A web page’s relevance and authority have always been 2 of the most important determinants of its Google Search ranking. This was the case when Google first crawled the web in 1997, and it remains the case today. But because Google frequently updates its search algorithm, how relevance and authority are determined is constantly in flux.
Like it or not, the only way to ensure your web page appears high in search engine results pages, or SERPs, is to adapt to Google’s standards. While some SEO practices have stood the test of time, others have been replaced. We spoke with Michal Nassimian, Natural Intelligence’s Head of SEO, to find out the 6 most effective ways to improve your Google search ranking in 2019.
1. Mobile Friendliness
Google started rolling out “mobile-first indexing” 2 years ago after observing that the number of mobile searches had exceeded desktop searches. Today it uses mobile-first indexing for more than half the pages shown in search results globally.
Traditionally, Google has ranked pages according to their desktop version. Mobile-first indexing means Google will use the mobile version of a page for indexing and ranking. So far, Google has moved pages to mobile-first when its tests have shown the pages are ready. But in the near future, all pages will be ranked by their mobile version—whether they’re mobile friendly or not.
“The moment Google moves its whole index to mobile-first, your ranking will be based on that,” Nassimian says. “In 2019 and beyond, website owners should be concerned with mobile experience. If your site isn’t mobile responsive, you should at least ensure the mobile content is aligned with the desktop version and that the user experience is friendly to mobile users.”
2. Speed and Optimization
Websites that load quickly and provide good user experience (UX) have traditionally ranked well in search results. This is because Google recognizes that users don’t have much patience for slow and poorly designed sites. “The moment a website doesn’t deliver the goods, the user moves to another site,” Nassimian says.
As more users transition to mobile, attention spans will get even shorter, Nassimian predicts. This will lead to an even higher premium being placed on page speed and UX. In a sign of things to come, Google announced last year that it was making page speed a ranking factor for mobile searches.
Websites are like vehicles in that there are many things that could be slowing them down. Unlike a car, you don’t have to pay a mechanic thousands of dollars to find out what’s wrong. There are plenty of online tools, like Google’s PageSpeed Insights and GTmetrix, that can give you the lowdown for free.
Backlinks have always been an important tool in helping Google sort high-quality, relevant web pages from low-quality pages. In fact, open the patent filed by Larry Page for his and Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s original PageRank algorithm and you’ll find 36 mentions of the word “backlink.”
Google’s use of backlinks differentiated it from other search engines that operated at the time, according to Nassimian. Their formula “ranked web pages based on the quantity and quality of links from other pages to that page. Page and Brin thought link popularity was an important indicator of a webpage’s authority and importance.”
Backlinks were open to manipulation, which is why Google ran an update in 2012 that punished unnatural backlinks to spam sites and rewarded legitimate backlinks. Today, more than ever, natural backlinks can help your web page work its way up the search rankings.
“It takes a lot of effort and out-of-the-box thinking to reach out to different websites and let them know what you’re doing,” Nassimian says. “But it’s much better than trying to fool the system and risk penalties that involve losing your ranking and getting kicked out of search results.”
4. Topics, Then Keywords
Keyword targeting, an important component of SEO, has gradually made way for topic targeting. This shift has come about as SEO experts have recognized the importance of a “holistic approach” to satisfy user intent, Nassimian says.
She explains that SEO experts try to gain insight into user intent by looking at how they search. Focusing on topics helps SEO experts conceptualize and craft content in order to satisfy audience needs. Keyword research should only be conducted after the topic has been identified, Nassimian says.
“Google understands the intent behind the user’s search and we need to take these cues and build our content around that understanding. In order to rank successfully on the topic of dating sites, for example, our content has to cover related sub-topics, such as: ‘what each site excels at’, ‘what makes a dating site the best?’, ‘how did we choose the top dating sites?’, etc. Of course we must still use the right keyword phrases effectively in strategic areas of the page in order to rank, but today we’re also concerned with how we can cover the topic in the most relevant, rich and valuable way,” Nassimian says.
5. High Quality Content
High quality content should be original, unique, engaging, and provide value to site visitors, according to Nassimian. It should answer user questions and be comprehensive and detailed on one hand and easy to read on the other. Quality content should be aligned with the company’s marketing goals; it must contribute to brand awareness, drive qualified traffic to the site, generate conversions, etc.
Great content is not all about the text. Images, videos, charts, diagrams, and quizzes all enrich the visitor experience. Credibility is also an important factor in content quality. Nassimian recommends including references to authoritative resources in your content, such as studies, testimonials, and citations from high-profile publications.
The July 2018 update to Google’s search quality rating guidelines also provides some useful hints regarding content. In the update, Google emphasized the importance of content-creator reputation, and of ensuring content benefits the reader.
6. Structured Data and Featured Snippets
Another way to build your presence in search engine results is with structured data and featured snippets. According to Google’s definition, structured data is a standardized format for classifying a page’s content. Anyone can add structured data to their website thanks to markup tools like Schema.org.
Let’s say you search for “Nike.” On the left-hand side you’ll see search results, starting with a Nike ad, Nike’s home page, and other relevant results. On the right, you’ll see what’s known as a knowledge graph panel. This contains information about Nike, including headquarters, founders, phone number, and stock price.
A featured snippet, also referred to as ‘position zero”, is a special box above the 10 organic search results containing a short answer to a user’s query. Google extracts the answer from a top-ranked page and presents it in a box along with the page’s title and link. Because of their unique design and prominent appearance in SERP, featured snippets draw user attention and steal clicks from the first organic result. They are particularly prominent and useful in mobile and voice search.
Nassimian says, “We try to identify opportunities where we already rank in the top 10 results for certain search queries but don’t own a featured snippet yet. We then start improving our page to provide a better answer than our competitors to the user query. We sometimes tweak our content to match the layout that Google chose for a certain featured snippet box, like using a bulleted list or data table to present content.”
Configuring Your SEO to Meet User Intent
The last three points all do more than just improve your SERP rankings; they also help your brand meet user intent. This is no coincidence: Google is constantly updating its algorithm to reward businesses that add value or solve consumers’ problems and to punish businesses that don’t offer anything of substance. While backlinks will always be an important part of SEO, it’s the high-level stuff like topic targeting and great content that really helps brands satisfy user intent.