By Mike Murray published January 2, 2020 Est Read Time: 16 min

20 SEO and Keyword Tips for Your Best Google Rankings in 2020

As you dig in with your SEO strategies in 2020, stick with what you do well and prioritize time for organic search tactics you’ve neglected or handled the wrong way.

Leverage every opportunity that Google gives your content to rank well. Despite constant changes by Google and consumer behavior, a 2019 BrightEdge study found that organic commands 53% of all website traffic.

Organic commands 53% of website traffic. 2019 @brightedge via @mikeonlinecoach #study #SEO Click To Tweet

Here are 20 realities, stats, resources, reminders, and practical steps you can follow this year.

1. Backlinks are vital

Regardless of their size, companies can always benefit from more links. They’re the lifeblood of domain and page authority, which continue to be a significant ranking factor. Eric Enge puts it in perspective in the most recent Perficient/Digital 2018 study, Links as a Ranking Factor:

(W)e don’t find that links can rescue poor quality content or cause low relevance content to rank. Also, all of our efforts focus on getting recognition from, or content published on, very high-authority sites. Doing this well requires a focus on how you implement your marketing and PR to get in front of the audiences that matter to your business the most. This will naturally drive high value links back to your site, and help you earn rankings that you deserve.

Links are the lifeblood of domain and page authority, which continue to be a significant ranking factor, says @mikeonlinecoach via @cmicontent. #SEO Click To Tweet

Learn more about link building:

2. Quality content is essential but relative

Exceptional content doesn’t guarantee a top ranking. Links from other websites, implementation of SEO best practices, and great content work together to help your pages land top spots on Google and other search engines.

Exceptional #content doesn’t guarantee a top ranking, says @mikeonlinecoach via @cmicontent. #SEO Click To Tweet

Let’s look at John Deere. Moz credits the domain with a 70 score (on a 1-to-100 scale). It’s not surprising that this straightforward plowing article ranks No. 5 for “garden plow” with an average of 880 monthly searches on Google.

The header even matches some of the search words.

But then there is John Deere’s brand magazine, The Furrow. It has a 39 domain authority score and has trouble ranking for some of its quality content.

For example, the Micro View, Macro Plans feature ranks poorly, at No. 49, for “microscopic arthropods” with 50 monthly searches on Google. Based on the header, it’s clear that SEO isn’t a priority and quality content doesn’t yield a great harvest even with good writing like:

“Making their soils a welcome home for microbes has become their goal. They’ve even adopted the motto of ‘Loyal to the Soil.’ Impact on soil life is considered for every action taken.”

3. Don’t worry about every ranking factor

A giant gap exists between the ranking impact of keywords in page titles and content headers vs. page load speed, mobile appearance, and the use of HTTPS. Though we don’t know the actual importance of any factor, I constantly grab top rankings by adjusting page titles and headers even while minor ranking variables get poor marks.

Search engine rankings vary for many reasons, including personal search history and geography (i.e., Google Local Pack). Google keeps refining its algorithm as it noted Nov. 12 in its Twitter channel Google SearchLiasion:

We have updates that happen all the time in Google Search. If we don’t share about them, there is no particular actionable guidance to follow nor changes to make other than to keep focused on great content as we’ve advised generally.

Given ranking factor volatility, it’s no wonder that Searchmetrics now releases ranking factor data by industry instead of overall reports.

In a 2019 SparkToro survey, more than 1,500 SEO marketers weighed in on key ranking factors. Most of them (66.3%) believe the weight of Google ranking factors varies by query.

Respondents prioritized content relevance and quality backlinks among the top ranking factors:

In a @sparktoro survey, respondents prioritized #content relevance & quality backlinks among top ranking factors, says @mikeonelinecoach via @cmicontent. #SEO Click To Tweet

4. Expect search engines to become even more sophisticated

As they strive to provide the most relevant results, search engines strive to understand the intent behind each query.

Last year, Google rolled out BERT, a natural-language-processing algorithm update technically known as Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. So far, BERT focuses on searcher intent for one of every 10 English searches in the United States.

“BERT models can therefore consider the full context of a word by looking at the words that come before and after it – particularly useful for understanding the intent behind search queries,” writes Google’s Pandu Nayak, vice president of search. “Particularly for longer, more conversational queries, or searches where prepositions like ‘for’ and ‘to’ matter a lot to the meaning, Search will be able to understand the context of the words in your query. You can search in a way that feels natural for you.”

It’s easy to confuse BERT with RankBrain, the update in 2015 as the core part of Google’s algorithm. RankBrain leverages machine learning to generate search results, drawing from a broad set of variables (including the history of related searches).

Because of RankBrain, you might rank for a keyword phrase that’s not even in your content. In its 2017 Ranking Factors 2.0 study, SEMrush found that 18% of websites that ranked well didn’t have the keyword in their content.

How could that be? Google is getting better at sizing up searches with relevant content – not necessarily keywords.

[email protected] is getting better at sizing up searches with relevant #content, not necessarily keywords, says @mikeonlinecoach via @cmicontent. #SEO Click To Tweet

Google focuses more on ideas that content conveys than the keyword phrases. Among the trillions of searches it handles each year, Google has said that 15% of queries are first-time searches. RankBrain does its best to make sense of them.

Google doesn’t offer specifics about RankBrain, but Search Engine Watch has a good piece that goes into more detail: Google RankBrain: Clearing Up the Myths and Misconceptions.

5. Don’t expect relief from buried organic pages on search engine result pages (SERPs)

A No. 1 organic page ranking is not necessarily a cause for celebration or a traffic increase. In the past few years, I’ve seen website pages with high rankings lose traffic.

You know the painful scenario. A set of four paid ads appears first. Then a featured snippet follows with some shopping results, a pack of images, videos, and a People Also Ask box. Then, after scrolling way down, your “No. 1” ranking appears.

Google often provides so many basic facts on the results page that searchers don’t need to click. That happens nearly 49% of the time, according to a 2019 SparkToro report based on Jumpshot clickstream data. The study referenced more than 1 billion web searches on 10 million U.S. domestic desktop and Android devices.

Nearly 49% of Google searchers never click a link: 2019 @sparktoro report. @mikeonlinecoach via @cmicontent. #SEO Click To Tweet

3M is just one of countless SERP victims. You think 3M would rank well for “anti glare film,” which has about 900 monthly searches on Google.

But the 3M result appears far down the page represented in the following screenshots:

6. Refine those keyword phrases

Don’t stick with the same set of keywords. Use keyword research and ranking tools to explore new possibilities. I routinely reference SEMrush, Moz, and other sources to discover key phrases that I never considered.

Don’t stick with the same set of keywords. Use keyword research and ranking tools such as @moz and @semrush, says @mikeonlinecoach via @cmicontent. #SEO #tools Click To Tweet

7. Showcase trust and authority

Google may increasingly give an edge to website content that seems trustworthy. You can gain that advantage by having experts offer useful insights in articles and listing their credentials in short bios.

The focus on trust stems from the Google 168-page document, Google Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines that cites the value of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T). Google elaborates on those values in the search algorithms section of another report, How Search algorithms work:

Beyond matching the words in your query with relevant documents on the web, Search algorithms also aim to prioritize the most reliable sources available. To do this, our systems are designed to identify signals that can help determine which pages demonstrate expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness on a given topic.

8. Pay attention to page URLs

Sure, ranking factors vary. But you shouldn’t neglect URLs. Keep them short – three to six words that reflect the content. Too often, websites dilute URLs with so many words that they lose their effectiveness.

Not good:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidphelan/2019/12/09/how-to-use-apple-pay-express-transit-11-tips-as-the-brilliant-feature-hits-a-new-milestone

Good:
https://fortune.com/2019/12/08/australian-wine-yellowtail-shiraz-burgundy-bordeaux/

9. Optimize for featured snippets and answer boxes

Fortunately, Google doesn’t award the featured snippets to the largest websites. It seems any relevant website can earn the top spot. Check out Stephan Spencer’s CMI article: OK, Google: How Do I Optimize My Content for Featured Snippets?

Understand which answers searchers are looking for & format #content w/ snippet in mind. @SSpencer via @cmicontent #SEO Click To Tweet

Like featured snippets and other coveted elements, your page often won’t show in the Google answer box. But you can increase your chances with some good tips from Dennis Shiao in How to Be the Content in the Enviable Google Answer Box.

10. Optimize your website images

When processing images, your team should make sure to focus on the file size, name, alt text, and more for SEO success. Here are some great articles to guide you:

11. Use schema markup to better define website content

Website developers and marketers don’t always take the time to add schema markup (semantic vocabulary of tags). The code helps search engines identify what content means. Including it can affect how information is displayed in search results – everything from reviews and events to products and recipes.

Here are some resources to help elevate your schema markup:

12. Make videos for your visitors (and SEO)

Videos can be a new avenue for SEO opportunities. On YouTube, link to your website in the descriptions (an often overlooked option). Also, since Google shows videos in the SERPs – above regular website pages – you could get the additional exposure. Don’t forget to create website page transcripts to rank for more keywords, including long-tail keyword phrases. Speechpad is one resource.

On @YouTube, link to your website in the descriptions, says @mikeonlinecoach via @cmicontent. #SEO Click To Tweet

13. Create sneak peeks at your educational content

If you gate your content, such as a white paper or an educational guide, release an excerpt or two. Search engines can crawl that text and the search rankings can drive traffic to the gated content landing page where you can use a call to action to download the full version.

14. Make sure your site doesn’t have crawl issues

Search engines may not crawl every page you want them to see. They might be impeded by your overall website structure or too many redirects. Reference Google Search Console to size up your website performance.

Additionally, it never hurts to spot check some of your deep content. Simply grab unique text from a page and search for it within quotes on Google. In an instant, you’ll know whether it’s been captured. For detailed SEO analysis, use a tool like Screaming Frog SEO Spider.

15. Remove or block thin content

Not all of your content may help your SEO efforts. Pagination issues, content with only one paragraph, and pages based on a single tag in WordPress have little or no value (i.e., thin content).

If you have a low-quality page that’s not ranking well, you might discourage search engines from indexing it. Use your robots.txt file to tell search engines what pages they should ignore. That way, Google and other search engines will give more weight to the remaining content.

Use your robots.txt file to tell search engines what pages they should ignore, says @mikeonlinecoach via @cmicontent. #SEO Click To Tweet

16. Listen to voice search trends

It’s hard to ignore the impact of voice search, especially since more than 1.6 billion voice assistants are expected to be in use through smartphones and smart speakers like Google Home, Amazon Alexa, and Apple Siri by 2022. And a PwC study found that 71% of U.S. adults would rather use a voice assistant than type something online. Based on your technology and content, your website already may be among some voice-related search results that the assistants announce. A Backlinko study of 10,000 results from Google Home identified several factors, including:

  • 70.4% of results secured with HTTPS
  • Average word count was 2,312 words
  • 75% of voice search results were among the top three positions for the search query
  • 40.7% come from a featured snippet
75% of voice search results were among the top three positions for the search query via @backlinko. #study #SEO Click To Tweet

These results indicate you should ensure that your site is secure, develop long-form content, and strive to provide answers that are included in featured snippets.

17. Remember that websites with SEO flaws still perform well

Large businesses sometimes seem to ignore SEO basics and still rank well even when they have limited text on pages, don’t name their images correctly, and earn failing grades with page load speed. Sure, they could probably address those items. But it’s always a judgment call on where to devote resources. You don’t have to perfect every SEO best practice. Pick the improvements that will best serve your SEO.

If you know internal links could be better, work on that over time. If you want more effective meta descriptions to draw visitors in, use best practices moving forward. You can always refine old pages as time allows.

If you’re going to update those image file names and write alt text, identify pages that are close to ranking well. But remember, image optimization is small stuff compared to getting quality links or building relevant content, which can raise your domain and page authority.

For example, Home Depot gets an F with the GTmetrix page-speed analysis tool, but it ranks No. 1 on Google for tons of keyword phrases.

And here’s another example. Northern Tool has top Google rankings, but it doesn’t name images with keywords. The image name for this welder/generator is: 42542_2000x2000.jpg.

How are they pulling off those top rankings even though they haven’t optimized for all the ranking factors? I think it’s because of their domain authority, which is affected in large part by backlinks. Home Depot’s score is 91 and Northern Tool has a respectable 68. Small businesses struggle with domain authority. In 2020, I analyzed 200 of them in and SEO study and found that 69% had scores in the 1-20 range.

18. Pay attention to some of the small stuff

It’s been 13 years since Google suggested it tracks more than 200 ranking signals. Whether the total is 200 or 10,000 today, every indicator can’t matter as much as all the rest. [If you want to comb through the nitty-gritty, check out Brian Dean’s comprehensive set at Backlinko: Google’s 200 Ranking Factors: The Complete List (2019).] Here are some examples of minor ranking variables worth your attention as you build content and measure metrics:

  • Outbound links
  • Bullets and numbered lists that provide a good user experience
  • Regular website updates
  • Grammar
  • Internal link titles
  • Dwell time (how long a visitor stays on a page after conducting a search)

19. Avoid one-and-done syndrome

Have you ever gone all in and optimized a page of content and moved on without ever looking back? Regretfully, I have. It’s foolish – to an extent. You can’t review everything, but you should have a mindset that values data like rankings and natural search engine traffic and conversions. When you review the data, look for opportunities to take another stab at existing content by making a few changes. Add a compelling graphic with some key facts to hold the visitor’s attention. I’m convinced that engagement is a ranking factor worth some of your time. Revisit a page content header and tweak it to land some more top 10 keyword rankings.

20. Pay attention to your industry

Some of Google’s algorithm changes, including the Medic Update of 2018, seem to affect some industries more than others. That’s why it’s helpful to track your site’s rankings as well as your direct competitors and other leading websites in your business sector.

Though you won’t know precisely what Google changes, you can monitor when your rankings improve or drop significantly and see if it could be an industry trend.

Optimize in 2020

Ranking factors will continue to fluctuate. To succeed, you should have a strong foundation with sound website design and play to your strengths. You also should identify three or so variables that your company can tackle within the resources available this year.

Do you have considerable content you can update? Can you create new pages and nail the SEO elements? How effective are you at building backlinks from quality websites?

Where you focus your time will make all the difference.

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Get the latest on the tech side of SEO and other content marketing skills at ContentTECH Summit in August in San Diego. Register today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Mike Murray

Mike Murray has shaped online marketing strategies for hundreds of businesses since 1997, including Fortune 500 companies. A former journalist, he has led SEO studies and spoken at regional and national Internet conferences, including Content Marketing World. Founder of Online Marketing Coach, Mike is passionate about helping clients identify their best opportunities for online marketing success based on their strengths, his advice and industry trends. You can find him on Twitter @mikeonlinecoach.

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