Attracting an audience to your content is an ongoing challenge, particularly as the pay-to-be-seen aspect of social media platforms grows.
Organic search, though, remains a steadfast choice. As you climb the rankings and begin to attract a steady flow of traffic, which signals matter most in search? How can you optimize your content for maximum impact?
Follow this primer detailing seven signals you should be sending to Google (and its searchers).
What Google wants
Imagine you call 411 for a doctor’s phone number. You dial the digits but find a mechanic on the other end. You hang up.
Now imagine you search for “marketing plan template” on Google, click on a link, and find yourself viewing a general marketing article with no helpful content. You immediately bounce from the page. And Google realizes your quick visit means the content didn’t deliver what you wanted.
Google wants to deliver the content searchers seek. As such, Google employees follow the company’s 164-page Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines to rate web pages. These human ratings are used to train the algorithm what to show in the search results.
In the most recent guidelines, Google stresses the importance of three key components:
Let’s tackle those signals first and then proceed to another four helpful signals.
You can prove to Google your site deserves expert recognition. First and most obvious, have an in-depth section about your targeted topic on the site. Include your in-house subject matter experts’ qualifications, including education, awards, etc.
If your byline content is written by experts, include a bio at the end of every article. Though not in depth, it should strengthen your expert reputation.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, build your brand across the internet. Your website doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Google bots scour the internet to see if you show up in other places. The more Google sees these brand signals, the more proof it has that you’re an expert.
As Neil Patel notes:
“… (B)rand signals prove to Google that you’re legit – you’re not merely a ‘generic’ charlatan.
The way I see it, building brand signals is fast becoming an important way to establish trust with Google and increase your exposure in the search engines.
On top of this, effectively building brand signals should also have a positive impact on your overall brand equity.”
How do you create brand signals? Primarily by creating and publishing high-quality content in a variety of locations. I’m talking about things like guest posts, podcasts, a YouTube channel, social media profiles, etc. Essentially, you want to show Google your website is part of a bigger, more powerful brand.
Hands down, the most effective way to demonstrate authority is to create amazing content. Or, as John Mueller of Google puts it, the key to ranking for a term is “awesomeness.”
What does awesomeness look like? Your content should cover the subject in more depth and breadth than anything out there. While length isn’t necessarily a direct ranking factor, the longer a piece of content is, the more likely it is to cover a subject in detail. A recent study by Backlinko confirms that content length correlates with rankings.
The moral of the story? Demonstrate your authority to Google by creating content that covers every angle of your subject. If you settle for mediocre, short, fluff content, you don’t stand much of a chance of ranking.
The last thing Google wants is to send searchers to a deceitful or fraudulent page.
Thankfully with a trusted, secure site it isn’t that difficult to demonstrate your trustworthiness.
First and foremost, you must use HTTPS over HTTP protocol on your website. This simply shows Google that your website has precautions to ensure that user data won’t be stolen.
From there, make it clear who has authored the content. Ensure that your content is original. Don’t plagiarize (this is huge). If Google determines that you’re stealing content from another site, it can penalize your site.
If you collect information, such as an email for a subscription, or data to complete a purchase, use the right tools to secure your form fields, signed documents, checkout, etc. If you use affiliate marketing or are profiting off any aspect of your site, be transparent and disclose that to visitors.
You also demonstrate trustworthiness by including social proof in the form of reviews or testimonials:
4. Search intent
Google is in the business of delivering relevant results to searchers, which is why it now focuses more on search intent than keyword match. In other words, Google delivers results in line with what it thinks the searcher wants, not just results using the searcher’s words.
For example, when someone searches “cruises,” Google recognizes there’s a better chance the person is considering going on a cruise than wanting to learn about the cruising industry. Google will return results showing cruise booking pages, not a Wikipedia page.
The implication? Your content should be created not just to match keywords but to match the intent behind those keywords. Ask, “Why would a person be searching for this particular term? What questions do they want to have answered?” Then do everything in your power to address those items.
When you create intent-based content, it results in more engagement from the readers. They spend longer on your site, which is likely a signal to Google that the content is relevant to the search.
As Sam Kusinitz of HubSpot puts it:
Because this is the information readers are looking for when they enter their search term, websites that serve it to them will receive more engagement by website visitors. Google then interprets this increased engagement as a good answer to the visitor’s question, ranking the URL higher as a result.”
A backlink is a link to your content published by another website. Google treats these backlinks as popularity votes of sorts. In other words, if numerous sites link to a piece of content on your site, Google sees that your content is important and relevant.
How do you get high-quality backlinks? The simplest, most effective way is to create amazing content that people will naturally want to link to. The best backlink content:
Brian Dean calls this kind of content a “linkable asset.” He writes:
“I’m not sure who coined the phrase ‘Linkable Asset,’ but it’s the perfect description of what you want to create: a high-value page that you can leverage for links over and over again.
Keep in mind that a linkable asset is not ‘12 Things Spider-Man Taught Me About Social Media Marketing’ link-bait nonsense.
It’s content so awesome, so incredible, and so useful that people can’t help but log into their WordPress dashboard and add a link to your site.”
In other words, it’s content so impressive that people feel compelled to link to it. It’s also content so valuable that visitors are compelled to consume it.
TIP: Give away a resource in conjunction with your content to make it more compelling. For example, if you craft an in-depth article on how to build a resume, include a free resume template.
Creating amazing content is only the first step. You need to reach out to the valuable sites and influencers to let them know about the content so they can link and share it. Your outreach needs to be targeted. You can’t randomly blast emails out and expect people to link to your content.
6. Page speed
How long are you willing to wait for a website to load? If you’re like most people, you won’t wait more than three seconds.
Google is increasingly ranking reliable, faster sites ahead of slower sites. How can you speed up your site? Some simple solutions include:
- Minimize HTTP requests.
- Use a fast web host.
- Employ a content delivery system and enable caching.
- Compress large images.
- Mine and combine files.
- Remove plug-ins, apps, widgets, and any third-party script that drastically slows load time.
To learn your website speed, use Google PageSpeed Insights. It will score both the desktop and mobile versions of your site, as well as give you suggestions for how to improve your overall speed.
Mobile compatibility also is a ranking signal for Google. If people are having a hard time using your site on a mobile device, they’re going to hit their back button without thinking twice.
If you’re using WordPress, consider using a compression plug-in to reduce the file size of images for a smoother experience.
7. Click-through rate and dwell time
Click-through rate is the percentage of users who click to your page when it shows up in SERP.
Dwell time measures how long before the user returns to the search page after clicking on a result. To be clear, there is some debate about whether CTR and dwell time are ranking factors, but the growing consensus seems to be that they are.
Given what we know about Google’s increased emphasis on the quality of content, both CRT and dwell time make sense as ranking factors. If no one clicks on a search result, it probably isn’t relevant and shouldn’t be ranked highly. And if a person clicks through to a page but only stays a second, the person likely found that the content wasn’t relevant to the search.
How do you optimize for clicks? Focus on creating attractive headlines. The CoSchedule Headline Analyzer is a helpful tool to do that. Additionally, create meta descriptions that compel the searcher to find out more about the content itself.
Optimizing for dwell time comes back to creating awesome content that users want to engage with. Your content should answer all potential questions within the searcher’s intent.
Optimize to rise
Google searches a crowded internet. Thankfully, your content can stand out if you address the seven signals – from straightforward things like using HTTPS protocol to crafting a helpful meta description.
But it all boils down to creating great content that stands firmly above your content competitors. That kind of content demonstrates your authority, expertise, trustworthiness, and fulfills the searcher’s intent. That content naturally attracts backlinks and engagement. If you’re willing to optimize for these ranking signals, your rankings will surely rise.
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Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute