Correlation vs. causality and the Ranking Factors infographic

September 11th, 2015 | About us 16 comments

This year we introduced a brave new type of infographic in our annual Ranking Factors Study. We are really pleased about all the positive feedback we received for the deck of cards design. Nevertheless, many friends of Searchmetrics have expressed difficulty in correctly interpreting it. Hence this post. Let us briefly delve into the curious, sometimes spurious world of correlations. And, for the read-to the-bottom readers, there is a little surprise at the end.

Ranking Factors Correlation

Instead of the familiar correlation bar chart, ordered by correlation values, this year we have chosen a different format. Instead of by correlation, we have ordered and grouped the ranking factors by overall importance for Google rankings.

Download Ranking Factors Study

What is correlation?

A correlation is a relationship between two variables (in our case ranking factors) and can be expressed as a value. In general, values range from 0 (no correlation) to 1 (strong correlation). However, correlations can also be negative (-1).

Correlation-vs-causationExample: in summer ice cream consumption increases. Compared with other times of year, the ratio of people with sun burn in summer is also higher. Both increases occur at the same time and occur less often at similar times (e.g. winter). We could say that these factors correlate with one another (in this case temporally). Often, however, strong correlation of this kind is misinterpreted as a causal relationship.

So does eating an ice cream lead to sun burn? No, of course not. It is only the degree of temporal similarity that correlates highly between the factors ice cream consumption and sun burn. However, this does not mean that there is a causal relationship. Instead this is an example of a spurious relationship.

Examples of spurious relationships

The following amusing examples will illustrate what is meant by spurious relationships (we took them from here). In each case, we look at two variables over time that exhibit a high level of similarity in their respective values, meaning they correlate highly.

© tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations

© tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations

Above, per capita cheese consumption correlates highly with the number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets. The correlation of 0.95 is extremely high. But is there really a relationship between cheese and bedsheet deaths? Hardly.

Another example? Sure thing:

© tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations

© tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations

Here is the relationship between the number of people who drowned by falling into a pool and the number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in per year. The correlation is very high at 0.67. Does this mean that more Nicolas Cage films lead to more people drowning in pools? Nope. And does this have anything to do with Nicolas Cage’s prowess as an actor? We couldn’t possibly comment.

Ranking Factors: Correlation vs. importance

This problem of false conclusions and spurious relationships is something we want to avoid in our study. We interpret the correlation of ranking factors as ranking correlation coefficients and attempt to interpret and evaluate their significance by analyzing the corresponding averages and values.

More on this here: What is a Ranking Factor?

Nevertheless the infographic from previous years has been interpreted as if bar length were equivalent to importance – not true. I.e. because correlation of social signals is very high, likes & shares were interpreted to be correspondingly important for a top Google search result ranking – not necessarily true.

Social: Facebook total - Searchmetrics Ranking Factors 2015

The range of the Spearman correlation which we use is -1 to +1. A correlation of 0.28 as here in the Facebook likes & shares is comparatively high, however, this is not directly related with the importance of this ranking factor. Instead this high correlation “only” means that the differences between the analyzed pages with respect to this variable are high, i.e. on average pages that rank higher have more social signals.

Problem: False interpretation of correlation as importance

A negative correlation, as in the following example, shows that the inverse is true with respect to the rank order. The ratio of links on a homepage was, on average, highest at the bottom of the rankings of the analyzed pages (the very top ranked pages – often homepages – form an exception.) This does not imply that this ranking factor has a negative effect on rankings.

Backlinks: Links to homepage - Searchmetrics Ranking Factors 2015

The deck of cards – our new infographic

For readers that are not very familiar with correlations, this differentiation can be difficult. And this is one of the reasons why we did not use the familiar correlation bar chart. We wanted to avoid the fallacy that longer bars = more/greater importance.

So this year we decided on a deck of cards. And alongside the correlation value, an overall importance rating (Searchmetrics’ interpretation and not to be confused with correlation value) is given to the individual ranking factors, as follows:

  • -1 = negative impact
  • 0 = no impact
  • 1 = positive impact
  • 2 = highly positive impact

Infographic Searchmetrics Ranking Factors 2015 - Card Deck

 

Additionally, we have sorted each of ranking factor category by importance. The order from most to least important is as follows:

  1. Clubs – Content (most important)
  2. Spades – User Experience
  3. Hearts – Technical
  4. Diamonds – Backlinks (least important)
    (Social links are presented as a bonus category)

And within each category the individual factors are also sorted by importance from 7 – Ace (low to high). For example, within content, “keyword in description” is the least important; the most important factor here is “relevant terms”. Obviously we could not include every factor in the deck of cards, we concentrated on the most important. We analyze about 200 factors, of which only a selection make it into the study and the infographic.

Got it? Good. So, let’s find our example of ratio of links to home page from above in the infographic. There it is – the 10 of diamonds. This means it finds itself in the least important category, backlinks. With its suit rank of 10, it is of middling importance within this category. We also see it has been allocated an overall importance rating of 1, meaning that Searchmetrics would expect this factor to positively impact rankings. Interestingly, and as discussed above, the negative correlation of -0.06 does not affect its overall importance.

Brief note of the deck:

Wait a second. Why does the deck only have 36 cards? Good question. Our special edition card deck is based on the German national card game Skat. (The perfect time to add a new card game to your repertoire. As with many things German, a real-life German supervisor or friend is advised.).

New: Rank correlation graph as a download

So read-to-the-bottomers, here’s your reward. Many of you sent heartfelt pleas asking for the old correlation chart and we couldn’t simply ignore this. So we have once again lovingly created the bar chart with this year’s data. And now that we have cleared up possible problems in interpretation, you know how to handle it. This time we have not sorted the factors by correlation rather by category. You can also find our interpretation of overall importance on the chart.

Searchmetrics Ranking Factors Infographic: Correlation

If you want to get the chart in a higher (and printable) resolution, then we have added this image to our Ranking Factors Infographic page for you to download.

Do you have any criticism or feedback about our Ranking Factors Study or this post? Let us know in the comments.

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P.S.: Who’s writing this stuff? My name is Jan and I am Content Marketing Manager here at Searchmetrics. Among studies and whitepapers dealing with search- and content optimization, I'm blogging about new product features, Google Updates and analyze fresh data from the Searchmetrics Suite.
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Comments (15)

Comments (16)

  1. 2015/09/13

    Very nice infographic, a lot funnier with cards than so many other things I have seen. I think the article is very good, but I must disagree on your point with backlinks. The way I see SEO nowaways, backlinks has still a great effect on rankings – and you won’t get any user experience without rankings, so I think, that you have to have some good links before you will rank good, but you have to get a great user experience to rank better. Content and the technical is the foundation of SEO, if those 2 are not good, you i will not rank at all.

  2. 2015/09/13

    Hey Dennis. Glad you like the infographic. Thanks!
    Backlinks used to be one of the strongest, if not THE stongest, ranking factor/s in the past. But we believe, this is about to change. For the categories of the card deck, we actually rated content, user experience and technical features stronger than backlinks. And I think, this is warrantable already today. Let’s see what the future brings…

  3. 2015/09/16

    I really like the infographic you created. I printed it, and then I distributed through my collegues at work. Thank you again

  4. 2015/09/16

    Nice! Glad you like it, Kamil.

  5. 2015/09/18

    Great infographic and examples of spurious relationships! Correlation is not causation but knowing about those factors correlation is still a really valuable knowledge.

  6. 2015/09/28

    Great infographic indeed. Very informative and easy to understand. Thanks a lot..

  7. 2016/01/20

    How google knows the time on site and bounce rate? Do not all websites uses google products (google analytics) and also Matt Cutts said that it is not a ranking factor if a website uses google analytics.

  8. 2016/02/05

    A correlation is a relationship between two variables (in our case ranking factors) and can be expressed as a value. In general, values range from 0 (no correlation) to 1 (strong correlation). However, correlations can also be negative (-1).
    Example: in summer ice cream consumption increases. Compared with other times of year, the ratio of people with sun burn in summer is also higher. Both increases occur at the same time and occur less often at similar times (e.g. winter). We could say that these factors correlate with one another (in this case temporally). Often, however, strong correlation of this kind is misinterpreted as a causal relationship.

    So does eating an ice cream lead to sun burn? No, of course not. It is only the degree of temporal similarity that correlates highly between the factors ice cream consumption and sun burn. However, this does not mean that there is a causal relationship. Instead this is an example of a spurious relationship.

    Examples of spurious relationships
    The following amusing examples will illustrate what is meant by spurious relationships (we took them from here). In each case, we look at two variables over time that exhibit a high level of similarity in their respective values, meaning they correlate highly.

  9. 2016/03/31

    So Facebook is still a factor to dominate in Google. I really have some doubst abouts how google knows the time on the website and bounce rate, if he uses the clicks and parameters from SERPs or anything else?

  10. 2016/06/14

    I love this infographic, the new seos say that backlinks have less power and in the nearest future the users experience will be the only thing that matters. We will see that..

  11. Eva
    2016/09/02

    This is awesome! I have to much from this article,

    From now onwards I will be visiting this website (sorry about my English)

    Many thanks!!

  12. 2016/09/18

    Social cues and user interaction on the Web are becoming increasingly important factors in SEO, but we must not forget backlinks, still very important.

  13. 2016/09/23

    Hi, I really love your infographic, I like so much this article, Thanks a lot!!

  14. 2017/01/18

    So Facebook is still a factor to dominate in Google.

  15. Eva
    2017/05/12

    I really have some doubst abouts how google knows the time on the website and bounce rate, if he uses the clicks and parameters from SERPs or anything else?

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