Imagine the results you could achieve if you knew the Google search algorithm.
Just think of the organic traffic you could drive to your site if you knew exactly what Google was taking into account when generating search engine results, the precise amount each factor plays on rankings, and precisely what it would take to get to the top.
But of course, Google would never let you see behind the curtain. Not only could a bad actor use this information for nefarious purposes, but it would take all the fun out of search engine optimization.
So instead, every time there’s a new algorithm update, it’s up to us to figure out what exactly has changed and how to best leverage this to our advantage.
And because we in the search engine optimization world are a community, we tend to figure these things out collectively.
And because there are no (or very few, anyway) absolute answers, a lot of optimization comes down to best practices, theories, and outright guesswork.
Luckily, there’s a great way to determine if these theories are based on reality or just sheer conjecture. Of course, we’re talking about experimentation.
(Insert mad scientist laugh here.)
Before you get carried away and rush to put on your safety goggles and lab coats, relax. No bubbling beakers full of mystery liquids are involved, and your risk of accidentally creating a monster is very low.
(I would say zero, but I’ve seen the “Terminator” series, and it never explicitly says that a search engine optimizer didn’t create Skynet, so let’s play it safe.)
All your SEO experiments can be done from your desk chair’s comfort (and safety).
But before we dive into those, let’s first talk about how to test your SEO.
Steps For A Successful SEO Experiment
Thankfully, we don’t have to develop an entirely new framework for devising, conducting, and measuring our SEO tests – we can repurpose the scientific method you’re probably already familiar with.
Been a while since high school chemistry? Don’t worry; these five steps are sure to sound familiar:
- Make an observation. (E.g., my site is not on the first page of Google search results.)
- Ask a question and form a hypothesis. Is my meta description optimized for ranking? If I write better meta descriptions, it will improve my ranking.
- Gather data. Upon changing these descriptions, track the change in ranking position and site visits.
- Analyze the data. Create tables, graphs, and diagrams to help you understand the link between what was changed and changing results.
- Draw conclusions. Does the evidence support your prediction? Why or why not? Was site traffic increased due to your new meta descriptions, or did you also receive national news coverage during your testing period?)
You’ll want to do what marketers call A/B testing for accurate results. This means creating two versions of the same page, with only one difference, so you can see which gets the better response.
Before you start, keep one thing in mind: Incremental changes are essential. If you go wild and change all of these at once, you’ll have no idea which one(s) is making a difference.
Play it slowly and be patient. Test one, then wait for the results before moving on to the next. This will give you an obvious idea of what you need to do moving forward to ensure you’re always claiming front-page real estate.
With that out of the way, here’s a look at eight different things you can test to improve the ranking of your site:
1. SEO Title
Have you ever written what you thought was an amazing page title, only for Google to rewrite it in search results? That usually happens when the search engine doesn’t feel like your title was a good reflection of the page’s content.
But you can change this anytime you like.
And even if Google does replace the one you created, Google’s John Mueller confirmed the original title is still used for ranking purposes. This means even if you’re getting your SEO titles changed, it’s still a good idea to try to optimize them.
Here are a few things you can test to see if they generate results:
- Include your target keyword.
- Change their length (shorter is not always better).
- Experiment with brand name positioning or remove it altogether.
- Get click-baity (e.g., Do you want to lose 20 lbs. fast?).
- Add published date to demonstrate information relevancy.
- Get creative (people love what’s new and whimsical).
2. SEO Meta Description
Now, wait just a minute – you’re probably saying right now – Search Engine Journal has been clear that Google hasn’t used meta description in its rankings since sometime between 1999 and 2004.
Put down your pitchforks. Just because they aren’t a direct factor in SERPs doesn’t mean meta descriptions aren’t an essential SEO element.
For example, they can help improve your click-through rate, compel searchers, generate brand exposure, and help differentiate you from the competition. And all of these impact user behavior, which is a signal that Google factors in.
There have been entire articles written about creating awesome meta descriptions. But for our purposes, here are a few things you can A/B test to see if you can improve your organic traffic:
- Try different lengths. Traditional SEO wisdom suggests character count between 156-165 – see what works for you.
- Add keywords.
- Change your tone. Generally speaking, your style should match your brand’s voice, but for a specific page, maybe this isn’t the case.
- Get specific – are you getting a lot of visits from one long-tail keyword? Add that to your meta description.
3. Internal Anchor Text
You may know anchor text as the visible, clickable (usually blue) text in a hyperlink like this.
Not only is this useful for giving additional context to users, but Google has confirmed: Anchor text helps it better understand a page’s content, allowing it to rank those pages for relevant searches.
For example, in the paragraph above, “Google has confirmed” is the anchor text attached to the target link, which directs to a link proving that confirmation.
There are several types of anchor text you can use, including those with exact or partial-match keywords, branded (Search Engine Journal), images, generic (“click here”), and naked links (https://www.searchenginejournal.com).
To experiment with the impact, internal anchor text can have on your organic traffic. You can try things like:
- Changing their length (though shorter is often better).
- Adding keywords, particularly low-density keywords.
- Increasing specificity.
- Changing them to be more target link-specific.
4. Schema Markup
Schema markup is a type of structured data used by Google and other search engines.
Following guidelines established by Schema.org, it is essentially a lingua franca for search engines. It’s an established standard that uses a unique vocabulary to help search engines more clearly understand your content.
It’s used to create rich snippets for adding information about events, recipes, people, videos, reviews, and products, among other things. These, in turn, make your link appear more prominent in SERPs.
And while schema is not directly factored into your ranking score, like SEO title, it can improve your click-through rate and impact your user behavior scores.
Experiment with adding schema markup to your pages and see if it improves your results.
A picture is worth a thousand words – everyone knows that. This is because humans are visual creatures. And web designers and SEO professionals have recognized the importance of including images on webpages for a long time.
And it’s not just because they add visual interest and grab attention; they can also improve your search ranking.
Original (not stock), high-quality images optimized for SEO can reap the rewards.
Here are some things you can try with your images to improve your traffic:
- Add images. You should add images to every page. No one wants to read a wall of text.
- Choose a different file name. You want to immediately make it clear to Google what your image is depicting. Try adding your keywords.
- Change your formatting. There is no one-size-fits-all for digital images. You may want to change your file type depending on your image needs. JPEGs are good for larger photos. PNG files preserve background transparency.
- Compress files when possible. In general, smaller files are always better.
- Ensure responsiveness. With mobile search being such an essential factor in modern SEO, you want to ensure your images always look great on phones and desktops.
- Add alt text if the image can’t be displayed for some reason.
Your headlines and subheads give your page structure. This makes it easier for humans to browse and for search engines to understand what each section is about.
Google’s John Mueller was very clear about this, emphasizing the presence of any headings, not just H1s, sends a strong signal about the page’s content. It would be best if you took special care with all your H tags, from H1 down to H6. This is because they also serve as an accessibility aid and navigational tool in addition to their structural benefits.
Once upon a time, your headers were a massive factor in your ranking. But then, like always, people abused them, and Google started cracking down on keyword stuffing, overuse, and other dirty heading tricks.
That said, while they are far from the only factor Google takes into account, there is no question they are essential.
Here are a few things you can play with to try and improve your SEO results:
- Add more headings (except H1s). Improve the structure and clarity of your content by adding more subheads.
- Try using them to break up blocks of text. No one likes massive text blocks. H2s, H3s, etc., are the perfect solution.
- Add keywords. Like nearly everything else we’ve discussed, you should experiment with the use of keywords in your headings.
- Optimize for featured snippets. Grab attention and draw new traffic by claiming those special boxes on search results. Write your headers to land these.
- Get creative. Try making your headings and subheads more interesting.
7. Word Count
You already know content is the essential thing in any SEO strategy. But you may not have thought much about how the number of words you use can impact your ranking and traffic.
While you shouldn’t expect word count to push you over the top and take you from page six to the top result, it can help define your site as relevant and valuable to a search query – and draw in readers.
What do we mean by this? Again, it’s not a direct ranking factor, according to John Mueller.
With that said, longer-form copy tends to rank higher. This is because using more words provides Google with more information on what your page is about.
And if these longer pieces are well-written (like the one you’re reading in the author’s ever-so-humble opinion), they’ll help establish you as an authority on the topic.
And experimentation is easy. Take one of your existing articles or blog posts and duplicate it. On the second one, expound at greater length upon your topic.
Please note, we’re not talking about using your word count tricks from college (e.g., “at a later date” instead of just “later”). Instead, you should expand on ideas and topics, add examples and cite additional sources.
Then, see which one performs better on search engines. Chances are, it will be the longer one.
Read this piece for more on using word count for SEO optimization.
Some SEO experts will swear URLs with keywords perform better than generic ones. Is this the case?
Well, yes and no.
On the one hand, Google has confirmed when it performs its initial crawl of a site, keywords in URLs help it understand what the site is about.
However, as this is only factored in when a new site is crawled, its role in an ongoing SEO strategy is minimal.
But again, this doesn’t mean you can’t use them to your advantage. Clear URLs create a better user experience and can be used as naked anchor tags much more accessible than one with 75 random numbers and letters tacked on at the end.
Experiment with your URLs. Take some of your old, non-descriptive links and add keywords to them. Shorten long URLs.
If you’re worried about losing links from the old page, add a 301-redirect pointing to the new one.
Don’t Be Afraid To Try Something New
Search engine optimization is a constantly shifting landscape. Changing trends can change how people interact with your website.
As algorithms change and new technologies emerge, your strategy needs to evolve.
There has never been, and probably never will be, “set it and forget it” search engine optimization. It will always require forward-thinkers and people willing to experiment to find new ways to get their websites to the top of the rankings.
Who says you can’t be one of them? Someone had to be the first to figure out that keyword stuffing helped rankings, and someone else had to figure out when it stopped working.
If you’re willing to experiment and try new things, you may find the next brilliant new strategy. Just don’t forget to share it with us.
Featured Image: Tatyana Vyc/Shutterstock