What does Google look at when determining its search rankings?That question is at the heart of all SEO strategy, or at least when optimizing for what is by far the world's number one search engine. But Google keeps its search algorithms secret, so answers to the question have to be based on observation and inference. We can observe which pages rank highly for specific searches, compare them to pages that do not rank as high, and make inferences based on differences between the pages.A recent quantitative study attempted to do exactly that. It looked at 100 Google searches for randomly selected keyword strings, and analyzed the top five results for each search. The findings provide some insight into what makes a page rank number one in Google search results.
There are several key inferences that can be made from the data.
Keywords and phrases do not have to be an exact match.
Most of the top pages did not prominently feature exact matches of the search term used. What they did have were phrases which were similar to the keyphrase searched for.
This is significant because it means that you do not have to shoehorn in the awkward-sounding phrases that people might search for. You can reword such phrases in a way that seems more natural (and which may vary as you re-use it throughout the page). Google is smart enough to know that "hamburger" and "burger" mean the exact same thing, and that "she sells sea shells" is roughly equivalent to "sea shells that she sells."
Exact keyphrase density can be very low.
This is a correlation to the above point. The density of exact keyphrases in the body text was under 0.5 percent.
Keyphrases should be included in titles and headlines.
Those appear to be the main places that Google checks. Of the top five results for each search, half included some variation of the keyphrase in the title tag. That number increased to 60 percent when considering only the number one search results. So, having a version of the search phrase in the title increases your chances of being number one.
Title tags are more important than headlines.
Only 43 percent of the studied headlines included some version of the keyphrase, and the number one search results had the phrase in the headline 49 percent of the time (compared to 60 percent in the title tags above). Those numbers still make headlines very important, but including keywords in the title tags appears to carry more weight.
Subheadings count as body text.
They do not seem to have any increased importance, the way that headlines and titles do. The web pages in the study almost never included keyphrases in subheadings, and yet still ranked highly in search results. Many such pages did not have subheadings at all (though the average for the data set was six subheadings per page).
The top-ranked pages averaged 920 words in length. The fifth-place pages averaged 797 words, or 13 percent less written content.
Backlinks and social media shares really count.
The number one search results averaged roughly five times as many backlinks and social media shares as the fifth-place results. So, link-building and social media sharing is essential if you want that top spot in the search rankings.
Of course, Google is always updating its algorithms, so the figures in the study might change somewhat over time. But they do provide some helpful SEO insightsthat you can start using today.
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