Danny Sulican Shares A New Way of Looking at Ranking Factors

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This post was originally on SEOmoz.com.

SEOmoz readers are no strangers to the concept of search engine ranking factors. In general, much of the community that comments seems to delight when some new factor is discovered that may provide a potential ranking boost. Who wouldn’t, right? But in this post, I’d like to suggest that perhaps some refocusing on the “forest” of the ranking factors world, rather than the individual “trees” that populate it, might be in order.

I’ve been writing about SEO since 1996, from before we even called it SEO and from before Google existed. In those 15+ years, I’ve seen no end of attempts to “chase the algorithm.” My goal, writing to a broad audience, has always been to highlight the important factors that stand the test of time.

It’s not that I’m against testing. I love good discoveries as much as anyone, assuming they’re real, backed by solid data or can be easily confirmed (too many don’t meet these criteria). Understanding if the first use of anchor text overrides further uses or how variations of anchor text across the web might impact rankings is fascinating reading to me. It can help break new SEO ground.

What I am against is wasting time chasing things that might not be helpful for more than a day, week or month, versus time spent on the proven, time-tested factors that matter.

The Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors

That was the genesis behind the Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors that I developed earlier this year, working with the talented folks at Column Five Media to illustrate:

It was a labor of love for me, combining my former profession — that of being a newspaper graphics reporter — with my current one as a journalist who writes about search engines and search marketing.

The table was designed to highlight what I considered to be the most important ranking factors, so that any experienced SEO could work with someone less knowledgeable and easily explain, in a visual manner, things that might help a site from an SEO perspective.

Want to rank well? It remains incredibly important to have quality content, or Cq. That’s why it’s the first factor listed on the chart.

Want to rank well? It remains incredibly important to have conducted proper keyword research, or Cr, a topic that sometimes feels forgotten in the quest for more exotic ranking factors.

Want to rank well? The locality of a searcher — Pl — has grown into a major ranking factor that can seem all-but-forgotten by some SEOs who assume that “normal” results still exist and can somehow be found by running proxies or using the pws=0 trick. Google personalizes results down to the metropolitan level in the US and elsewhere. Good luck “adjusting” for that to get your “normal” results.

The Ranking Elements

The table contains four major “element” groups:

  • On The Page Factors
  • Off The Page Factors
  • Blocking Factors
  • Violation Factors

Here are the individual elements, shown close up:

Each individual element is meant to keep people focused on the big picture issues relating to that factor, which I fear sometimes get lost as new SEOs enter the space, as intermediate SEOs try to build their skills and even experienced SEOs may lose track of.

The Bigger Picture

To better illustrate, I’ll use some different examples below, contrasted against the SEOmoz Ranking Factors Survey. I enjoy reading this survey, when it’s done every two years. But some of the questions can get way too granular for me.

For example, is a keyword being in the first word in an H1 tag important or not? That’s something the SEOmoz survey tried to measure.

The SEO Periodic Table isn’t that specific. When it comes to header tags — element Hh — it’s trying to stress headers can have an overall impact and that people should be thinking about them generally:

Do headlines and subheads use header tags with relevant keywords?

Should you focus on “linking root domains with partial match anchor text,” as the survey tried to measure?

For many people, I’m hoping the table emphasizes that they more generally need to be seeking out quality links, or the Lq factor:

Are links from trusted, quality or respected web sites?

Should you seek Facebook shares, as the survey found highly correlated? Even though Google’s Matt Cutts said Facebook shares don’t matter? Even though SEOmoz, after further research agreed with Cutts and wrote “Google is not using Facebook share data directly to rank?”

The table says yes, of course you should. And you should because both social shares (Ss) and social reputation (Sr) are generally having an impact on search rankings:

Do those respected on social networks share your content?

Do many share your content on social networks?

Maybe Google isn’t using Facebook share data now. But those shares might leak out from Facebook into links that get counted in other ways. Meanwhile, Bing absolutely does use Facebook data as part of its ranking system. And tomorrow, Google might start using them, just as overnight in July, Google suddenly lost Twitter data that it had.

Social signals aren’t just some fad that’s going away. Social signals are the new link building. Exactly how those signals get counted, just as how exactly links get counted, is going to be subject to specific change over time and hard to assess. But generally, you want to do social.

If you stopped doing Facebook work solely because you decided “Google doesn’t care,” then potentially you’re behind the curve if Google does care down the line — not to mention for Bing now and from getting traffic from Facebook directly.

Again, it’s not that I’m saying don’t test, don’t have an interest in specifics, don’t try to learn. Rather, it’s a reminder to focus on the big stuff that matters first. See the larger picture, before you chase down some alley such as whether LDA is real or not.

That’s what the chart is about. For the SEOmoz fanatic, I hope it’s a tool you’ll use alongside the SEOmoz ranking survey and the material you read on SEOmoz itself. And for anyone, I hope it’s a useful tool to make the complexity of SEO easier to begin with.

Bonus: Movie Time

For the real beginners, there’s another labor of love I worked on earlier this year, a short search engine optimization video to explain SEO in plain language, to anyone. It’s only 3 1/2 minutes long:

When so many still assume that SEO is a bad thing, to the degree that Google itself had to recently remind everyone that no, SEO isn’t spam, I hope our video helps explain the concept in friendly terms, and that people can graduate from it to our Periodic Table framework or the more specific advice they’ll find here on SEOmoz and elsewhere.

If you like the table, you can get a copy here. There’s also our associated Search Engine Land’s Guide To SEO, which explains it in detail. We also provide extended resources from us and around the web on our What Is SEO? page, which includes two other guides people should know — the SEOmoz SEO guide, as well as Google’s own.

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