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What are the most important factors to consider in SEO?
Abstract — Only in Germany, 23.9 million of the over 14-year-old german-speaking population used search engines on the internet for their information search daily in 2017. Compared to 21.08 milion in 2016, this is a growth of 13.38 percent (Statista, 2018). According to other studies, over 85 percent of all internet sessions start with the type-in into search engines (Erlhofer, 2014, p. 31). Therefore, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) offers a huge potential for companies to deliver the right information to interested users when they ask for it actively. To succeed against their competitors, it is important for companies to appear as high as possible in the search engine results pages (SERPs). The question about the most important factors to consider in SEO for good ranking positions is always highly discussed in SEO communities because Google reveals as little as possible to avoid manipulation.
But one thing appears to be clear: because of highly developed machine-learning-algorithms which influence Googles’ valuation of a website for its ranking, classical ranking factors can no longer be used as standard for every search query anymore, but relevant content as well as user experience have become important (Searchmetrics, 2016, p. 6).
The fact that consumers use the Internet mainly for “searching for information” and for “the use of search engines” (van Eimeren & Frees, 2014, p. 386) demonstrates that consumers use the internet actively to gather the information they want, which increases the importance of SEO. If a company does not appear for its relevant keywords at the first five result pages, it will hardly get organic clicks (Baye, De los Santos & Wildenbeest, 2016, p. 27). An eye tracking study from usability in 2016 also explored that users focus on the organic results with the highest rankings in the SERPs. Due to the results of the study, organic search results are more important than ever before because users meanwhile are aware of paid ads at the top of the page and are likely to ignore them (Usability, 2016). 70 percent of the study’s participants made their first click on an organic search result (cf. ibid).
There are over 200 different factors which take part in Google’s ranking valuation for organic search results and Google’s valuation systems get more and more differentiated every year (Erlhofer, 2016, p.29) Due to highly developed machine-learning-algorithms, Google’s algorithm meanwhile is valuating websites in real-time and the ranking factors are getting more and more dynamic and complex (Aubele, Spriestersbach & Fischer, 2016, p. 45).
This paper is going to illustrate the currently most important factors to consider. First of all, the author explains why classical ranking factors can no longer be seen as standard for every search query and which factors recently have become more and more important. To answer the question of this paper, closer looks at On-Page and Off-Page Optimization and the currently most important factors to consider within it will take place. Furthermore, these factors will get summarized. As a main basis for the most important factors, the Searchmetrics study “Reboot ranking factors”, which shows the most important ranking factors for 2017, is used and supported with other relevant sources. As the worldwide leader of a search- and content-performance-platform, Searchmetrics can refer to its own, huge data pool with over 250 billion market data which have been collected over many years. The data basis for the study contains a main set of 10,000 relevant keywords for which ranking factors have been calculated on the basis of correlation (Searchmetrics 2016, p. 8 – 10).
Since Google is the search engine with the by far largest market share (Statista, 2018) and many factors for Google can also be used for optimization of other search engines (Lewandowski, 2015, p. 6), this paper will focus on SEO for Google.
As already mentioned above, the classical ranking factors are no longer the same for every search query (Searchmetrics, 2016, p. 6). Due to that, Searchmetrics announced that they will not publish their ranking factors study anymore like they did each year from 2012 to 2016, but that they will focus on specific ranking factors for single industries in the future instead (Searchmetrics, 2016, p. 10). According to Searchmetrics, the reasons why ranking factors cannot be generalized any longer are the development and the use of machine-learning-algorithms, which are able to valuate every search query from another point of view and to valuate websites in real-time (Searchmetrics, 2016, p. 6). In 2016, Google launched the machine-learning artificial intelligence system “RankBrain”, which is able to answer search queries which have never been asked before by using neural networks and helps to deliver even more precise search results, also for very specific search queries (Aubele, Spriestersbach & Fischer, 2016, p. 34 - 39). As a result of this, user experience (UX) and relevant content have become increasingly important for a good ranking position as Google wants to satisfy its users (Shenoy & Prabhu, 2016, p. 21), especially because RankBrain is able to search for contents which will lead to a good user result with the highest probability (Aubele, Spriestersbach & Fischer, 2016, p. 45).
As user experience and the measurable user signals have to be considered for nearly all SEO factors, it will get explained in the following part of the paper. Because content is part of On-Page Optimization, it will get explained in part four, which is about On-Page Optimization.
In general, “user experience” is about the experience a user makes with a website (Schilling, 2018, pp. 85-86).
In relation with the quality of a websites’ contents and the user experience a user makes on the site, “user signals” like click-through-rate (CTR), time on site and bounce rate already are important for a good organic ranking because they make it possible for Google to evaluate if a users’ search intention got fulfilled (Aubele, Spriestersbach & Fischer, 2016, p. 45). A satisfied user may remain longer on a website and not jump back into the search results, which can be measured by his time on site and the bounce rate (cf. ibid). To get good user signals, the user experience on a site or rather the usability of a site must be good. Possibilities to optimize the user experience are the use of headlines, an easy navigation and site structure, page speed or mobile friendliness (Erlhofer, 2014, pp. 803–815). These factors will get further explained within this paper.
In order to answer the paper’s question, the following part is about factors in On-Page- and Off-Page Optimization which have to be considered even if they are not of the same importance for every search query. They have been the most important ones in 2017 according to the Searchmetrics study of 2016, but they also can be found in various other sources which also have been used. One big reason why they all still have to be considered is that they influence user experience (Shenoy & Prabhu, 2016, p. 21).
On-Page Optimization includes all measures at the own website and is all about designing, structuring and presenting of contents to make them easily readable for search engines and humans and – as a result of it – improve the ranking of a website (Lewandowski, 2015, p. 167). The main components of On-Page Optimization are content and technical aspects (cf. ibid).
Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten
Figure 1. Most important factors to consider for On-Page Optimization
This part of the paper will explain all factors which can be seen in figure 1, which is based on the author’s core findings.
The use of relevant content is very important today because thanks to RankBrain, Google gets better and better in recognizing and pooling of similar search queries with the same intention (Aubele, Spriestersbach & Fischer, 2016, p. 45). All in all, Google prefers contents which examine topics “holistically”, which means to answer all possible questions a user might have to a specific topic (Ansari & Mueller, 2017, p. 131). By creating holistic content, it is important not to focus only on length, but also on quality and topic (Kronenberg, 2017). As an example, Kronenberg states that someone who looks for “family holiday” probably has not the same intention as someone who looks for “holiday with baby” or “holiday with dog”. If a site tries to handle all of this on one page, it may lose focus (Kronenberg, 2017). If holistic content is used in the right way, it can create better rankings by good user signals (users do not leave the page for another search because they already have all relevant information), the coverage of longtail keyword-combinations which would not make sense in short texts or by the huge potential they offer for Off-Page Optimization (a lot of links can be used in long texts) (Kaeppner & Metzner, 2018, p. 98).
As the creation of content is more a Content Marketing than a SEO topic, this paper focuses on relevant factors of structuring and presenting content in the optimum way for SEO.
As a basis for improving the ranking position, relevant contents for search queries and the typed-in keywords must exist. The relevant keywords can usually be found by keyword research with tools like Google Keyword Planner (Ansari & Müller, 2017, pp. 177 – 179). After the determination of the keywords and the creation of content, so-called “WDF*IDF” analysis help to find out whether the relevant keywords are used in an appropriate way. WDF*IDF is a calculation which looks at the frequency of a keyword in the present document (Within-document Frequency, WDF) and the frequency of the keyword in the present document compared to other documents on the internet (Inverse-document Frequency, IDF) (Primeseo, 2017). To use the right frequencies for relevant keywords is important because, among other things, Google decides which results it is going to show for a search query by looking for sites with the right keyword frequency (Erlhofer, 2016, p. 514). According to the Searchmetrics study of 2016, the relevance of single keywords for ranking is further decreasing, but holistic content and especially the relevance of its various keywords are very important (Searchmetrics, 2016, pp. 16-21). Therefore, the creation of contents should not only be focused on their WDF*IDF score but also on their relevance for users and their search intention (Erlhofer, 2016, p. 515). To get to know the users’ possible search intention, keyword researches with tools like Google Keyword Planner or taking a deeper look at Google Trends can help (Ansari & Mueller, 2017, pp. 89–98).
The optimization of title-tags and meta descriptions is important for presenting contents in the search results (Erlhofer, 2016, pp. 485-489).
The title-tag is also shown as title in the SERPs and can have an influence on the ranking of a site (Ansari & Mueller, 2017, p. 183). A good title should include the main keyword an URL wants to rank for, animate the user to click on it and be unique for every URL (Erlhofer, 2016, pp. 485-489). Moreover, the main keyword should be at the first place and the title should not exceed a length of 600 pixel or rather 80 characters (Ryte, 2017).
The meta description has no direct influence on the ranking of a site, but it should animate users to click on it (Ansari & Mueller, 2017, pp. 183 - 184). When keywords of the meta description correspond with the search query, the keywords will be shown as bold letters (cf. ibid). If an URL has no meta description, Google will use the first readable signs from the body of a site (cf. ibid). The advantage of optimized titles and meta descriptions is that contents of an URL get clear for the user which affects the user experience after the click in a positive way (Lewandowski, 2015, p. 141).
To improve the crawlability of an URL for Google, URLs should be “talking”, which means that they should include their main keyword (Erlhofer, 2014, p. 369). Moreover, talking URLs help users to see what the content of an URL is about. This in turn may lead to more site visits because users often are more likely to click on talking URLs than on cryptic ones (Dziki, 2017).
Headlines help to describe the topic of a site or a part of it, and search engines also use them for their analysis (Ansari & Mueller, 2017, p. 193). In HTML, headings with the <h1> tag to the <h6> tag are intended (Erlhofer, 2014, p. 489). The downgrading from <h1> to <h6> can be seen as structure, where <h1> is the highest level and should include the main keywords of a site (cf. ibid, p. 487). Headlines make sites more user-friendly, which is useful for positive user signals and user experience. It is advised to use just one <h1> headline on an URL (cf. ibid, p. 489).
After the creation and optimization of contents, the technical set up of a website is also important to make Google able to crawl it without any problems (Lewandowski, 2015, p. 169). The most important technical factors for 2017 according to the Searchmetrics study have been (Searchmetrics, 2016, p. 5): Page speed, HTTPS-encodings, internal links, site architecture and mobile friendliness.
One very important technical aspect is page speed, i.e. the time a website or a document on the website needs to get loaded (Saha, R. & Grover, S., 2011, p 55). Because of high exit rates on slowly loading websites, search engines devaluate them (Lewandowski, 2015, p. 169). One reason why Google wants fast page speeds is user experience, the other reason is the crawlability of a website. John Müller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, answered in a Google Webmaster Help thread that their crawlers don’t crawl a website regularly if it needs more than about 2 seconds to load (Mueller, 2015). Companies can control their page speed with tools like PageSpeed Insights, Google Analytics or Google Search-Console. Some of the optimization possibilities for slowly loading websites are: Reducing CSS, compressing pictures or reducing the response time of servers (Ansari & Mueller, 2017, pp. 203-206). In January 2018, Wang and Phan, employees of Google, announced in Google’s webmaster central blog that there will be an update in July 2018 which is going to make the page speed also for a ranking factor for mobile searches (Wang & Phan, 2018). Therefore, it is getting more and more important for webmasters to improve the page speed of their websites, especially for mobile devices.
HTTPS (Hypertext Transport Protocol Security) sites include the SSL 2048-bit key, which “can protect a site connection through authentication and encryption” (Potosky, 2018). Especially for online shops where users leave sensitive data like their credit card number, security is very important. To make the web more secure for users, Google announced that Google Chrome is going to mark all HTTP sites as “not secure” up from July 2018 (Google Security Blog, 2018).
But why is HTTPS an important factor for SEO? On the one hand, Google announced HTTPS as a ranking factor already in 2014, and its importance is still growing since then (Schwartz, 2016). Furthermore, HTTPS sites load faster than HTTP sites, which has a positive influence on the page speed.
“Site architecture” is about the technical set up and structure of a website (Lewandowski, 2015, p. 169). It is important here that search engines can crawl the website easily. One obstacle for example is flash documents, which are used for animations on websites (Erlhofer, 2014, p. 337). Even if this can create multimedia experiences for users, it is not advised to use flash for search engine optimized websites because crawler cannot read it. Instead of using a flash version only, it is advised to create one flash version and one HTML version of the website or to change to HTML-5 or CSS3 technologies (Erlhofer, 2014, p. 337).
In order to help search engines to index new contents, sitemaps are used. Sitemaps deliver information about the website and about the content of an URL by using standardized protocols. For Google, different formats like XML, RSS 2,0 or text can be used for sitemaps (Ansari & Mueller, 2017, p. 201).
Another factor that also has to be considered within the website architecture is duplicate content, which means that specific contents are available on different URLs (Erlhofer, 2014, p.406). If content is duplicate, Google decides which content is going to be shown to the user. With the Panda update in 2011, Google started to devalue sites with duplicate content (cf. ibid.).
Links are important because search engines find and value documents by the amount and quality of links, also called their “linkpower” (Ansari & Mueller, 2017, p. 194). On-Page Optimization deals with internal links on a website, but the principle is nearly the same for On-Page- as well as Off-Page Optimization: The value of a website is transmitted by internal links, external links and inbound links and sites with many inbounding links of good quality are better valued by search engines (cf. ibid.). The value is split on all inbounding and outgoing (external) links of a site (cf. ibid., pp. 195–196). According to the study of Searchmetrics, internal links are still one of the most important ranking factors, which help users and search engines as well to understand the site and to find relevant URLs. Not the amount of links counts, but their relevance for users, which influences user experience again (Searchmetrics, 2016, p. 43). Search engines can determine relevant links for example by the number of clicks on them (Ansari & Mueller, 2017, p. 195). Therefore, it is important to use links which are interesting and helpful for users. Concerning the link texts, it is advised to use different ones for every link to tell Google the topic and the keyword focus of the site which it is linked to. By using the same link texts for different links, contradictory information would be transmitted to Google because different URLs usually don’t have the same keyword focus (Ansari & Mueller, 2017, p. 196).
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