How to Win Friends and Influence Google

“Engagement” is a nebulous term referring to everything from social indicators to brand recognition to customer loyalty. In this post, when we say engagement, we mean the degree to which the design and content of your website are able to draw in and hook your visitors. In Google Analytics terms, this means page views, visit duration, bounce rate and returning visitors. In a nutshell, we’re talking about the amount of time visitors spend on your site and their tendency to return.

While more time spent on your site doesn’t necessarily translate directly to a higher conversion rate, it probably does mean that your visitor found value, has a positive impression of your brand and is more likely to return. Which, over time, increases the odds that casual visitors will convert to customers or subscribers.

There’s speculation that Google considers engagement, specifically bounce rate, in search engine result page (SERP) rankings. Matt Cutts, who heads the webspam team at Google, has said that Google does not consider bounce rate. Bounce rate data, he says, is too “noisy” to be a reliable indicator of engagement. But high-quality sites are engaging and engaging sites tend to be of higher quality, so it’s seems likely that Google is trying to crack this problem. Until they do, most of the things that engage your visitors also help with your SEO.

Things you can do to promote user engagement and make Google like you.

Open Strong

A 2012 eye-tracking study by the Missouri University of Science and Technology suggests that a website gets less than two-tenths of a second to make a first impression. When a visitor comes to your site for the first time, you have to let her know immediately that she’s in the right place.

  • A clean, professional design establishes credibility, and helps your visitor quickly process your message.
  • A compelling image or graphic leaps out and grabs user attention in those first crucial moments and communicates on a different level than text alone. Images evoke strong, immediate emotional responses.
  • A succinct, clever headline communicates almost as quickly as an image, but with more precision. It’s your opportunity to let your visitor know he’s found what he was looking for and compel him to explore your content further.

With regard to SEO, the page layout algorithm improvement signaled that Google rewards sites that show content immediately, without ads and clutter at the top of the page. It’s also worth mentioning that while keyword density has lost much of its clout with Google (and can even hurt your SEO efforts if overplayed), keyword usage in headlines is still a characteristic of high-ranking sites. This according to two independent 2013 studies of search engine ranking factors: Moz’s 2013 Search Engine Ranking Factors and Searchmetrics’ SEO Ranking Factors 2013.

Socialize

SEO professionals have speculated for a while that search engines would begin to factor social signals as an indicator of content quality and authority. Both the Moz and Searchmetrics studies suggest this is happening. A high number of mentions on social media (particularly Google +1s) is a characteristic strongly correlated with high search rankings. Both studies are careful to point out that correlation does not equal causation. In other words, although content with strong social signals tends to rank highly in search, that doesn’t mean its rank is the result of social media.

With regard to engagement, we’re more likely to try something if it’s recommended by a trusted friend or colleague. Because of the value we expect based on our friend’s recommendation, we’re more likely to both click the link and give that content or product a chance, even if it doesn’t immediately appeal to us,

Be Verbose

Writing for the web has been guided by an intuitive wisdom to “Be Succinct.” The premise being that readers found on-screen text cumbersome and reading it unpleasant. Short and sweet still holds true on a certain level (Exhibit A: Twitter). However, technological advances, along with nearly two decades of acclimation to the medium, mean it’s no longer a given that your online audience prefers short content.

Over the last couple years, products like Pocket, Instapaper and Readability and sites like Longreads and The Atavist have found success catering to the demand for long-form online writing. And the principle extends to marketing copy. Neil Patel, co-founder of Crazy Egg, tested lead generation with 488 words vs. 1,292 words on the homepage of his blog. The long-form version converted 7.6% better. A split test by UX gurus 37signals found that, compared to a condensed version, a long-form sales page increased signups 37.5%!

Google, too, seems to like longer content. Both the Searchmetrics study and a study by serpIQ found a positive correlation between higher word count and higher SERP ranking. Of course, this effect has limits. Your 10,000-word blog post isn’t guaranteed first position in search results. The sweet spot appears to be 500 to 1,500 words.

But…

Break it Down

Especially important with longer texts, scannable content helps your visitors find what they came for and reduces the likelihood they’ll bounce to search elsewhere. Pages with plenty of subheadings and a sprinkling of lists are easier to digest, more visually appealing and are disproportionately represented at the top of search results.

  • Use lots of headings and subheadings
  • Write short paragraphs
  • Highlight key phrases with bold or italic text
  • Make lists

See how easy that was?

The things that improve your site’s search ranking are the same things that keep visitors coming back.

Some SEO techniques are faddish and may even be damaging in the long run (we’re looking at you, keyword density). We don’t have to guess at what Google will reward or devalue with the next update. Each tweak and refinement of the search algorithm is aimed at improving the ratio of high-value sites at the top of the results. We know what Google wants. It’s the same thing consumers of online media want.

Quality content on an appealing and functional website is a future-proof SEO strategy.

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About Dylan Hurd