5 Surprising Things the Top Ranked Sites on Google Have in Common (And What You Can Learn from Them)

How much can a search engine change in a year? If it’s Google, the answer is a lot. Best SEO practices suddenly can turn into web page death sentences if you’re not careful. But even if you don’t have time to keep your finger on the pulse of the ever-changing search industry, you’re in luck. A new infographic and report from Searchmetrics has done a lot of the work for you. It analyzes and distills the information you need to know.


The study analyzed 10,000 searches across 300,000 URLs on the top three pages of Google UK, with the sites being from various industries. The analysts looked at factors the sites had in common and then correlated the data and their findings into the study/infographic.

Note: Google USA and Google UK do vary somewhat in terms of ranking factors.

Here are a few of the highlights:

1. Big Brands Don’t Have to Work as Hard as You Do

coke Facebook page

With over 70 million fans, Coca-Cola is one of the most iconic and most popular brands on Facebook

Let’s face it. When you have a memorable, mesmerizing campaign that people can’t stop talking about, you don’t have to do a lot to encourage them to spread the word. Simply because Coca-Cola is a huge brand and a household name, it can get by with making a sub-par, non-optimized site.

They, and many other brands like them, can ride the waves of backlinks, mentions, and other social signals, and their content always rises to the top. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they should rest on the laurels of their success. The bigger the brand, the bigger the social media reach, and the bigger the fall when things like this happen:

Coke Australia happy story

Coke Australia’s disastrous social media experiment to create a “happy story”

Either way, people are talking, and Google is paying attention. So, does this mean that if you’re a small player, you really don’t have a chance against the big boys with bottomless pockets?

Not necessarily…

2. Social Signals Matter – But Which Ones Matter Most?

burberry Google Plus

With over 2 million followers, Burberry is the top most-followed brand on Google+

It’s no secret that Google is watching social signals carefully. Facebook likes, shares, Twitter tweets, and even Pinterest pins are showing up on its radar. But, another finding from the not-so-surprising department shows that Google +1’s are given the most ranking recognition, followed closely by Facebook.

If you don’t yet have a Google+ account (or don’t use it often), it may be time to take the plunge: links shared on Google+ pass PageRank.

3. Backlinks and Headings – Are They Still Important?

You’ve likely heard that keyword-rich backlinks and heading 1s with your keywords can help your search engine ranking. But this changed in 2012 to the point where keyword-added H1’s can hurt, rather than help, your ranking. Long page titles also can affect your site negatively, as the chart below shows:

Search ranking factors

H1s with keywords and title character link can hurt your ranking more than they help (Rank Correlation 2013 for Google USA)

As you also can see from this chart, Google’s own advertising program was given a slight nudge in the ranking direction, from its previous place on the negative side of the scale. Another important finding is that word count now factors more in a ranking, as beefier posts tend to be shared and linked to more than simple articles:

word count

Word count around the 400-525 mark seems to perform best

4. Should You Register a Domain Name with Keywords In It?

infographic technical

The perpetual question that’s always on every marketer’s mind when they launch a new venture – should my domain name include keywords? Currently, Google is paying less attention to this metric than the placement of the keyword in other places, such as in the title, URL, and in both internal and external links. A well-balanced internal linking structure is vital for spreading around all the valuable optimized “link juice.”

5. Is Quality Content Enough?

Well-written content is still important in Google’s eyes, as are a decent number of images and strong internal links. Page load speed also is a factor, as is the word count, when it comes to backlinks. If you’re consistently publishing good content, steadily acquiring backlinks, and adding rich media including images and video, you’re taking all the right steps to maintain a solid ranking.

So far, the shift seems to be toward less emphasis on “keyword tricks” (such as registering domain names with the chosen keyword in them or peppering the keyword in H1 tags) and more emphasis on quality (with the backlinks and social shares to back it up).

About the Author: Sherice Jacob specializes in conversion rate optimization through user-friendly web design, compelling copywriting, and smart analytics. See what your site is truly capable of by visiting iElectrify.com or follow @sherice on Twitter, Google+, or LinkedIn.

  1. I’ve noticed that content linked to Google authorship always ranks better now. Article length should be about quality of content and is pretty much irrelevant if you focus on the message. Anyone who is counting words when publishing has already failed.

    • Agree. Article length is irrelevant as long as you’re writing for your users. Figure out the information they seek, and give them valuable content. In some industries, some visitors will want short, concise blog posts. Others will want video tutorials. Others need detailed how-to guides, etc. Write for your users, not the search engines (and include rel=author tags) and you’ll be good. After all, those search engines’ main mission is to return the most relevant results for a search query… if you’re already writing / producing content to satisfy their needs… the search engines will eventually catch up!

  2. I agree with Gene that Google authorship is becoming more important. Authorship and Google +1 seems to be an easy no brainer step these days.

    Keywords in the site name doesn’t nearly have as much juice as in the past. The last two Google updates have really addressed this issue. A great example is SEOMoz.com who recently changed their name to just Moz.com.

    As far as content length, I’m leaning towards long form epic content. This is especially true for content with a longer shelf life.

    • Hi Keith – you just summed up essential SEO in four words: long form epic content! Of course, getting to that point is easier said than done — one step at a time… :)

  3. hi Sherice

    John here, I own a small empire of 300+ aged domains/niche blogs (most in the health industry) and…

    I see EMD still works… so it’s always good to register domains with exact match keywords in them, unless the big G starts neglecting this “method” completely, is it?

    Regardless, I think nobody should base their whole marketing on SEO alone… mix it with offline lead/traffic generating techniques, and don’t forget about social media, YouTube, Facebook, SlideShare and all the other related sites…

    Hope it helps…

    • Hi John,

      I don’t think EMD has the same ‘clout’ as it once did, presumably because spammers have learned how to game the system by registering domains laden with keywords and junk content. So I have a feeling that eventually Google will phase that factor out entirely in favor of others’ ratings of your own content via G+ and other eventual Google services.

  4. “Big Brands Don’t Have to Work as Hard as You Do”. Perhaps not in the short term but they’re big brands because they have been working longer and harder than you, doing the right things to make themselves successful, and spending buckets of money on marketing for a long time. I think the fallacy that big brands have it easy needs to go away. It’s the cry of “it’s not fair that you are more successful than me”. Big brands rank better because they ARE better than you. That’s why they are a big brand and you aren’t. If you can honestly say you do EVERYTHING better than a big brand and have been doing it for as long as they have and they outrank you, maybe you have a complaint. In these cases they actually have done the things that matter to rank. They’ve built huge audiences based on great products, services, prices, content, etc. They don’t have to excel at onsite optimization so much because they are miles ahead in all the other factors that matter.

    • Exactly – and I applaud them for being successful – for all those reasons you just stated. You’re right, it’s no longer a level playing field online (it really never was, except maybe in the mid 90s) so when big brands joined the web, they had years and possibly decades of customer satisfaction behind them.

      So can someone’s homemade artisan soda go up against the likes of Coke? Probably not, but small businesses have the advantage of being small and personable, which does help in the long run if they use it right!

  5. I kinda lean toward John Gibbs on this one. If there’s even the slightest chance an EMD will help with ranking, even if it doesn’t have the impact it once did, it just makes sense to go that route. And, EMD’s have the distinct advantage that they have words in them familiar to the “customer”.

    I do have a question for the post author: Isn’t your post title a bit long? Or, does Google count the part in parentheses as a “sub-title”? :)

    • Hah! I knew someone would bring this up. Guilty as charged :-) It’s pretty challenging to fashion a title like that and still encompass everything I wanted it to say.

      Regarding the EMDs, yes I agree with you that there are words familiar to the customer in there, and that should definitely help, but there are still people out there who register horrendously long domains and hope that that’s enough to carry their SEO weight.

  6. Wow great post. I just started building small niche websites recently and was researching if exact matched domains ranked higher in Google than other domains and came across this post.

    This EMD debate has really got out off hand as there is so much of terrible disinformation out there.

  7. Thanks for calling attention to the (perhaps unfair) weight that google gives its own products in the search result rankings. We’ve had a long-standing brand reputation management SEO campaign running for our brand keywords and the upper management has put us under a lot of pressure to come up with new URLs we can own for our keywords. After looking into very expensive social media-driven campaigns options, we realised that we were missing out on the obvious – a google+ company page and a strong YouTube channel. If you are like us and have your google results under a daily microscope, you need to make sure that you have covered off on the google products basics before moving on to other ideas such as additional websites, business listings, etc.

  8. Thanks for the insight. For somebody who uses the internet for nearly all of my promoting however doesn’t very realize it, i really like helpful data like this.
    I’m a real estate agent, just in case you’re inquisitive.

  9. Shanice, G+1 doesn’t seem so popular in the UK as it does in the US, do you have any advice to help small businesses to draw customers into using G+1 or evening just viewing our page. We use facebook and twitter because there seems a ready market of people to interact with. G+1 currently seems like shouting into a cave and at the moment there is no echo.

    • Adam, what if you did a Google+ hangout (webinar) for your audience? This would encourage more of them to register for the service and still get valuable information from you.

  10. Is Google really giving help to those with more +1s in the search results? there seems ot be a fair bit of debate on this statement.

    • It’s not that way yet – but I wouldn’t be surprised if they gave more emphasis to their own social signals over their competitors. It does seem that +1s pass pagerank though, which would encourage more people to try to get them for their content.

  11. G+1, I believe, was set up to go head-to-head with Facebook Likes. But in the absence of a social network in the mold of Facebook to back it up, G+1 has been lagging in universal adoption. Now, however, Google appears to have found a hook, assigning greater weight to posts with +1s to entice more users – and it’s working!

  12. Curious but of course true the importance of Google+. Anyway content is the most important thing.

  13. Looking at point #3 the correlation coefficients are so low that its hard to put any meaning into them.

  14. Excellent information and thoughts on the future of SEO! I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on SEO for work and I’ve been happy to consistently read about how we need to focus on quality content. It’s easy and cheap tactics to go those other routes, including keyword phrasing domain names and headings.

    If the content throughout a webpage is cohesive and provides a good user experience, of course it will result in happier visitors. That’s what I believe Google has been trying to get at, and there are many credible sources like Google and Moz pointing to that method.

    Thanks for contributing to the discussion!

  15. I pretty much stopped link building about a year ago to concentrate almost entirely on improving my content. The result: my traffic as dropped.

    I also got better hosting.

    Of course, it probably would have been worse if I had not been improving the content, but I do think link building is still vital.

  16. I Agree with @Tony I think that content is really important but we still need to do some linkbuilding for each individual post we publish. A great way to promote and build seo at the same time..

  17. I love DATA! sure a link in is a clear sigh of spam. no one links in tags. I loved also how you said is quality content matters because obviously it doesn’t matter. for leads and building trust OK. for serps rankings. not really.

  18. Nice post. Very helpful for me.


  19. SPY DEVICES IN INDIA Sep 23, 2013 at 4:48 am

    These kind of posts are always a great source of information. Love to read such informative content.

  20. Thank you for writing this article in a clear and concise way. Really helpful!

  21. Your suggestion is very excellent this site has helped a lot. really I appreciate such kind of topics. It will be very helpful for us.


  22. Again, it seems like google + reigns supreme in most reviews ive seen. Taking note of that. I was surprised to hear about header tags and keyword in url. That blew my mind. I guess SEO is changing.

  23. What a great way to get the information out there:).

  24. Don’t want to be “Mr Nit Picky” but the SearchMetrics Rank Correlation graph (first graph in point 3) is not suggesting that keyword-added H1’s and long page titles can hurt your ranking.

    The graph is suggesting that these factors have less of benefit than before. This doesn’t mean that they will hurt your site its just they are less important now.

    This graph seems to have been misinterpreted a lot. I wonder if SearchMetrics will present the data differently in future? :)

  25. It is true that Google is considering Google Plus sharing as a ranking factor. Moreover sharing on Google plus helps a site to get indexed more easily. The most new thing for me in this article is that i have no clue about using keywords in H1 has negative impact. Thanks for the information.

  26. it seem google is manually manipulating some search results, specially if the keywords are product oriented. i have seen major changes in last few months specifically on some large online retailers like amazon, wallmart and staples.

  27. Interesting viewpoints, yet most of it isnt true. Backlinks are always important, mostly keyword based links.

  28. Does anyone know where the best places to put your keyword in the blog post or article?

    Or does it matter if you just bold the keyword a couple times by itself or can you bold the whole sentence the keyword is in?

    Any help or comments from someone who knows what they’re doing would be appreciated. The more I think I know about seo, the more I learn i don’t know much lol.

  29. What about blog commenting and forum posting. Is there any relevancy for them as well as of now. I’ve read couple of articles and they say blog commenting is no more valid factor in rankings for google :-/

  30. Yeah, I have been wondering about blog comments too. I feel like they have been overhyped a bit and that I might be wasting my time building so many of them, and that I should be more focused on social media platforms for increasing brand popularity.

  31. Your idea is really excellent this site has helped a lot. really I value this sort of issues. It will be very helpful for all of us.

  32. In the beginning I wrote a lot of articles with thousand words to be found in google, it helped a lot, but yet my short articles are the one that gets most visitors, because in my short articles I get to the point very fast and it is very easy to understand, therefor I get a lot of likes on facebook. This article helped me to understand what I should do next. thanks

  33. So where do you start. Do you have to sit for days and consistently write top quality articles without concentrating on the core functionality of your business. if you don’t have a blog where are the best places to post them to without being penalised, do you just post them to Facebook and G. As for link building where do you even start to go and get some good quality inbound links for your website.

    It is turning into incredibly hard work these days but I suppose it will pay of in the end.

    We have just recently launched our one stop comparison shop and are in the midst of changing our technology to make it even more user friendly. But our brand is known no where, if people knew about us I think they would come back for more but I can tell you that’s its very hard painstaking work trying to get mentions from good reputable companies without having to pay the earth.

    any pointers would be of great value to us


  34. yes, using social sites to link or share ur site with increase the your ranking with minimum time, but your blog or updates must be updated regularly with acutal terms

  35. Agree, users usually like to read short and worth content and it helps to get relevant traffic on your site rather than using long long articles which have no worth.

  36. Everyone wanna use short content so that users can’t afraid using infographics, videos, Pdf Files, but its also make confusion between two things…
    First things everybody say of writing content more than 500 words or long will be better as a content rich blog, on the other hand, Second thing being told that use infographics, and all…
    Also using images, infographics, video in a new blog, Google don’t care about the blog, and If blogger applying for Adsense that also get declined !?

    So what,? Blogger use 500+ words content & use infographic to? (and in the last the size of infographic get over content and the Article to get out of google consideration). If I’m right this problem really issue for new newbies……

  37. Thanks for the information. Now I know about google ratings.

  38. Alena Calderon Jul 02, 2014 at 6:32 am

    I’m impressed by the details that you’ve on this site. It reveals how nicely you understand these SEO practices.

  39. Amelia Marsden Jul 06, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Thanks for the Info. This Article is very helpful..

  40. Gatut Sukmono Jul 18, 2014 at 10:32 pm

    I’ll read slowly, again and again to understand. Because my english is not good, but i think this is great tips.

  41. Great blog! I agree with you, main thing in this is content. As compare to other things, thanks for sharing this information with us.


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