Questioning survey results as a method of determining SEO ranking factors.
There are a multitude of surveys that quiz my fellow SEOs about what they think are the key ranking factors for getting on the first page of Google, Bing, etc. When the experts answer, they usually base it on the data they’ve seen in their own optimization of their clients and the correlating results. When the studies are published, the people that weren’t included in they survey lose their mind over the data and quickly start changing their strategies to match.
The problem is, the experts rarely agree on these factors and the search engines tell them to stop sweating those level of details and just focus on creating quality content.
Here’s an example of why you should question that survey data. Not long ago during a major search conference, Google’s God of Page Rank, Matt Cutts, stated that exact match domains were most likely not going to continue to be as much of a ranking factor as they have been in the past because of a variety of reasons, including abuse. Note that these changes haven’t happened yet, it was just Matt thinking out loud. Yet, when Rand Fishkin* presented the latest SEOMoz ranking survey at SMX Advanced, the power of exact match domains lost some of its ranking powers to those surveyed without Google making a single change to its code.
My point here is that the power of Cutts’ suggestion changed the survey results more than actual changes in the algorithm.
This isn’t even the first time I’ve seen this. Remember back when SEOs were all claiming that PR sculpting was a thing? Basically, this was when SEOs suggested that you could actually control the flow of page rank to other pages utilizing nofollow tags on anchor tags. The problem was, this wasn’t a real thing… it was just a theory. Yet, it showed up in surveys as a major ranking factor and SEOs were tearing up their clients’ pages to make it work and believed it was making a real difference. That is, until Matt Cutts told everybody to knock it off because it was, in fact, not a real thing.
SEOMoz* likes to beat the drum of “correlation does not equal causation” as a way to keep people from overreacting to these results, but that’s just not the way humans work. Our attention spans last about as long as it takes to get the disturbing data and drops off long before the warning not to panic.
We at Fang Digital look at a variety of factors while we’re performing SEO audits for our clients. However, we look at these factors as possibilities of what could be holding a site back from ranking at all rather than what would rocket somebody to the top of the results. Not because we don’t want our clients on the top results, but because we know in the end what is going to get them there is having the most relevant content for a given search term.
We’ve performed audits for companies big and small and 99% of the time, their lack of rank has little to do with competition or the intricacies of Google’s algorithm, but because they were missing a detail in one of what we call the three pillars of SEO: Content, Site Architecture, and Inbound Links.
I’ll go into detail on these pillars in later posts, but my point is that I feel that SEOs spend too much time trying to crack the code of Google’s ranking when they have already presented the answers in a very simple format. Sure, there are plenty of details to sweat in site architecture, but they are rarely the NASA level equations SEOs make them out to be.
SEO isn’t black magic or rocket science, it’s about relevant results for searchers. If you follow that as rule one, the rest will fall into place.
* BTW, I’m a fan of both Rand Fishkin and SEOMoz and told Rand that I really did enjoy his presentation at SMX Advanced, and meant it, so you should take this post as the commentary its meant to be and not an attack on a good person and company.