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2013 Research Study: Google SEO Ranking Factors

Purpose

The point of the study was to analyze the characteristics of web pages at the top of the Google search engine results pages (SERPs).

What We Did

We randomly selected 100 keyphrases, typed them into Google and collected the URL’s of the first 5 results that showed up. The Firefox browser was used for all the searches. We were not logged into any Google products during the search phase.

The 100 keyphrases ranged from 2 word phrases up to 6 word phrases.  The first 5 results in the Google search results listings were chosen, giving us a total of 500 different web pages to collect data from.

We ignored all the Google Adwords ads. We also skipped image listings, shopping site sets, and news site sets.  We only analyzed actual web pages ranking #1 through #5 in the SERPs.

Here’s what we collected from each web page:

  • Full URL
  • Title tag
  • Headline
  • Number of subheadings
  • Body copy word count
  • Number of images in the body
  • Number of videos in the body
  • Number of referring domains to the web page (data from ahrefs.com)
  • Social signals; Tweets, Facebook like, and Facebook shares (data from ahrefs.com)

We also analyzed the keyphrase the web page ranked high for in comparison with many of the factors listed above.

What We Found

There’s a lot of data, so let’s get to the results.

On-Site Factors

I’ll break each of the on-site factors down in this section along with the findings…

Title Tag

Out of the 500 web pages ranking in one of the top 5 positions in Google, 50% of them had the keyphrase in the title tag.

Title Tags & Keyphrases

To arrive at this percentage, a web page counted as a positive when it had the exact keyphrase in the title tag and when the keyphrase was included with slight variations. Here’s what is meant by a slight variation:

  • If the keyphrase was singular and the title had a plural, (or the other way around) it was counted.
  • If there was a word in between the keyphrase in the title, it was counted.
  • When a word meaning the same thing was substituted, (guy vs. man) it was counted.
  • If all the words of the keyphrase were in the title, but not in the exact same order, it was counted.

Since many of our keyphrases were randomly generated, they weren’t the type of phrases that would sound perfectly natural as a title tag or a headline. So we didn’t only limit it to times when the exact keyphrase was in the title.

Just to be complete, we also recorded the number of exact matches with the title tag as well.  23% of the high ranking web pages had the exact phrase in their title so it was still substantial.

Headline

Of the high ranking web pages, 43% of them used the keyphrase in the headline.

Headlines & Keyphrases

Again, we counted exact matches for the keyphrase or slight variations (see above).

20% of the web pages had the exact keyphrase within the headline.

Note that for both the title tag and the headline data, partial matches were not counted or these numbers would have been much higher.

As you can see, nearly half of the high ranking pages had the keyphrase (or a very close match) in the title tag and or headline (and many had it in both).

Subheadings

The average number of subheadings in the body copy was right around 6.  Many high ranking pages did not have subheadings at all.  Very few of the high ranking web pages included the exact keyphrase in the subheading (in fact, this number was well under a half of a percent). We did not count partial matches in the subheadings, only exact matches.

Word Count

Of the top ranking web pages, 916 was the average number of words in the body copy.  The body copy included all the content excluding the header, sidebar, navigation menus, and footer area.

We measured the number of times the exact keyphrase was in the body copy. For this statistic, the we only counted the exact keyphrase (partial matches and slight variations were not included) On average, the exact keyphrase was found at a rate of slightly under half a percent.

Judging by the data we collected, you do not need to include odd or unnatural sounding keyphrases in your title tag, headline, subheadings or your body copy. If you’re going to include exact keyphrases, you really only need to include them one time. There’s no need to over-optimize your pages.

Images & Video

Of the 500 high ranking web pages, the average number of images per page was 7. Many high ranking pages had no images.

The average number of videos was well under 1 per page. In fact, most of the web pages had no videos on them.

Comparisons

We compared the #1 ranked webpage and the #5 ranked webpage for each keyphrase to see if there were any correlations for any of the major data. Here’s what we found:

Title Tags & Keyphrases Compared

On average, the #1 ranking web pages had the keyphrase (either the exact phrase or a slight variation of it) in the title tag 60% of the time. The #5 ranking web pages only had keyphrases in the title tag an average of 49% of the time. We did the same thing for headlines:

Headline & Keyphrases Compared

On average, the #1 ranking web pages had the keyphrase (either the exact phrase or a slight variation of it) in the headline 47% of the time. The #5 ranking web pages only had keyphrases in the headline an average of 41% of the time.

Based on our study, there’s a correlation between having the keyphrase in the title and/or the headline and the higher rankings (even just moving up page one of Google). Next we looked at the word counts between the #1 ranking web pages and those in the #5 spot:

Word Counts Compared

As you can see, the average ranking web page ranking in the #1 spot had a significantly higher word count than the average web page in the #5 spot by about 120 words.

We looked at number of images and videos and there wasn’t any real correlation there (at least in our study).  It didn’t matter whether the web page ranked #1 or #5, the average number of images and videos still held up.

Off-Site Factors

The main off-site factors analyzed in the study were backlinks and social signals.

Backlinks

We collected the total number of referring domains for each of the 500 web pages we analyzed. If a referring domain linked back to the web page 300 times, it was still only counted as 1 link.

The number of referring domains to the high ranking web pages varied widely; from 0 to tens of thousands of referring domains for a single webpage. The average number of referring domains linking back to a high ranking web page in our study was 335.

That’s a significant number of links.  Keep in mind these were just to specific web pages on a site, not the site as a whole.  On average, the number of referring pages to the home page of these sites was significantly higher.

We looked at just how many of these high ranking web pages were internal pages and how many were the home page.  Our data showed that 88% of the high ranking web pages were internal pages. Only 12% were home pages.

Home Pages vs. Internal Pages

In many cases, internal pages were ranking high even with zero backlinks to them. We checked further and in most of these instances, the home pages of these sites had a high number of backlinks. This wasn’t just limited to major sites like YouTube.com and Wikipedia.org. There were many examples of high ranking internal pages with very few backlinks on sites that were not major brand names.   This indicates the overall popularity measured by backlinks can help you rank high for keyphrases without always having to gain backlinks to individual pages on your site.

Social Signals

There’s a lot of talk about social signals in SEO so we collected a few social signals and averaged those as well.

Average Number of Social Signals

The high ranking web pages analyzed in the study were tweeted 371 times, received 1512 Facebook likes, and had 988 Facebook shares.  These are averages per web page.  That’s a lot of social sharing!

Comparisons

Here we collected the backlink data of the sites ranking in position #1 and position #5 to see if there were any noticeable differences.

Backlink Comparison

It’s clear there’s a real correlation (at least with our data) between the number of referring domains/backlinks and how high up Google search results listings a site will go. Again, these are averages, but the web pages holding a #1 position had 662 backlinks.  The web pages in the #5 position had an average of 142 backlinks.

So there’s a big difference when it comes to backlinks by nearly a factor of 5. It shows how much backlinks play a role in rankings.

And interestingly, the same goes for social signals.

Social Signal Comparison

The #1 ranking web page had many more social signals than the web page in the #5 position.  The web pages in the top spot had more than twice as many Tweets, over 10 times as many Facebook likes, and twice as many Facebook shares.

It’s unclear if Google looks at social signals for their ranking, but even if they don’t, high levels of social signals are a good indicator that a page is popular and may rank high.

Take Aways

The study isn’t perfect, but it does give us some characteristics of high ranking web pages on Google at the present time.

Here are a few of the characteristics of high ranking web pages according to our research:

On-Site Optimization

  • There was a substantial amount of text on the web pages.  According to the study, a good number to target is around 900 words, but keep in mind this is only an average, there was a wide variety. So there were high ranking pages with far less content and those with quite a bit more.
  • Many of the pages use the exact keyphrase or a slight variation of the keyphrase within the title tag and/or the headline. At the very least nearly all of the high ranking pages included individual keywords in the title and headline.
  • The pages we analyzed used keyphrases sparingly in the body copy of the content (under a half a percent keyphrase density was the average).
  • On average the high ranking web pages included 6 subheadings. These subheadings included individual keywords where they made sense.
  • Using an exact keyphrase one time within the body copy (including the subheadings) is plenty.  Many of the pages also had individual keywords incorporated throughout the copy where they made sense.
  • Although  the study shows it’s definitely possible to gain a high ranking without images or video, many of the sites we analyzed incorporated images into the content and to a lesser degree, video.

The biggest take away from the on-site optimization portion of the study is to write naturally (over-optimization should be avoided), but do not waste the opportunity to help label what your content is about for the search engines and your visitors.

Off-Site Optimization

  • Internal web pages are more likely to rank high than home pages. Home pages are often optimized for a general keyphrase (which can be harder to rank high for) while internal pages can do the heavy lifting for specific keyphrases.
  • There’s a big difference between the number of backlinks required to go from #5 on page one of Google to the #1 spot. The #1 ranking web pages had an average of nearly 5 times as many links as those in the #5 spot.
  • Social signals may play a role in your rankings (or at least be a good indicator in the type of content that ranks high).

The biggest take away with off-site optimization is to gain as many links as possible to your web pages. Because of this, it’s going to be in your best interest to build one site and focus your energy on that instead of building a number of sites.

So those are the conclusions of the study, backed by actual data. If you found value in this study please share it as a lot of time went into putting it together for you.

Let us know if any of the findings were surprising to you by adding to the comments below.

Comments

  1. Great Study, thanks Lisa!

    It confirms what you’re saying for years :)

  2. Gerard says:

    Hi Lisa!
    Thanks for such useful data. This stuff is ACE!
    You’re a real Gem.
    Oh how the Internet needs more genuine people like you.
    Keep up the good work we all need help from those who’ve
    gone before. Though you may be hearing from Google
    for deciphering their algorithm :-)
    Very Best Regards and,
    God bless
    Gerard

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Gerard … thanks, I hope it helps people out and hopefully I won’t be hearing from Google!

  3. Steve Blum says:

    Wow! This is a goldmine of information that anyone building sites should take note of. Thanks for providing it and I will definately keep these factors in mind when building my own sites.

  4. Blase says:

    Lisa!

    WOW!

    Well done, I was surprised and happy to
    see that images and videos didn’t seem to matter.

    You are a rock star, thanks.

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Blase … thanks!

      Yes, I was especially happy about the videos as they sure take a lot of time to create. I know I can write a lot faster than make videos and it costs a small fortune to have them outsourced.

      All the best …

      Lisa

  5. Mike says:

    Lisa, this is a great research study. I really enjoy it, mostly of the statistics are not a surprise for me. If I really need to add something, I would touch the number of words / article topic.
    It seems to be pretty high over 900 words / article in average.

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Mike, it may seem like a lot, but that was the average. So there were some with lower and some with higher. I just reported what I found!

  6. Viviane says:

    Lisa, thank you for putting this study together – quite enlightening. It is interesting to note that an internal page can rank well without backlinks, provided the home page has a high number of backlinks.

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Viviane … yes, I think that’s a good thing. You could potentially have a few web pages that receive a lot of links and it might help the rankings of the rest of your pages.

  7. Alex Newell says:

    Thank you Lisa for doing such a superb study and for sharing it.

    I think the results will shock many because they contradict the on page rules about cramming keywords into title tags and titles of articles. The article length is about what I expect nowadays

    I am a bit surprised that you found such a strong link between the number of backlinks and position on google – do you think this has changed before and after Penguin?

    Overall the only thing that rattles me is the low keyword density. My natural style of writing produces a very high keyword density – something I have always ignored and it looks like Google may be penalising me for my writing style. I guess I may be some of the collateral damage of google hitting keyword stuffers.

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Thanks Alex for writing in … I was surprised at the backlink correlation too. On average (for this study) it takes almost exactly 5 times as many backlinks to go from spot #5 to #1. That’s a lot more backlinks! I’m not sure the number of backlinks needed would have changed before and after Penguin, but the quality and type of backlinks has. Google seems better at weeding out a lot of manufactured links.

      An ultra-low keyword density is what I found. You may want to adjust your keyword density and see what happens.

      One thing is that if you’re targeting a keyphrase with only 2 words within it then it’s probably going to have a higher density than one with 6 words. For example ‘turtle food‘ is going to be in an article about ‘what to feed a turtle’ a lot more times than a longer phrase like, ‘what do turtles like to eat’. I hope that makes sense. So if you’re targeting shorter keyphrases you’re going to have the phrase in the content more than if you’re targeting long keyphrases. The 0.5% was only an average so keep that in mind.

    • Hey Alex! I just wanted to drop by and let you know that you have nothing to work! It takes and extremely high keyword density + low quality content (spammy looking) + spammy site (spammy backlinks) to get into penalized territory.

      One great outlook on this is from Matt Cutts himself! Check it out!

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rk4qgQdp2UA

      Short story, if you are writing the article naturally and it reads just fine, you are just fine!

      Hope this helps!

  8. John Palma says:

    First of all – thanks for boiling down the data to an understandable and meaningful level.

    With all the whacky WSO and JVZoo products constantly being hawked, as well as a constant barrage of “shiny objects” being thrown against the online marketing walls these days, it’s nice to see confirmation that just plain old solid SEO skill sets is still “what sticks” to the wall.

    I’ve been doing my own SEO for my telecom company for about 7 years.

    I recently sold the telephone business – and now do SEO exclusively for a small number of clients, so my life in my “sunset years” is pretty nice (I just turned 60).

    I have to admit that my use of the social side of the process in the whole SEO mix is not what it should be – but I do plan to get up to speed with that part of things in the near future.

    I appreciate the info you provide – and the lack of hype that flavors your writings and products.

  9. Tony says:

    Awesome Research! This is one of the clearest and balanced research I have seen lately. Most everything I see is spun pretty hard towards certain aspect of SEO, usually followed by a pitch to sell a product to help you boost that aspect of your SEO. Thanks for this clear and concise view!

  10. Another solid article that actually is based on hard data and not pure speculation. I know this must have taken quite a lot of time to put together, so thank you for your efforts. Your on a roll lately lisa with quality content. Keep it up!

  11. Jeff says:

    Hi Lisa,
    Thank you so much for this invaluable info. To be honest this is just what you have been saying for the last few years. I’m going to print this info out so that I can see it everyday. I have already shared it on a few selected forums because more people should be doing this. Please can you let me know what plugins or software you used in correlation with Firefox?
    Regards.

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Jeff, thanks. Most of the study was done by hand with some help. We used ahrefs.com for checking backlinks, but there were no plugins used for this. Word and Excel with the help of some data entry specialists was all that was used.

  12. Denise says:

    Hi Lisa
    This is an excellent article and so useful. Especially around the Mount of content needed on a website. As we ‘do’ seo for companies in the Uk they are often surprised when we say that pages with 100 words won’t work.
    Thanks for all your content it is invaluable Lisa.
    Best Wishes
    Dnise

  13. Kim says:

    What an incredibly eye-opening study! Thank you so much for this info. It appears as though Google is letting “the people” decide which sites rank high. More backlinks means more people are reading, and sharing, the high-ranking sites. Google is giving the people what they want, it seems.

    Thanks again!

  14. Owen says:

    Invaluable info, as always,Lisa. You are very thorough with your research.
    I have shared this post with my groups in Facebook.
    So, from this study, It’s not essential to have the exact keyphrase in the domain name?
    It seems that the external links and keywords in the content is more important.

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Thanks Owen for sharing the content … I’ve always taught in my courses to go after lots of different keyphrases (sometimes 100′s depending on what you’re doing). It’s not possible to put all those keyphrases in the domain name.

      None of these sites were exact match domains. They were all covering lots of different keyphrases with lots of different articles and again they were all randomly selected. It shows that exact match domains are not a good strategy if you want high rankings. It’s a good question and I’m glad you asked it because that was something I forgot to add to the article.

  15. Fred says:

    S” We randomly selected 100 keyphrases, typed them into Google and collected the URL’s of the first 5 results that showed up. ” So this was across all industries? not just IM, but finance, real estate, weight loss, etc. I ask because 900 words sounds like a lot on the home page.

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Fred, yes it was across a lot of industries (not sure I’d say ALL, but a lot were covered). There may have been one keyphrase out of the 100 that had anything to do with Internet Marketing, but that was about it. Here’s a small sample of the keyphrases looked at:

      drink more water
      where to buy nexus 7
      hollywood homes tour
      living with diabetes type 2
      math advice for parents
      draw equilateral triangle
      face lotion for babies
      ski in powder
      type of fish to eat

      As you can see, it’s pretty random stuff.

      Also, most of the pages that we looked at were internal pages (88% as shown in the study). So very few were home pages as you’re right, those usually have less copy on them.

  16. Gautam says:

    This is a solid study and confirmation that sensible SEO still works.
    Your emphasis on not to over optimize the KW is spot on.
    This will help me focus on building the sites for long term instead of always worrying about the next weave of Google animals!
    Twitted and FBed!
    Cheers!

  17. Hey Lisa,
    You will be hearing from Google, so they can let you know what a wonderful job you did researching this internet marketing topic/article/Google SEO Ranking Factors Report. I think, Google is telling us they want something “new”, unique, and relevant added to the conversation like respected, honorable and reputable. You hit a home run! Maybe you could market your researching abilities as your going to raise the bar for all of us. Nice Job!
    Fred Tappan

  18. Herman says:

    Great study.
    I lost rankings and traffic with Panda and Penguin updates so this info shows how to move forward
    Thanks.

  19. An eye opener and a great help for the startups.

  20. Lisa,
    What a great post. This is really one of the better studies I’ve seen. Like you, I’m amazed at how much the difference in backlinks between 1 and 5. Did you take into account in anyway that some mega site with a hundred thousand links or so could have made that average for the #1 spot so high or was that not a factor?

    Onsite factors were about what I’ve been seeing and expected but was also surprised at the number of average FB likes the #1 spot had. Those are some pretty big numbers. Think the main thing this told me was we all better get to work doing more linking and socializing, lol.

    Thanks again for a super share.
    Rick

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Rick,

      I only looked at the backlinks to the page that was ranking high. So these aren’t backlinks to the whole site, just the single page. There weren’t any pages with a hundred thousand links, but a few did have in the 10′s of thousands so maybe that did account for some of it. Do keep in mind these were just averages. It’s going to be different for every situation.

      Yes, those are big numbers! Time to get working :)

  21. Bukit says:

    Thanks for the research, confirmed that backlinks (to homepage/internal page) still king, offsite optimization > onsite.

  22. Rich Russell says:

    I have seen a study like this before. i.e. Let’s look at the common factors of pages that are ranking. The conclusion was that your homepage should have 3000 words, 27 images and 2 videos. (I might have slightly made up those figures). But they are clearly nonsense.

    Averages can easily be skewed by a few individual results plus, you are looking at what is ranking and not necessarily why. You can drive yourself nuts trying to second guess this stuff.

    For a long time I have followed Google’s advice and stopped worrying about Google.

    My rules are:

    Use a keyphrase in the title IF I am trying to optmise for one. I’m not sure how much it matters and I don’t try to optimise every page.

    Use it in the headline if appropriate.

    Write the number of words it takes to say what I have to say.

    Write naturally about the subject and let keyword density take care of itself.

    Use images or video where they are appropriate.

    Above all, write for readers.

    You say that it is better to focus on one site. Is that because you will be spending your time manipulating backlinks to it? Exactly what Google is trying to stop with all the updates. How long will it be before they turn their attention to people manipulating social signals?

    Just a different point of view.

    Rich

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Rich,

      I think your advice is solid. I’m not sure how you think it’s a different point of view than what I state. And yes, these are averages and everyone is going to need to take that into consideration. I definitely point that out repeatedly in the article and the comments.

      I suggest working on one site so that you can get real backlinks from sites that link to you because your content is valuable. It will be too hard to do this with several sites as any real links you get will be spread out across many domains.

  23. Great article Lisa! Interesting that one of the hardest things to accomplish (quality back links) is actually the most important.

  24. j says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for sharing this valuable info.
    Would like your input about 2 parameters;
    1-Domain- age + match.
    2-Quality of inbound links.

    Thanks again,

    J.

  25. Mara Dall says:

    Very impressive piece of research – and it confirms what you teach in your SEO course, about optimising but not over-optimising, and putting effort into getting quality backlinks. I’ll be sharing this with my mastermind group…. Although there are a lot of spammy techniques being promoted, there are also a lot of people looking to promote their websites in the right way….it’s just very confusing, with all the conflicting advice out there, & people making definitive statements that are not supported by the facts. You’ve done a great job of cutting through the confusion & pointing us in the right direction – thank you!

  26. Thank you Lisa for this great report.
    Always interesting to see what factors are influencing the rankings.
    My opinion is that is it not numbers of backlinks, but rather the quality of backlinks that affect the rankings, and I believe Google will pull more and more in that direction with further updates. It would be interesting to know more about the quality, variation and source of the links for the sites in your study, to see if those have a noticable influence on rank.
    Did you come across any evidence of site with fewer, but better quality, backlinks ranking higher in the search results?
    Thanks

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Denis,

      If anything the web pages ranking high seemed to have better quality backlinks in high numbers, but you’re right, it would be a good idea to look at the types of backlinks and I may do it at some point.

  27. Robert says:

    Very useful information.

    Thank you very much for allowing us to see the fruits of all your hard work, much appreciated.

    Robert.

  28. Lisa Parmley says:

    I had one person chime in about the keyphrases I showed above in one of the other comments not having high search volume/profitable and that no one would bother to try to target them. The study was based on random keyphrases, so there are several that maybe no one did try to optimize a site for, but the point of the study is to find out characteristics of what’s actually ranking high, no matter if it’s targeted by a lot of people who think they know about SEO or not. The point is to see what ranks high and learn from it.

    Plus there were several keyphrases I’m pretty sure businesses would target, here are a few more examples of keyphrases examined in the study:

    health insurance for students
    press release distribution service
    writing a screenplay
    bachelor’s degree in business
    dreamweaver website templates
    writing a resume
    plasma tv reviews
    rn training requirements
    top christmas gifts
    saving money tips
    make money fast
    learn spanish free

    Pretty sure people are targeting those :)

    Sorry if the study changes views on keyword density for a few people still stuck in the ‘keyword stuffing’ phase of SEO, but this is based on real data I collected for my own use (we are building software and I need to know a few metrics). I also thought it would be nice to share it so others can benefit.

  29. Paul Warner says:

    This was a terrific study you did, and considering all of the information you provided, I think that the most disturbing statistics I saw is the amount of emphasis on social sites that this going to take, along with the links. The linking I am not surprised at as this has been talked about for years but to have to get that heavily involved with social sites, to make this work, that is another story. The amount of expertise you need to make this successful is nearly overwhelming, and the time consumption for just one site as you are recommending, with the strong possibility that it won’t get to your desired ranking, for whatever reason, is not something that I would relish, but nevertheless the facts are the facts, and if nothing else you come out a lot more smarter and knowledgeable than when you went in. That in itself is probably worth it. Thank you for so much effort in our behalf as there are not too many like you. Paul

  30. I get your emails all the time and I save them in a folder for reading when I get a chance…I’m glad I opened this one. I always learn something new from you…one thing I got from this is to backlink to internal pages! Need to start doing that…thanks!

  31. Giannis says:

    Great article… I agre with you that backinks from related sites and high value will help your site to rank higher. I also think that social media will help your site to, i know sites that have build FB Fanpage with 200K – 300K fans and mostly from this they have 1k -2k online users. Facebook and other social media are great source for traffic.

  32. Thanx for this valuable info on SEO after Panda. I was wondering why I have less visitors. I have also noticed my new sites aren’t ranking as fast and as well as used to. This info wil definitely help a lot. Thanx very much for your effort.

  33. Jeff says:

    Hi Lisa,
    I have another question about your findings. Did your research show how often the sites where updated? Is it important to update your site daily, weekly, or monthly, or does this not matter? Do you think google lowers your page rank if you don’t regularly update your site with articles?
    Regards.

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Jeff, the study did not look at how often the sites were updated. I don’t think Google lowers your rankings if you don’t update your site regularly with articles.

    • Lisa is correct, Google (Matt Cutts) has stated quite a few times that freshness is just one of over 200 signals that go into the ranking algorithm. They acknowledge that it is a bit uncanny to expect a lot of sites to be updated super regularly. Freshness comes more heavily into rankings when looking at News related SERPs and similar style sites.

      Also keep in mind that Pagerank is a bit detached from the ranking signals that are used to rank sites within a Google SERP. Pagerank will be raised or lowered on a regular basis internally, which is mostly dictated by the amount and quality of backlinks linking to your site and internal pages.

      • But it is a factor. So don’t let a site sit around and rot. Not only that it’s a human factor. People are more likely to visit (and bookmark) a site that is regularly updated vs. one that is updated once every three months.

        • Lisa Parmley says:

          Patrick, it’s a good point for some markets and some business models. But the blogging model is not the only way to go about things. If the content’s outdated then by all means you’ve got to update it, but I know I’m happy to learn from a copywriting expert like Drayton Bird whether an article on his site was written now or 10 years ago.

  34. Karen says:

    Hi Lisa, as per usual, you give good information. thanks for sharing the results of your research. I will certainly be adding your points to my process/checklist. All the best, Karen

  35. Thanks for the research Lisa, it is great to see what the current Google landscape is shaping up to be.

    I am a bit curious about two things:

    How did you select your 100 random keywords, and can you provide either a list or a percentage of the phrases that are two words, three words… etc?

    I am curious about the percentage that are 4+ keyword phrases (possible even three) as that is getting into tail and long tail territory, where internal pages will consistently dominate the SERPs. I feel it would be very interesting to see the home vs internal broken down for 2-3 keyword phrases and 4-6 keyword phrases. I would image the internal pages would be less dominate for the former.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    Thanks,

    Tim

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Tim,

      I tried to get a good mix of 2-words, 3-words, etc … for the 100 keyphrases. Yes we are doing this and may publish the data at some point.

  36. Rob Swick says:

    Great job. Thanks for sharing this. Would you consider a quick look at your data to answer a question?

    I find it especially interesting that 50% of the top ranked pages had the searched-for keyphrase in the title tag. I’m not sure this means that the title tag isn’t as important as we usually preach. It MIGHT be that if a site is very strong in other areas the title tag match isn’t so important – but for weaker sites (sites less robust in other factors – backlinks, social shares), the title tag match helps to put them in the top 5.

    A simple comparison with your data would answer this question. Would you consider comparing the social share and backlink numbers of those two groups (matched and not-matched title tags)? I’d bet the matched will have lower backlink/share stats. Regardless, thanks again for the great work.
    Rob

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Rob, your suggestion make sense and I’m sure you would find that pages with more backlinks rank high for keyphrases even when they’re not in the title. I may do this at some point, thanks for the suggestion. Even though many of the pages didn’t have the exact keyphrase in the title, they might have had a variation of it (like a partial match just not all the words). So there were likely on-page signals there.

  37. It sounds like you did a great job with this study — it certainty confirms what Penguin and Panda strongly suggests website owners should do if they want to rank well.

    One qualification about this however:

    “As you can see, the average ranking web page ranking in the #1 spot had a significantly higher word count than the average web page in the #5 spot by about 120 words.”

    People should not take away that longer is automatically better.

    Matt Cutts is on record that googlebot DOES NOT counts words. Short content can rank very well IF it is truly valuable. However, it is harder, on average, to make short content truly valuable. Longer content ranks better not because it’s physically longer. It’s ranking better because, on average, it is probably better content.

  38. Shawn says:

    Thank you for this work which helps all of us understand the current Google algorithm a little better. Here is what I see as a major flaw in the study that could be answered by reanalyzing the data you have collected (you partially addressed this already): If a keyword is ranked and competitive, there will be a scramble to optimize for it, and the resulting web pages at the top may be very different than those you find for non-ranked or non-competitive keywords. So, for example, if you isolate only the ranked keywords in your study, do you see a lot higher percentage with keywords in the title? Do you see a different set of results and conclusions if you completely eliminate all non-competitive keywords from the data set?

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Shawn,

      I’m not sure what you mean by ‘ranked’. All the sites in the study were ranking high. It’s a reflection of the characteristics of top ranking web sites. I’d rather look at random keyphrases than just those that I think are competitive. There are too many variables there like how would I measure competition. Also 2 word keyphrases are almost always more competitive than those with more words, so all I’d be looking at are short phrases which changes everything.

      If you want to look into this more you don’t really need a study, you can just type in some keyphrases you think are competitive and look at the SERPs. You don’t even need to click on anything and Google will show you all the titles along with the keyphrase you typed in to find the results. So then just scan a few page and you’ll see your answer.

  39. J. Saleh says:

    WOW you did the complete research / comparison about modern SEO. This is article is gonna help every seo geek. A perfect article to read and share. Thanks

  40. Andrew says:

    Great study, well done folks! One thought I had when reading the social signals section is that the number of likes, shares, and followers may be the effect and not the cause of a high ranking – I’ve seen many pages get a lot of social activity once they reached top positions. This part of the study is questionable IMHO. One suggestion would be to look closer at Google+ activity, which may be more important to Google, for obvious reasons ;)

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Hi Andrew, yes I think you may be right. We don’t know if the social signals are because of the rankings or if they help it. Most of the sites had zero Google+’s though and I’ve seen Google employees admit in interviews that Google+ isn’t a good ranking signal (probably because they know it’s not used nearly as much as Facebook and Twitter).

  41. 1ternet says:

    Study interesting but limited. There are more than 200 positioning criteria. The study focuses on a handful of them only. For me it gives some indications, but nothing can be concluded.

  42. Hi,
    I enjoyed your article and the findings within your research. I was not surprised about the length of article results as my team and I have been trying to make our postings around 1000 words or more if the content deserves it of course.
    The rankings from social signals may be because of the traffic it brings resulting in a user spending more time on a site and lowering it bounce rates. Hard to know if my hypothesis is accurate as we can not study a sites bounce rate that is not our own, but I do agree with your findings that social signals can and do help in ranking.
    Thanks for your share
    :)

  43. Chris Longley says:

    Not a conclusive study, especially as it omits domain age and page age factors in the competitive analysis.
    The trust rank of the inbound links and age of these are also important metrics not accounted for.
    *Note that any attempt on over optimisation of anchor text and on page seo will result in negative serps. Google supports brands only……..brand names, .url based links, random text and/or less than 10% anchor text keywords is the way forward.

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Like I mention in the article, it’s not a perfect study, but it definitely sheds some light on a few things, especially for folks who are used to over-optimizing their content.

  44. Marica says:

    This is awesome.

    Wow 335 links is a LOT of links! lol And there I was thinking that link building would one day go away ;-)

    Thanks for putting this all together.

  45. Interesting discussion of role of social media. What about Google+? Are you seeing an impact on search results from G+ content? How is G+ stacking up compared with FB / twitter?

    • Lisa Parmley says:

      Google + was all so low at the time we did this study it wasn’t worth including it. I even read an article where Google engineers were saying Google + is not a good metric for them to use yet.

  46. Jeff says:

    It will take allot of time to build that many backlinks. I think that quality of the backlinks play a big role in how Google will value your site.

  47. Manav Sehgal says:

    Hi Lisa,
    Very comprehensive study. Tweeted my appreciation. You answered almost every hard to find data point I was looking for in my current project. Would love to collaborate on a project sometime. Give us a shout @manavsehgal or on email.
    Thanks,
    Manav

  48. Bill says:

    Hi, Lisa,

    As a wannabe stats guy, I’m curiou sif you looked at the medians and quartiles for the number of links and number of words on a page. If they’re close to the mean, then that’s great, but if they’re more seperated (or if the standard deviation is large) then it might be more informative to report deeper data.

  49. I think that was one of the best studies that I have seen to date that brings it all together in a clear concise way.

  50. Sanoj says:

    This is the great information for all, I would like to thank you for sharing the valuable post. I also go with the quality of backlinks that affect the rankings.

  51. This study is helping us a lot. We will definitely need some more studies like this on this subject. Thanks a lot for publishing this article. Going to tweet this one :)

  52. Rosie says:

    Very helpful article Lisa thank you – you clarified a lot of things for me, especially in regard to the length of content articles, which was something I had been sitting on the fence about.

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