Back in the olden times of SEO, Topicality and Authority were basically the only ranking factors and SEO was a simple matter of on-page optimization (often to the point that the page read poorly to actual humans) and link building (often with spammy tactics that would get a site penalized today).
But as Google’s user base grew, Google started using signals from those users to help it determine which sites to rank. For a long time the effect of this was pretty subtle, but Google has been turning the User Metrics knob up and up until now it makes a serious impact in the ability of sites to rank well.
User Metrics ranking factors include:
- Click Through Rate: the percentage of users who click on a site in the SERPs can increase or decrease a site’s ability to rank. This percentage is based on the position (we expect #1 to get more clicks than #2, of course) and how the click through rate (CTR) compares to other sites in the same position. Google has in the past tried to say they don’t use this for ranking, but tests have repeatedly proven this as a factor.
- Branded Queries: Searches for a site’s name and the percentage of all searches that are branded is a way that Google determines how sought-after a site is. Of course this only works if your site has a brand name that Google can associate with your site: if a site is buy-sneakers.biz you might have an advantage in anchor text links, but Google is unlikely to associate searches for “buy sneakers” as a brand signal for your site.
- Compound Brand Queries: Searches that include a keyword along with a brand name (making the query navigational) will improve your site’s ability to rank for that keyword. For example, if lots of people search for “sci-fi books amazon” then Google will start to rank Amazon better for searches for “sci-fi books.” I’ve done some interesting tests in the past that have proven this effect pretty definitively.
- Time On Site: The longer a user spends on your site, the more likely it seems to Google that your site was a good result. This is, of course, almost certainly compared to time on site for other sites ranking for the same search query.
- Pogo Sticking: If a user clicks through to your site, stays a very short time (compared to other sites ranking) and goes back to Google and clicks on another site in the search result, this is called pogo sticking and is a strong signal that your site was a bad result, which will eventually hurt your ability to rank.
- Traffic: While not yet proven, there is some compelling correlation data that suggests traffic to your site can be a ranking signal by itself. This doesn’t seem to apply to paid Google traffic, but I’ve seen many cases where a surge of traffic results in a boost to rankings where no other ranking factor changed. This also explains edge cases where known non-factors (like social links) sometimes appear to help rankings.
- Task Completion: This is an unproven, but compelling idea in the SEO world. What I know is that every site I’ve seen that substantially improves the overall user experience (typically resulting in much better conversions) ends up with better rankings. The theory for this is that Google tracks task completion: they know what users search for, and what every page on the internet is about. So Google knows the last site a user visited before changing tasks (searching for a different query, or moving on to websites unrelated to the query topic). That last site visited is likely a good result for the query, even if it wasn’t the result Google served.
While it’s true that many User Metrics ranking factors tend to favor large brands (who have more branded searches, compound brand queries, and often better CTRs), User Metrics also give a great opportunity for the smaller guys of the internet to get ahead. After all, the giant brands are often burdened with slow, lumbering bureaucracies that make it incredibly difficult to stay on top of trends and they typically have sub-optimal user experiences.
User Metrics also make it much more difficult to rank when your site doesn’t deserve to rank. Determining if you really do deserve to rank (meaning you are the best site on the entire internet for a query) is a serious question SEOs much ask themselves before investing a lot of work into a crappy site.
How the Hell Does Google Know What Users Do On My Site?
I get this question a lot when I talk about User Metrics, so now’s probably a good time to get ahead of it. Google collects user data on every site visited via the Chrome browser, via Android devices, via anyone on a Google Fiber network, and it’s even been proven that Google collects at least some data on users of other browsers with a Google extension (such as YouTube plugins). Some of this we know via testing, and others (like Chrome) we know just by reading the User Agreement.
With all of this data, Google is far, far beyond what is needed to get a statistically significant sample of the population of the internet. You cannot hide the shitty user experience of your site from Google.