Search Engine Ranking Factors 2009

Search Engine Ranking Factors
Ranking Factors

SEOMoz’s 2009 Search Ranking Factors survey uses a collective polling of some top names in SEO, including Aaron Wall, Michael Gray, Jill Whalen, Rand Fishkin, Vanessa Fox and 67 additional top industry contributors who are invited to give their opinion regarding the weight of algorithmic factors for natural search in 2009.

The value of this report for the average website owner is huge, for me it is both highly valuable and thought provoking information, and some redemption as well.

Google and the other search engines use a highly complicated, algorithmic math program to analyze and rank websites in organic search. These algorithms are not made publicly available, thus SEO’s, like myself spend most of our time testing theories and analyzing statistics in order to develop effective SEO campaigns.

2009 was a pretty tumultuous year for organic search, all three of the top search engines made huge changes to their algorithms and we also saw the launch of Bing. These events made significant changes in the way we think and optimize websites. Fact is, 2010 is already looking to be an even bigger year of changes and SEO’s will need to keep their ears to the ground to keep up and be successful.

If I had to pick a phrase to best describe SEO, it would be:

Analyze, adapt and overcome

Top 5 2009 Ranking Factors

  1. Keyword Focused Anchor Text from External Links (73% very high importance): This is simply other websites linking out to you with good anchor text. Anchor text is the visually click-able part of the link. We want to see links such as “SEO Services” opposed to “Click Here” to add the proper weight to the link. I personally strongly agree with this opinion from the panel, but would add that the surrounding text of the link, or lack of text is probably just as important. So essentially a link list is not nearly as effective as a link in the middle of a related paragraph for example.
  2. External Link Popularity quantity/quality of external links (71% very high importance): This ranking factors hasn’t changed too much, basically, more links are better… More of the better links are substantially better. What makes a link better? Links from trusted, authoritative or seed sites carry more weight, links from topically related pages and domains carry more weight and more is still better. I very much agree with this and would add only that, getter better links is far more important than the number of links.
  3. Diversity of Link Sources links from many unique root domains (67% very high importance): This means that for example, 10K links from different pages in the same domain is not as effective as 10K links from 10,000 different domains. You will hear many say that Google only “counts” one link from each domain, and while I disagree, I will say that they are severely discounted. So I agree with this finding as well and you should be seeking out as many backlinks from different domain sources as you can to get the most from your link building efforts.
  4. Keyword Use Anywhere in the Title Tag (66% very high importance): Your title tag is not a Meta tag, but rather an element tag in the <head> of your pages. This is the information between the <title> tags and what generally displays in your browser tab heading as well. Your title tag and its relevance to the page’s content is hands down the number 1 on page ranking factor. Proper use of keywords in this element carries a great deal of weight. The more relevant the tag to the page’s content, the more weight. Additionally note that the first words (left to right) are also given a bit more weight that the words further right. I strongly agree and this is probably your best time spent with your on page optimization.
  5. Trustworthiness of the Domain Based on Link Distance from Trusted (66% very high importance): This is a little more difficult to understand, but essentially, just like PageRank, your distance from the trusted domain also factors as a degrade in weight/score. So if I have a page about “Green Bananas” and I have a link from that is best, but if links to who links to me, the weight is less. I very strongly agree with this, but conclude that most people are not able to determine what a trusted domain is. So for the sake of application, shop owners should concentrate on topically related links.

There are quite a few more ranking factors that were polled and we have found some additional tools for shop owners in these as well.

  • Keyword Use in the Root Domain Name (e.g. Without being spammy, hard to spell or easily confused, using a keyword in your domain name is a very effective tool. Avoid dashes, non-phonetic words, number/letter substitution and urbanized spellings… But yes, clean short domain names that carry a keyword will give you a leg up.
  • Keyword Use Anywhere in the H1 Headline Tag: The very first heading tag on your page should be an <h1>. Proper, not spammy use of keywords in this tag carry some weight and should be executed by shop owners. Note that a heading tag logically describes the content right below it, and thus another on page factor of importance…. Most important as close to the top of the page as you can achieve, is given more weight than the content after/below it. (Keyword Use in the First 50-100 Words in HTML on the Page)
  • Existence of Substantive, Unique Content on the Page: Uniqueness! Is your page’s content duplicated elsewhere on the web, including your own site? Is there enough page unique content to allow the page to be considered unique within your template’s repetitive textual content? Using the manufacturers description is probably the biggest mistake we see here, it’s duplicate. Additionally, products and categories without a decent amount of unique text are duplicate with your own pages.
  • Recency (freshness) of Page Creation: This is one I have been preaching for over a year. Google especially, wants to know that the lights are on AND someone is home. Set your mind and schedule to create at least a new page a week.
  • Use of Links on the Page that Point to Other URLs on this Domain: Are you linking to yourself with good anchor text? How about your category menu, those are links too. Most effective internal linking will come from links to specific pages within a body of textual content.
  • Historical Content Changes (how often the page content has been updated): Your Zen Cart helps you a great deal already with this, by displaying changing content features in your pages…. But updating your pages frequently helps you rank.
  • Blogging and Engagement with the Blogosphere: Blogs are a very highly effective means of both delivering and maintaining fresh content… add the link bait factor and this becomes a must have tool for every shop owner in 2009 and more so in 2010!

Here are some comments on these factors from panelists you may find very interesting:

Russell Jones – If Google only ranked the “tried and true”, their results would be old and outdated. Recency is a valuable asset when links are hard to come by.

Andy Beal – Keyword use in external link anchor text is one of the top SEO factors overall. I’ve seen sites rank for competitive keywords—without even mentioning the keyword on-page—simply because of external link text.

Andy Beard – Keyword Use in the Meta Keywords Tag – ignore them unless using a blogging platform which can use the same keywords as tags. Google ignores them.

Christine Churchill – Taking the time to create a good title tag has the biggest payoff of any on-page criteria. Just do it!

Peter Wailes – Domain name keyword usage gains most of its strength through what anchor text people are then likely to link to you with, not so much from inherent value, which is lower in my opinion.

Peter Meyers – Anecdotally, it feels like freshness is more important than ever. I’m amazed how often a blog post ranks within the first day, holding a top-10 position before finally settling a few spots (or even pages) lower.

Ann Smarty – Domain strength is a highly important factor (still). We keep seeing pages with 0 strength of their own hosted on reputable domains ranked very high for very competitive words.

Ian Lurie – Use of Adsense/Google Apps/Google Search or other search engine-owned tools, though, won’t impact results at all. If your site is so hurting, SEO-wise, that you have to point an Adwords ad at it to get crawled, you’ve got bigger problems.

Adam Audette – CTR on a search result is a large cumulative factor, and brings in page load time as well, which is something we’re very focused on at present.

You know, it’s funny… At least our customers find it humorous, but most of the SEO you need is really common sense. Imagine if Google was your business, what kind of websites would you want to deliver your searchers (customers)? Hard work, lite reading and an overall drive to be successful are exactly what every shop owner needs to succeed. If someone told you this was going to be easy….. They lied!