Google’s Rankings, Engagement Signals & Quality Content: The Connection

High Quality Content Is Key

Your primary focus should be on the creation of high-quality content that matches user intent. By creating good content, you’ll naturally engage visitors. This engagement will help increase your rankings, which will help to drive even more engagement. It’s a cycle. Finally, by tracking various engagement metrics, you can monitor how your content is performing and make adjustments that will help improve engagement. Over time you’ll strengthen your engagement signals, which will only help further increase your rankings.

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Google Rankings And Engagement Signals: We Separate Fact From Fiction

Close up low angle view of a man working from home on a laptop computer sitting at a desk surfing the internet

Most companies have several goals when it comes to building their websites and developing their online marketing strategies. These goals can include improving brand awareness, increasing brand authority, building brand trust, generating more leads, and closing more sales, to name a few. How you prioritize your goals may differ from other organizations; regardless of varying goals, there are two critical elements that all businesses must pay attention to when creating or optimizing a website: engagement and search engine rankings.

Both engagement and rankings are crucial to judging the performance of your website and marketing efforts. If you don’t monitor them, you’ll find it increasingly difficult to achieve your marketing goals. They also happen to be closely linked.

Why Are Google Search Rankings So Important?

Google is the world’s largest search engine, with a worldwide search engine market share of almost 92 percent. When people perform an online search, it’s likely to be on Google. The way Google’s search engine works is relatively simple as far as the concept goes. Google combs the Internet to index all existing websites. They then match the keywords used in search queries to the content that they have indexed to deliver the most relevant and helpful search engine results.

The SERP (search engine results page) lists what Google has determined to be the most relevant and high-quality results for each search query it receives. While users can go through hundreds of pages of results, very few will go past the first page. Most users will typically click on one of the top three results, which is why trying to rank on the first page and near the top of the SERP is such a priority for most businesses. If your content doesn’t rank well, it won’t appear on the first page and won’t receive nearly as much exposure. If you do rank on the first page, you’ll get much more traffic to your website.

Why Is Website Related Engagement So Important?

You cannot achieve any of your goals if your website is incapable of engaging your visitors. It doesn’t matter how much traffic your site receives; poor engagement means that your visitors will likely leave and it will hurt your ability to capture leads and close sales. Although having your content viewed or read is a form of engagement, further engagement is a sign that your content was good. Poor quality or irrelevant content won’t engage your visitors any further. After all, why would anyone read another article or click on another link if they didn’t like the content they just viewed?

By creating content that is engaging, and a website that is clear and easy to navigate, you help keep visitors on your website. By keeping visitors on your site for extended periods of time, you increase the chances of further educating and entertaining visitors, building trust, capturing them as leads, and nurturing them through the buyer’s journey, eventually allowing you to close more sales.

Measuring Website Engagement

Measuring how engaged visitors and leads are is critical to your ability to judge the performance of your website and its content. Engagement goes way beyond traffic numbers. The use of website engagement metrics will allow you to compare the performance of different pages and identify what’s working and what isn’t. In turn, you can make the proper adjustments for a more successful and cost-effective marketing strategy. Some of the website engagement metrics commonly used by marketers include:

  • New Visitors
  • Returning Visitors
  • Average Time On Page
  • Average Session Duration
  • Pages Per Session
  • Click-Through-Rates
  • Number Of Shares
  • Number Of Comments
  • Conversions

How Do Engagement Signals Affect Your Ranking?

Google’s goal as a search engine is to provide the best possible results to their user queries. In addition to using bots to crawl through website content and identify the subject matter using keywords, Google also monitors a variety of signals that help them identify the quality of the content. These signals include factors that affect the user experience, such as if the page loads quickly and whether the content is useful or informative. Google can determine the general quality of a webpage through the use of engagement signals.

What Is An Engagement Signal?

Engagement signals are any signals that indicate user engagement. For example, social signals, such as likes and shares, are a form of engagement signal. There are many engagement signals that Google uses to determine the ranking of a page. Some of these signals are public knowledge; others were discovered via extensive testing and research.

One thing to keep in mind is that Google has never revealed how they weigh engagement signals or how they calculate the exact ranking. Despite this, understanding what engagement signals Google pays attention to is essential. The ranking of a page and the engagement of a page are dependent on one another. If your page gets a lot of engagement, it will get a higher ranking. If it ranks well, then the page will receive more exposure, leading to more traffic and engagement. Increased engagement will send your ranking up even more. Your page engagement and page rankings are linked in an endless cycle.

The History Of Google’s Search Engine Ranking Algorithm

On the surface, Google’s search engine is easy to understand. It crawls the Internet, it indexes the content it finds, and then it retrieves results for user queries on its search engine based on relevance and quality. How it’s able to do this in such an effective manner is a little more complicated. Yet, it’s important to understand Google’s ranking process if you want to have your content ranked on the first page of results. To understand Google’s ranking process, you must have a general understanding of its algorithm.

It is Google’s algorithm that allows it to accurately index and rank content. The algorithm is the basis for all of Google’s success, which is why Google continually updates its algorithm to improve the quality of its SERPs and to meet the evolving needs of its users. It is ultimately the user experience that has driven Google’s efforts since day one.

Google’s Origins As A Concept

The entire concept behind Google originated in the form of a Stanford University research project undertaken by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1996. The spark that led to the project was Page’s curiosity about the link structure of the web. He saw each computer as a node and the links on a web page as connections between nodes, leading Page to believe that the Internet was the largest graph ever created. His studies eventually led to the idea of backlinks.

At that time, you couldn’t see where a website’s backlinks were coming from. In Page’s academic world, citations were incredibly important. Academic papers cited by other papers are more trustworthy because they are more likely to have passed peer review. Page believed that backlinks were essentially citations, meaning, the more backlinks a page had, the more trustworthy its content was likely to be.

Based on the idea of backlinks as citations, Page and Brin developed a system that they called “PageRank” that could analyze the relationships among websites. The PageRank algorithm (named after Page and not after webpages) could determine the relevance of a website based on several factors. These factors included the number of pages and the importance of the page linked to the original website.

At first, they nicknamed the search engine “BackRub” due to its reliance on checking backlinks to determine the importance of a website. The project resulted in a research paper called “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.”

How Google Began Ranking Search Results

Based on their research paper, Page and Brin (along with several other contributors) developed a prototype of the Google search engine that they published in 1998. The name “Google” was simply a misspelling of the word “Googol,” which is the term used to describe the number “1” followed by 100 zeros. The name was chosen to represent the massive amount of information that the search engine would be able to provide.

During this time, search engines ranked results by calculating how often search terms (keywords) appeared on the page. Google changed all of that. Their PageRank system rewarded links that came from authoritative sources and penalized links that did not. The original concept counted every link as a vote. Pages with the most votes would be ranked the highest as they would be considered the most trusted. These days, every search engine operates in this way.

How Search Rankings Were Manipulated

Although the Google search engine was much more effective at determining the quality of a website through its PageRank algorithm, people soon found ways to cheat the system through what is now known as “blackhat SEO.” Blackhat SEO refers to any practice that manipulates Google’s algorithm to increase the rank of a webpage unfairly. Some of these tactics were common well before Google arrived, such as keyword stuffing. However, new blackhat tactics emerged in the early days of Google that specifically targeted PageRank. These include the following:

  • Purchasing Backlinks – Services popped up that would sell backlinks. For a price, you could buy backlinks that would be counted as votes even though you didn’t earn them. Such services often have numerous websites set up (typically very low-quality websites) on which they post links to websites that pay them in return for those links.
  • Participating In Link Farms – Link farms are groups of websites that all link one another. For instance, if you join a link farm along with five other websites, they will link to your website if you link to all of theirs, resulting in the unnatural creation of backlinks. Link farms are often automated, which means that they can consist of hundreds of websites or more.
  • Spamming Links In Blog Comment Sections – Blogs began to grow in popularity around the same time that Google was launched. The comment section for blogs throughout the web became breeding grounds for link spamming. You could post a link to your website in the comment section of a blog and have it counted as a backlink.
  • Linking From Private Blog Networks – A private blog network is a network of websites that you own that you use to generate backlinks for your primary site. This tactic involves buying expired domains that have already built up authority. The new owner continues producing content for those domains. They then use this new content to link back to their main website.

How Google Prevented Search Ranking Manipulation

Google didn’t become the number one search engine in the world by just resting on its laurels. Realizing that their algorithm was being manipulated, they began to update it regularly, and their algorithm has grown much smarter over the years. Their algorithm is now capable of more effectively identifying relevant and high-quality web content. It can even determine if a website is using blackhat tactics.

Google also developed the “no-follow attribute.” There are two types of links: no-follow and do-follow. Google’s PageRank algorithm ignores No-follow tags. They were developed as a way to counter blog comment link spamming, which had become a real problem. In general, all outbound links posted in blog comments, social media posts, forum posts, press releases, and widgets now use the no-follow tag.

Google also established a webspam team with the sole purpose of seeking out websites that were manipulating their rankings using blackhat tactics. The team was headed by Matt Cutts, who co-authored a Google patent on webspam. One of Google’s patents shows its ability to identify websites that are manipulating Google’s ranking system unfairly, as well as the ability to penalize those sites. While Google can penalize sites if they suspect them of rank manipulation, Cutts has stated that just because Google owns patents to certain capabilities does not mean that they use those capabilities as part of their algorithm.

The following are some of the significant algorithm updates that Google has made over the years to deal with search ranking manipulation and to improve their overall search engine results. 

Reducing The Reliance On Links For Search Rankings

Initially, Google’s search engine relied almost exclusively on backlinks and keywords to rank webpages. However, as users have evolved, so has the way Google ranks webpages. Google now uses a wide range of different factors in addition to backlinks and keyword optimization to identify and rank content, naturally reducing the importance of links. And the introduction of no-follow links has completely devalued certain types of backlinks.

Google now considers the domain authority of the websites that are linking to your page so that they are not rewarding backlinks purchased from low-quality sites. While they won’t necessarily penalize backlinks from sites with low domain authority, they won’t count them towards your ranking either. However, if Google notices that you have a significant number of backlinks coming from low authority sites, they may assume that you’re purposefully trying to manipulate your ranking. Google could penalize you for this by lowering your ranking.

The Use Of Social Media Signals

One of the reasons why Google no longer relies solely on backlinks and keywords is that there are other ways to determine the quality of a webpage. The advent of social media introduced a whole new way for users to interact with online content through comments, likes, and shares. Social media grew significantly in the late 2000s to the point where it changed the online landscape for good. Google realized that social media signals, such as likes, shares, and comments, were citations from the users themselves, indicating proof of quality. Google announced in December 2010 that they were paying attention to social media engagement as a factor in ranking web content.

Updating Algorithms To Detect Quality More Effectively

Google continues to make minor adjustments and changes to its algorithm every day. However, every once in a while, it introduces significant changes. For instance, Google introduced the Panda update in 2011. The purpose of the update was to improve the quality of their SERP by improving Google’s ability to identify poor quality or shallow content. The update addressed everything from content farming to duplicate content and more. Its release effectively changed 12 percent of all of Google’s search results. The change was so significant that it changed the way that content would be created from then on.

Launching The Freshness Update To Identify More Relevant Results

Panda wasn’t the only significant change Google rolled out in 2011. At the end of that year, Google also introduced its Freshness update. Its purpose was to make it easier to identify “fresher” content, meaning, newer content. The ability to do this allowed Google to present users with content that was more relevant and less outdated. The update affected 35 percent of total searches, with upwards of 10 percent of search results being significantly affected.

The Launch Of Google’s Penguin Update

In April 2012, Google launched its Penguin update to combat blackhat tactics involving link-building. Before the update, link volume was a huge factor in Google’s ranking algorithm. The Penguin update allowed Google to identify the quality and trustworthiness of a webpage’s backlinks. This Penguin update effectively countered common link-building techniques such as link farming, link purchasing, and the use of private blog networks. Penguin also made it easier for Google’s algorithm to identify keyword stuffing practices.

The implementation of Penguin also resulted in many websites receiving penalties for unnatural link building. These penalties weren’t automatically executed by Penguin, although it did affect the rankings of sites practicing such techniques negatively. Most penalties resulting from the Penguin update were manual penalties.

The Launch Of Google’s Hummingbird Update

Before the Hummingbird update, Google focused on lowering the rankings of poor quality content as their primary way of improving their user experience. Addressing blackhat SEO tactics was a significant component of this strategy. With the Hummingbird update, Google began to focus more on better understanding its user queries to deliver more relevant results instead of focusing primarily on matching the use of keywords.

The update used natural language processing, including synonyms and semantic indexing, to better understand user context. It also meant that Google could now understand a query even when a user misspelled a word or used slang. Google effectively eliminated the blackhat tactic where keywords were purposely misspelled to attract users who misspelled their search queries.

The Google Mobile Update

In April 2015, Google released its mobile update, which was nicknamed “Mobilegeddon.” Critics feared that the update would have drastic effects on websites that weren’t optimized to be mobile-friendly. Google understood that mobile use was on the rise and that the user experience on mobile devices was inferior to that on desktops.

Their mobile update rectified this by prioritizing mobile-friendly websites on their separate mobile SERPs. Any website that wasn’t mobile-friendly was either penalized or removed from the mobile SERP. Since then, mobile users have eclipsed desktop users, so Google eventually moved to mobile-first indexing. Now the mobile-friendliness of a website will impact how you rank for every query.

The Rise Of RankBrain

RankBrain introduced a new way to analyze and rank web content using artificial intelligence and machine learning. RankBrain was a part of the Hummingbird update in 2015. With RankBrain, Google can now deliver relevant results to user queries even if it doesn’t understand what the query means. According to Google, RankBrain is the third most important signal behind content and links.

Not only can RankBrain use machine learning to provide results to unknown queries, but it can also determine if those results are relevant. It does this by monitoring how users engage with the search engine results pages. If the engagement is low, the ranking of the page is lowered. If it’s high, it will be raised. There was always some speculation that user engagement had to influence rankings in one way or another. The release of RankBrain essentially confirmed these assumptions.

3 Common Google Ranking Myths

Although we know a lot about the methods Google uses to rank webpages, it’s important to note that Google keeps its exact formulas for ranking content secret. While they have revealed some of their ranking signals, most of the work done to understand Google’s algorithm has been the result of extensive trial and error. Unfortunately, this also means that there are many myths and misconceptions about the way Google ranks webpages. The following are three ranking myths, in particular, that should be dispelled right off the bat:

1. Google Analytics Is Used To Rank Websites

RankBrain does use certain engagement signals to rank pages. Because of this, some people naturally assume that Google Analytics is also used to rank websites. Since Google Analytics allows you to monitor various user engagement metrics, and Google Analytics is a Google product, it only makes sense that Google would use it to calculate rankings.

For example, Google Analytics allows you to monitor the bounce rate of each webpage on your site, which indicates how quickly visitors leave your site after arriving on it. You might assume that this is an engagement signal that RankBrain would also use. However, Google outright denies that it factors bounce rate into its rankings. The Google Analytics privacy policy also does not allow Google to use any of the tool’s metrics to rank webpages.

The main engagement signals that RankBrain uses aren’t coming from the website the user is visiting. Instead, they are using engagement signals generated on the SERP. Google has revealed that some of the signals it uses include dwell time, long clicks, and pogo-sticking.

What Is Dwell Time?

Dwell time is the amount of time that passes between when a user clicks on a search result and when that user returns to the SERP. If the dwell time is extremely short, it means that the result they clicked on probably wasn’t relevant. The longer the dwell time, the more likely that the page the user visited was relevant and of high quality.

What Are ‘Long Clicks’?

A long click occurs when a user clicks on a result and doesn’t return to the SERP. It generally means that the user was happy with the page and indicates that Google delivered a relevant and high-quality result.

What Is Pogo Sticking?

Pogo sticking is the term used for when users click on the results of their SERP in order of appearance. For example, if a user clicks on the first link, then returns to the SERP to click on the second link, and so on, it’s called pogo-sticking. When pogo-sticking is occurring, it reveals to Google that the users are not happy with the initial results. Google will then adjust the rankings accordingly.

2. Backlinks Are No Longer Used As Ranking Signals

When someone sees that Google is using artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve their ability to understand user intent, they may assume that backlinks aren’t used as ranking signals anymore. This assumption is not correct. Google still uses backlinks as a primary factor in ranking content. It remains one of the top three ranking signals that Google uses even if they’re no longer the primary focus of their ranking algorithm. Google themselves have reminded people of how crucial backlinks still are.

If you don’t believe Google, just take a look at the study done by Ahrefs. In it, they discovered that out of a billion websites, 90.63 percent of all content receives absolutely no web traffic from Google. The number one reason for this lack of traffic is the lack of backlinks. According to the study, 66.3 percent of the content receiving no traffic from Google had zero backlinks.

3. Search Rankings Are Now Determined By RankBrain

RankBrain might seem like the end-all, be-all of ranking signals due to its use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, but it’s still just a ranking signal. Google doesn’t depend on only one ranking signal to rank web content; it relies on a variety of different ranking signals. Google doesn’t even rely on RankBrain as often as you might think. This is because the purpose of RankBrain is to deliver relevant, quality content based on queries that Google has never received before. Out of the 63,000 searches performed on Google every second, 15 percent of those are brand new queries. RankBrain is used primarily for that 15 percent.

Actual Ranking Factors That Are Used By Google

At this point, you should have a pretty good grasp of what kind of efforts Google has made over the years to improve its search results. When you look at the big picture, Google is looking at how engaging a webpage is to determine its value. Backlinks indicate that a page proved to be engaging enough to link to, while RankBrain helps Google determine how engaged users are with the pages displayed on their SERP. Here are a few other ranking signals that Google pays attention to when ranking content:

SERP Click-Through Rates

SERP engagement signals, such as Dwell Time and Long Clicks, are known to be taken into account when ranking pages. Google has said as much. What they haven’t said is whether or not SERP Click-Through-Rates are a factor. Although some people contend that click-through-rates are not a factor, there have been documented cases that indicate they very much are. This evidence says that if a link on Google’s SERP is getting more or fewer clicks than expected, the ranking of that page may change. For example, results that are listed third on a SERP typically get a click-through rate of around 11 percent. If Google notices that a page in the third position has a click-through rate that’s twice as high, they may adjust its ranking to the second or first position.

User Engagement

Although Google Analytics isn’t used to rank pages, Google does pay attention to many of the engagement signals that you can track using Google Analytics. For example, social signals. If a page receives a lot of shares, likes, or comments via on-page social buttons, this indicates that the page must have provided users with relevant, high-quality content. Google does take note of such engagement signals. Google may pay attention to some of the engagement metrics that you can monitor using Google Analytics, but Google Analytics is not directly used to calculate rankings.

What Can You Do To Rank Higher?

Marketers are always trying to find new ways to adjust their strategies to fully utilize how Google ranks content, whether through new blackhat techniques or accepted practices. While Google does provide recommendations for SEO, people are sometimes frustrated by their simple suggestions, which often come down to “create good content.” The thing is, this is precisely what you need to do if you want to rank higher. Since its inception, it has always been Google’s goal to rank webpages based on quality and relevance. Their history indicates that they will continue to develop and evolve their algorithm so that it can keep improving the quality of its SERP. 

Instead of asking how you can rank higher, ask how you can create better content. As long as you have a basic SEO strategy in place and publish relevant, high-quality content, then Google will reward you. Keep these tips in mind when creating and optimizing your content:

Create Content That Addresses User Intent

The best way to ensure that your content is relevant is by creating it for your target audience. Knowing who your target audience is requires that you develop buyer personas if you haven’t done so already. If you have buyer personas, it will be easier to create content that addresses their needs, wants, concerns, questions, or problems. When you create content for your audience, odds are you will address their user intent. User intent refers to what a person is trying to find when performing a search query. Google’s entire goal is to find content online that matches each user’s unique search intent to deliver relevant results in their SERP.

Create In-Depth Content That Provides Real Value

Although user intent is essential, so is the actual quality of your content. Just because your content matches your user’s intent doesn’t mean that it will automatically provide value to them. Quality goes beyond proper grammar and spelling as well. Your content needs to be helpful or informative in some way. Although Google uses a variety of signals to determine the quality of a page, you should focus more on creating content that provides value to your audience rather than strengthening any ranking signals that indicate quality. When you write high-quality content, the ranking signals that show high quality will typically come naturally.

One thing to keep in mind when trying to create high-quality content: longer content tends to provide more value. Longer content allows you to go into more depth, whereas shorter content can only skim the surface of any given subject. The value of longer content vs. shorter content is reflected in Google’s SERPs: the average length of content found on the first page of Google SERPs is around 1,500 words. 

Make Sure You Optimize Your Content for SEO

Unfortunately, even if your content is excellent, it won’t get any traction with Google if you don’t optimize it for SEO. Properly optimized content will make it easier for Google to identify your content and to deliver it to relevant user queries. Effective SEO requires that you do in-depth keyword research to identify high-quality keywords. It requires that you use those keywords effectively in titles, headers, body content, anchor text, URLs, meta titles, meta descriptions, alt image tags, and more. It requires that you ensure that your technical SEO is up to snuff (meaning that your website is technically sound). 

SEO optimization requires long-term effort and can make or break your ranking goals. Fortunately, there are many third-party tools out there that you can use to identify potential SEO issues, and that can help you improve your SEO efforts. Such tools include but are not limited to:

  • Ahrefs
  • SEMRush
  • Moz
  • Page Optimizer Pro

Actively Encourage User Engagement

Since Google uses engagement as an indicator of quality, you should actively encourage user engagement on all of your pages. There are several easy ways that you can do so. First, every page should have a CTA. When a visitor clicks on your CTA, it’s a form of engagement. CTAs also encourage specific actions that help improve engagement with your website in general. 

Secondly, add social share buttons to your content and put a comment section on your blog. Both of these strategies will help to foster engagement and will increase social signals. Finally, promote your content on other channels, such as through email or social media. This will help bring in more traffic and result in more engagement.

Monitor User Engagement Metrics

Use an analytics tool, such as Google Analytics, to monitor engagement on your website. By monitoring various engagement metrics, you will be able to judge your content’s performance and determine what’s working and what isn’t. Making adjustments to your marketing strategy to improve engagement increases the chances that your content will rank better in the future. Some of the engagement metrics you should pay attention to include:

  • Keyword rankings
  • Time on page
  • Session duration
  • Returning visitors
  • New visitors
  • Traffic sources
  • Bounce rate
  • Comments and shares
  • Click-through rate
  • Conversion rate
  • Referring domains
  • New backlinks

Engagement Is Critical To Your Search Rankings

Ranking towards the top of Google’s SERP is critical to your content marketing efforts. It helps to understand the signals Google looks for to identify high quality, relevant content that matches user intent. However, don’t fall into the trap of writing content for Google’s algorithm. While you want your content to rank well, it shouldn’t be your actual goal. Ranking well is simply a step towards achieving your marketing goals, whether it’s increasing awareness, generating more leads, or closing more sales, to name a few. But it’s not the ultimate goal.

Your primary focus should be on the creation of high-quality content that matches user intent. By creating good content, you’ll naturally engage visitors. This engagement will help increase your rankings, which will help to drive even more engagement. It’s a cycle. Finally, by tracking various engagement metrics, you can monitor how your content is performing and make adjustments that will help improve engagement. Over time you’ll strengthen your engagement signals, which will only help further increase your rankings.

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