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Is Human Engagement Google’s New Ranking Factor for 2013?

gibbons-kevin
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A lot has changed in the search engine optimization (SEO) industry during the past year. Panda and Penguin, Google's major algorithmic updates targeting thin content and unnatural linking practices respectively, have forced us to evolve.

In this new world where human engagement is a growing factor, how can you earn links that will boost the visibility of your website on Google so you're found by your target audiences? And how can you get users to share and link to your content naturally?

As I discussed last month during my SES London presentation on this very topic, the key is to create amazing content. You must be:

  • Remarkable
  • Insightful
  • First
  • Creative
  • Useful
  • Unique
  • Agile
  • Prepared to adapt

What are Human Engagement and Activity Factors?

Forget about search engines for a minute and think about the reason why a piece of content is active (and how users engage with it).

Consider factors such as:

  • Bounce rates: If a user hits your content from Google, then bounces straight back out, that's not a good sign. Obviously, you want your content to engage and resonate with your audience.
  • Referring traffic: A good link should have the ability to send traffic from a targeted audience. If a link can drive leads, it's a good link! Any SEO value is a bonus.
  • Social signals: Are people sharing your content via social channels?
  • Authorship: Who wrote the content? Are they an authoritative writer or influencer within your niche?

These are all useful signs to assess the quality of content. And from there, you can start to make observations on whether a link can be trusted.

Page Metrics are a Great Signal of Human Engagement

Ever since Google introduced PageRank in 1998, we've all been taught to look at link metrics, whether it's PageRank itself, SEOmoz's Domain Authority, Majestic's CitationFlow, etc.

Everyone always focuses on domain metrics, which makes sense in theory. But when you think about it, it's the actual page on which your content (and link) is placed that is more important.

When you generate a link, you want it to be from popular content, which in turn generates its own links – so that it looks like this:

publication-url-links

Page metrics are hugely important, especially when you consider that Google is clamping down on advertorial links. The domain quality scores for these media sites are very high, but if no one is reading the content, it has no value to readers. Google is getting much better at reading these signs, because if no one reads it, Google shouldn't value it either.

You want your content to be the editorial content that makes the news. If you make it into the print publication you're doing something right. If it doesn't make the cut offline, it probably isn't going to do the job online either.

Analyze the Content Performance of Publishers With Which You Want to Place Content

In advance of publishing your content, you obviously don't know the page metrics yet, and it's likely to take another 30-60 days beyond this to really find out. This makes domain metrics easier to review.

But you can try to predict your content's performance. For example, Pak Hou Cheung recently analyzed the top content on Mashable using Social Crawlytics:

total-content-social-shares-from-300-urls

Analyzing metrics for existing content helps give you an idea about how many social shares a piece of content will generate before it is published. Plus, it gauges how well a piece could do if it's a very popular post.

By analyzing data in this way, you can start to figure out the page metrics you're likely to achieve in advance. You can then look back and see how it compares (on average) relative to the rest of the site.

Google has more signals and data than ever. Online habits have evolved. Social media users will often prefer to retweet or Like content rather than linking to it. So it's now difficult for Google to fully assess the value of a piece of content based solely on these metrics.

It's always been quite easy to spot content that has an inflated number of links or social votes. The natural way content is shared means that if people like it, these signals will be mixed between both.

What Would Matt Cutts Do (WWMCD)?

I always find it useful to look at this as a Google quality rater. Let's face it – that's the opinion which really matters!

Consider the topical relevancy of post-engagement factors:

  • Author rank
  • Social signals/shares
  • Traffic of the page
  • Quality and quantity of comments

All of these are important indicators of content quality. They may not be powerful ranking factors in their own right, but if they are missing, things begin to stand out to Google. Google assumes that the content is either unnatural, or just not worth valuing.

"Fake it 'til You Make it" is No Longer a Good Strategy

We all know what happens in Google if you fake it now. Previously, those links you paid for probably had no impact in a worst-case scenario. Now, those links can get you penalized, so there's much more risk involved – which is the way Google wants it (and a strong deterrent to the use of manipulative tactics).

The biggest change over the last 12 months has been that Google has closed the gap between where they said the algorithm was, and where it actually is. We've known all along that we need to focus on producing high-quality content; Google even told us what to do. But we found gaps and shortcuts in their algorithm, which we used to take our sites and clients to the top.

The problem isn't that SEO has changed over the years; it's that we have. In many cases, SEO professionals have switched and adapted strategies to react to what works best at that time, rather than focusing on what really matters for building an online brand.

It isn't so much that SEO has evolved, but that Google has. This, in turn, means we have little choice but to do – finally – what they've been telling us to do all along.

Focus on Strategy, Not Tactics

Now that Google is incorporating many more signals and data, the safest way to have a natural footprint is to forget about the shortcuts and tactics and focus on a strategy specific to achieving your brand's goals.

Your first step should always be to consider your target audience, focusing on creating great content that people will naturally want to share and link to.

What metrics do you look for in your content-driven link building campaigns?


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