According to the recently-released annual Ranking Factors Study from Searchmetrics, Google has made some big changes in how its algorithm evaluates content and assign search rank. Content quality is the recurring theme of the study, which offers important lessons and opportunities for content marketers, public relations pros, bloggers and anyone else publishing digital content on the web.
“High quality, relevant content is increasingly the focus of search. This type of content ranks better on average, and is identifiable by properties such as a higher word-count and semantically comprehensive wording, as well as often being enriched by other media, such as images or video.” – Searchmetrics 2014 Ranking Factors Study.
Before we dig into tactics, first we need to look the signals that indicate content quality to Google. Topping the list is a metric that is new to the top ten factors — the click through rate. This is an important change and it emphasizes the importance of user actions as indicators of quality. The majority of search rank factors are derived from social signals, and like the click through rate, these also indicate content quality. User actions and social signals are derived from human interactions with content, and Google is assuming that people won’t like, share, post or click on content they don’t consider useful or interesting.
In addition to user interactions, Google is also paying close attention to on-page content. However, the elements Google values on-page have changed dramatically.
Emphasis on longer-form content is one such change. A couple years ago, longer content was frowned upon. Today, the reverse is true. Audiences are showing increased willingness (and even desire) to consume longer content. Case in point – look at the popularity of John Oliver’s long monologues on his new show, Last Week Tonight. In an era when news reporting is diminishing in breadth and depth, Oliver’s monologues on net neutrality, food labeling rules and gambling in Singapore would appear to be dead on arrival. Instead, they are smash hits.
Earlier this year, we shared the results of our analysis of press release formats, and concluded that content that included multiple visual elements generated significantly higher numbers of online views than plain text.
The Searchmetrics study corroborated our findings, finding that web pages with more on-page pictures ranked higher in search results. “Photos and videos not only make text more attractive for users, but for Google, this trend is likely to develop positively and be capped at a certain level,” concluded the authors, indicating that visuals are likely to exert power in search rankings for years to come.
Tactical update for creators of distributed content:
It’s time to start talking about best practices for content that is intended to be distributed or hosted on sites other than the brand’s primary domain, such as press releases sent out over a newswire, social content and articles and guest blog posts intended for third party web sites.
Encourage click-throughs with a clear and prominent call to action. While this is old hat for bloggers, many PR pros don’t think about embedding calls to action in the press releases they issue. They should, because when you distribute a press release online over a network like PR Newswire’s, the message will appear on hundreds if not thousands of third party web sites. Embedding a call to action in the form of a link toward the top of the page (I prefer to put the CTA right after the first or second paragraph) creates a distributed portal directly back to your web site. A few tips for getting it right:
- Limit the number of links. Too often I see press releases littered with links. Offering readers one clear choice channels their activity toward a specific page. Multiple links scattered across the press release (especially the first several paragraphs) is distracting and a turn-off to readers. In addition, it can look spammy to search engines. Less is more when it comes to linking.
- Don’t link to your home page anywhere in the press release except for the boilerplate. Instead, send readers to specific and relevant pages that logically offer more information or a next step for them. Don’t dump them on the home page and then require them to hunt around for the information related to the release.
- For that most important link you’re using as a call to action, use a full URL, not an embedded link. Some third party web sites don’t render embedded links, leaving readers with nowhere to go. Using a URL shortener or custom URL makes it easier to track those important click-throughs.
Include multiple visuals: In addition to benefitting search engine visibility, multiple visuals capture more attention for the message. Why? We’re visual creatures are attracted to images. Additionally, each image or video you include with your message carries its own potential for generating visibility. When people share those individual visual elements, they’re amplifying your message (and creating pathways that will bring more people back to your story.)
Write naturally, using a mix of keywords, key phrases and related acronyms. For example: I write about press releases – a lot! Instead of using the phase “press release” over and over, however, I mix it up, using references to “news releases,” “announcements,” “messages,” “news,” and “content,” which serves the dual purpose of making my writing a lot more readable for my audience, and injecting additional relevant terminology into the content, thus giving Google more information about the subject of the content.
Go long. This blog post has topped 1,200 words in length. When I started blogging, blogging best practices suggested that posts should be a bit shorter, so the standard length I shot for was 300 words. I’m now making a point of expanding on my thoughts and producing longer form posts, and I’m also applying the same tactics to the press releases I issue for the company – as much as possible, I’m adding quotes, information and other relevant content I think the audience might find interesting. I’m not shying away from adding a few hundred more words. The premium Google is placing on the long form gives us permission (and incentive) to explore and expand upon ideas in depth.
One important note – just because a piece of content is longer doesn’t automatically mean that it’s going to generate more visibility. Length means nothing if the content isn’t robust.
The quality of the content a brand publishes can have a profound effect not just on message visibility or online reputation. Quality content can produce the signals that help will drive the website to the top of the search results page. And along the way, publishing quality content can help brands generate earned media, influence buyer journeys and drive the sort of social sharing and user actions that amplify messages and drive brand stories deep into new audiences. The result? Lasting visibility for the message and better return on the PR and marketing investment for the brand.
Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of strategic communications & content, and is the author of the new white paper, “New Agency Benchmarks for Demonstrating Value to Clients,” and the ebook Driving Content Discovery. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik.