Ranking first in the search engine results is like winning an Olympic gold medal.

If you want to win an Olympic gold medal, it’s not enough to put in lots of effort at your chosen sport. It’s not enough to plug away at practice for hours, eat right and get plenty of sleep.

What’s going to matter? Where you put in the effort. If you know what types of practice, what exercises, and what foods will give you the greatest return on investment for your particular sport – you’ll have a chance to make it all the way to the gold.

If you don’t, you might be putting in all your effort in areas that will help you get better – but won’t be effective enough to make you a champion.

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Ranking first in the search engine results works the same way. You need to know what factors are going to produce the biggest bang for the buck. Otherwise, you’ll probably increase your rankings… but you won’t get anywhere near the first few positions.

SEMRush (one of our favorite SEO tools) performed original analysis on search results for 600,000 keywords. They checked a host of different on- and off-page SEO factors and used machine learning to draw and check conclusions about which factors were having an impact.

You can check out their full report here, but we’re going to give you a summary of takeaways.

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User Engagement Factors

We’re moving into an era of user-driven rankings. It’s not how good Google thinks your pages are; it’s how good users and searchers think your pages are. How much time do your searchers spend on your page after they click through from the search results?

Wordstream published some great easy-to-understand research about how the above metric (called “Dwell Time”) has clearly had more impact on search results since Google’s RankBrain has been in effect.

SEMRush found the same patterns in their data. User engagement factors like amount of traffic, time on site, pages per session and bounce rate were more strongly correlated with higher rankings than any other on- or off-page factor.

Takeaway: It’s not enough to get traffic to your pages. Your pages must be engaging enough to attract and keep the traffic for decent periods of time. Do you have pages that have ranking potential, but their stickiness is only so-so? Make them stickier.

Content length

One way to make pages stickier and more engaging is to have more information. That doesn’t mean more unneeded filler information. It means making your page more informative, more helpful and a more complete look at the topic.

As Neil Patel phrases it, “To me, the underlying philosophy of blogging has to be rooted in a commitment to giving massive value… Since 2007, I’ve invested heavily in creating this kind of in-depth, high quality content, while following a proven plan. Initially, I didn’t get huge organic results.  But, over time, traffic grew – in one month, I generated 262,169 search visitors.”

In his advice for creating a successful blog in 2017, Ramsay Taplin (the Blog Tyrant) shares his observation that “the content that really seemed to make an impression on people was the in-depth article that spent a lot of time helping someone understand an issue or solve a problem they had… Some of these pieces took months to research and are 5,000 to 10,000 words long. Most importantly, they are genuinely helpful to the reader and have a positive motivation that aims to make sense of something scary in the world, or give people a new perspective.”

SEMRush found that generally, higher ranking pages had more content than lower ranking pages for any given keyword category. Also, the higher the search volume of a keyword, the more likely the content is to be longer. There aren’t indications that it needs to be as long as Ramsay Taplin talks about: median length for top positions ranged from about 550-800 words (depending on keyword search volume).

Takeaway: Write long. But not long for the sake of long. You want long for the sake of being complete and super-helpful. Those pages will naturally get visitors to stay longer: a great signal to Google about your worthiness.

Referring domains

Who’s linking to your pages? After user engagement-related factors, the next most significant factor was linking root domains.

For keywords with search volume of 1,000 monthly searches or more, high ranking websites has 1000s of linking root domains. Median numbers went as high as 7000-10,000(!) referring root domains for positions 1-3 on very high volume keywords.

Even for lower volume keywords, the median number of linking root domains was still in the hundreds for the first few positions in the search results.

Takeaway: If you want your page to rank, a varied back link profile is key. Additionally, if you don’t have (or can’t get) thousands of domains to link to you, it’s probably best not to aim at keywords with very high search volume.

Are You HTTPS?

In 2014, Google announced that its algorithm would be giving a small boost to secure sites: those using HTTPS. Post-update analysis showed that indeed, the impact wasn’t big. Lots of debate occurred around whether it was worth moving your site from HTTP to HTTPS, taking into account mishaps that could occur along the way.

SEMRush’s analysis showed that keywords with higher search volumes had more HTTPS sites than non- HTTPS sites in the top few positions. And for any keyword volume, the higher rankings always had more HTTPS sites than the lower rankings.

Takeaway: If you’re creating a new site, it’s certainly worth making it HTTPS to get that rankings boost from the outset. For an existing site, if you’re competing for a high-volume keyword, HTTPS could be a helpful push.

On-Page SEO

The big surprise of SEMRush’s research was how few differences there were in any on-page factors, relative to the engagement factors.  Within any keyword volume group, the number of pages that were optimized (whether it was the title, description, or the body copy) tended to be about the same for all positions. Between groups there were differences: so of pages that ranked for high-volume keywords, many more were optimized than pages that ranked for low-volume keywords.

Takeaway: Make sure your on-page optimization is squared away, but don’t overthink it. For high-volume keywords, the majority of pages are well-optimized, so you don’t want to be left behind. For low-volume keywords, it’s wise to optimize to differentiate yourself from the pages that aren’t optimized, although it may not have that large an effect. Still, of all the ranking factors, this is the most under your control. Don’t miss out on the opportunity.

Don’t Stand in the Way of SEO Progress

Toto, we’re not in 2007 anymore.

Google progresses. SEO progresses. You still need your ducks in a line when it comes to basics: on-page optimization, links from varied root domains. But engagement factors are on the rise. Whether or not Google is measuring dwell time and bounce rate directly (and they certainly have the tools to do so), those measurements have too strong a correlation to high rankings to be ignored.

Your job as a marketer?

Don’t ignore the basics. But don’t be blinded by them, either. Ask yourself: how can I make this page amazing? How can I make this page the one that everyone in my audience will want to share with their friends?

Got some ideas? Get going!

And good luck!