What do think has the biggest effect on SEO today (bounce rate, time on site, UI, content, links, other) ? How do you attempt to reverse engineer the top ranking competitors ? Do you actively try to reverse engineer SERP results ?

2012 search engine ranking factors

Will Critchlow, Distilled

Links clearly still play a huge role. We do our own testing and research as well as reading voraciously for new ideas to verify.

On a personal note, I'm finding myself more and more often clicking on a personalised result halfway down the page that has been shared by someone in my network and has their face next to it. I can't help but feel that this is going to become a bigger and bigger influence. I'm more bullish on this kind of factor than the direct ranking factor effect of social shares in the next 6-12 months.

Grant Whiteside, Amber Green

Google and their drive to make more money out of PPC has the biggest effect on SEO conversions, they didn’t spend millions unless they were going to get billions out of it.

How do you attempt to reverse engineer the top ranking competitors ? Do you actively try to reverse engineer SERP results ? We do use tools that measure link value and rate of growth and quality. We also measure our clients’ competitors on site activity and their social signals.

Adam Melson, SEER Interactive

For me it comes down to content & links. You can have the best links in the world, but if your title tag is just your company name & it's all images on your homepage, you're probably going to have trouble ranking. If you have the best content, most thorough resources and a website that's easy to use, but no links, you're sitting on top of oil without any way to get to it.

Yes, there are numerous factors we care most about, but the ones we can control the most are making sure the website is optimized to rank well for keywords that will convert into sales AND knowing how to build quality links that will drive crucial link juice to the site.

As far as reverse engineering top rankings &finding out how competitors are ranking well, OF COURSE we want to know that. We have our processes that will improve client sites, but putting a campaign on a cookie cutter setting and letting it ride is irresponsible.

We'll identify some ways the top competitors are getting rankings. Many times, we'll show clients how other companies are using less than above board tactics to rank well. We'll also have a "we won't do that, but here's how we think we can stay above board while still aggressively get results."

It might be a week, it might be three years, but eventually we know there's a good chance Google will figure out how they're being had, make an algorithm tweak, competitors using shady tactics will go away and we'll eat their lunch for a long, long time.

Hamlet Batista

For small sites the biggest effect remains how many quality mentions (links) they get. For big sites, the biggest effect is on addressing site architecture issues.

Jane Copland, Ayima

Undoubtedly, backlink profiles are still the most important ranking factor, even though all the things listed here matter to varying degrees. We’ve got a way to go before links aren’t important. There is absolutely no way to rank for highly competitive terms without a good backlink profile.

Can a mediocre site still rank with links? Yes, it can. Can a brilliant site rank with no links? The answer to that is still no for competitive terms.

Neil Walker, SEO Mad

Personally it still all about off page optimisation, and I label it as off page and not just links as the web is becoming more sociable and this has just created a medium to gain links quicker and easier. But it is not just a simple case of getting links you can rank a site with 50 great link which takes another site hundreds and brand influence on link building is huge. We of course reverse engineer SERP results to an extent as this helps us to understand how to predict or forecast SEO a very difficult thing which with the steady updates means that the research keeps changing.

Paul Rogers, GPMD

I still firmly believe that links are the biggest ranking factor, especially when you're going up against hundreds of other well optimised websites. A diverse link profile with lots of great links from relevant websites and resources will give you an edge over your competitors. I also think that creative linkbait strategies and being pro-active in engaging with the people in your industry are key in keeping up with the pioneers within your market.

Neil Pursey, Web Growth

We are still a fan of content generation, when producing quality content traffic increases. This results in conversation on the website producing user generated content and organic back links seem to happen organically. The on-page structures and optimisation will also help your rankings, provided you have a competitive incoming link profile.

Steve Lock, Analyticsseo (iseo)

The biggest effect on SEO still relates to links, with a relatively SEO friendly site and well optimised on page SEO as a foundation.

The most important factors are anchor text, diversity in referring domains / IP addresses / subnets (not just raw numbers of links), the authority of both the referring page and domain (do linking pages / sites rank well for relevant terms to the keywords you are targeting?), the types of links, along with semantic factors such as footer / sidebar / body copy (i.e. reasonable surfer patent); these are all strong signals.

Domain age and exact match domains have also historically been strong, but are becoming less important factors. Giving off strong brand signals and having natural link profiles with lots of branded anchor links is also wise.

Google is predominantly still a link-based search engine. However, I believe the ranking factors are becoming much more diverse and elements such as social signals and machine learning are causing SERP results to correlate in a far less predictable way than, say, two years ago. As a result, time spent trying to reverse engineer SERP results, often is better spent on building the right content, building links, targeting the right keywords and focusing on making websites convert and perform which should ultimately be more effective exercises.

With SEO it’s easy to get distracted with research and procrastination through over analysing things. It’s a difficult balance to get right, but this is why it’s so important to focus on actionable data and a small number of KPIs!

Despite preferring to spend time on implementation, I will be scheduling more time in 2012 to research ranking factors as testing / monitoring the SERP's first hand is still important.

Nickolass Jensen

Backlinks from trustworthy sources with the right mix of anchortext is key.

But lowlife linkschemes via Twitter and sociale media networks still pollutes the SERPs in Local SERP. I try not to reverse engineer this but put my faith in Google here, that they will find out and punish the wrongdoers.

Peter Handley, The Media Flow

Some of my most successful campaigns so far this year have come about from getting the on page work dialled properly. These were sites that had the benefit of a lot of authority in the search engines prior to me working on them, so links play an important part, but getting the localised targeting of titles, descriptions, headings on page, and slight content tweaks has had some really powerful effects for me in 2011. I think however, that it is particularly difficult to isolate any one factor as the most important one, as to be successful at SEO you need to seek optimal performance, meaning that you need to account for all of these things and maximise your potential in as many areas as possible. Sometimes you have to make compromises too, but you want to improve things for your users and search engines alike for the best results.

In the past, when reviewing some competitors, I’ve suffered from Analysis Paralysis – collecting and looking at so much data that you lose sight of the bigger picture. Typically, whilst reviewing competitors for ideas can inspire you, I prefer to spend my time looking at what you can do to add value on the sites that you are actually working on. I’m experienced enough to have a feel for identifying a lot of what needs doing on a website pretty quickly now, and my instincts for sniffing out what works for people from looking at a competitor usually identifies it quickly.

Barry Schwartz, Rusty Brick/ SMX

I think the biggest SEO factor today is still around linkage data and on page content. Yes, new factors are increasingly important, like social factors, site speed, and soon position of content on the page. But still, it is about links and content.

Sam Crocker, samuelcrocker.com

I still think links are the most important offsite factor (though I definitely think +1 will become increasingly valuable) and I think doing the basics well onsite has a massive impact onsite.

I do tend to look at individual SERPs and what the ranking sites in this space are doing but as bounce rate begins to have a bigger impact (which I believe it has) and personalization becomes more visible I think this is going to be increasingly difficult.

Speaking strictly about SEO I don’t see things changing massively in terms of the things that you should get right at a minimum… and there will always be something new and creative to then try and use on top of that.

Again, this is where I find the SSL conundrum difficult for “white hat” SEOs and webmasters that care about their users. If my end goal is to rank for terms that will help generate happy customers and I can’t see which terms convert well and which don’t (excluding PPC here) it makes it hard for me to try and keep the customer/user happy and I can only work with averages and volumes. I’d personally like to be closer to the customer than that.

Shaun Anderson, Hobo-web

The biggest effect on seo is how Google classifies your site. If you are an affiliate, doorway page, scraper site ,aggregator or a site full of similar content sometimes the best link building in the world won't get you anywhere for a long time.

If your main intent is monetisation without offering anything of value, with low quality sites – Google has you in their sights. On the SERP front – Google is FRESH AS A DAISEY these days – making it all the more valuable to publish lots of content if your site has a bit of Google trust already.

Tom Critchlow, Distilled

So despite it being 2012 and Panda etc, links are still by far and away the most valuable thing for rankings. I think building a phenomenal UI is a close second though – not necessarily for it’s direct effect but it will lead to more social shares, better time on site etc etc.

Dixon Jones, Majestic SEO

I dislike the “SEO Ranking Factors” survey as a general methodology, because almost every “factor” depends on other factors peculiar to the unique situation.

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