The Single Biggest Ranking Factor

Guesses abound. Supposition runs rampant. So-called experts profess to know what it takes. Smart, quiet types confidently smile feeling they know the secret. And if the average inbox is to be believed, the secrets to ranking better can be yours for the low, Low, LOW price of $10, this Sunday, SUNDAY, SUNDAY!

Since the first search engine crawled out of the early morning haze that was a late night frat party…or from a quiet-type’s midnight coding rampage, the race has been on to understand the “algo”. To disassemble it, to reverse engineer it. People in almost every country around the planet have tried to figure out the secret sauce, the process that would cement their webpage as #1, above all others, to garner the lion’s share of clicks.

And for darn good reason, too. With 80% of people starting their Internet sessions with a search, the race to be found is an important one. With billions being spent online by consumers, and an entire, almost $20 billion dollar industry supporting the effort, being ranked well matters.

Tools exist today that were only dreamt of a decade ago. Data is sliced so thinly as to be transparent when help up in the light of day. Insights like never before help shape almost every move a business makes.

And yet…the truth alludes many. The single point of clarification. The “ah ha” moment so many have already experienced.

Funny thing about humans. When something isn’t working, we complain. Loud, far and wide. We need the world to understand our angst, in the faint hope that from the effort will come an answer. But when things are going well, we’re heads-down seeking to replicate the successful process over and over again, scarcely a moment wasted, and certainly no time to applaud anything out loud.

Over time the apparent receipt for ranking success has included things like title tags, meta descriptions, keyword tags, keyword density, H1 tags, image attributes, links from certain TLDs, volume of links, quality of links, internal link structure, anchor text in inbound links and so much more.

More recently the list expanded to include tweets, retweets, likes, social mentions, Klout influence, page load time, rel-canonical management, content marketing, and so on.

Along the way, some old standbys make their appearances. Things like usability test & the user experience, quality of content, depth of content, to mention a few.

And yet, with all that is known, so many still fail. How is it possible?

Let’s take a look back in time, to, say, the mid-1930’s. Marketing was still a new concept to many and being developed in new ways, but a form of marketing had been used since commerce started, and was a big driver of success. We know it as “word of mouth”.

Businesses opened with many believing the mantra “location, location, location” could solve all problems. When the right location was selected, it could certainly allow a lot of people to see your sign. But, once through the door, the single biggest factor that determined whether a customer came back to that business again was customer service. Make the customer feel valued and they’d return. Old news to us today, yet a novel concept back then.

Many of today’s brands exist because they wowed customers in the early days. And therein lies the secret. The Internet isn’t new, it’s just different. Business isn’t different, but businesses have new ways to expose themselves…and new ways to impress customers. Or new ways to fail in impressing customers.

This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone. The single biggest factor in determining ranking today is the impression you make with customers. Popular sites that impress customers tend to rank well. Why? Because those sites consistently provide an experience customers find engaging. I’m not saying they’re perfect, but customers are satisfied and they continue to visit those sites.

Let’s say your friend asks you to recommend a restaurant. Now, you like this friend. No mere acquaintance, this is a person you’d skip work to help out, who you’d travel to visit if they needed you. Someone you simply don’t want to let down. Heck, you’d even help them move!

Now, they come to town and ask you where they should eat. What do you do? I mean, besides skip work and take them out…

You tell them, based on your experience, where the best places are. What you don’t do is open up a phone book, or newspaper, look for the first restaurant and recommend they give that a try. You’re not going to put your reputation on the line for an unknown, untrusted, unproven commodity.

Well, neither are the engines.

The first step in ranking well is to impress customers enough that they engage with you. The snowball forms, rolls and steamrolls after that. Toss your own snowballs all day and you won’t move things forward. Get those customers on your side, though, and you’ll see results.

So all those boring conversations around usability testing and user experience work? Better dig in. There’s gold in thum thar hills. You could even uncover the single biggest ranking nugget of your life. Just by listening to, and responding to, your customers.

Duane Forrester
Sr. Product Manager – Bing

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