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.