Typically speaking I am not a fan of SEOs theorizing about things, especially ranking factors. However, I have realized over the last few years that if I had theorized a bit more, then maybe I would have predicted some of the changes to SEO happening right now. For example, if you have been paying attention to Google over the last couple of years, you might have come to the same realization that many of us have: Google is depending less on links as a ranking factor. Now of course we likely won’t see Google abandon links anytime soon. But, its hard to admit that links are still as strong as they where 3 or 4 years ago.
So if not links then what? Many have talked in great lengths about Google+’s impact on rankings, which to me seems obvious. But few are talking about some factors that have been at Google’s disposal for almost as long as links. It is these factors that I think have a great chance at providing a stronger signal in the future than what ever is trendy to blog about.
It used to be that in order to get web traffic, you would build some content, try to get as many links as possible, and then wait for the rankings. Now with social media, the traffic seems to come before the links in many situations. In fact some sites will get massive amounts of traffic, with little to no links to their pages, because they are so well socially optimized. Google has had all of the infrastructure to track this traffic for years. With Google Analytics and the Google Toolbar they can pretty much track traffic for the vast majority of the pages on the web. And for those pages that they can’t track they can use associative data to make calculated assumptions about a domains traffic. Also some SEOs have theorized that a page with higher traffic is more likely to have a rich snippet or authorship snippet where applicable. Also it just seems like common sense that Google would want to rank the most popular pages the highest.
This theory has actually been talked about a great deal, but I haven’t seen anyone truly test it. It seems logical doesn’t it? If a site is ranking #10 and it receives a higher CTR than most of the pages above it, then wouldn’t it be smart to push that page up? Isn’t a higher CTR a definite signal of closely aligned user intent? Now of course this ranking factor would depend heavily on a lot of other aspects. For example is it really fair to use CTR as a ranking factor when some of the snippets are rich snippets? Or what about snippets that have authorship attracted to them? And then how would CTR factor in with SERP personalization? These are all worthy caveats to this theory, but to me they don’t completely rule it out.
Page Age (freshness)
Most new content now a days is editorial in nature. Meaning that it is either from blogs, social media, or other systems that change quickly. As such, content now comes with an expiration date. Meaning that what was once valid information yesterday, will likely expire tomorrow, or next week. Therefore, it would be smart of Google to rank the freshest content highest. Now I am listing this as a theory only because Google hasn’t talked much about this in public. But some of us are starting to see evidence that this theory is a reality.
Mentions? Mentions are any time a piece of content mentions another page or domain with out an explicit link. This could be thought of in the same way that we think about co-citations, but with less intent. We can also think about mentions in the form of brand mentions as well. Where are these “mentions” happening? Social media, forums, blogs, mainstream media sites, and others. Why would Google potentially use mentions as a factor? Because mentions are a clear signal of popularity with out an explicit intent to pass algorithmic value. Meaning that, at the moment, no one is using mentions as a way to drive their site’s rankings like links. If this theory were true, tracking these mentions will likely become a much larger business than it currently is as it would fall outside the scope of reputation management and turn more into a essential SEO component.
So which will it be? The truth is, there will likely never be one factor that completely replaces links, but instead we are likely to see many different factors influence rankings along side links at a lesser scale. In the end what really matters is building sites that drive all factors on autopilot.
So wht do you think of these theories? Am I wrong? Am I right? Let us know in the comments, and until next time, happy theorizing!