How often do we hear that “SEO is dead”? It seems that after every major algorithm shake-up, hundreds of “SEO is dead” articles rear their ugly heads. But the truth is, SEO isn’t dead, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
SEO is an ever-evolving beast that AI and machine-learning algorithms like RankBrain have drastically transformed (and will continue to) over the past couple of years.
So, what does this mean?
If you want to continue to drive your SEO strategy forward you need to understand RankBrain and adapt your approach to focus on the things that matter most. Not sure where to start? Read on for part one of a four-part series detailing the steps you need to take to optimise for RankBrain.
What is RankBrain and why should you care?
RankBrain is a machine-learning algorithm that went live in April 2015, but wasn’t confirmed by Google until October 2015. Here is how RankBrain was initially described:
“RankBrain uses artificial intelligence to embed vast amounts of written language into mathematical entities — called vectors — that the computer can understand. If RankBrain sees a word or phrase it isn’t familiar with, the machine can make a guess as to what words or phrases might have a similar meaning and filter the result accordingly, making it more effective at handling never-before-seen search queries.”
Essentially, RankBrain helps Google understand the user intent behind searches and deliver the results which are most likely to satisfy that intent. Most importantly, RankBrain utilises machine learning to learn from past behaviour and user satisfaction, meaning that RankBrain is constantly updating and making changes to the algorithm on its own to improve user satisfaction and the search results it delivers.
This means that there are no longer a list of “SEO ranking factors” that are equal for all industries and searches – depending on the search, RankBrain will determine (based on a test-and-learn approach) how important factors like HTTPS, site speed, links and content are. RankBrain will then determine if users are interacting with the search results better, and if not, RankBrain will make further changes. Here’s an example of how this could work…
To summarise, RankBrain makes all of these tweaks and changes on its own, through machine learning.
Why should you care? Because Google revealed that RankBrain is one of the top 3 ranking factors and is used on 100% of all queries (links and content making up the other two). With that in mind, you need to make sure you’re developing your SEO strategies to optimise for the one thing RankBrain cares about most: user satisfaction.
When I talk about user satisfaction, there are likely several key elements RankBrain is looking at:
- Organic click through rate (CTR)
- Dwell time
- Bounce rate
In isolation, these metrics don’t mean much, but together they’re capable of giving Google a great indication of how good a site is at satisfying its users. Now you have an idea of how RankBrain works and the importance of UX signals, let’s jump into how you can leverage it to boost performance.
Boosting click-through rate (CTR)
As mentioned earlier, one of the key elements RankBrain is measuring is organic CTR. But how can you get people to click on your result?
There are four main elements to a SERP result that you can optimise to boost CTR:
- Title tag
- Meta description
- Schema mark-up
Boost CTR by up to 33% by using brackets in title tags
A study conducted by HubSpot revealed that titles which used brackets performed 33% better than titles that didn’t.
Add numbers to page titles
Buzzsumo analysed over 100 million headlines and found that using numbers in title tags significantly improved CTR. They found that the number ‘10’ was the most effective for driving clicks.
Use keywords in titles
Don’t forget the basics! Despite keyword usage dropping in importance, a recent study conducted by Ahrefs demonstrated that there was a slight correlation between higher rankings and sites that use the keyword in the title tag.
Spark interest with negative superlatives in titles
Use negative superlatives to hook the user. A study conducted by Outbrain proves that a negative title will get more clicks than a positive one.
This is of course a tip that will not be relevant for much of your content, and it’s important that your content matches the negative title tag and you aren’t just spinning the title to sound negative.
Watch the length!
As you know by now, Google loves a test, and they are no different when it comes to testing different character limits for title tags. Use a tool like SEOmofo to test different title tags, but most importantly, run manual checks and keep an eye on how your sites SERP results are looking.
Give the user a reason to click
Writing effective meta descriptions often goes to the back of an SEO’s mind, because meta descriptions are no longer a direct ranking factor. However, a meta description can have a significant impact on your CTR (which is a direct ranking factor) so telling users why they should click is a must.
What’s different about your content? How does it serve the user’s intent? What are your USPs? Make sure you highlight this in your description.
Here’s an example of a meta description that fails to do that:
What’s wrong here?
- Difficult to read or understand (this usually happens when you fail to write a meta description and Google automatically pulls content from the page).
- No clear information on what the user should expect from the page – why is this result going to be useful to them?
- No CTA – there’s nothing here prompting the user to click on the result and take action.
Here’s an example of a meta description that ticks all of the boxes:
Why is this good?
- Clear information on the context of the page ‘Great deals on Apple iPhone X mobile phones as Optus. Compare and buy iPhone X plans online’.
- Good CTA, ‘Free shipping, shop online now!’ This gives the user a compelling reason to click on the result.
Run ad copy tests in AdWords
If your content ranks well organically, but the CTR is low (relative to position), chances are you have a weak title tag or meta description. Why not split test different headlines on AdWords?
This is a great way to collect data quickly on the headlines and ad copy that work best. You can then use this data to improve your organic CTR for these pages and boost traffic.
Implement structured data
A study from Search Engine Land revealed that using schema mark-up can increase CTR by up to 30%.
Utilising aggregate rating schema and highlighting events are two effective ways of doing this, as it adds a touch of colour to your listing and really helps it stand out.
As you can see above, the sites utilising schema not only stand out more, but take up significantly more real estate in the SERPs and help gives users more detailed information.
There are literally hundreds of uses for schema mark-up, and while there is a benefit to all, only a handful can have an impact on your SERP listing. Some of the most common types include:
- Aggregate rating
- Product & offer
- Search box
All of these can enhance how your site looks in the search results, increasing the number of clicks you receive relative to the competition. If you’re getting more clicks than sites ranked above you, over time RankBrain will reward you with a higher ranking (provided you manage to keep users on your site after they‘ve clicked).
Check back next month for the second part of the series, which will cover tips on how to reduce bounce rates, boost dwell times and avoid pogo sticking.