In our previous post about the Google Panda update, we mentioned that inbound links, while still very important, are not weighted as heavily as a ranking signal as they were previously. What has gained in importance is website quality and user experience. As far as inbound links are concerned, they are still extremely important as a ranking signal but Panda now enables Google to analyze links more carefully. Unnatural linking patterns are now more likely to harm your rankings than before Panda.
Let’s talk about website quality and user experience. Imagine that you’re Google and you want to present only the best sites at the top of the search results. But how do you rate website quality via software? Quality is really something best left to a human being, or many human beings, to gauge.
For several years, Google has provided the public with a dizzying array of “free” tools and applications. These include Google Search (a tool so ubiquitous that it has become a verb), Google Analytics, the Google Toolbar and lately a number of social apps including the Google +1 button.
Google doesn’t charge for these applications. However, we all know that the popularity of Google Search is what drives Google’s core revenue business, namely, keyword sponsorships via AdWords. If everyone switched to a different search engine overnight, Google would lose 2/3 of its AdWords revenue. (The other 1/3 is derived from AdWords clicks on non-search related websites, which Google calls the Display Network.)
Google Search provides important signals to Google regarding user experience, signals that can (and very likely do) impact your website’s search rankings.
Let’s say, for example, that your website ranks in organic (not sponsored) Position 9, near the bottom of the first page, for a particular search. If enough people skip over the 8 listings above yours in order to click your listing, Google will eventually conclude that your listing should be ranked higher, and it will move your site up in the rankings for that keyword because that’s apparently what users want.
Let’s look at another example. Let’s say that your website comes up in organic Position 3 for a particular keyword search. When people click that listing, they land on your site. If a high enough percentage of those clicks return quickly to the search results page (via the Back button) and click on a different listing, eventually Google will get the impression that people don’t like what they are finding on your site. All other things being equal, your rank will deteriorate because the #1 job of Google is to provide users with quality search results. On the other hand, if people click through to your site and don’t return to the same search results page, Google figures they found what they were looking for. If your site outperforms others in this regard for that keyword, you may soon find your website ranking in Position 1 or 2 for that keyword.
Hopefully you noticed something very important about this process of improving your ranking. You did nothing to affect it –other than having a more compelling description in your search results listing, or a better website than your competitors. You didn’t build new links, didn’t stuff keywords in your Meta tags, or do anything like that. Google basically crowd-sourced the human response to your website, compared it to the response on other sites, and adjusted things accordingly.
Google Analytics provides similar feedback to Google because it allows the search giant to compare your website against others in your niche in terms of two key metrics: Bounce Rate and Average Time on Site. Bounce Rate is the percentage of visitors that view only one page of your site. Average Time on Site is the time visitors spend on your site, minus the final page they visit before they leave the site. (Which is why, if a visitor bounces, their time on site is 0:00 even if they spent 10 minutes staring at the page they landed on.)
Google recently introduced a new social networking application, called the Google +1 button which provides additional user feedback. You can be sure they intend to mine that data for their own benefit.
All of this means that visitor engagement is extremely important to rankings. Your site needs to be visually attractive and provide useful, unique content. It should be easy to navigate. You WANT people to move around from page to page. The copy should be crisp and interesting, the visuals appealing and inviting.
Google has said for years that if you want high rankings, you should simply build a great website. Now, more than ever before, they have the means to enforce that recommendation.