While links are almost certainly still the most important ranking factor, various on-page factors increasingly play a more important part. By now, most SEOs are convinced Google is using user behavior metrics to measure whether site visitors are actually satisfied with what turns up in the results. Most believe at least some of the following metrics are being used:
- Your site's click through rate
- Keywords users search for if the previous search didn't give a satisfactory result
- +1 votes and "Block all" votes (for aggregate data, not a direct impact)
- Time on site/page
- Repeat visits
- Social network activity
- Traffic referred from sites other than Google
In other words, Google is measuring the behavior of users in order to determine if they were happy with the search results.
Good Marketing is NOT the Same as Good User Experience
It's not uncommon for SEOs to claim that what's good for marketing is good for search engine rankings. While there's some truth to this, it's not the whole story.
Google is not necessarily trying to promote the sites with the best marketing.
This belief is a confusion of the motives in place. While many believe that Google's favoritism is for brands, the truth is a bit more complicated.
Make no mistake, search engines are in it for the money. Apart from leveraging their reputation to build things like the Android Marketplace, Google's primary source of income is AdWords. When a searcher's intent is clearly commercial, Google only wants one thing: for that user to click on an ad.
This is why, for some commercial searches and on some devices, there are more ads above the fold than organic results (sometimes no organic results at all).
From Google's perspective, why do the organic results exist? For the same reason that a blogger will tweet links to somebody else's site. The organic results build trust and authority for the Google brand. They are a reason for people to keep using Google.
Google wants established brands to show up in these results not because they are good marketers, but because Google would look stupid if the brands didn't show up for obviously related keyword terms.
This might sound like the same thing, but here's where it starts to get interesting.
Conversions are Good for You, Not Google
If the search engine had its way, every online conversion would start with AdWords. Even if your site's primary source of income is AdSense, Google still gets a larger cut of the profits if the revenue comes from a click on the search engine ads, rather than the ads on your blog.
It's not uncommon for SEOs to think that if their conversion rate is good, their user behavior metrics are probably good from Google's point of view as well. This view seems to make sense at first glance, but in reality your site's conversions aren't in line with Google's motives. They have nothing to do with their direct concerns when it comes to user behavior.
What Google Really Wants to See
Google couldn't possibly care less about your conversion rate. What they want to see are users who enjoy visiting your site. Users who enjoy visiting the sites in the organic search results enjoy using Google. This means they are more likely to keep using the search engine, instead of becoming regular users of a few walled-in-gardens that offer better content. This ensures that users keep seeing Google ads and eventually click on them.
A good conversion rate might mean that users enjoy visiting your site. It could also mean you just happened to have the exact product they are looking for. Google would prefer the user found that product through AdWords or Google Shopping, channels that they are promoting in an increasingly aggressive manner.
When the consumer doesn't care very much about where they get that product, your conversion rate isn't all that meaningful.
When it comes to your brand's reputation and impact on search results, user experience and conversion rate are not the same thing.
To measure user experience, you need to focus on increasing time on site, repeat visits, social sharing, commenting, and reducing your bounce rate and other negative factors.
It's also worth considering surveys via MechanicalTurk or SurveyMonkey to see how users feel about your site.
Do you agree conversion rate and user experience aren't synonymous? How can you optimize user experience?
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