Every two years, SEO consultancy and publisher SEOmoz publishes a Search Engine Ranking Factors report that details which ranking factors some of the world's top SEOs think are hot and not. The latest Search Engine Ranking Factors report was published in August.

I spoke with Rand Fishkin, CEO of SEOmoz, about the 2009 Ranking Factors report, the dilemma of paid links and how social media is changing SEO. 

What changes have you noticed between the last Ranking Factors report and the newest report? Were there any surprises?

There were some considerable changes that I found interesting, including the rise of anchor text, rise of keyword use in the root domain (which were both small but significant) and the much larger rise in focus on diversity of linking root domains. I think that metric will prove to be a serious KPI (Key Performance Indicator) for many SEOs in the future.

When Ranking Reports was first published in 2005, 12 people participated. In 2007, 35 participated. This year the number of participants jumped to 72. Despite the fact that SEO is still as controversial as ever and some even question its validity altogether, is the growing participation in Ranking Factors a reflection of SEO's perceived relevance and importance to webmasters and publishers today?

I'd say there's some validity to that statement, but it's also true that as SEO grows in popularity and importance, we at SEOmoz feel there are more and more qualified, high quality individuals whose opinions really should make their way into the report. This year we asked 100 SEOs around the world to engage and received answers back from 72, which I think is a very decent chunk.
Some of the same factors, such as keyword usage in title tags, have been at or near the top of the list in 2005, 2007 and 2009. Does this hint that many of us overestimate how dynamic and fast-changing the field of SEO is or is the devil in the details?

I would say that the basic best practices of SEO have changed very little over the years, particularly around the technical issues of making sites and pages search-engine friendly and keyword targeted. As I noted in my recent post on the topic most of these have been the same for more than 5 years. It's really the options available to website builders (XML Sitemaps, Nofollow Tags, Google Webmaster Tools, Canonical URL Tags, Rich Text Snippets, Google Local, Google Base, Yahoo! SearchMonkey, etc.) that have been changing the field dramatically over time.
One of the additions to this year's report is a section on social media and social graph-based factors. All six of the factors listed were considered by those surveyed to be of "very minimal importance". In your opinion, is all the talk about social media and SEO a red herring or are there intangible benefits that SEOs should pay attention to? Do you think social media will be grow in importance by the time you publish Ranking Factors 4 or will we look back on this as a fad?

I'd say some social graph data will probably become more important in aggregate ways, as well as for discovery. Many SEOs believe that links shared on services like Facebook & Twitter are likely making their way into the search engines' freshest indices already, and the data points around the number of shares, clicks, re-tweets, etc. may also be part of the ranking systems.

I think social media is, in many ways, its own reward (whether the engines end up using the data directly or not). Since so much of the web's link graph, particularly the editorial, independently given links from resource lists, blogs, forums and the media, is based on conten discovered via social means, it's incredibly valuable and important for SEOs to pay attention. If you're not employing social media marketing as a methodology for promotion of link-worthy content, brand awareness and encouragement of participation, you're likely losing out to a competitor that is.
For the average webmaster or publisher who isn't a dedicated SEO and who may not have extensive experience with SEO, what are best ways to apply the information contained in the Ranking Factors report?

There's certainly some truth to the fact that knowledge is its own reward and that consuming the details of the report can help give you a solid idea of what many of the web's most talented SEO operators are doing. Beyond that, however, I'd certainly suggest that those responsible for building websites take careful note of the on-page and on-site factors that make a difference to search engines and employ them diligently. With the link metrics, it's equally valuable for those making deals and pushing link acquisition strategies to pay attention and note the factors that can positively or negatively impact their work.
Paid links are always controversial. I found it interesting that "direct link purchases from individual sites/webmasters" was considered by your panel to be the fifth most effective link building tactic yet "link acquisition from known link brokers/sellers" was the second highest negative ranking factor. Any thoughts on this? Does this reflect the fact that even though paid links in general have a bad reputation, they're still widely employed?

I think that's correct. Link buying and selling is still a very popular activity in the SEO sphere, and while the engines continue to fight against it, they're unlikely to ever weed out 100% of the sites and pages the employ this methodology. Link acquisition via this methodology is incredibly attractive to businesses and something the engines have also instilled as a behavior - with PPC ads, you spend more money and get more traffic. It's not unnatural that companies would feel they can apply the same principles to SEO.

While I think the engines still have a long way to go on this front, I also believe that, at least at SEOmoz, where our risk tolerance is so low, the smartest way to go is to play by the engines' rules. Why spend a few hundred or few thousand dollars renting links when you could invest that in your site's content, user interface, public relations, social media marketing, etc. and have a long-term return that the engines are far less likely to ever discount.
Looking ahead, care to make any predictions about which factors might be at the top of the list in 2011?

I think SEOs have started to see the decline of header tags (H1, H2, et al.) as a highly important on-page factor, and I'm also bullish that social signals, particularly links and mentions via Twitter, may be on the rise at that point. I think it's also likely we'll see the direct interaction pieces - registration with the engines' webmaster tools, use of Sitemaps/XML files, and possibly other engine-focused tags/verification have a stronger impact.

Photo credit: toprankonlinemarketing via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 23 September, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (14)

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Anik Sumon

I think engaging in social media is going to play a big role in the coming years. Specially if the 'branding' is a signal for organic rankings.

almost 9 years ago


Google Consulting

With reference to H tags losing importance as a ranking factor, these things wax and wane. It might be less or more important now than it was six months ago, but this should not be seen as encouragement to ignore or dismiss them. There are only so many elements in a typical web page, Google may or may not assign importance to all or any of them. Sensible then to take care of business with all of them, and now Bing's here that means titles in links too. Optimise every damn thing in a page that you can, and don't give a damn about what importance Google or Bing might or might not be assigning to those elements this week or next. Cover all the bases; once it's done, it's done.


almost 9 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at EconsultancyStaff

Rand talking an awful lot of sense as ever. I completely agree about not wasting money on buying links, and investing it instead in content, as well as his predictions about which factors will grow in importance over the coming years.

almost 9 years ago


Jeffrey Smith

I think the real question is not if SEO has significantly changed or not, but rather has the competitive landscape become more intrepid and determined to devour market share.

If we take a step back to SEO 101 in the 1990's, a title tag, a few meta tag tweaks and off you go. But as search engine technology and engineers evolved, various metrics were induced to challenge those who would abuse it.

SEO ranking factors are still the crux of rankings, but conversions are the real bottom line for business owners seeking ROI.

Informative take on things, and always good to get Rand's respected opinion on the layers of the SEO onion we all peel away daily.

For those interested in another good read, here are a few more branches of the same tree on a post from our blog similarly addressing <a href="http://www.seodesignsolutions.com/blog/seo/8-seo-ranking-factors/">8 SEO ranking factors</a> on a slightly different note.

almost 9 years ago

Chris Turberville-Tully

Chris Turberville-Tully, Managing Director at Inspiration Inc

Couldn't agree more Ashley, my search team live and breathe Matt C and Rand to constant positive (money) effects for our clients. Ignore them at your peril as Matt C and his team set the rules and Rand and his team interpret for us all in the land of Search. 

almost 9 years ago


Scott MIlsom, SEO Analyst at Towergate

While the basics of SEO haven't really changed that much over the last few years, I can see social media and PR becoming more of a factor in rankings as 'brands' become more focused on by search engines. Also, using blogs and videos can also help...this is can already be seen by Google's universal search...and will soon be used more by Bing.

almost 9 years ago



Some interesting factoids for us all.

The paid link issue is likely to rear its head again this year as it would appear Google is still struggling to determine which are and which aren't paid links, even with the help of web master feedback.

We would expect to see Google et al make a further push to reduce this influence.

Its interesting that Image and Video optimisation didn't come higher in the report, we would certainly expect to see an increase in importance. We are seeing significant product search traffic and purchase via image search.

almost 9 years ago

Phil Dunseath

Phil Dunseath, Ecommerce Marketing Manager at UK General Insurance

There is will always be debate and constant change around which factors are most important in terms of ranking. However there is a client adoption curve when it comes to SEO.

There are still many many sites and clients out there who are now playing catch up and having to put the basic on-page SEO essentials in place even before they try and tackle off-page factors.

I'd agree with the point that you should make every effort to make sites and pages SEO friendly and worry about which factors will have the most impact as a secondary driver.

As other comments note it is more around the content, user experience and ROI once people reach the site.

almost 9 years ago


SEO Services

Good question & answers, got more information about SEO and internet marketing.

over 8 years ago


website reviews

i think between the last Ranking Factors report and the newest report is not much changed.but same you the rise of anchor text and the rise in the keywords in the root domain is change.nice topic you share with us it's halp to know the changes in the reports.

about 8 years ago


craigslist arizona

i think the topveic seo is not changed over tt the last few years but the anchor text and keywords are changed

about 8 years ago


Craigslist Riverside

i dont think so that seo is changed last couple of years another important thing is to involve social media it effects over coming of years in this sense it can brings positive changes

almost 8 years ago


cars classified

While the basics of SEO haven't really changed that much over the last few years, I can see social media and PR becoming more of a factor in rankings as 'brands' become more focused on by search engines...I think the real question is not if SEO has significantly changed or not, but rather has the competitive landscape become more intrepid and determined to devour market share.thanks for sharing this beautiful article.its really fantastic blog

almost 8 years ago


Pak Wheel

i came to your blog instantly and amazed to see that its full of info what i was searching for

over 7 years ago

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