On-Page SEO in 2016: 6 Findings in Ahrefs’s 2M Keyword Analysis

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By Jacob Maslow

On-page search engine optimization is typically a major cog in the entire sphere of an SEO campaign. The right keywords, placed strategically on a website held a lot of clout with Google and helped the search engine better decipher what a website or page was all about.

It makes perfect logical sense, and 10 out of 10 SEO experts would agree that on-page SEO is a practical approach for any website owner to consider.

But a new post from ahrefs’s blog called On Page SEO in 2016: A (2M Keyword) Data Driven Analysis points to some startling data that every search engine optimization specialist needs to consider going forward.

Pages Rank on the Front Page of Google Without The Exact Keyword

You search a query and find a slew of websites to choose from on the first page of Google. Analyzing these sites in an attempt to recreate their SEO strategy or find holes in their on-page SEO that can be improved, they came to a revelation: the keyword doesn’t appear on the page at all.

“Blue widgets” may be the exact keyword in question, and while widgets are discussed and the word “blue” may or may not be present, you’re left scratching your head wondering what’s going on.

There was a time when a keyword in the title and text meant a lot – and they may still be important – but Google has gotten a lot smarter.

The truth is that Google can now decipher text and keywords that users may type in that correlate to the text, but may not actually be present in their entirety. Google has been forthright in its efforts to get smarter. Just look at:

Sure, nothing is perfect, and many of these algorithms are still in their infancy, but that doesn’t mean they’re not implemented and working very well for some queries.

What ahref has done is look into the semantic search of Google, and used a large data point of 2 million queries to really get a clearer picture of what on-page SEO looks like in 2016. Many pages are ranking for keywords despite not using the exact match keyword because they’re more relevant than the competition – period.

Strategic Placement of Exact Match Keywords

Google rankings may still be somewhat mysterious, as we don’t know the exact weight of all the ranking signals or even what all of the ranking signals are comprised of. But SEO experts can be sure of a few of the methods that worked well for exact match keywords – trial and error has taught us a lot.

A lot of factors were examined in the original article, including:

  • Keyword in Domain Name: The keyword in the domain name was a major part of SEO before the EMD update came around. What was found was that a keyword in a domain name does provide some help in the SERPs, but it’s not a drastic one.
  • Keyword in URL: Google’s John Mueller has been quoted as saying the keyword in the URL of the site is a “very small ranking factor.” The results showed a negative correlation when listing a keyword in the URL.
  • Keyword in Title: “Put the keyword in the title” is a mantra most SEOs follow, but as the study showed: partial keywords can be used, too. Exact keywords probably don’t help you rank any better, and more of an emphasis on a catchy title may be more beneficial.
  • Keyword in Meta Description: There is no correlation when considering keyword in meta descriptions and Google rankings. Many sites excluded meta descriptions.
  • Keyword in Headlines: Placing your keyword in header tags (H1) doesn’t seem to do much aside from user experience. Approximately 85% of the sites scanned didn’t have an exact match keyword in their header tags, and 70% didn’t use an H1 tag at all. A staggering 93% didn’t have their keyword in an H2 tag.
  • Keyword in Content: A metric that really surpassed expectations is that 75% of pages in the top 10 didn’t have an exact match keyword anywhere in their content.

It may have taken awhile, but Google has finally figured out how to overcome keyword stuffing and “best practices” to the point where exact match keywords aren’t even a necessity in most cases. This makes the job of an SEO filled with fewer intricacies, and the focus still remains on the user – not the search engine. If you’re using headers (and I recommend you do), use them for user experience rather than rankings.

If the headline should include the keyword to make the content easier to scan, then add it.

On-page Factors Not Including Exact Match Keywords

Sure, there are a lot of factors aside from keyword optimization that are included in a site’s overall ranking. These on-page factors include:

  • Age of Page – A strong correlation to rankings.
  • HTTPS – Nearly 80% of sites ranking #1 didn’t use HTTPS, but secure pages often rank in the top 1 – 3 spots more often than in the bottom 6 positions.
  • Page Speeds – A small correlation to rankings, unless a site is very slow.
  • Content Length – The length of the content does matter somewhat, but the top position had roughly 800 words for most queries not the 1,500 words needed for long-form content. Great content outperforms longer, irrelevant content.
  • URL Length – Shorter URLS tend to do better.
  • Link to Authority Sites – A very minimal correlation to higher rankings.

Social shares had minimal impacts, and broken links didn’t harm a site.

Absorbing all of this should tell you a few things: listen to Google. Create content naturally without a focus on SEO, and create content for the user. It seems cliche, and maybe it is, but Google is working towards the best user experience without a main focus on keyword matching.

A tidbit that was found with exact match keywords was when the keyword was used on a site with no links or external factors to influence it. In this case, on-page factors take more of a prominence to help the search engine determine the ranking of a page or domain.

And if you’re jumping to get links at this point, put on the brakes for just a second. Relevance, also outperformed links in the study. When all things are even, links will obviously push a site above the competition and solidify a higher ranking as a result.

Summing everything up: user experience and relevance are key, while keyword optimization is far less important than other on-page factors in Google 2016.

Jacob Maslow is a regular writer and has over 10 years of SEO experience.

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