Universal Ranking Factors for everybody? – Forget it!

This means that anyone trying to do SEO following the same old strategies is going to be left behind by people who are applying specific techniques to meet the requirements of their industry. The bread and butter can only get you so far – now you need real meat.

Google’s algorithm is learning constantly – learning how users behave and learning what types of content work best in different contexts, including what suits searches related to different vertical industry sectors.  What elements are important for retail/ecommerce searches for example, or searches related to travel or finance?

While the golden rule across all industries is: relevant, high quality content performs better in search, there are some vertical-specific nuances it’s important to appreciate. Because what’s relevant to one search term may be way off the mark for another.

Here’s a snapshot of some key differences Searchmetrics has discovered from studies analysing the search and content optimisation rules for finance, travel and ecommerce/online retail verticals.

HTTPS – Security is sexy!

Let’s start with some technical SEO. Google confirmed back in August 2014 that it was pushing HTTPS as a ranking signal, but uptake across the web has been neither universal nor uniform.

And looking at the data, we can see why, as Google seems to prioritize secure data transfer more in some industries than others.

Over half of finance pages in position #1 (and 46% across the top 10) use HTTPS, but the top travel result uses encryption less than one fifth of the time (23% across the top 10).

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These stark differences reflect Google’s attempts to match its results to the user intent. People looking for financial information – where they may often be asked to enter personal details – are more concerned about security than those simply looking at ideas for their next city break. Furthermore, a travel site that does switch to HTTPS will likely limit its flexibility regarding display advertising, and could thereby jeopardise its revenue for little gain.

This is a simple, yet clear example of how different industries have to respond to the needs of their users and not apply a simple one-size-fits-all approach to website optimization.

Word count – How long should my content be?

One of the main questions any writer asks – for many people going all the way back to college assignments – is “How long does it have to be then?”

How do we find out the answer to this question? A pretty basic – though ultimately useless – strategy is “the longer, the better”.

While in general, longer texts have a higher chance of being more comprehensive, someone searching for “When are peaches ripe?” doesn’t necessarily want hundreds of recipes for fruit salad; they probably just want to know how to tell when peaches are ripe. This needs some explanation, but not thousands and thousands of words.

The top result for this query, from starkbros.com, is shown in a direct answer box and comes in at under 500 words, but sticks closely to the topic, covering smell, touch, sight and taste.

when are peaches ripe?
This simple example demonstrates that it’s not just a case of “the longer, the better”, and that the optimal length of a text depends very much on the search query, more specifically: the intention behind it. To find out what kind of word count you should be aiming for in your industry, it’s essential to know what kind of texts top-ranking competitor pages are using. That’s why you need data.

This graph shows the average word counts for high ranking pages in three different industries: ecommerce, finance and travel, as well as the benchmark word count for all keywords, regardless of industry.

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word count and search ranking
The differences are clear. Travel is way out in front, with over 2,500 words for pages in Google’s top 10. So, in travel, you really should be getting wordy if you want to appear on the first search results page.

Readers of travel blogs want enough detailed description to get a good impression of their destination and people planning the more serious side of a holiday want the answers to all their questions on visa requirements, travel insurance and which jabs they should get if they want to make it home again.

By contrast, pages ranking in the top 10 for finance keywords have about 800 fewer words than travel sites. This suggests that finance URLs that perform well tend to be more focused on rather more specific topics.

This doesn’t mean leaving out important details, but it could mean that it’s often better to have a separate URL for another (related) topic rather than trying to cram everything onto one landing page. Finance topics are generally more complex than travel reports, and so readers don’t want to be distracted and/or confused by a text going off at tangents or trying to sell them a product they’re not (currently) looking for.

If I’m off to the Greek islands, I might well be interested in the story of Theseus and the minotaur. But if I’m trying to choose a pension plan, I’m probably not interested in the history of Goldman Sachs. Google knows that – because it has learned, and still learns from user data – and it uses this experience to serve the different search intentions with what it considers the most relevant content.

Images – How many pictures do I need alongside my thousand words?

Web content isn’t just about text. Other media, such as images, videos or interactive graphics are often a great way of communicating information and capturing user engagement. But how are web editors supposed to know how many images to include in an article?

The answer is there is no fixed rule – it is again dependent on the user’s search intent. Images might be great for a search like “top NHL players” but not so good for “NHL all time stats.”

The page (underneath) with a direct answer for “top NHL players” is from epsn.com and has a large images for every player on its top 100 list, whereas the wikipedia.org page with a direct answer for “NHL all time stats” has zero large images. Google understands that stats nuts aren’t interested in pictures, which is why the most relevant result for this query is one with lots of tables and lots of numbers.

nhl pages

Intent matters – Left: espn.com’s picture gallery of players. Right: wikipedia.org’s statistics tables.

This example shows two search terms that are thematically very close, yet differ greatly in intent, meaning that different content is evaluated as relevant for each.

As with word count, we measured the number of images of at least 200 x 200 pixels across different industries and found that pages appearing in the top 20 Google results for ecommerce/retail searches use the most images on the page, followed by those for travel searches and then finance.

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image count seo

The higher image count in retail may be because users – and Google – have come to appreciate that the most relevant retail results present a catalogue style overview of many product images and descriptions, making it easier to compare similar products.

Travel pages serve a different purpose to those in retail, but they go big on images too, to inspire and communicate emotions. Travel sites in Google’s top 10 have an average 2.15 large images and, at the same time, they have a 40% larger file size and take almost three seconds longer to load than for general search results. Google understands that if you are researching a holiday you value sites with more high-quality images than those that have fast loading pages.

No context, no relevance

By now, most webmasters have hopefully got the message that you have to be relevant to achieve good rankings. So now the big question everyone should be asking is: “What is relevant?”

The answer is that it all depends on context, on your industry vertical, your audience – ultimately on each and every keyword people are searching for – as well as on the device they are using. That’s the level of detail Google is applying so that’s the level of detail we need to use too.

This might sound daunting, but SEOs and content marketers who use the right data and who have the skill to analyse it effectively can give themselves a real advantage in creating relevant content for their vertical. They can engage users and move up the rankings in Google search.

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