Because everybody wants their website to rank highly on Google, the SEO industry is now as important to companies as traditional marketing and PR always were. The boundaries are so blurred that most companies in one of these sectors usually seek to have expertise in the other two. To rank highly is to appear on the first page of a search for what your business does (although lower pages could also be deemed “high” in competitive sectors).
Search engines become popular when the results they give are most relevant to what they think the user has searched for. Resolving this impossibly complex decision has been the goal of every search engine in history, and it looks, for the time being at least, like Google has won. Essentially, its decision is based on how high quality and how trustworthy a source of information is. The way Google works it is to determine the number and quality of links pointing to a page or site. The more websites pointing to your website, the better quality it must be, as people don’t tend to like to associate themselves with rubbish.
The early years were tricky. All sorts of dodgy practices were put in place to increase the number – if not the quality – of links pointing to websites. But as time went by, Google became much better at determining which links were trusted, natural and valuable. Since it’s far and away the most popular search engine, let’s assume that customers are generally happy with the results.
Are there 200 ranking factors?
You might have heard that Google has 200 (or more than 200) ranking factors. These have long been considered to be things like:
- your page load speed
- how secure your site is
- whether you have the name of what you do, rather than who you are, in your URL (which is why B&Q uses the domain diy.com, not BandQ.com)
- whether a site has been blacklisted
- whether a user has your site in its bookmarks
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Moz’s Gianluca Fiorelli points out that the famous 200 number is mythical. Repetition, deviation and plain untruths in the most popular lists of ranking factors (and a click-baity need to reach the magic 200) make such lists unreliable. And a huge factor in ranking is which device a searcher is using, and what their location is. Site builders have no control over that.
There are definitely a lot
That said, there are many factors that can confidently be determined to be signals that your site is of good quality. Since nobody outside Google knows exactly what they are, the SEO industry experiments and analyses data to try and come to conclusions. And we therefore have a pretty good idea of the elements of a site that add up to a better rank.
Ranking factors for which copy is important
With the above caveats in mind, here are the ranking factors that you should be able to improve through better use of copy.
Make sure every second word is a keyword to fool the search engines into thinking yours is the number one authority on the subject. That’s what we were all told in the mid to late 1990s. It took the search industry a while to figure out ways of ignoring or penalising spammy sites. But now they are very, very good at it, and will come down hard on sites that try to manipulate their language and links to fool the engines. Just write naturally, mentioning the key searchable factors a natural number of times, and Google will work out what your page and site are about.
Remember, it’s all about quality, trustworthiness and usefulness, and spam doesn’t satisfy any of those factors. If a human reading your page would feel dirty doing it, have a re-think.
Having a keyword in the title tag and URL
Google is much better at understanding synonyms than it once was, so this is of minor importance. But having some mention of what your business does or sells in the title tag and URL is useful. Starting the tag with the keyword might be helpful too. There’s certainly no harm in it.
Including keywords in the meta description tag
Not a ranking factor per se, but if searchers see the word they searched for in the description under the URL, they could be more likely to click through. That can mean more chance of interaction and conversion. Moreover, having a well-written meta description should make your search results listing more attractive, so rank becomes less important.
Having keywords in heading tags
H1 tags, or headings, give Google a lot of clues about the content of a page, and therefore the website. Including them in your H1s is important, but making them interesting and readable is a copywriter‘s job. Although H1s are the most important, don’t forget about your sub-sub-headings (H2s, H3s etc.).
How long and relevant the page copy is
The optimum length of an article is one of the most hotly debated topics in SEO land. Some say 300 words, others 500, others 1000, and some people will insist that the longer it is, the better. From a reader’s perspective, the article should be exactly as long as it needs to be. Waffling on to please the search engines isn’t a good idea, especially if you’re looking for backlinks.
Some studies suggest that if all else is equal, a page with 1500–2000 words will cover more information and therefore give the search engines a better indication of the page’s content. And that can result in higher ranks.
If people find your piece interesting enough to link to, it’s long enough.
This used to be an important factor but because it was optimised to death, it became less important. Don’t aim for a percentage as such. Just make sure you mention your keywords, write great copy and don’t spam yourself. And remember, words that mean the same as your keywords, or signify similarity, are just as good.
Having the same copy on two or more pages has a negative effect. Where you’ve got similar things to say over several pages, completely re-write the copy on each one. If you sell blue sheds, red sheds and green sheds, don’t use your “what is a shed” copy on each page, followed by a sentence about the colour – come up with something new for each page.
Keeping content fresh
A constant supply of new copy is a good thing. It tells the search engines that your site is a living, breathing thing, and that it’s not been abandoned. Take time to write new content that demonstrates your authority in your industry, and gives a positive signal to Google. It also increases the likelihood of its being linked to.
Since repeat traffic could be a good indicator of quality, make sure you use newsletters and social media to let people know about your new content.
You can even give your static pages a refresh from time to time. Your “About Us” page, for example, might change as you take on new clients and expand; and your core services probably change over time, too.
Spelling and grammar
A pure ranking factor? Possibly, but if you want people to trust you and to keep those bounce rates low, make sure your writing makes sense, reads well and is correctly spelt.
Make sure your content is your own. Don’t be tempted to copy and paste text from other websites, even if you do go to the trouble of changing a few words. It’ll probably be flagged as duplicate copy, and might even get you a letter from a solicitor.
Like spelling and grammar, your site’s reading level probably isn’t a ranking factor in itself, but if you bamboozle your typical readership, it’ll show up in your bounce rates and inbound links.
This used to be a powerful factor until it was abused wholesale, so now it might be a tiny signal of relevance. Make the text in your links relevant and logical and don’t worry too much about it.
Bounce rate, dwell time and time on page
These factors are all concerned with how a user interacts with your page after being sent there from a search engine. They have similar but different meanings, as discussed here. Whether they are ranking factors is still debated in the SEO community, but do analyse your visits. You’ll see which pages visitors stick around with or use as the starting point for a journey around your page, and which ones they simply close or click back to the search results.
If Google sees a page where every visitor bounces after 2 seconds, then the promise of the results page isn’t being delivered, and that that page is not relevant to that search term.
Have you noticed how sometimes you search for something and the answer appears in the search results page, rather than in a link to the site it came from? These controversial things are called snippets. They’re controversial as some site owners believe they are costing them clicks, because the user gets the answer without having to visit the site. But still, a lot of companies try very hard to become the one that’s chosen for a snippet because it makes them look authoritative (and the snippet will include a link if further reading is called for).
Snippets are chosen for the quality of the content and how accurately they answer the questions being posed by the searcher. So once again, good quality content wins.
Mentioning your locality
Google uses all sorts of signals to work out where you are, but if your business is geographically sensitive (a local shop or venue, for example), make sure there are mentions of the district, town, postcode, city, country etc. to help pinpoint where you are.
So in summary, make sure your copy is well written and researched, has good intentions and is not copied, stolen or otherwise duplicated. Write like a human and humans will respond, and your search ranking should – perhaps slowly – improve. Think about the content that you like to consume, and be inspired to better it.
Image: Liane Metzler