, in 2012 when Social media signals and other factors are taking control of site ranking, creating a user oriented Website or blog will [...]

  17. 2012/07/09

    [...] you still don’t believe it, you should check out the latest article on Searchmetrics blog. They fiddle with billions of data and this time, they were searching for the most important [...]

  18. 2012/07/13

    [...] Ranking faktorer for 2012 [...]

  19. 2012/07/16

    [...] Social Media, Backlinks and Classic SEO: U.S. and UK SEO Ranking Factors 2012 @ blog.searchmetrics.com: [Facebook] ‘Shares’ appear to have the strongest association, [...]

  20. 2012/07/20

    [...] – a Searchmetrics revelou um estudo dos Fatores de Ranking no Google para Estados Unidos e Reino Unido e podemos verificar a importância das Mídias Sociais, [...]

  21. 2012/07/27

    [...] my friends over at Searchmetrics put out an interesting study that looked at some ranking factors and came to the conclusion (as have others) that social activity correlates well with Google [...]

  22. 2012/08/06

    [...] – a Searchmetrics revelou um estudo dos Fatores de Ranking no Google para Estados Unidos e Reino Unido e podemos verificar a importância das Mídias Sociais, [...]

  23. 2012/09/13

    [...] Keyword-Domains werden nach wie vor bevorzugt! Die Spitzenposition bestätigt die Analyse von Searchmetrics vom 7. Juni dieses Jahres, derzufolge Keyword-Domains noch lange nicht tot [...]

  24. 2012/12/14

    [...] Research from Search Metrics told us that the higher the number of Facebook and Twitter shares a piece of content receives, the [...]

  25. 2012/12/21

    [...] rankings? Yes there is considerable talk of social signals, but frankly social signals only talk of correlation with higher search rankings and do not establish a clear cause and effect [...]

  26. 2013/01/14

    [...] Source: blog.searchmetrics.com [...]

  27. 2013/04/05

    [...] chart on the left was derived from research conducted by Searchmetrics. What the data shows is how heavily social signals (data from activity on social media channels) [...]

  28. 2013/04/15

    [...] a Searchmetrics revelou um estudo dos Fatores de Ranking no Google para Estados Unidos e Reino Unido e podemos verificar a importância das Mídias Sociais, [...]

  29. 2013/04/16

    [...] few studies have attempted to look at the effects of social sharing on rankings (examples: 1, 2). Though, in my opinion the studies should be taken with a very large grain of salt, the [...]

  30. 2013/04/24

    [...] few studies have attempted to look at the effects of social sharing on rankings (examples: 1, 2). Though, in my opinion the studies should be taken with a very large grain of salt, the [...]

  31. 2013/12/04

    [...] directly tying social media participation to traditional marketing metrics, there has been some compelling research that shows a high correlation between a lot of social media buzz and your Search Engine Results [...]

Write a comment