Some search experts are saying that the ranking factors studies churned out annually by SEO agencies and vendors are a waste of time.  How true is that?  And why might they be losing their relevance?

Ranking factors studies analyse data from search results to identify the factors that correlate with high ranking pages. These factors can related to any element, from a website’s content, user signals (such as bounce rates and time on page) and the profile of backlinks to technical factors such as page download speeds.

The logic goes that armed with this knowledge search and content marketers can have a clearer idea of where they need to make improvements to help their pages rank higher.

As an example, back in 2015, Searchmetrics’ ranking factors analysis found that the content of the top 10-ranking pages on Google averaged around 1,300 words. By 2016, this had increased to 1,600 words and in 2017 it had risen again by a further 300 words to 1,900. So the data suggests that content is getting longer in general.

word count in top google listings is increasing year on year

But while insights such as this are interesting, they’re hardly applicable to all cases. There are many searches where a result showing 1,900 words of copy is definitely too long. The length of your content has got to fit the searchers’ intent. And this is part of the reason why generalised ranking factors studies are coming in for criticism.

Enter niche ranking factors

More and more it’s become clear that Google is able to better understand the words that people enter into the search bar – and hence the intent behind those searches. Which means that it’s becoming important to identify ranking factors that are ‘intent-specific’. In other words, we need to identify the important factors that help pages rank higher for specific search topics, verticals or niches.

For example, by comparing the high ranking pages for searches connected with topics such as ‘Divorce’, ‘Fitness’ and ‘Wine’, Searchmetrics noticed some clear differences (see below).

how videos correlate with search ranking for terms 'divorce', 'fitness' and 'wine'

For fitness-related searches, video content ranks very highly – especially in the first three positions in Google.  But video doesn’t feature at all on the first page for searches related to divorce or wine.

Presumably this is because Google has identified that video content is a very good way of addressing the needs of fitness searchers but not the intentions of people searching for content to learn about divorce or wines.

With divorce related searches, the data suggests that longer-form text content with more paragraphs appears more frequently in the top-ranked pages – probably because it is such a complex subject that requires in-depth explanations (see below). Moreover, pages that rank well for divorce tended to use content organised in lists and tables, which is another way of making complicated or detailed content easier to absorb and understand.

how does text length correlate with ranking for search terms 'divorce', 'fitness', 'wine'

For wine-related searches the higher-ranking pages had few videos, with shorter text. Attractive infographics were also seen to perform really well for wine.

Similarly, if you analyse the search results for keywords related to ‘Furniture’ (see below)  you find that the high-ranking pages tend to contain more images than those for ‘Recipes’ and ‘Divorce’.  Google knows that people who are searching for furniture usually want to see a selection of images.

images correlate with search rankings for furniture related terms

In short, it’s all about the audience and meeting their needs in the most optimal way.

Another example of the way Google is moving in this direction comes from the financial services sector. A recent Searchmetrics analysis suggests that Direct Answers (also known as Featured Snippets) show up in more than a quarter (27%) of finance-related searches, providing immediate answers to search queries on the search page (see an example below).

Google direct answer result for search query 'what is a flexible mortgage?'
Google Direct Answer result for search query ‘what is a flexible mortgage’

By comparison, Direct Answers appear in only 18% of health-related searches and less than 3% of ecommerce, travel and media searches.

Often called ‘position zero’ because they appear above the No. 1 organic search listing, Google shows Direct Answers when it senses that searchers’ want a quick answer to a question. The data suggests that Google has identified that Direct Answers are an effective way to address many financial services related searches. It also implies that many searchers in the financial sector actually want to have information/answers – rather than looking to an immediately make transaction with a provider. If you are a financial brand, you would get a huge advantage if you provide a lot of content that reflects the users concerns and answers their typical questions.

The impact of Google RankBrain

Increasingly then, Google is rewarding pages in search results that are optimised closely to suit searchers’ specific intentions. Part of the reason is that Google’s RankBrain and machine learning technology helps it learn the types of content and pages that best satisfy the requirements for specific search topics.

Econsultancy’s SEO Best Practice Guide

Generalised ranking factors studies are not dumb, but they are growing less useful.  They do serve to highlight the importance of broad factors that are widely applicable best practice. This includes things like ensuring you have fast page speed and a good logical internal linking structure that makes it easy for people to navigate through a site and enhances the user experience.

To make a real difference however, ranking factors studies now need to be more focused around individual search topics and niches.