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The “Death” of Ranking Factors – Brianna Anderson // BEAST Analytics

Episode Overview: The SEO community has long held ranking factors in high regard, although some in the community argue ranking factors are decreasing in importance. Join host Ben as he concludes his conversation with Brianna Anderson of BEAST Analytics as they discuss the impending “Death,” of ranking factors.

Summary

  • SEOs traditionally think Google first, instead of user first. In reality Google’s main goal is to answer user questions as quickly and efficiently as possible.
  • Often making small changes such as changing wording in the first paragraph of your content helps with obtaining more micro-conversions than optimizing for ranking factors would.
  • Whether backlinks are valuable as a ranking factor is up for debate, as Google still withholds information regarding them.

GUESTS & RESOURCES

Ben:                 Welcome back to the Voices of Search podcast. Today we’re going to wrap up our discussion about thinking of the new version of SEO analytics. Joining us again today is Brie Anderson, who is the founder of BEAST Analytics, which offers data-driven digital marketing strategies and analytics, consultings, audits, workshops, and content production services. Brie is also a contributor for well-known SEO publications, including Moz and the Search Engine Journal. And so far this week, Brie and I have talked about her guide to modern SEO metrics about why ranking in position three through five is a good thing. And today we’re going to turn our attention to what she is calling the death of ranking factors. Okay, here’s the end of my conversation with Brie Anderson, founder of BEAST analytics, Brie, welcome back to the Voices of Search podcast.

Brianna:         Thanks for having me for the last time.

Ben:                  Well, hopefully it’s not the last time, but it’s the last time during this interview series. So far, we’ve talked about how you think about analytics in the new world where SEO is related to brand metrics and performance metrics. And yesterday we talked about why, when you’re in position three through five, you’re just so close to position one. You really need to figure out what the micro optimizations are to get you to rank at the top of the page. There’s a huge difference between ranking fifth and ranking first in terms of your search volume. And some of those optimizations can be very nuanced and very small, which gets us to your theory that ranking factors are dying. Talk to me a little bit about how you figure out what to change on your page, if there is no such thing as ranking factors anymore.

Brianna:          So maybe I should explain my take on ranking factors. I’m pretty much sick of people talking about ranking factors.

Ben:                   I would agree with you, but as a search podcast host, it kind of keeps me in the business, but go on.

Brianna:         Right. So I think that obviously there are things that are going to help your website rank. However, I also believe that there are many things outside of the algorithm, as we think about it, that are contributing to how well you rank. Things that we can’t control, like user behavior and-

Ben:                  Social signal.

Brianna:         Yeah, exactly. And Google may say, no, this doesn’t directly impact your search rankings, but we also have to think of indirect things that impact your search ranking. So for me, I’m done. I’m done talking about, this is a ranking factor, this is whatever. I’m talking about our SEO strategy. And for me, that can mean anything like we had talked about yesterday with, maybe we have to number something on our website, as opposed to just having a list, an unordered list. And a lot of those kinds of micro conversions that you’re talking about. Now, when we talk about finding those micro conversions, you can do this a lot of different ways. You can do it through some of the things that I’ve already mentioned, like going through the behavior flow. You can do it through going through your competitor’s site, getting advice or ideas from other people and how they’ve optimized. That’s something that I really like about the search industry is that most of us are pretty open about how we do things. But it can really be as small as changing the wording in your first paragraph to use a long-tail keyword, as opposed to a short-tail keyword. So there are a lot of different things that can really push you over the edge that aren’t even focused around keywords. You know what I mean?

Ben:                That’s the problem, right, is to me, ranking factors are a construct built by the SEO community, god bless you all.

Brianna:       Yep.

Ben:                That gives us a shared sense of what to look at when we’re trying to optimize a search campaign. We’re thinking about site speed, about keyword density, about social signals, about linking structures. And so, when I think about the umpteenth million conversations that we’ve had about ranking factors over the last few years, sure, it’s a topic that’s a little tired. You and I could talk about conversion rate optimization or finding other ways to understand the user behavior. We’re all talking about the same thing. We’re all trying to figure out, what are the things that Google is looking at that are going to make our pages rank higher, that is going to make us more competitive in their eyes, whether it’s these classic ranking factors like technical ranking factors like site speed, or whether it’s more behavioral-type things like going through the user flow and making your site a little more, I don’t know, polished.

Brianna:       Right. And so for me to, I guess … One of my biggest complaints is that SEOs, we tend to think Google first, instead of user first, when at the end of the day Google’s goal, or should be their goal, is to answer questions as quickly as possible in the best way possible for the user. And every user needs something a little bit different, right? Everybody learns a little bit differently. So if they’re asking how to tie shoes, some people are going to need a video. Some people are going to need a list. And you can kind of see that on the SERPs now, you know what I mean? Because you have a list and you have videos and you have step-by-step guides and things of that nature. So Google has started to understand that.

Brianna:        My argument is always, if you have great content, you know who your audience is, and you can answer your audience’s question in the best way possible that you can think of, then you’re on the right path. There are obviously going to be things outside of that. You lay the foundation and then you focus on answering the question in the best way possible.

Ben:                SEO has been a really complicated topic in marketing circles for general marketers since the beginning of time, or at least since the beginning of the digital era. We’re the nerds in the corner that are tapping on our little black box and making people show up to the website. Nobody really understands how it works. Then you’re simplifying it down to understand who your consumer is and answer their questions. And that seems like a very basic way to think about SEO, which I for the record like and agree with. But it also doesn’t get into some of the more complex data mining and analysis and interpretation of some of the signals that we actually get from Google that are not necessarily consumer driven, but search engine driven. Isn’t there a balance here of, I need to get these five keywords on the page because my search tool is telling me they will make me rank for this keyword, and I need this page to provide the answer to the person that I want to buy services from me?

Brianna:        Right. But why is Google telling you, you need those five keywords on your page?

Ben:                 I mean, because Google thinks that those are the words that the person you want to buy something from you needs to hear to buy something. But-

Brianna:        Exactly!

Ben:                 That’s not always the case. There are words, like I’m writing an article right now. I mentioned I’m the host of the MarTech podcast. And we’re writing an article about what is MarTech. And we have to, using Searchmetrics, one of the words that I need to put into this article is BlueKai, a MarTech company. If I were writing this article, I don’t want BlueKai being referenced on the article, but Google is saying, that’s something that is actually important for my rankings. It does not actually impact the conversion rate of that page. But Google wants to see it. There’s a balance here.

Brianna:       Right, there absolutely is a balance. That’s one of those things, but obviously you have to do the foundational things. You have to comply a little bit. I’m not saying you don’t have to. You absolutely do. That is a very good example though, of, you’re saying that I don’t want to have to put that on my page and that’s not necessarily something that needs to be referenced on this page. That’s one of the things that Google has noticed has been on all of those pages that are already ranking. That’s generally how those keywords are fed to you. It’s like, okay, if you want to rank for this keyword, all of the pages so far are using these keywords on their page.

Ben:                Right.

Brianna:       It’s the same thing on YouTube, obviously, because Google owns YouTube and their algorithms are kind of similar. Just, I don’t know, because for me I’m like, just because they say that word has to be there, maybe I can find a different way to get that extra lift. Right? What if I get 10 more backlinks than those people have, or something like that. There is a balance, but there’s also a workaround at times.

Ben:                 So going back to ranking factors, one of the controversial ones, and it’s funny that you mentioned backlinks, the more we hear from Google is backlinks don’t matter, right? All that matters is the content on the page. And Google does natural language processing better. They understand the content on the page more and more and more. So who’s talking about you is an irrelevant signal. I don’t believe it for a second. Talk to me about your thoughts on the ranking factor that is backlinking.

Brianna:        I said it in an earlier episode, and I’ll say it again. Google does not tell the whole truth. They withhold some information. I truly do believe that when it comes to backlinks as a ranking factor, doesn’t matter who was talking about you. I mean, in my mind, if Forbes is going to link to you, that’s probably going to do better than Becky from down the street linking to you who gets three… And here’s why, because again, when I talk about ranking factors, right, for me, it’s always like, it’s more than that, right? Because let’s say Becky gets 10 visits to her site every month. Maybe one of those people is going to click through to go to your website, but Forbes gets however many and 300 people come to your website. So if you’re getting that much more traffic from that link, that still gives Google more data to go through, to see whether or not you’re answering those questions. So if you have one person coming and spending five minutes on your site, or a hundred people coming and spending five minutes on your site, then yeah, that backlink is going to make a big difference.

Ben:               Secretly buried in my question was, do you believe in ranking factors? And backlinking, very commonly thought of as a ranking factor, still matters.

Brianna:      Yes.

Ben:               So as we circle back to are ranking factors actually dead, I think the answer is no, it’s a construct made by the SEO community to try to figure out what is going to impact rankings. It’s a concept.

Brianna:      Right.

Ben:               It is not a static thing of, these are the ranking factors.

Brianna:      Exactly. Google has 200 plus signals, right? All of them are signals, but I think ranking factors is like, you’re saying something concrete we’ve created so that we can go to our clients and say, these five things are ranking factors, so that’s what we’re working on this month. But in reality, it’s so much more than these little things like title tags or meta descriptions, or H1 and H2 and all of these different things. Yeah, they’re all important, but they all work together at the same time. You know what I mean?

Ben:               Yeah. I think that’s the most important thing is that you can’t just think of ranking factors and all the things that you’re doing, whether it be your keyword list, your targets, what your optimization strategy is, even your analytics. You can’t think of these things in a vacuum. And that’s really, what’s complicated about SEO today, we’re brand marketers, as much as we’re performance marketers. We are thinking about the balance of, should I optimize one page to go from ranking five to ranking one, or should I create two new pages for smaller keywords where I’m almost guaranteed to rank number one? Should I be working on this one ranking factor, or should I just be doing what’s best to optimize this page to make it a better experience for my customers? The more that we talk and the more that I learn about SEO and organic growth, the more that I realize, that you really have to use your judgment take in all of the data that we have available to us, but really everyone’s business is a unique little snowflake, and we have to start thinking holistically as marketers, as opposed to looking at optimization tactics in a vacuum.

Brianna:       110%. I definitely agree.

Ben:                All right. And that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Brie Anderson, founder of BEAST analytics. We’d love to continue this conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Brie, you can find the link to her LinkedIn profile. You can contact her on Twitter. Her handle is Brie_E_Anderson. That’s B-R-I-E underscore E underscore A-N-D-E-R-S-O-N. Or you can visit her company’s website, which is brieeanderson.com.

Just one more link on our show notes I’d like to tell you about. If you didn’t have a chance to take notes while you were listening to this podcast, head over to voicesofsearch.com, where we have summaries of all of our episodes, contact information for our guests. You can send us your topic, suggestions, ask your SEO questions. You can even apply to be a guest speaker on the Voices of Search podcast.

Of course you can always reach out on social media. Our handle is voicesofsearch on Twitter. And my personal handle is BenJShap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P. And if you haven’t subscribed yet, and you want a daily stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, we’re going to publish an episode every day during the workweek. So hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed tomorrow morning. All right. That’s it for today. But until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.