Few industries change as regularly as marketing. We’re kept on our toes constantly by audiences, technology and search engines, among so many other outside factors. To continue being successful, we have to keep up.

That’s why the release of the latest Searchmetrics Ranking Factors report is so important. The document is packed with useful data on all of the past year’s changes that affect today’s online marketers.

In fact, you could say there’s too much info on offer, so we decided to pick some of the key points out of the full 45-page version to create a more digestible overview.

What’s covered?

This particular report focuses on desktop-specific search, although Searchmetrics is expected to release the mobile equivalent in the coming weeks.

The key areas it covers are:

  • Technical SEO
  • User experience
  • Content
  • Social signals
  • Backlinks

We’ll use this list as something of a contents page, and take you through each section, highlighting the main things you need to know. Here goes…

Technical SEO

Too many site-owners neglect the technical health of their websites in favour of going after the quickest possible results. This is bad practice, though – after all, a healthy website is much more likely to perform well in organic search.

Here are a few of the main things you need to stay on top of:

  • Crawling and indexing
  • On-site page structure
  • Aggregated auditing
  • Site speed (for mobile and desktop)
  • Site architecture
  • Content hierarchy / internal linking
  • HTML improvement areas
  • Google Search Console messages (formerly Webmaster Tools)

Much of this can be tracked easily with the help of a decent dashboard. Below is an example from Vertical Leap’s own deep data platform, Apollo Insights.


It’s only when you can track these things that you have the chance to improve your site, which should be the main objective.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, you’ll find that certain patterns and behaviours are shared by the most successful sites. They use the meta description tag effectively, for instance, and they all have clear page structure elements.

At this point, it’s also worth noting that internal linking is becoming more important, while exact match keyword domains aren’t quite as effective as they once were.

User experience

Instead of trying to find cheats and quick fixes, put the user at the heart of everything you do. Every update to your site should be made with them firmly in mind.

Start by developing an understanding of exactly what it is that your audience wants from your site. This is important, as their on-page experiences can directly impact SEO performance.

The Searchmetrics report looks at the behaviour of the top sites to determine what works best for the user. Here’s what the researchers found:

  1. The use of images has increased, supporting the idea that a mix of content types is conducive to great search performance.
  2. Video integration, on the other hand, is in decline – a little surprising when you consider the fact that people are, in general, consuming more video content than ever.
  3. Google’s recent algorithm updates have pushed more of the top sites to make their pages responsive – an extra ten per cent on last year, in fact.
  4. Internal links are being used more frequently, encouraging the growth of content hubs.
  5. Websites are becoming more interactive, perhaps in an attempt to keep users’ ever-shortening attention.


With most of society now glued to their Smartphone screens, content has taken pride of place on the digital marketing spectrum — never before has it been so important.

It’s something that every website has in some shape or form, but so few get it completely right. From the study’s findings, though, we can start to see exactly what works and what doesn’t. Here are a few tips:

Create deeper content: Searchmetrics found that the average word-count of articles published by the top 10 sites was close to 1,300. A diet based solely on short, bite-sized content, then, is bad for your organic search performance. Aim instead to create in-depth pieces that show off your knowledge and industry authority.

Put keywords on the backburner: It’s clear that the importance of keywords is declining. This isn’t just for body content, either; it includes the use of exact match keywords in meta descriptions and links (both internal and external).

Switch your attention to ‘proof’ terms: More of the top sites are focusing their attention on the simpler terms needed to identify a content topic. ‘Google Panda,’ for example, might have proof terms like ‘Google,’ ‘Penguin,’ ‘penalty’ and ‘algorithm.’

Social signals

Search performance and social success aren’t intrinsically linked, but the report highlights a definite correlation between the two. Websites that make it to the number one spot in the SERPS tend to have twice as many Facebook ‘likes’ than those in second place, for example. There’s a similar trend with Google Plus ‘+1s’, and Pinterest activity is also on the up. The only real surprise is that Twitter activity seems to be less important, with tweets and retweets declining among the top 30 sites.

Still, it’s enough to prove that social media should be a part of your overall online strategy.


Backlinks may not have the best reputation in SEO these days, but this is only down to the way they’ve been misused as ‘quick fixes’ in the past. In actual fact, they’re essential an ingredient of search – without them, no search engine would be able to function.

Here’s why they’re so important:

  • They link content together to make it more discoverable, enhancing the user’s experience
  • They pass trust between related sites
  • They’re a mark of a site’s popularity and credibility
  • They bring traffic to a site
  • Discovering missing or broken content through backlinks helps us to fix content gaps

It seems most of the top site-owners realise this too. The report found that:

  1. The top sites have substantially more backlinks and referring websites
  2. Many also have older backlinks
  3. More backlinks include domain names, suggesting the rise of natural linking
  4. Fewer backlinks contain keywords, once again supporting natural linking
  5. More news sites are linking back to website homepages

Watch this space…

As mentioned, this version of the report shines the light on desktop-specific search trends. Searchmetrics is preparing a mobile version, that, given Google’s recent ‘mobilegeddon’ updates, should be considered essential reading for any success-hungry marketer.

In the meantime, try putting some of the info above into action and see how it affects your website’s search performance.


This analysis was provided by Vertical Leap, a search agency based in Portsmouth and London.

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