Content as a ranking factor

The importance of content as a ranking factor

20th May 2016 - 15 minutes read  SearchSEO
Imogen Davies - SEO Lead

SEO Ranking Factors Series #1: Content.

In a series of posts, we look at some of the key factors that Google and the other search engines take into consideration when deciding on where to place a site for a given search query. First up is a look at content and the part that it plays.

Content as a Ranking Factor

Content is the most important of all on-page SEO ranking factors. How you speak to the user determines how search engines will then view you.

What is great content? From a search engine’s perspective, it has to meet a need, answer the search query and it must be linkable. It also has to conform to the technical aspects that search engine ‘spiders’ such as Googlebot are looking for.

As Google and other search engines evolve, the most successful websites take a holistic attitude to their content. They incorporate the correct elements such as keywords and internal links, but never at the expense of producing content that is of serious value to the reader, to answer the query, encourage a click-through and keep people on the page.

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The key elements of great on-site content are as follows…

‘Proof terms’ in the content

You shall know a word by the company it keeps” J. R. Firth, 1957

Strongly linked to the primary keyword on the page, ‘proof terms’are those thematic words that you would expect to find in most or all articles on a given topic. So if you’re writing about the environment and your keyword is “climate change”, then the ‘proof terms’ one would expect to find in the article might be “global warming” or “climate science”.

A study by Searchmetrics in 2015 found over three-quarters of highly ranked websites used ‘proof terms’ in their content.

The great thing about ‘proof terms’ is that they tend to appear completely naturally whenever you’re producing in-depth content on a topic, so it’s often not necessary to think too hard about them.

N.B.  it’s best to avoid discussing two or more topics on the same web page as this will confuse search engines, a situation known as topic dilution.

‘Relevant terms’ in the content

In the same Searchmetrics study as mentioned above, it was noticed that half of all highly ranked websites utilised ‘relevant terms’. These are words not as closely correlated with the keyword as ‘proof terms’ but still contextually linked. So if your keyword is “exercise”, then “sweat” or “weight loss” might be ‘relevant terms’, whereas cupboard would not.

By looking at a list of ‘relevant terms’ for a specific keyword, we should be able to make an accurate guess as to what the keyword itself is. Let’s say you’re creating a landing page for a hotel. Your primary keyword may be “Mayfair hotel”, but you might have a range of ‘relevant terms’ within the content such as “Mayfair rooms”, “inexpensive lodgings in London”, “breakfast included”. Again, these terms tend to appear naturally as you write about a topic and help convince search engines that your page contains relevant content for the query.

The rise in importance of ‘relevant terms’ coincides with a decline in the importance of keywords. What Google is looking for is evidence of relevance, and by providing contextual depth you are doing just that.
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Keywords in the internal links

An internal link is one that targets the same domain, or in other words, links to another page on the same website. The reason good internal link structuring is important is threefold. Firstly, it helps your site visitors to get around and find what they’re looking for – if they’re on a law firm’s website and reading an article about information on divorce law for instance, then an internal link to another article dealing with the amicable division of assets could well be of interest to them.

Secondly, internal links help search engines to understand the architecture of a website and index it for future reference. Poor internal link structure, which can have many causes, frustrates the efforts of spiders to crawl a website and in doing so prevents it from ranking.

Thirdly, it distributes page authority and ranking power around your website, telling the search engines that you think certain content is important.

The best optimised internal links will have a descriptive keyword in the anchor text placed after the link referral location, such as:

<a href=”http://www.randomlawfirm.co.uk/”>Division of assets</a>

This helps Google know that the linked-to page is important and improves the flow of relevance to that page for that specific keyword topic.

Embedding the internal link within the body text, simply highlighting it, is more than enough, since it will be surrounded by relevant contextual content. The anchor text for links going to the same page should be varied, so long as they remain closely correlated to the keyword you want to rank for. It’s important to remember also that the page linked to must actually add value.

Keywords in your external links

The quantity and quality of external hyperlinks heading to your site and from your site to others are considered to be one of, if not the most important ranking factor in SEO. The “link-juice” they impart carries extra weight because they are third-party recommendations – think of it as a popularity contest.

Key metrics in external links include the trustworthiness of the site they originate from, the relevancy between the source and the target page(s), and the relevancy of the anchor text in the link.

So again using the example of the law firm with its page about the division of assets, one site might link to it using the anchor text of “splitting property between partners” while another might use the anchor text “avoiding conflict when dividing assets during a divorce”. By accurately reflecting the true nature of the content they’re linking to, both tell Google what the target page is about and help to improve its relevance scoring.

However, when earning links for your content, caution is advised. Overuse of what is known as exact match keyword anchor text in links from external domains is one of the most common red flags for link profile manipulation, which Googlebot can detect through its Penguin algorithm. In practice, most external links to a domain either (a) have brand anchor text, or (b) simply use the URL. Keep a close eye on the anchor text of your incoming links to ensure you avoid algorithmic or manual actions.

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Keywords in the body text

While still necessary in SEO, keywords are no longer as influential as they once were. Remember that what Google is looking for more than anything else now is relevancy, rather than keyword density, which doesn’t necessarily tell it anything.

Focus most on the meaning behind your content, instead of just repeating the term that you want to rank for. Keywords can be placed in various segments of the page from the Title tag to image tags and the URL, but placing them in the body text is essential to establish a robust semantic core to the content.

Of course, when writing about a topic, the keywords in the body will often just flow naturally but you should be aiming to include plenty of ‘relevant’ and ‘proof terms’ also. Two or three usages of your keyword in the body text of a page is enough to ensure the message of what the page is about gets through to search engines.

The word count of a page

While there’s no set word count for a web page, and the maxim that quality is always better than quantity generally holds true, long-form content does tend to be more valuable than short snippets. If you’re publishing articles, then a length of 1000+ words is thought to be best, providing that the topic you are writing about requires a large amount of background information. Google likes high-quality information and that usually can’t be conveyed in a 250-word article. Similarly, if you are creating list-based content, for example, then Google may see a 2,000+ word list-based article as poor quality, assuming you are trying to manipulate the ranking algorithm for one reason or another as it isn’t giving the user the value they need straight away.

Try to produce unique or original content that is useful to the reader and that utilises keywords, but remember that if yours is a topic that deserves talking about at length, then Google will probably agree. It will likely look at the genre of the website, so if you’re a journalist operating an online publication then it would expect to see considerable amounts of content but if you are a Chester pet-grooming parlour, it would not.

Keywords in page descriptions

When you write a meta description for a page, you’re effectively giving Google a snippet of information that it then uses on its SERPs as a summary of that same page. Optimising this short description, normally between 150 and 160 characters, with the right keywords, while it may not have any effect on your ranking, can greatly boost your click-through rates. It’s your best opportunity to concisely inform a reader that your page contains the information they need.

Once you know the keyword you want to target in the description, you then combine that with information about your site and a call to action for the user to click the link. It’s a form of organic ad copy and requires accurate representation of what the on-page content is actually about, and being distinct from all of your other page descriptions, where reasonably possible, to work as it should.

Readability and the Flesch readability scale

Readability in your on-page content is vital, since if the text is too complex, with long, technical words that are difficult for the layperson to understand, most users won’t stay long. The Flesch Readability Test, developed by author Rudolf Flesch, produces scores based on the average sentence length and average number of syllables per word, with the highest scores being the most readable.

If your page produces a score around 60-70 out of 100, this is considered about average, with sentences in the region of 15-20 words in length and words averaging around two syllables. Note that if your score is too high, this can have the reverse effect of convincing readers the page content is beneath them, and causing them to click away. So be smart, just not too smart.

Importance of content

Much of search engine optimised content is in some ways open to interpretation. It’s not unknown for meta descriptions to be left blank for the search engines to pull out what they consider relevant text from the page to use as snippets, for instance. The value of high word counts is debatable and many now believe that keywords are nowhere near as important as they used to be.

What is unarguable, however, is that it has never been more essential to have useful, original and relevant content on a page, content that is easy to understand and link to, and embedded within a semantically-rich contextual framework.