Search engine ranking factors, then and now
SEO used to be easy. Inflating a page with redundant keywords and a high volume of backlinks was all it took to balloon a Trojan horse full of advertising up the front page of results for any given keyword.
Thankfully the environment has improved considerably over the past decade. Big Google updates like Panda in 2011 and Penguin in 2012 put a definitive end to fluff sites, shady backlink schemes and keyword manipulation. The algorithms have become sufficiently sophisticated that black hat SEO tricks simply don’t work anymore — on the contrary, they often result in a ranking penalty.
The present environment heavily favors sites that offer original, valuable content in a clear and current manner. If you want to climb the SERPs, quality counts. Many of the primary ranking factors remain the same. It’s the details of how they are evaluated that have changed.
Backlinks, meaning incoming links to a page from other web sources, continue to be a touchy subject in the SEO industry. They’re undeniably a huge ranking factor since they are —and pretty much always has been — the most straightforward way for an algorithm to evaluate human reactions to content. After all, human perception of value is what search engines are trying to replicate, and in an ideal environment a high volume of links to a particular page would certainly suggest quality.
Unfortunately, the environment online is far from ideal. Google has been busily fighting this issue since day one, both incrementally in minor updates like Allegra and dramatically in big ones like Panda.
What this means for us is: backlinks count, but only from quality sources.Getting links from quality sources takes hard work. It’s a question of building legitimacy by the traditional method: creating great content, and marketing it honestly.
What Google is looking for are “organic,” natural links. Guest blogging can help, but only at legitimate sites. Requesting links at sources that would gain value from your content can be effective. “Correlated” activity like social media and real world networking can boost your content indirectly, but it’s important to note that Google doesn’t recognize social media shares as backlinks. Social media and other brand-building activities bleed into recognized link sources indirectly by increasing visibility, which generates quality backlinks naturally. It’s a ripple effect, not a search factor.
Stuffing content with a high density of keywords is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and while some SEOs will argue in support of a mythical “ideal keyword percentage” for web content, keyword optimizing pretty much stopped working in the early 00s.
This isn’t to say that keywords aren’t important. In general, the best practice for keywords is to use them when natural and most importantly avoid overuse, given that being flagged as suspicious by quality filters comes with a heavy cost in PageRank. Google doesn’t like redundant material.
Content farming was a huge problem before Panda, when the web was overgrown with sites taking advantage of an algorithmic preference for quantity of new pages by regurgitating rewritten content — often copied from other sites — over and over again.
While content isn’t necessarily a ranking factor in and of itself so long as Google can tell it wasn’t plagiarized or rewritten, content quality obviously has a huge effect on how a page performs in the wild, and sends off strong indirect signals about the quality of a page. Additionally, as keywords decline in importance, content picks up some of the tab and provides clues to page subject relevancy. As the algorithms get smarter, this trend is likely to increase.
One of Google’s top programmers directly confirmed that META tags aren’t a search factor all the way back in 2009. Regardless, many SEOs still offer META optimization as part of their service. Why?
The fact is, well-formulated META tags may not be a ranking factor, but they remain a strong correlation factor. They allow you to determine the description that shows under a page’s search result, making the result clear and clickable. Additionally, META tags optimized to generate an attractive link on social media platforms offers indirect reputation benefits.
The Big Picture
SEO has changed profoundly over the past decade. What used to be a black hat industry engaged in data manipulation has become a white hat industry engaged in monitoring and encouraging best practices, encouraging a value-driven web environment. More recent Google updates have boosted the ranks of sites with mobile-friendly layouts and HTTPS, signaling a change of course toward a more orderly web focused on reputation and multi-device accessibility. SEO is sure to play a positive role in that metamorphosis.