Google search ranking factors revealed in latest study

Search marketing changes all of the time and you need to stay on top of the latest changes for any chance of digital success.

The Searchmetrics Ranking Factors study 2015 has arrived and I wanted to share with you some of the most important changes that will help you rank more successfully in Google over the next few months.

Before we cover the actionable insights from this report, a quick thanks to the people who spent a lot of time authoring this research:

  • Marcus Tober
  • Daniel Furch
  • Kai Londenberg
  • Luca Massaron
  • Jan Grundmann


There’s a lot of information in this report (45 pages of useful data in fact) so a few highlights will help you to digest it and get then most from it.

The focus of the whitepaper includes:

  • Technical SEO
  • User experience
  • Content
  • Social signals
  • Backlinks

The report covers desktop-specific search results, with a mobile version expected over the next few weeks.

The following sections are simple overviews of each of the above and some practical takeaways that you can implement today!

Technical SEO ranking factors

Healthy websites perform better in organic search!

The biggest mistake that website owners make is the failure to prioritise the technical health of their website; from site speed and the ability to crawl and index pages, to technical on page optimisation and website architecture.

Technical SEO dashboard
Technical SEO dashboard from Apollo Insights (deep data platform)

Many site owners fail to remove the technical barriers to success, but this doesn’t have to be the case.

Key technical metrics to keep on top of include:

  • Messages in Google Webmaster Tools (GWT), now Google Search Console
  • Aggregated auditing (ideally a number you can attribute to core technical changes)
  • Site speed for mobile and desktop
  • HTML improvement areas
  • Crawling and indexation
  • Algorithm changes (not traditionally technical, but this can be tied to a number of associated areas)
  • On-site page structure
  • Site architecture
  • Internal linking / content hierarchy

One of the biggest oversights in this area is the failure to identify key technical metrics.

This leads to lack on focus on improvement and, in the longer term, gaps within the technical performance of a website’s performance in search.

Websites that perform the best adhere to these technical areas or trends:

  1. They use the meta description tag effectively
  2. They have clear page structure elements including header usage
  3. Exact match keyword domains are becoming less effective
  4. HTTPS does help search performance
  5. Deep linking / internal linking matters more

User experience

Deeper content delivers more ranking gains!

A successful search strategy must include the user, and although we are moving into the realms of design and usability, you will not want to overlook the end user in any website updates.

User experiences can directly impact SEO and search performance, so understanding what your audience needs from your website is important.

Here are the user-based takeaways you need to know:

  1. Internal links are being used more frequently with top performing websites. This ties into providing greater depth of knowledge more effectively, as well as the growth of content hubs.
  2. The use of images within the top websites has increased. The provision of mixed content types is something widely recognised for improving content marketing.
  3. Video integration has declined. This is a little surprising as the wealth of content is ever expanding, as are the demands from people digesting the content.
  4. Of the highest ranking websites, an extra 10 per cent are now responsive. This is undoubtedly linked in no small part to Google updates in this area for mobile search results during April. We have written a wealth of content on this topic and some of the reads of note include those below:
  5. Above the fold font sizes are on average 14 pts, something also I would imagine tied to mobile.
  6. Websites are now more interactive.
  7. Unordered lists are used prolifically in the top websites.


Its less about keywords and more about ALL of the words!

The amount of content that people have access to has never been greater.

We digest information in more ways than ever before and the expectations placed on that content is exponentially higher than at any other time.

From speed of content delivery and depth of information relayed, content is at the fore in most areas of digital marketing success.

Here are some actions to start improving the value derived from your website content today:

  1. Increase content depth. The average word count in the top 10 results is nearly 1300. Longer, more in depth content is almost a standard now. To make yours perform, you need to create the best of its kind. Rand Fishkin takes this a step further suggesting that content needs to be 10x better than anything else that is comparable.
  2. Use of exact match keywords in meta descriptions is falling. The key here is about click through rates, value propositions and engagement, not keywords.
  3. Keywords in body content is also falling. In fact, I rarely hear people talk about keyword densities any more, which can only be a good thing.
  4. The decline of specific keywords (as opposed to a re-focus towards ALL of the words) can also be seen in internal and external linking.
  5. Websites are using ‘proof’ terms. These are the main topic terms required to easily understand a topic. So for example ‘Google Penguin’ could include proof terms like; ‘Google’, ‘Penguin’, ‘Algorithm’, ‘Penalty’ etc.

Social signals

The correlation between social performance and search success is ever more prominent. Although not a direct causation, there is enough weight behind social success and search gains that it must be included within your online strategy.

Take a look at some of the social signals that you need to think about for your website’s success online:

  1. Websites that rank number one have twice as many Facebook likes than those in second place.
  2. High performing sites in organic results have more Google Plus +1s than lower ranked sites.
  3. The volume of Pinterest shares has increased.
  4. Surprisingly, though, Twitter tweets and retweets in the top 30 performing websites has seen a decline.


Backlinks matter. They matter a lot. Top performing websites have more links!

Google cannot function effectively without backlinks.

No search engine can provide accurate information at this point in time without using backlinks.

Backlinks have earned a pretty bad reputation in SEO, mainly due to the importance of them for ranking success and the associated misuse of them to game the system for artificial wins.

Backlinks perform many important functions online:

  1. They link content together for a better user experience
  2. Backlinks pass trust between related sites
  3. They tell us how popular, credible and often how trusted a website is
  4. Backlinks give us relationship advice (for websites, businesses, industries and more)
  5. We get opportunities to fix content gaps by discovering missing/broken content through backlinks
  6. Traffic gets referred to websites through backlinks
  7. We discover information through backlinks that would never be visible otherwise

As you might expect from the above, backlinks are still very important and this is visible in the top performing websites in Google.

For the top performers:

  1. Pages in the top 30 have substantially more backlinks
  2. Top performing sites have more referring websites
  3. Keywords in backlinks are fewer – my hope is that this is based on more natural linking and earning links via linkable assets
  4. More backlinks include domain names, which can be tied in part to the power of the brand but also to natural linking
  5. There are more news sites linking to website homepages
  6. The most successful websites have older backlinks
  7. Nine per cent of backlinks are nofollow for top performing websites

Whats next?

  1. I want to know whether you agree with this post and the findings from the Search Metrics 2015 study.
  2. Let me know what you think and anything that you would change or add at @LWilson1980.
  3. Act on some of the above tips and advice and tell me about the gains you have seen from them.
Lee Wilson profile picture
Lee Wilson

Lee has been working in the online arena, leading digital departments since the early 2000s, and oversees all our delivery services at Vertical Leap, having joined back in 2010. Lee joined our company Operations Team in May 2019. Before working at Vertical Leap, Lee completed a degree in Business Management & Communications at Winchester University, headed up the online development and direct marketing department for an international financial services company for ~7 years, and set up/run a limited company providing website design, development and digital marketing solutions. Lee had his first solely authored industry book (Tactical SEO) published in 2016, with 2 further industry books being published in 2019, and can be seen regularly expert contributing to industry websites including State of Digital, Search Engine Journal, The Drum, plus many others. Lee has a passion for management in the digital industry and loves to see the progression of others through personal learning, training and development. Outside the office he looks to help others while challenging himself, having skydived, bungie jumped and abseiled (despite a fear of heights) with many more fundraising and voluntary events completed and on the horizon. As a husband and dad, Lee loves to spend time with his family and friends. His hobbies include exercising, trying new experiences, eating out, playing countless team sports, as well as watching films (Gangster movies in particular – “forget about it”).

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