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Is SEO Still Relevant? SEMrush Ranking Factor Study 2.0

By November 29, 2017January 23rd, 2018SEO

SEMrush just released a new study of search engine ranking factors. Ranking factors are the signals that Google and others watch to determine what search results to display when someone enters a question or keywords. Google wants show the most relevant and helpful content, but how does it decide which content is most relevant and helpful?

In this study, Ranking Factors Study 2.0, the SEMrush team analyzed the results of 600,000 keywords and the first 100 results from each keyword against a list of alleged ranking factors.  “To reveal the importance of these factors, we applied a machine learning algorithm called Random Forest,” the study said. “As a result, we received a list of 17 factors that influence page position in order of significance, from most to least influential.” Read on or check out this video that takes you through it.

SEO Ranking Factors

Multiple Keyword Categories Studied

The study looks at results from four levels of keyword volume–the most common (and competitive) keywords to the least common keywords. The categories are Very High Volume, High Volume, Mid Volume and Low Volume. It also differentiated between “short head” keywords (three words or less) and “long tail” keywords.

Surprising Results?

To summarize the 55-page report, the study found the most influential ranking factor overall to be direct visits to a website. When a user goes straight to your website, Google assumes it must be a high-value site. “When many users go to a website directly it is a good sign to Google that the domain has high authority and value,” the study said.

The next three most important ranking factors have to do with user experience–time spent on the site, the number of pages viewed on the site, and the page’s site’s bounce rate.

After direct visits and user experience factors, the next set of influential rankings had to do with backlinks. “Backlink factors are extremely important for rankings. Except for the factors related to anchor texts, all the backlink factors share 5th place in the importance chart,” the study said. The total number of backlinks, the number of referring IP addresses (in other words, the number of sites linking to your site is as important as the number of backlinks), and the number of “do follow” backlinks (backlinks that carry the SEO strength of the referring website) are the most influential backlinks.

What’s Not So Valuable–Keywords

Perhaps even more surprising that what is most valuable for search engine ranking is what is least valuable: Keywords. Keywords were once the foundation of SEO. Search engines have moved beyond literal readings of keywords on web pages and new seek to find more nuanced factors that can’t be easily manipulated.  

“The on-page SEO factors such as the presence of keywords in title, meta description and body of the text proved to be significantly less influential than other factors, however the adoption rate is impressive — keyword usage is one of the most popular SEO techniques,” the study said.

So most of the pages it analyzed were properly configured for on-page SEO–so much that keywords don’t really influence results nearly as much as they may have in the past. Perhaps the fact that most serious online-marketers have adopted on-page best-practices and it has become a minimum requirement.

Volume and Keyword Length

Most of the keyword results were consistent across all search volume-levels and the length of the search terms. There are some exceptions with very high volume keywords–10,000+ searches per day. Ranking for a very high volume keyword seemed to feed on itself–the most successful sites had huge numbers of direct visits, time on site, pageviews, low bounce rates and many high quality backlinks.


SEO is still important, but the requirements change, sometime dramatically, from year to year. Search engines keep changing what they look for and reward. If you rely on your website for business, it would be a good idea to have your site assessed for the most influential ranking factors–direct searches, user experience metrics, and backlink quality and quantity. We recommend companies perform an annual SEO audit to stay aligned with search engine best practices.

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