How does Google judge content quality? Study shows brands have advantage

10/09/2014

Content with strong topic knowledge, more visual elements, bigger word counts and more relevant words (not just matches for the search term) are more likely to rank highly on Google...but being a brand also helps, according to new research.

The new study by Searchmetrics analysed Google.com search results for 10,000 keywords and 300,000 web sites.

The results suggests content the following key elements help towards ranking highly in Google:

• Ranks highly in search results

• More comprehensively covers the topic

• Easy to read and understand for the average person

• More images and videos

• Generally has a bigger word count

• Includes a greater number of relevant words (ie not just matches for the search term)

View this infographic showing the key findings below:

searchmetrics%2014.jpg

Searchmetrics’ new US Google Rank Correlation and Ranking Factors 2014 study also found that big brand websites still rank in top positions without having to fulfil many of the criteria Google seems to require from other sites.

The results also indicate that Wikipedia is treated as a universal brand by Google, ranking highly, usually at position 2 for many short and generic keywords - often behind the brand site or the URL for the specific term being searched for.

The company found that high quality content covers a topic more comprehensively and is written in a way that is easier for the average person to read.

As expected, these types of pages have better user signals, such as higher click-through rates and more time spent on site. They also have shorter page load times and well-organised internal links. However, well known brand websites still rank in top positions without having to fulfil many of the criteria Google seems to require from other websites.

“Google’s Hummingbird algorithm change means the search engine now has a better understanding of the intent and meaning of searches which improves its ability to deliver relevant content in search results,” said Marcus Tober, Searchmetrics founder and CTO. “This means search engine optimisation is increasingly a holistic discipline. It’s not enough to optimise and rank for one relevant keyword – content must now be relevant to the topic and include several related terms. This helps a page to rank for several terms and creates an improved user experience at the same time.”

The findings come from the new US Google Rank Correlation and Ranking Factors 2014 study announced today by Searchmetrics, the leading global enterprise search experience optimisation platform. The study aims to identify the key factors that web pages that rank well in Google searches have in common and follows similar studies in 2013 and 2012.

This latest study analyses search results from Google.com for 10,000 popular-keywords and approximately 300,000 websites appearing in the top 30 search results and covers key factors that correlate¹ with a high Google ranking. Two key findings from the Searchmetrics Ranking Factors 2014 study are:

1. Google further improves it already educated ability to assess quality and relevance of content, and is awarding higher rankings for it

Google’s algorithm recognises high quality, relevant content and rewards it with higher rankings. High quality, relevant content includes comprehensive relevant wording (not just specific keyword matches), higher word-count on the page, and the presence of images and videos.
Searchmetrics’ analysis found that website content is getting longer on average, with search results in positions two to ten often having more than 900 words per page.

“Just creating more content does not positively influence rankings,” said Marcus Tober. “It’s about developing relevant and comprehensive content for users dealing with more than just one aspect of a certain topic. For example more people searching for web pages about the new iPhone 6 would like content better if it contains information about Apple’s September launch event for the new phone including live streaming information, and rumors about how the phone might look, leaked pictures and changes in areas such as screen and battery life.”

The findings support the idea that search engines are moving away from focusing on single keywords to analysing so-called ‘content clusters’ – individual subjects or topic areas that are based around keywords and a variety of related terms.

For example, Searchmetrics this year tested the importance of ‘relevant’ and ‘proof’ terms related to the searchers’ keywords and found both have a strong positive correlation with high Google rankings. For a search term such as “iPhone 6” Proof terms such as “Apple” or “mobile” are words that are strongly related to the primary keyword and highly likely to appear at the same time. Relevant terms such as “rumors” or “screen size” are a bit more removed and part of a sub-ordinate topic cluster but still important.

Other quality factors analysed by Searchmetrics include:

• Image count: indicating that the more images there are on a page on average, the better the page is ranked.

• Readability: showing that higher ranked pages were easier to read using the Flesch readability scale for assessing the legibility of content.

• Presence of advertising on the page: finding that pages in the top 30 positions included less advertising on average.

2. The Top Positions Are Reserved For Brands and Wikipedia

Well known brand websites continue to rank in the top positions in search results even if they fail to meet certain criteria that other sites need to meet if they want to rank highly. They were found to have less content on average, fewer internal links, and are less likely to have the keyword in the Title or Description (factors which are required much more frequently on high ranking web pages that are not brand sites). Brands do, however, tend to have a larger number of quality backlinks from other high profile and news websites.

The study distinguished between three types of brands, Niche brands, which often rank for niche terms on position 1, Big Brands, which often rank at the top for generic terms, and Wikipedia.
Wikipedia seems to be treated as a universal brand by Google, ranking highly, usually at position 2, for many short and generic keywords. Its position 2 ranking is often behind the brand site or the URL for the specific term being searched for. This is probably because Wikipedia is a universally trusted site, which is regularly updated with a huge amount of excellent, relevant content that is checked and improved constantly by the community itself. It also has a very large volume of backlinks from other sites, which is typical of brand websites.

Other findings of the study include:

• For the first time, Searchmetrics studied the importance of user signals and identified that pages ranking higher in searches tend to have higher click-through rates (CTRs), lower bounce rates and a longer time-on-site.

• The technical performance of a page is one of the basics for good rankings. This includes having a robust site architecture with a well-balanced structure of internal links and shorter page load times (site speed).

• Social signals continue to correlate strongly with better rankings. Google favors its own Google+, which has the highest correlation value of 0.33 followed by Facebook shares, Facebook Likes, Pinterest pins, and then tweets from Twitter. But for rankings, social signals are a bonus, rather than a ranking factor.

• A good profile of backlinks (links to a page from other sites) remains an important factor, but as Searchmetrics’ 2013 study identified, it is not just the sheer number, but increasingly factors regarding the quality of the links, that correlate with high rankings.

“Our study provides a comprehensive overview of the factors that correlate with a high Google ranking as well as an analysis of what the top sites have in common on average” concluded Marcus Tober. “Search professionals must realise that good rankings cannot be achieved by cherry-picking a few factors. Having many backlinks and a fast load-speed will not result in a high ranking if the content on the page is not relevant to the user. Good rankings are based on the interaction of many weighted factors.”

“My advice is to focus on optimising the overall search experience for visitors to your site. Create high quality, accessible content which is relevant and valuable to you target audience; ensure your site is technically excellent to drive a good user experience; and promote it using social media and PR to drive quality natural backlinks.”

The detailed report which outlines the full results from the Searchmetrics US Ranking Factors 2014 study can be downloaded here. And an infographic highlighting the key findings can be found here.

Searchmetrics notes that while its study highlights those factors that correlate closely with a high Google ranking, it is not possible to say that these factors definitively cause or influence the rankings i.e. correlation is not the same as causation.

Methodology

The study analysed Google US (Google.com) search results for 10,000 keywords and 300,000 web sites, featuring in the top 30 positions, as well as billions of backlinks, Tweets, Google plus ones, Tweets, Pins and Facebook likes, shares and comments. The correlations between different factors and the Google search results were calculated using Spearman's rank correlation coefficient.

Correlations were calculated using Spearman's rank correlation coefficient. A coefficient score of +1 implies a perfect positive correlation and a score of -1 implies a perfect negative correlation. In Searchmetrics’ analysis a high positive correlation coefficient occurs for a factor if higher ranking pages have that feature / or more of that feature, while lower ranking pages do not / or have less of that feature.

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