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SEO Ranking Factors for 2009

What Matters? What Doesn't?

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Search Engine Marketing and SEO have always been very dynamic fields.  Search engines make changes all of the time.  Sometime they announce their changes, sometimes we are left to guess at them.  In either event, more often than not, we are left  largely to our own devices in terms of assessing the impact of these changes and what to do about them – if anything.

This makes sessions related to ranking factors pretty popular at shows like SMX Advanced.  This year was no exception and I was able to get a few minutes with one of this years speakers, Rand Fishkin, to chat about the state of SEO ranking factors.

One of the more interesting things Rand and I agreed on was the fact that it’s 2009 and a lot of today’s fundamental ranking factors, are very similar to the same stuff that worked in 2005, 2006, 2007 and so on.  In other words, a lot of the basic things have been pretty consistent.

That said, I thought it might be useful to run down a quick list of some of the things that matter most and least in terms of ranking in 2009.  We’ll start with the Important Things:

Title tags  – This one is a no brainer.  Good title tags have long been recognized as one of the single most important on page SEO elements of any web page.  What makes a good title tag?  A good title tag specific to each individual page is absolutely essential.  Beyond that, as Rand pointed out, having your ‘important terms’ appear early in your title tag also has a significant impact.

Anchor TextAnchor Text - Anchor text is the visible text of a link.  Having inbound links is the overriding number one search factor but not all links are created equally.  Say you have people linking to your page about blue widgets.  If the text in their content reads “Fantastic Blue Widgets can be found here!” it makes a big difference in which words they link to your page.  If they link the words ‘Blue Widgets’, it’s going to do you a lot more good than if they just link the word ‘here’. 

This is important to keep in mind with your own internal linking too.  Avoid using generic, nondescript terms like ‘home’ and ‘here’ and ‘main’ when you link to your own pages.

Quantity of Domains Linking -  This one is interesting.  if you have 10,000 inbound links and your competitor only has 7,000 inbound links but still seems to outrank you consistently, this could be the reason.  Number of links is important, but the number of unique domains those links are coming from is also very important. 

You may have 10,000 inbound links but maybe your links all come from 5,000 unique, separate domains.  Your competitor may only have 7,000 inbound links but if they have 6,000 coming in from separate domains… they will get you most every time.

Social Media/Mobile -  we talked a little bit about social and mobile.  Social and to some extent mobile too can be hard to quantify.  The fact of the matter is though, these are absolutely 2 hugely explosive categories.  Facebook, Twitter and other social giants are continuing to grow in users and usage.  Effective social media management can be a tremendous source for generating buzz, those all-important inbound links and just plain direct referral traffic. 

Those are a few ranking factors Rand and I discussed as important, so what are some things people might be spending too much time worrying about?  Here are some of the things we talked about in terms of being ‘not so important’:

H1 Tags -  A couple of years ago, making use of H1 and H2 tags on selected areas of your HTML code kind of came into vogue. The rationale was the search engine spiders interpreted H1 tags as a signal that ‘hey, this text is important because it’s bigger’.  Of course the proliferation of .css meant that you could throw H1 tags pretty much anywhere and everywhere on your page and just take care of how things looked to people with stylesheets.

That this was ever an effective ranking tactic or strategy is somewhat debatable.  However, currently, while H1 tags aren’t going to hurt you, they don’t seem to be much of a factor.

Keyword Density – This one might surprise you a little bit.  Keyword density is kind of a joke.  It is in fact NOT desirable to work 500 instances of your target keyphrase into the text of your target page.  I know this seems counter intuitive to some, but I for one was very glad to see this claim supported by some data in the Ranking Factors session.

If your page is about Blue Beach Widgets, you have Blue Beach Widgets in your title and you have pages linking to your blue beach widgets page with the terms ‘blue beach widgets’ in the anchor text THAT is good. 

You do NOT have to whore out the content of your page to have ‘blue beach widgets’ repeated 50 times in the description.  I know you have seen these pages…  they look like:
“Bob’s Blue Beach Widget Emporium has the finest selection of blue beach widgets on the web.  Our blue beach widgets are so much better than our competitor’s blue beach widgets, that all of our blue beach widget customers all think our blue beach widgets are the best blue beach widgets ever. So if you need a blue beach widget, or have a friend that needs a blue beach widget, tell them to visit the blue beach widget emporium to find the best blue beach widgets in the blue beach widget business”

This has to stop people. It makes your site read like a bad skit on the Muppet Show. This kind of thing makes me cringe, and it’s ruining the Internet.  Well maybe it isn’t ruining the Internet like MTV ruined America, but it does make for some horrible web pages.  I still hear SEOs talking keyword density to site owners.  If you are a site owner and some SEO comes talking to you about increasing your keyword density, do everybody a big favor and throw something at them.  Please.

W3CW3C Validation -  Ah, my old arch nemesis W3C Validation.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times… but I’ll say it again: if you want your site to validate W3C, by all means… do that.  If having code that passes W3C validation makes you sleep well at night, then, my friend…  you go get that done.  I am all for people having W3C valid code, if that’s what they want.

That said….  in terms of SEO and search engine ranking, the simple reality is: IT DOESN’T MATTER.  It never has mattered and I daresay it never will matter.  Can it hurt you to have valid code?  Certainly not.  Should you pay a designer and extra 30% to design your webpage to be 100% W3C compliant and valid? That’s up to you. But before you do, consider this: of the top 100 websites online, MAYBE 8 (and I am being exorbitant in that estimate) of them pass W3C validation.  Amazon doesn’t pass, eBay doesn’t pass, Twitter doesn’t pass, heck neither do Google, Yahoo or even Microsoft’s new Bing.

Oh Yeah!!!!If your page renders in all the browsers, if you don’t have a bunch of broken links, in other words if your webpage looks like a webpage and can be read… that’s all you need here folks.  Search engines could not possibly care less, in other words if “document type does not allow element "div" here”.  They just don’t.  They never will.  W3C might help get you listed in some directories (maybe?), it has some practical applications in terms of accessibility, and you could maybe argue that it can help you diagnose some page render/load time issues.  Personally I think it’s most common application however is to inflate the bottom line estimate for web designers that can talk you into a cup of the W3C Validation Kool Aid.

So there are a few things Rand and I discussed that matter more and matter less in regard to search ranking factors in 2009.  I’m sure we left plenty of things out, so if you want to add your opinion to either list, feel free to do so in the comments section.

SEO Ranking Factors for 2009
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  • http://www.christopher-roberts.co.uk/ Christopher

    Fantastic stuff, great RELIABLE advice.
    Thanks :)

    • jakehadlee

      Good stuff overall, but you’ve written off H1 tags too early. Still getting good results using H1 tags – just got some products on a client’s site from pages 2-3 on Google (using product name search) to page 1 by changing H1 tags alone. Maybe not as important as two years ago, but still important.

  • http://www.controldatainc.com collection agency debt

    Great info. what I have been seeing over time is that options that made a big difference in the past are no longer having the big change today. For example keyword density is still just as important as it was before as well as H1 tags. They just work together as a whole rather than giving huge results for any one change.

  • http://www.kenkai.com Big Man

    Whilst I agree that keyword stuffing is not the way to go, it’s interesting that you are number one on google for Blue Beach widget….. :)

  • http://www.theattorneydatabase.com/ Attorney Eagle

    I have never seen any seo advice this precise and clear. I have almost heard all the thngs you talked in this post. However, I was not clear of any of the usage of the mentioned SEO tactics. Thanks for putting up such a great post. Bookmarked this page for future SEO refrence.

    Thanks again.

  • http://www.seoworkers.com John S. Britsios (aka Webnauts)

    Should you pay a designer and extra 30% to design your webpage to be 100% W3C compliant and valid?

    Since when web designers charge 30% extra to make a web site 100% W3c compliant and valid? That is their job. Or did I miss something here?

    The rationale was the search engine spiders interpreted H1 tags as a signal that

    • Designer


      Since when web designers charge 30% extra to make a web site 100% W3c compliant and valid? That is their job. Or did I miss something here?

      Over time, validity of code changes – and keeping to valid code can dramatically increase workload…

      since we charge based on time, getting the job done with valid code is going to cost more – simply because more time is spent doing it

      you can have the exact same website cheaper because less time was spent worrying about supposedly “better”, valid code.

      • http://www.seoworkers.com John S. Britsios (aka Webnauts)

        Is that a joke? A professional web designer knows AT LEAST how to markup HTML. And as a side not, HTML is not a science. I am also a designer, and it does not take me a second longer to design a site with clean, semantical and valid code. I do not even need to validate my work with validators, etc, because I know HTML and and what I am doing. I do not want to offend anyone here, but people making such claims, they never even learned the basics of web design, which begins with the most simple markup language of the world: HTML!

    • Daniele

      You’re right, John.
      I’m a web designer and I design only W3C validated web sites.

      That’s my job. :)

  • http://www.ahugelist.com ahugelist

    W3C Validation – not important – yay!
    I had wondered myself at the amount of “big sites”that were not compliant – now I know I can relax about that aspect and focus on more important issues :D Great tips – cheers!

  • http://www.websitedesignpak.com/ web design pakistan

    For a web developer/SEO pro like me, it is important that i develop w3c validated code even if it may not affect serps. A large number of clients want quality code and to ensure that, it needs to be validated by some third party and W3C is that party.

    • RWL

      I too believe that quality code is extremely important. A W3C compliant page is easier to manage/update and it allows the next guy who works on the site to step into it a little easier. That is very important to companies. They want the next developer to easily step into the code not wasting time trying to figure out what the last guy did.

  • http://www.seo-serp.com SEO

    Nothing new here. Lost as to the reason for this article. 0% new information released. But I still love Web Pro News! =)

  • http://www.sweetpixels.co.uk Search Marketing Sussex

    I would just to add that it’s worth validating your site with W3C as I had an issue with the text editor I was using to develop my site. The formatting was entered as “UTF 8 with BOM” Due to this problem and not checking my newly developed site I was not added to the google index for two weeks. After validating the site I found the problem formatted my web pages to the correct format and was in the google index within hours. I would say W3C validating is important and should be a pre-requisite task before going live.

  • http://www.tiprox.nl Sjoerd

    What is a professional web designer?

    If they are good at making the perfect code, why aren’t they good at making an website that is SEO prefect. Their priority is often looks, not feel.

    • http://www.wsoaonline.com KernelPanic

      SEO Perfect? Did someone call me? :) Actually there is no such thing. What’s perfect on one website will not be perfect on another. Lists on most relevant SEO elements are interesting and great for reference but what works on one website will not necessarily achieve similar results on another. I preach Synergy! All elements of SEO working together to increase rank for a specific key phrase / web page.

      This means use header tags, titles, anchor text, rich informative content, LSI, desc tags, keyword presentation… and treat them all with equal value. ALL elements of SEO working synergistically is where it’s at! imo anyway :)

      um and why are people spamming no follow links? Florida SEO http://www.wsoaonline.com/floridaseo.aspx Search Engine Optimization in Fl

  • http://www.ikenmijnkind.nl Name it

    A lot of comments on W3C compliancy, but nobody mentions the importance of content…….

  • http://www.thebookabyss.com.au Australian Online Bookshop

    Great article. Its fanastic to be able to read an article explaining some of the common do’s and don’ts in easy to interpret language. Thanks!

  • http://webcams-chat.org Tchat

    helped my ranking ^^ thanx

  • http://www.lornepike.com Lorne Pike

    If your assessment of what’s important is accurate, then I’ll sleep well tonight. Except for the H1 tags, which I believe can carry more weight that you give them here, I believe we’re on the same (Web) page. Now how far up or down that scale would you rate canonicalization?

  • jitendra k bharai

    Hello Mike,

    That was a very interesting and useful article.Personally i am into linking to get top position in Google and i value your advice.

    Thanks

    jitendra

  • http://www.shapirit.biz Ricardo Goldberg

    Thank you Mike for the clear explanation of SEO Ranking Factors.

    I think that the post of Jeffery Smith & KernelPanic added some more aspects on this issue and should be taken in mind.

    There are two things that I want to add:

    1) Nobody ever claimed that W3C will get your site rank higher, but EVERYBODY claimed that if your site passed W3C it will be readable by different browsers, let’s say that your site IS NOT W3C compliant and let’s assume that you have a monthly traffic of 500 and only 4% of them use a different kind of browser that your site does not support well, then you have lost 20 potential costumers.

    2) One VERY important thing that was skipped here is CONTENT, good content will attract visitors even if your overall rank is low.

    Finally, there is no way to comply with every search engine specifications, each one have different ways to “see” your site, the only thing that is equal is TEXT.

    You should also ask yourself the WHY you build your site, did you build it to amuse the visitor or to sell yourself.

    I decided to build my site by the rule of “less is more”, plain HTML and almost none javascript and none of the new ways of making a site, my site is not a shiny site but it does what it should do… SELL FOR ME.

    • Nobody

      No, Ricardo Goldberg, my friend you are entirely wrong saying that if one’s code passes W3C certification his/hers site will show well on any browser. When you said this probably you did not take into consideration IE8. I had so many problems with this one that i don’t have time to right here .

  • http://www.krisolin.com Kris Olin

    Nice tips there, Mike! All good and relevant. I’d like to add one more thing that is often overlooked. Write your most important keywords to your alt image tags. This will help overall SEO plus the images have a chance to come up in images searches.

    Have a nice day!
    Kris Olin
    Web Designer
    http://twitter.com/KrisOlin

  • http://inchoo.net Toni Anicic

    I totally agree with everything seomoz guy said. Links are the essence of SEO today. I can rank a website without mentioning the keyword anywhere based only on backlinks.

  • http://mittalseo.wordpress.com/ Sangeeta Mittal

    Very Good Tips!!!

  • http://moneyforinvestment.blogspot.com MONEY FOR INVESTMENT

    Very nice tips.. especially your tip on the keyword density. Lot of people around believe that keyword density is crucial. hope this clears the doubt and bloggers will not be shoving keywords where there is no need for one.

  • Mike McDonald

    No, not everybody uses IE. I always get a kick out of the ‘not everybody uses W3C’ argument. While it is true, it’s also not 1998 anymore and browsers have come a looong way. Take Google, for example… has anyone come across a browser Google wouldn’t render in?

    I am not ripping on validation. If you want to validate, by all means, go validate. This article is about search engine ranking factors and validation is NOT a search engine ranking factor. Period.

    Now, as far as a real reason to validate, I would get off the ‘not everything is IE’ and move on to something a little more relevant to 2009. Namely, MOBILE. Mobile is kind of like browsers in the 90s now. Different devices with different capabilities all using crazy little browsers that have a much more difficult time with things. So for mobile sites, strict xHTML is going to be a good idea.

    Michael McDonald
    Follow me on twitter.com/mmcdonald”>Twitter!
    Managing Editor
    iEntry, Inc.

  • http://www.tmprod.com Christel Murray

    If this article is supposed to be about SEO Ranking Factors, there were a few things left out. One would be keywords in the URL and the history of the domain name. Secondly, ‘Social Media/Mobile’ is not a ranking factor, only a means to get buzz and traffic…

    • http://www.diolt.com Diolt.com

      I am agree with you

  • http://www.superbhosting.net Jason Barnes

    While I think the article over simplifies the topic a bit, it’s amazing how many sites could get a huge boost from reading through and following the tips. Especially anchor text – for whatever reason this is a tough concept to get people to understand!

    Definitely glad the days of keyword stuff are (mostly) behind us!

  • http://www.bluelightseo.co.uk BluelightSEO

    Interesting talk about w3c validation, I suppose it does have it’s benefits, maybe not a great deal for SEO but it got me thinking and I decided to create this post- http://bluelightseo.co.uk/blog/?p=23

  • http://hurtzsogood.com hurtzsogood

    Once again there are 2 million experts on every subject but I did find this video informative. I have actually just been asking for links since my site is adult based not a whole lot of people are gonna clammer to link in. I get resposes like how can you help me blah blah, well now those people have a link to your video. This is not the first I have heard of link,link, and link some more, the imperfect code and the like is, and to all you coders sorry it don’t have to be pretty to be effective.

    hurtzsogood

  • http://www.lasvegasphotoimages.com/ Las Vegas photo images

    .. as well as H1 tags, keyword related domain names, key-worded (and true to picture) alt image tags, don’t forget thorough internal linking, and “beg, steal, and borrow, + buy” key-worded anchor links from quality sources.

    You can throw in “old fashioned” means of advertisement to the mix to promote your domain. If someone goes online and enters your address they saw on a billboard or in newspaper it becomes somewhat proxy SEO.

    If your website has something to give to visitors (quality information, I mean) and you put in a lot of work (or money) then possibly one day you’ll see yourself on the first page of Google!

  • http://www.pioutsource.com PI Outsource

    Interesting..

    Check this search on Google for “Philippines outsourcing”
    http://www.bing.com/search?q=philippines+outsourcing&go=&form=QBRE&filt=all

    The guy in the #1 position, has no content, a decent domain, and is titled the “Philippines Outsourcing Official WebSite”.

    Do you think it is possible to add “official website” to your websites title and dramatically increase your natural search rank?

  • http://www.bestchristianshop.com Jim

    Good tips, especially keyword density. Honestly, I read SEO articles all the time. Everyone has different outlook and advice. It can be very overwhelming to someone who is not an SEO expert. I thought Google webmaster tools and their guidelines is where you are suppose to focus your attention. I suppose you just rely on trial and error.

    Thanks for the information and tips.

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  • http://www.mcraan.com mcraan

    Great Post.

    Thanks..

  • SEO Guru

    You’re missing one of the most important factors in SEO, quality content. I’ve seen many sites rank well, on the first page, by having all the online SEO factors and QUALITY content with few high quality backlinks. This article is way oversimplifying SEO and seems to be somewhat “opinionated” about the ranking factors, but useful for beginners to start off with. Course, SEO experts are not going to give away their secrets for free.

  • http://www.diolt.com Diolt

    As a whole articles lines are known essentials and appreciated but most of the things are left still.

    SEO Copywriting, or to give it its full name, search engine optimization copywriting or search engine copywriting, is the technique of writing the viewable text on a web page in such a way that it reads well for the surfer, and also targets specific search terms. Its purpose is to rank highly in the search engines for the targeted search terms.
    As well as the viewable text, SEO Copywriting usually optimizes other on-page elements for the targeted search terms. These include the Title, Description and Keywords tags, headings and alt text.

  • http://www.fascino.co.il ???????

    W3C make to much noise for nothing

  • http://www.absoluteinternetmarketing.co.uk/web_marketing Simon Colley

    It never hurts to re-iterate some of the main do’s and dont’s, although i’m still a little unsure to the importance of anchor text as I don’t see a great use of it when users post comments on sites such as webpronews…..be great to get someone’s opinion on this?

  • http://faizfaidzin.blogspot.com faiz

    good post…thanks for your article

  • http://www.image-recovery-software.com/ james

    your post is really great and interesting. After reading this article, i am very much confident with search engine optimization and techniques. thanks buddy…

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  • http://www.site-booster.com Targeted Traffic

    It seems that the core of SEO remains at two things: text and link.

    To me, your interesting post has boiled it down to moderately keyword-enriched relevant topic and text links form unique IPs with valuable content, ….

  • http://www.ustillup.com Jack Strawman

    Links, links, it’s all about the links. Onsite SEO is worth less and less every year. I’ve seen some sites that haven’t done a bit of onsite SEO make it to the top of the search engines. This is because they have thousands of links using their chosen anchor text.

    After you’ve written a couple dozen articles, and posted signature links in a handful of forums and posted comments on all relevant dofollow blogs… then what? Trade links with relevant high PR sites? Does this even help anymore?

    It took me a year to build about 800 links. However, I’ve run out of ideas and especially out of steam. What next?

  • http://www.ugureskici.com u?ur eskici

    I think w3c validation, using h1 tag and keyword densivity are more important than other factors.
    Thanks Mike