Can a new friend you connect with at a conference be as strong of a ranking signal as a quality backlink? Can it be stronger? The power of indirect ranking signals is something that can often be overlooked or brushed aside in favor of what we know as hard truth from Google, but doing so is a mistake. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand talks about the importance of broadening your perspective and tactics when it comes to considering both direct and indirect ranking signals in your SEO.
Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re chatting about direct ranking signals versus indirect ranking signals. I see people ask questions like this all the time. Should I only care about the direct ranking signals? Do I even really care, as an SEO, if something indirectly impacts my rankings in Google, because I can’t really influence that, can I? Or I can’t be confident that Google is going to make those changes. The answer, from my perspective, is “Well, hang on a second. Let’s walk through this together.”
Direct ranking signals
Direct ranking signals are pretty obvious. These are things like links. You earn a bunch of new links. They point to your page. Your rankings go up. Now my page for bookcases ranked a little higher because all these people just linked over to me. Great, that’s very nice.
Direct ranking signal, my page takes eight seconds to load. Now I improve a bunch of things about it and it only takes three seconds to load. Maybe I move up. Maybe I move up a lot less. I put this from 3 to 2 and this one from 32 to 31. Page load speed, a very small ranking factor, but as Google says a direct one. All right, great. Page load speed, that’s improved.
Direct ranking signal, keyword and language usage. I go from having my page about media storage furniture, and then I realize no one looks for media storage furniture. They look for bookcases, because in fact the thing that I’m storing here, the media is books. Boom, I’m moving up for bookcases again.
These are direct ranking signals. They’re very obvious. We know that they are in Google’s ranking algorithm. Google is public about a lot of them. They talk about them. We can test them and observe them. They are consistent. They move the needle. Great.
Indirect ranking influencers
What about stuff like this? I go to a conference. I meet people, this friendly person with a hat. Friendly person with a hat goes home and they write an article. Friendly person with a hat’s article contains a link to my bookcase website. Well, Google would never say that going to conferences gives you higher rankings. That’s not a ranking signal. Even building relationships with friendly people who have hats on, also not a ranking signal. Did it move the needle? Yeah, it probably did, because it ended up indirectly influencing a direct ranking signal.
Maybe Gillian Anderson — she probably has better things to do what with “The X-Files” being back on the air, very exciting — Gillian Anderson: “Rand’s bookcases are my favorite thing in the apartment.” Wow, look. She sent thousands of people searching for Rand’s bookcases. Hmm, what happens then? Well, people pick it up and write about it. Lots of people searching for it. Maybe Google’s entity associations and topic modeling algorithm starts to associate Rand’s bookcases as being an entity and associates the word “Rand’s” with the word “bookcases.” Maybe now I rank higher. Is it suddenly the case then that tweets equal higher rankings? Google would certainly tell you tweets don’t impact rankings. Tweets are not a ranking factor. What’s going on? It’s indirect.
What about I go to my page and I decide, “Hey, you know what I think would be really cool is if I had a feature where you take a photo of your bookshelf and I will tell you all the books that you’ve got on it and then I’ll even show them on my bookshelf on the website so that you can see how your books look on Rand’s bookcases.” You upload a photo. Bam, you can see all your books on there. Super sweet feature. Gets me some news. Gets me a bunch of shares. Adds time to my time on site. Improves my conversion rate. Also, weirdly, influences maybe a bunch of direct ranking factors that lead to higher rankings. Is it the case that photo upload features mean higher rankings? Again, Google would never tell you that. It’s not consistent. It’s not like every time I add a photo upload feature to a website it’s suddenly going to rank higher.
1. What Google says
What’s going on here? Well, indirect ranking features, indirect ranking influencers are powerful. It doesn’t matter that they’re indirect. They can have powerful impacts on your rankings. I think for SEOs this is really hard, because Google’s representatives will often say things like, “We don’t use that in the rankings. That signal, that is not a ranking signal for us,” which shouldn’t shut down the conversation, but it really does in our industry. A lot of times we hear that Google says social signals are not ranking signals, tweets are not a ranking signal, or time on site is not a ranking signal, so why should SEOs try and influence that?
2. What clients, teams, and managers will say
That brings us to the second problem. Clients, teams, managers, what do they say? They say, “That’s not SEO. That’s not your job, SEO person.” They’ll go back and they’ll cite Google saying, “Hey, this doesn’t influence rankings.” Well, guess what? Both of these are really problematic because they may be technically accurate, but they don’t capture the big picture, and because of that you miss out.
3. It takes time
The other one I hear is “indirect influences take time.” This is absolutely the case. You get a bunch of links. They’re probably going to be counted ASAP as soon as Google finds them. You add this new feature here, it’s going to take a while for all of these other things to propagate over to the ranking signals that are actually going to impact your position. That’s tough. They only have the desired impact when (a) they get counted by the direct signals, and (b) when they actually work to influence the direct signals. So indirect signals are tough in all these ways.
Focus on what leads to improvements
My advice is to take a broader perspective. Stop focusing exclusively on “this directly impacts SEO and therefore is my job,” and “this doesn’t directly influence SEO and therefore is not my job.” Say holistically I know that lots of things impact searcher satisfaction:
- User experience,
- Amplification and amplification likelihood,
- Branding through memory and association,
- Relationships with people,
- Brand coverage, and
All of these things will indirectly positively impact your rankings, but not just your rankings. They’ll impact positively your conversion rate. They’ll impact positively your user experience. They’ll impact positively your bottom line. That’s the one that you really care about. SEO is just a path to the bottom line to sales and brand building and amplification and the things that you are actually trying to grow.
If you focus on these and you’re aware of what is direct versus indirect and how the indirect things impact the direct things, I think you can craft a very smart holistic SEO strategy. If you throw out all the indirect stuff, because it’s not direct, you are killing yourself. You’re shooting yourself in the foot. Your competitors, frankly, the smart ones are the ones who are going to concentrate on both of these. Sometimes indirect stuff can be more powerful in the short term and the long term than direct stuff. That’s just how it goes.
Fight and work influencers for the future
I’d urge you to fight for the ability to have influence on these indirect signals, especially when they also have positive impacts on other channels. Don’t let rank influence be a short-term measurement only. I think one of the big problems is that folks look at their rankings and they say, “Okay, we did this. It moved up the next week. That clearly had an impact.” No. Look, a lot of the work that we do in SEO has rank impact for months and years to come. We can’t just measure things right away. If it has a positive impact on other signals you care about on the bottom line, on all of these types of factors, then it’s going to influence rankings positively as well.
All right, everyone, look forward to your comments, and we’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.