Last week, I had a chance to attend SMX Advanced in Seattle, Washington. It was great getting to chat with and listen to amazing professionals in the search engine marketing space. Overall, the speakers put a huge emphasis on the factors that are still relevant and can impact SEO campaigns. Confirming these factors were industry experts like Marcus Tober, Leslie To, Eric Enge, Jennifer Slegg, Jenny Halasz, and Ruth Burr.

In one form or another, the top factors that impact SEO are content, links, and RankBrain (Google’s A.I. algorithm enhancement).

Presenters used real examples, tests, and lots of data to support these “top ranking factor” claims. Some experts looked through websites to see how user interaction with content affects ranking. Others reviewed millions of queries and results for common site trends.

Below, we will dive into the reasons why these factors still make sense and some of the suggested tips for each ranking factor.

Content Conquers All

This ranking factor is pretty obvious if you have ever heard of SEO or search engine marketing in general. Content is the electricity that powers large machines like Google—with users controlling the machine.

Speakers put a large emphasis on creating unique and useful content with an even larger emphasis on the usability of your content. The consistent recommendation—though not necessarily new—was to expand the types of content you actually produce.

Experts heavily recommend videos, pictures, infographics, and similar mediums across the board, not just for their uniqueness but because users prefer them. With YouTube being the second largest search engine in the world, it is evident that people are looking for new and easy-to-digest forms of content.

This newfound need for more and different content reveals another aspect of user behavior: frankly, your customers want to be part of the conversation. Social media supports this desire in a big way, but your content can support the same interaction with a little bit of creativity.

In short, don’t just push your content to users. Make them part of your content!

Long Live Links

Over and over again, speakers touted the importance of links. Many experts reaffirmed the need for others to share your content and link to it. Just like content, links are not a new factor; however, industry opinion has changed in regards to how you can and should acquire links.

With the release of Penguin, many have speculated that “SEO (link building) is dead.” However, many of the industry’s experts explained that Penguin only strengthened the need for links. Sure, the days when four random links could give you an enormous amount of power are long gone. While those four random links will still provide value, they don’t have the same punch they once had.

You should now focus more on relevance when it comes to acquiring links for your website.

When you gain a new link from an external website, the content and even the site as a whole need to be relevant to your website. Without this relevance, the link loses most of its benefit outside of potential traffic.

This principle further reinforces for SEOs and website owners that link outreach and link building are a must. Simply expecting your content to get links is not enough to get the exposure and authority you need for optimal rankings.

You can expect this trend to grow in the coming years as long as links still have an impact on rankings.

Understanding the Realm of RankBrain

As one of the newest factors on the massive list of ranking factors, RankBrain is a truly mysterious beast for everyone in the online marketing space. Google’s own Gary Illyes had a hard time defining its exact nature and impact within Google’s ranking algorithm:

Just as a brief overview of what RankBrain is and how it’s used, Google’s RankBrain is a supervised artificial intelligence that has been set loose onto Google’s speculative [not common] queries in hopes that it can better understand a user’s intent and needs. With this unique understanding of who is asking a question and why, Google themselves can provide a better answer for users.

Over and over again, SMX Advanced attendees wanted to know what RankBrain actually did. Experts who tested RankBrain and even the search engineers themselves came back with the same basic answer every time. RankBrain provides a unique view on the parts of a given query that Google should consider more necessary.

Experts demonstrated RankBrain’s function by viewing different factors being more important by industry and even within a specific query itself. As an example, Google originally answered the search “how to complete super Mario brothers without a video tutorial” with many video tutorials despite the fact that the searcher clearly didn’t want a video.

When Google initially answered this query, it didn’t take the word “without” into consideration. However, if you test the same search with RankBrain, the search engine results returned many text tutorials without any video results.

So the question still remains: what does RankBrain mean for you and your site?

The answer is “it depends.” Trying to define RankBrain is like answering a question with a question. You are home free if you have a good understanding of who your audience is and what they like to see.

However, if you are unsure or don’t have a solid idea of who your audience is, then you will need to give it more time and examine the SERPs (search engine results pages) for the keywords you are targeting. Over time, the results will begin to reflect what RankBrain has determined is best for your potential users, whether those results are text, videos, links, pictures, etc.

The Quest Continues

When it comes to ranking on Google, the landscape never stays the same. However, you can’t knock what works. Content and other factors still create a necessary doorway for users to see you and your website.

Links still provide a prominent signal for search engines to trust and promote your content. With newer factors like RankBrain, the exact impact and needs have yet to be identified. Such a changing landscape can cause one to wonder whether we will ever know the exact impact of a site and its rankings.

I noticed an underlying theme as all the speakers brought up these factors at SMX Advanced. They encouraged the use of common sense. Don’t force what is probably not going to work. Use what insight you already have about your audience, and then test, produce content, and connect with the audience.

If you can get into a mode of repeating this common sense method, you and your website will continue to see success, regardless of any changes within Google’s ranking algorithm.



Colton is the former Director of SEO Strategy at Boostability testing and defining the products and processes that make Boostability's customers successful. He was part of Boostability for over 8 years. Colton loves hanging out with his family and gaming. He runs a personal blog over at where he discusses gaming, life, and SEO.