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Ranking Factors from the Future

By Logan Compton

The Web is constantly changing; therefore, the way Google interprets and serves up Web pages to its users changes frequently as well. To stay on top of search trends, content marketing tactics must evolve. After reading “Future-Proof Your Content Rankings With These SEO Tips,” I decided to apply Rand Fishkin’s, co-founder of Moz and, insights to what we see with our higher education partner institutions.    

Rand said that “machine learning” is going to change how Google ranks content, and thus, how content marketers approach optimizing websites. Machine learning, in Google’s case, will most likely involve Google learning from actions taken on previous searches, predicting the user’s intent behind a query, then applying this new context to provide more meaningful search results to its users. So, the way Google ranks content can change without Google engineers actually changing the algorithm. The search engine itself will learn from user behavior and apply those learnings to future searches.

If that’s the case, what should we keep in mind for the future of content optimization? Rand identified five key elements:

  1. Relative CTR. Click-through rate (CTR) has always been important. But, could CTR be a ranking factor for Google?

Rand has said this was the case for a while, as you can see from this blog post from 2014. Now, however, with machine learning, CTR may become even more of a factor.

If users are clicking on your listing in search engine results pages (SERPs), this will send a signal to Google that your listing is relevant to the query. Similar to links, clicks serve as a “vote of popularity.” The more popular you are for certain queries, the more Google will reward you with better organic rankings for those queries.  

What’s our approach?

Optimize not only for rankings but also for click through. This is done by making sure everything that’s visible on SERPs is optimized for users. I’ve grouped this into three categories:

  • Relevance. Do the title tag, URL and meta description have relevant keywords that align with what the user is seeking? Does the description pique the user’s interest and entice them to click through to the site?
  • Reputation. Will the user recognize the brand? Does the site have a drop-down description of the brand that signals reputable content?
  • Timeliness. Is the content timely enough to be relevant?

What do universities need to consider?

  • Relevance. Are your offerings and content relevant to searchers? Where do gaps exist?
  • Reputation. Is your brand recognizable? Are you using other media channels where potential students may see your brand and gain awareness?
  • Timeliness. Sites should have a mix of evergreen and fresh, new content. Are you investing in a blog where new content can regularly be produced?
  1. Short vs. Long-Click. If a user reaches your site, are they finding what they were looking for and sticking around? Better yet, are they navigating further into the site to find even more?

Google will likely take this into consideration and will deem sites that have a high bounce rate and/or one-page visits less relevant to search queries than sites that have high engagement and multiple page views.  

What’s our approach?

User experience is especially important to this one. Make sure pages load quickly, the site works on all browsers, platforms and devices, interlinking is optimized and that you have minimized distractions.

What do universities need to consider?

Sites need to entice users to continue browsing and seeking more information. Users shouldn’t be turned away from the site after one page view.  

  1. Content Gap Fulfillment. Make sure you’re not limiting your optimization efforts to keywords that are only relevant to one particular piece of content.

This idea stood out to me. You need to communicate that your site provides both a broad view of a topic as well as a deeper understanding. Look into the following to maximize your efforts:

  • Terms related to the competitive landscape. For example, if you’re creating content around a video production program, what are some leading brands that might add some relevance to your content and establish your brand as an authority? Even though we’re not going to (or even trying to) rank for these specific brands, Google has the capability to connect these words to the rest of the content.
  • Terms with semantic relation. Include keywords that show more comprehensive coverage of a topic. For example, if you’re targeting users searching for a video production program, try including terms that are semantically related, such as shot types, lighting techniques and editing lingo.
  • Terms that indicate community membership. If you’re trying to reach a niche audience, use that audience’s language and establish your brand as an insider.

What’s our approach?

It’s important to gain a deep understanding of a topic and apply that to keyword research. We look at topics from many angles and make sure we’re catching phrases that we don’t necessarily want to rank for, but that we want associated with keywords/topics that we are targeting

What do universities need to consider?

Make sure you gain an understanding of your target audience and learn to speak their language. Also, capitalize on any unique program offerings you have, such as name-brand tools/software students get to use.

  1. Amplification and Loyalty. Rand Fishkin says next-generation search engines will start to emphasize the engagement with your content relative to social shares and links.

This means that the amount of social shares and links your content gains over time could possibly affect search rankings. Two new metrics Rand suggests we track are shares and links per 1,000 visits and the return visitor ratio over time.

What’s our approach?

We produce interesting, sharable content that users find useful.

What do universities need to consider?

Institutions need to understand their prospective students and understand what kind of content they seek and like to share with their peers.

  1. Task Completion Success. The easier it is to complete a task, the better.

This deals more with transactional searches, but it can be applied to inquiries as well.

What’s our approach?

We A/B test and optimize forms in order to give users the optimal conversion experience.

What do universities need to consider?

Make sure you are offering your website visitors the information they need and offering it in the simplest way possible.

Google is constantly learning more about its users in order to better understand search intent and serve up more meaningful search results. As search trends continue to evolve, Keypath Education will continue to add tactics to our collective search knowledge to maximize our optimization services.

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