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Episode Overview

Are ranking factors the Rosetta Stone of the Google Algorithm or just Pig Latin for SEOs? Ben and Jordan draw distinct lines between the two to help our loyal listeners understand the difference.

Topics covered include:

  • How ranking factors represent the SEO community’s ongoing interpretation of the Google Search Algorithm
  • The definition and differences of and between technical and content ranking factors
  • The very one-sided nature of relationship between Google and SEOs

GUESTS & RESOURCES:

Episode Transcript

Ben:                             Welcome to algorithm month on the Voices of Search Podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro. This month we’re taking a look inside the black box that is Google search algorithm. Joining us today is Jordan Koene who is the lead SEO strategist and the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. Today, Jordan and I are going to talk about how ranking factors relate to Google’s algorithm. But before we hear from Jordan, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses, monitor their online presence and make data driven decisions.

To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary digital diagnostic, where a member of our digital strategies group will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website, content and SEO strategies can all be optimized. To schedule your free digital diagnostic, go to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic. Okay. On with the show. Here’s my conversation with Jordan Koene, lead SEO Strategist and CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. Jordan, welcome back to algorithm month on the Voices of Search Podcast.

Jordan:                         Hey, Ben. It’s going to be a fun month. We’re just getting started.

Ben:                             I have bad news for everybody listening to the Voices of Search Podcast.

Jordan:                         Oh boy.

Ben:                             It’s just me and Jordan this month, so buckle up.

Jordan:                         Yeah, that’s going to be pretty painful. Sorry about this, guys.

Ben:                             We’re going deep and hard into the algorithm, and we want you to know that it’s just going to be the two of us making a mess of things. That said, Jordan, we’re talking about ranking factors. Last week we talked about what the algorithm is. My takeaway here is the algorithm is not an algorithm. It’s a bunch of algorithms. It’s a bunch of these systems crawl index search, and they evaluate, sort and match all of your content. But really there’s a bunch of different algorithms that are at play, freshness, relevance, video, imagery, a whole bunch of different ways that Google’s built technology to evaluate a piece of content to figure out how valuable it is and where it should rank.

But then to the side of this, there’s these things called ranking factors. Let’s start off by talking about what is a ranking factor and why is that different than one of Google’s systems or one of the multiple algorithms that Google implements?

Jordan:                         Yeah, absolutely. Ranking factors are a way to really unpack the way that a search engine applies different data points or different insights they gather to prioritize the results in their search engine. The reality is that there’s these systems that are kind of like the foundation that help Google collect and process this information, and then there are the various algorithms that are being applied to that data to help tweak what’s happening. Ranking factors are the interpretation of those systems and those algorithms being applied.

I think that’s the most important thing is that a ranking factor is just a set of criteria that we have applied as the industry or even Google has applied as the operator of the search engine to better understand how the results are being compiled essentially.

Ben:                             I have two comments. One, Huh? Two, isn’t a ranking factor just a variable in the algorithm? Isn’t the algorithm saying for this query, here are all the various variables that we’re going to evaluate, and some are more important than others for specific queries, right? Maybe your site speed is more important for one query versus another or your content length or whatever it is, but there’s all these different variables. Isn’t it just part of the algorithm? Isn’t it just something that Google is weighing to help evaluate your content?

Jordan:                         I am so glad that you positioned it this way because this is exactly where many folks in our industry get massively tripped up and so many website operators and businesses become so confused. Ranking factors are not the inputs to an algorithm. They can be sometimes, but it is not mutually exclusive that a single ranking factor is an input that actually binds an algorithm. In many cases, the algorithms itself are taking into account a collective of ranking factors, or in some cases, an algorithm may not even be looking at ranking factors at all. They’re just simply processing certain information that is not derived to be, you know, a ranking factor.

To answer your question, they’re not mutually exclusive. No. A ranking factor is not an input to an algorithm, but it’s the best way that we can analyze and interpret what is changing and how things are changing within the algorithm.

Ben:                             Jordan?

Jordan:                         Yeah.

Ben:                             Huh? Wait, let me get this straight: A ranking factor is this thing that you’re supposed to optimize for. I want my content length or my keyword targeting to be right and that’s going to… Whatever it is. My site speed. I need all of these things to be perfect and they’re not actually part of the algorithm. They do or they don’t impact how you rank?

Jordan:                         Well, they absolutely do impact how you rank. but I think the more important notion for our listeners to understand is that they’re not mutually exclusive. This is what makes SEO so challenging. You can’t just have a binary ranking factor pull that lever and miraculously on the other end it’s going to impact the algorithm and you’re going to show up higher in the rankings. That’s not how it works. The reality is that it’s important for us to understand how to evaluate ranking factors, to use the data for ranking factors, and then come to conclusions that can holistically help us improve our websites, and thus, the positions in Google, instead of trying to like hack the algorithm by using ranking factors.

Ben:                             You’re talking a language that I don’t know if I understand. This must be pure SEO, but maybe it would be helpful if you give me an example of a ranking factor or a type of ranking factor.

Jordan:                         Sure. One of the ranking factors that we spent a lot of time talking about on the show is site speed. We talk about site performance all the time, and we make a big stink of it partly because Google makes a big stink of it. But also we’ve seen a lot of our clients be very successful in improving their performance in Google by improving their site speed. But This is not necessarily a mutually exclusive ranking factor that drives an algorithm. There isn’t like an algorithm that Google has that’s just sitting around going, “Ah. I figured out that this speed is the right speed and let’s make this website show up higher.” No. It’s an evaluation KPI that can be analyzed as a ranking factor and can be one of the elements that’s used in the algorithm to adjust rankings.

It’s not that they’re mutually exclusive and they kind of like work hand-in-hand harmoniously. They don’t. I think that’s the challenge that most people have. If they did, here’s what would happen, right? The entire tie would rise even, right? What would happen is if you’re in position eight for all of your keywords, then you would be in position six tomorrow in all your keywords. But as we all know, that’s not how Google search works and we’ve never experienced Google search to work that way agnostically across an entire website.

Ben:                             I think that one of the things that is important here is that not all keywords are necessarily determined the same way, right? That whether it be ranking factors or the algorithm, different queries are going to be recognized and evaluated based on a different set of variables.

Jordan:                         Bingo. Absolutely. Google talks a lot about this. They talk a lot about the fact that different factors impact different keywords, and thus different factors need to be applied to different webpages of your site. It’s a very hard thing for websites to do because typically webmasters, engineers and product teams, they’re trying to make holistic horizontal changes that impact the whole website, not just one page.

Ben:                             Yeah, it’s never going to hurt your website to make your site faster. You’re never going to be penalized for a faster site speed, but it might be a waste of time optimizing pages where your site speed is already faster than everybody else that’s delivering content.

Jordan:                         Bingo. That’s a great reverse way of looking at that situation, right? That’s exactly the way you can interpret the fact that these things are not connected to one another.

Ben:                             I got to say, I’m still confused. Break down ranking factors a little bit more for me so I understand because I’m still thinking of this as, look, at each query has its own set of variables that you need to optimize for. You don’t necessarily know what they are, but when you change the content or the technical part of your page, then you’re going to perform differently. Isn’t it the algorithm that’s interpreting those changes?

Jordan:                         Absolutely, and they are. I think that to understand ranking factors, you often need to understand the way that various companies or agencies are trying to provide you the information. All ranking factors are not created equal. They can be derived from different sources of data. They can be derived using different types of calculations. The reality is that you really need to understand what the intention is of the company to help you understand those ranking factors, and then you also need to understand what data in calculations are using to validate whether or not that ranking factor is impacting your website. It’s just kind of like a cautionary viewpoint on how ranking factors are bundled or analyzed by various companies.

But to simplify things for listeners, there’s really kind of two buckets to look at for ranking factors. There’s typically technical ranking factors and there’s content ranking factors. There are so many different ways of analyzing the factors that are within each one of those buckets and they’re constantly evolving. There’s new ones being introduced all the time. The reality is that the factors themselves help you understand what’s going on in your competitive set on your website itself, and those should then be used to determine what you want to change or improve on your website.

Ben:                             There’s technical and there’s content ranking factors. We can go into a little bit more detail about what those are, but I think I finally figured out a metaphor that helps me understand the difference between the algorithm and ranking factors, and it’s a diet metaphor. To have a healthy diet, you need to have a balance of carbs, fat, and protein. To be healthy on Google, you need to basically optimize for crawl, what the index is, and what the search experience is, but it’s just not that simple. You also need to have the right balance of vitamins and minerals while you’re also consuming food. If you’re just eating one thing over and over again, you’re just going to be a little bit out of balance.

There are these other micro factors that are in the things that you’re doing. I would say that that’s part of the algorithm, but you’re going to disagree with me that you need to make part of your habit. If you don’t get enough vitamin B, you’re going to have problems. If you don’t have good site speed, you’re going to have some problems. Those are kind of the difference between, in my mind, ranking factors and the algorithm.

Jordan:                         That’s a great way of looking at it and that’s precisely the complicated thread that we’re trying to explain here is how do all these different elements come together to create a healthy dialogue.

Ben:                             Does Google actually talk about what the ranking factors are?

Jordan:                         Yes and no. Ranking factors is really a byproduct of the search industry. The SEOs of the world and the data companies have come together to provide ways to better understand what’s happening in the algorithm. I like to look at it from that perspective because the majority of the publications and the information that you’ll read about ranking factors are coming from those sources. But yes, Google does talk about ranking factors from time to time and they do mention at times whether or not something is considered a ranking factor. Recently there was a… I think it was in Office Hours with John Mueller where they talked about content length and whether or not content length was a ranking factor.

John Mueller basically said, “No. It’s not really a ranking factor,” but he didn’t address the answer as if content or content length is or is not a ranking factor. He addressed it from the perspective of content quality because that’s really what Google is trying to measure. They’re trying to measure content quality and we use various factors to describe that.

Ben:                             Okay. This concept of ranking factor is not necessarily a Google generated idea. This is something that the search industry has produced as a way to try to talk about the data that in aggregate has analyzed that there is some proof that impact performance on Google search engine.

Jordan:                         Bingo.

Ben:                             We know for a fact, because we’ve tested it at Searchmetrics, that site speed has a dramatic impact on how you rank in Google. Google is not saying, “Hey, site speed is one of the variables in our algorithm. You should optimize for this ranking factor.” It’s just something we know from empirical data that’s been collected.

Jordan:                         Correct.

Ben:                             Okay.

Jordan:                         That is correct.

Ben:                             Jordan, I’m starting to get it. I understand what ranking factors are. They’re these made up things by the search industry that we know have some effect on search rankings. They are not part of the algorithm. They are what we think are part of the algorithm.

Jordan:                         Correct. Correct. In many cases and in many industries and for many keywords, there are pitfalls and opportunities that can be had using ranking factors. I think that it is up to the decision makers of these websites and the great SEOs that are listening to this podcast to make those decisions. I think that the interesting part is that this is invariably one of the most important data sources that you can use to help you make decisions and choices.

Ben:                             Okay. We know that there are certain things that impact what your performance in search area. We call them ranking factors. We break them into technical and content. Give me the big ones. Let’s start off with the technical stuff. What are the big technical ranking factors?

Jordan:                         Yeah. We already kind of mentioned one of them around site speed and that certainly is one of the critical ranking factors. The other one that I think is really important to note here is hygiene. Again, that’s not necessarily a ranking factor. That’s what I use as kind of like a tag to cluster ranking factors, but this includes things like errors that you might have on your website, server errors, page errors that you might have, redirects and bad links that you might have on your website. The hygiene and quality of your website matters a lot to Google because that’s ultimately how people are going to consume the information. That bucket within technical ranking factors to my opinion is the most critical one next to speed.

Ben:                             What about things like getting into the index, submitting your sitemap? Are there any other ranking factors around those things?

Jordan:                         Absolutely. I mean, you can evaluate those criteria based on different mechanics. I wouldn’t necessarily call them ranking factors per se, but what you can say is that there is a body of work around how to establish site maps and having them or not having them as one way of looking at a ranking factor. Obviously, again, it’s more important to kind of have the groundwork in place, the foundation in place more so than anything else. The big difference here is that site maps are often considered part of just the groundwork and the foundation of what you do, and you have to have it in order for Google to find your content. There’s various tactics in order to get Google to find your content, so it’s not mutually exclusive.

But the long story short here is that it can be evaluated as a ranking factor by the industry, but I wouldn’t necessarily think that Google looks at that as a derivative of how to rank a website.

Ben:                             Talk to me about the content ranking factors. What are the biggest things that the search industry thinks are impacting what drives your performance from a content perspective?

Jordan:                         Yeah. From a content standpoint, there are a variety of ways to slice ranking factors. One of them is relevancy. There’s a variety of different relevancy scores that are considered ranking factors. We’ve talked about things in the past like TFIDF, which is term frequency on pages. There’s also different ways of evaluating the distance or the relationship distance between the core keyword or the title of the page and the body and the substance on the page. There are even other ways to evaluate content that maybe considered a derivative of a ranking factor, but the most important content ranking factors that exist are ultimately the content quality, so measuring the usefulness of your content.

There is the relevancy to main keyword that you’re trying to go after, and then the third one is relationships, so the relationship to your content versus the other content that’s actually available on the internet. Those are the three overarching concepts that are really considered ranking factors in content.

Ben:                             I don’t think any of this is groundbreaking. It’s a lot of stuff that we’ve talked about on the podcast before from a technical perspective, getting your site speed, making sure that you have good hygiene, right? Keeping your site up to date is going to be a ranking factor. That’s how Google is going to interpret the strength of your domain at some point. The technical expertise that you’ve put into it. From a content perspective, it’s what content are you putting on the page, how does it rank for the keyword that you’re trying to reach, and what’s the relationship with it to the rest of your content and the rest of the internet.

If other people are broadcasting that it has a signal of being valuable content, Google is going to take that into consideration as well. You mentioned John Mueller too and how there was some recent news about ranking factors. Talk to me about who John Mueller is and what the recent news related to Google’s announcement about ranking factors.

Jordan:                         John Mueller is… For those of you who are not familiar with John Mueller, John Mueller is the Senior Web Trends Analyst for Google and he hosts… They used to be Hangouts, but now they’re on YouTube, these sessions where he would answer questions for SEOs about, you know, SEO. They can be very, very tactical in nature about a website and what’s going on, or they could be very broad and overarching in terms of like what’s going on in the industry or explain to me what ranking factors are. As I mentioned earlier, you know John highlighted that word count is not an indicative of quality. He was very clear to highlight that quality metrics are not necessarily a pure view of what a ranking factor is.

He also mentioned the Quality Rater Guidelines, which is really interesting and a nice segue because that’s kind of the next big topic for us is talking about these Google guidelines and how we adhere to them to improve our performance.

Ben:                             What I’m hearing is that John Mueller on some level is an analyst for Webmaster Trends, but really he’s the Wizard of Oz, right? He is an evangelist for Google to help the SEO community understand what Google thinks about the search industry and how they should think about what’s happening at Google, how they should interpret. He is talking about ranking factors, which muddies the water a little bit in terms of whether Google is creating ranking factors or whether it’s something that was created by the SEO community to understand Google, but he’s talking about some of the different ways that SEO should think about optimizing their content and saying content length is not a factor that you should consider.

Content quality is. There was also some stuff about URLs and characters. What else? What else did he talk about?

Jordan:                         Yeah. In the past, I mean, John and others have mentioned things about like what is the general statement on URLs and having keywords in the URL or URL length. There’s been a lot of discussion around ranking factors and site speed as we’ve discussed. The reality is that Google is always very careful in the way that they answer these questions about ranking factors because they don’t necessarily want to point people into just one exclusive direction that, oh, you just must focus on the keyword and the number of keywords or the length of your URL. They want you to focus on the collective of these factors, and they want you to understand how to make the best experience for consumers.

Using data though helps us to best justify that and best understand what’s a priority. I think that’s why ranking factors is so important for us to discuss because this is a tool that we use to understand Google’s algorithm. Without this tool, we’d have far less knowledge and insight into doing our day to day jobs.

Ben:                             Finally, you said something that helps me understand what ranking factors are. At the end of the day, ranking factors are let’s call them a manufactured term by the search community where we collectively have done research and analysis to understand what drives results on Google. We’ve broken things up into technical and content ranking factors, but they are theories of what is in Google’s algorithm. They are not actually part of Google’s algorithm.

Jordan:                         You got, it Ben.

Ben:                             Finally. We figured it out.

Jordan:                         I think you finally figured it out.

Ben:                             All right, everybody. I’m halfway to becoming an SEO, and that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search Podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Jordan Koene, the lead SEO strategist and CEO of Searchmetrics, Inc. We’d love to continue this conversation with you. If you’re interested in contacting Jordan, you could find the link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter. His handle is @JTKoene, J-T-K-O-E-N-E, or you could visit his company’s website, which is Searchmetrics.com. If you have general marketing questions or if you’d like to talk to me about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes, or you can send me a tweet @BenJShap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team. If you liked this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app and we’ll be back in your feed soon. Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed the show and you’re feeling generous, we’d love for you to leave us a review in the Apple iTunes Store or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Okay. That’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.

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