SEO Ranking Factors for 2009

    June 16, 2009

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.