SEO Ranking Factors that Still Matter in 2017

Believe it or not, there was a time when SEO consisted of a basic formula that most webmasters could follow and get websites to rank within a matter of weeks. A combination of on-page factors (tags, H1’s, URL structure), inbound links, and targeting the right keywords was almost a guarantee for a page one result. It’s much harder than that now, but there are fundamental SEO ranking factors that still matter.

SEO Ranking Factors 2017

Fast forward to 2017…SEO experts must sift through major algorithm changes and updates like Google Panda, Google Penguin, Google Hummingbird, mobile-friendly updates, and RankBrain. Not only have ranking factors changed, but page one real estate has become even more competitive, and in some niches, space for organic listings is shrinking.

When developing an SEO strategy, today’s marketers must focus on the most reliable SEO ranking factors that still matter in 2017. Sorting through lists of 200 Ranking Factors might be interesting for folks like me, but in terms of meeting your business objectives, it will waste valuable time and will be slow to deliver ROI.

Let’s look at the most important SEO ranking factors based on research and data, case studies, algorithm changes, recommendations from Google, and algorithm releases of the past.


In late 2015, Google indicated that search queries use an artificial intelligence system called RankBrain to help them understand the 15% of queries they receive on a daily basis that have never been seen before. RankBrain is one of the top 3 ranking signals contributing to a search query, along with inbound links and content.

The AI technology gives Google the ability to deliver results that users want without over-reliance on the link algorithm or simple keyword matching. Ultimately, RankBrain helps Google understand the intent behind search queries so they can be matched to the best possible content that satisfies the searcher’s need.

Eventually RankBrain will begin to learn and adapt on its own, so optimizing for RankBrain really means aligning your efforts with Google: understand the searcher’s intent and match it to content that it satisfies that intent. That might seem obvious, but this approach is much less about optimizing your pages for the right keywords, and more about ensuring your page allows the searcher to complete the task they intended when they initiated the query.

In a nutshell, a RankBrain-friendly SEO strategy really just boils down to:

  • Match search queries with quality content that satisfies the searcher’s intent
  • Create a well-structured website, including semantic markup — think context and entity relationships, not just keyword targeting
  • Create content for people, not search engines — think in terms of “fewer, better” instead “more, faster”

B2B companies with longer sales cycles would be wise to focus on the buyer journey and the various need states that occur throughout that journey. Creating content that anticipates each of those need states will go a long way toward not only aligning your efforts with Google’s, but maximizing your specific business KPIs related to organic search.

Quality Inbound Links

Build an inbound linking strategy around the following guidelines:

  • Create & promote content that will attract earned links. And what kind of content attracts earned links? One good place to find out is your own website. Plug a high-ranking URL from your website into Ahref’s Site Explorer Tool, for example, and review the backlinks. Identify the earned links (i.e. non-directory/business listing links) and try to understand how the publisher discovered your webpage. Was it timed with a social media campaign? A press release? Once you understand how a linking publisher may have found you, you may be able to repeat such a campaign and define “Backlinks Gained” as a KPI.
  • Focus on links from industry sites that are related to your topic and brand. This is actually a good approach to guest posting, a tactic that still works well when done properly, despite rumors to the contrary.
  • Monitor inbound links frequently. If a low-quality blog builds hundreds of links to your site, it could trigger a penalty. Managing your inbound link profile is your responsibility, even if you didn’t build the links in it.

The topic of inbound link building is a big one, but it’s critically important for your success. Backlinks are one of Google’s top 3 ranking factors, so this isn’t an area you can afford to ignore if you’re investing in content.

User Engagement Metrics

If you want to optimize for SEO, you’d do well to start by optimizing for the user experience. Dive into your analytics data and review pages with high bounce rates. Use segmentation to determine if certain visitor types have lower time on site or view fewer pages per session. Such data may bring to light issues that are negatively impacting the user experience for a sub-set of users who might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

In all likelihood, Google isn’t measuring bounce rate on your site, per se, since they may not know what exactly happens after the searcher enters your site; however, there’s a lot of evidence out there indicating that visit, engagement, click-through data are playing a part in Google’s ranking algorithm. And frankly it just makes sense that Google, of all companies, would leverage Big Data to improve their search results.


Keywords still matter in 2017. Sure, it’s possible for a page to rank for a query that doesn’t appear on the page, but’s it’s still effective to consider your primary keyword target and optimize your on-page elements accordingly. Expanding keyword research beyond volume numbers and focusing more in intent is key.

What does modern keyword research look like?

Over the past ten years, keyword research has evolved around the following changes:

  • Conversational keywords for voice search & question-based keywords
  • Knowledge Graph & Hummingbird keyword research
  • Keywords + high quality content
  • SEO buyer journey keywords

Keyword Research for Voice Search & Questions

Forbes recently quoted a study by Northstar Research, “Over half of U.S. teens and 41% of U.S. adults use voice search on a daily basis, with its use continuing to grow every day.”

Voice search isn’t that difficult, but it’s much different than optimizing for traditional search since searchers are more likely to use longer phrases and even complete sentences. A good starting point is to combine your top keyword targets with Google Autosuggest and the five Ws:

  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why
  • Who

Knowledge Graph & Hummingbird Keyword Research

Also known as Semantic Search, Google uses the Hummingbird Algorithm and the Knowledge Graph to understand context, intent, and related keywords and topics.

Google’s How Search Works explains:

Explanation how Google Search works

One of the best ways we’ve found to optimize for semantic search is to ensure you’re including related topics and keywords. In this sense, you content should become more topic-focused rather than keyword-focused.

One good way to get ideas for related topics is to enter your primary keyword target into Google, scroll down the result page, and look for other searches related to the search you entered. Including these additional keywords and topics in your content will help Google see you as a comprehensive resource worthy of higher rankings.

Semantic Search

Keywords + Quality Content

Google Panda changed the Google algorithm in an effort to eliminate poor quality sites from the search results. Since then, Panda updates pushed the SEO industry to back away from keyword stuffing or “writing for search engines,” duplicate content (using a high volume of the same copy on two different websites), “thin content,” and overall poor quality content.

In early 2016, a senior strategist at Google confirmed that Panda is part of Google’s core ranking algorithm. Translation? Focusing on keywords without a quality content strategy is a waste of time in 2017. For many, this has brought about a shift in strategy from generating lots of short content pages that target similar keyword variations, to fewer content pages that are more topic-focused go deeper and wider into their subject matter.

SEO Buyer Journey Keywords

SEO is highly competitive – it’s no longer enough to rank for a particular keyword phrase. Your keyword strategy must align with the buyer’s journey so your prospect if finding the right answers at the right time, in the right place, in the right format, optimized for the right device. Before content is created for a landing page, article, or blog post, SEO teams should map each keyword to a corresponding stage in the buyer’s journey.

Use the data you’ve gathered about your target buyer personas (you’ve created buyer personas, right?) to get inside the mind of the searcher and understand the problem(s) they’re looking to solve. Keyword targeting in 2017 is really about understanding the intent behind the query and ensuring that intent is satisfied by your content.

Mapping keywords to the buyer’s journey takes time and isn’t a quick win, but the strategy will deliver results that will last by reducing bounce rates, increasing click-through rates, and sending the right signals to Google that your site is not only trustworthy, but useful, too.

Mobile SEO

Google confirmed in November 2016 that algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages, and they’ve begun experimenting with a mobile-first algorithm.

Google to shift algorithms to use "mobile-first" indexing

Mobile SEO isn’t new; “Mobilegeddon” sent the SEO industry into a frenzy in early 2015. A hyper-focus on responsive design became the norm and everyone moved on. Now that Google has confirmed that a mobile-first algorithm is on the way, mobile SEO will require much more than a set-it-and-forget-it responsive design.

Additional Mobile SEO Ranking Factors:

  • Page load speed – critical for mobile user experience.
  • Social signals – while the jury is still out on social as a ranking factor (I think it’s correlation and not causation), social media posts and accounts show up in mobile results, giving brands a chance to interact directly with prospects. It also opens you up to being discovered by sites that could link to you, and links are definitely a direct ranking factor.
  • Structured markup for mobile version – adding schema and other meta data often gets overlooked on separate mobile versions. That could be a big problem in a mobile-first index.

Local SEO

While not all businesses rely on a physical location to conduct business, local SEO is important enough to warrant its own section on an SEO Ranking Factors checklist.

Priorities for local SEO in 2017:

  • Set up a Google My Business listing
  • Listings (links) on quality local business directories and industry blogs
  • Verify NAP (Name, Address, Phone) citations are accurate and consistent across listings
  • Get Reviews (Google Reviews are best, followed by industry apps and social media listings)
  • Incorporate neighborhood keywords into your content strategy with local landing pages

On-Page Factors

On-page SEO has experienced the most change out of all SEO strategies. Repeating an exact-match key phrase over and over again and in every sub-heading? Out. High volumes of internal links with keyword rich anchor-text? Out. Anchor text footer links? Out.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, keywords matter. Having a primary keyword target in mind and aligning your on-page elements — page title, headings, image alt text, body copy, etc. — with that target are still best practices, provided you’re putting readability first.

When setting up your on-page strategy, always refer to the most recent Webmaster Guidelines from Google. Follow ClickSeed on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn for the most up-to-date SEO ranking news, or subscribe to our blog.

Are You Ready to Improve Your Rankings?

If your site is experiencing a drop in rankings or you have reached a plateau, it’s time for a professional review. ClickSeed can help you incorporate important SEO ranking factors into your content marketing strategy for long-term success.

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