Over the last four to five years, we have seen major changes in the SEO landscape; changes which have altered the way we think about SEO strategy and what it actually means to do SEO.

Google has rolled out algorithms designed to crush low-quality results and Google’s web spam team has been in full force taking action against websites that breach their quality guidelines. Due to this; old, manipulative tactics no longer work and signals that were previously very powerful have lost their influence.

Anchor text in times gone by has been the ultimate ranking signal; with enough anchor text, you could own search results pages. Link quality wasn’t even considered, as long as the right anchor text was being used, results could be manipulated. You didn’t have to worry about user signals, the quality of your website or a content strategy; you just filled your page with keywords and built lots of links with anchor text and it worked, you ranked!

Fortunately, we saw anchor text signals beginning to diminish in 2010, it was on a very small scale, but we noticed that profiles which had heavily-optimised anchor text were slowly beginning to lose rankings.

Then came a string of updates from Google that would rock the SEO industry:

  • Feb 2011: Google Panda rolls out, devaluing websites that had low-quality content and added no value.
  • April 2012: Google Penguin wipes out thousands of websites that are riddled with link spam.

These algorithms have continued to be refined and have affected businesses of all sizes. On top of this, Google has been manually reviewing websites and handing out manual actions to websites which have completely ignored its quality guidelines.

This left many SEOs in a state of panic; if links had to be natural, anchor text was a symbol of manipulation and keyword stuffed content wasn’t good enough; what were they going to do to deliver results?

A change in focus…

As previously mentioned, we spotted the demise of links and anchor text early and we’ve been testing different techniques across our own sites and working with many clients to adapt their strategies to the new landscape.

Towards the end of last year, we began to see some really interesting results when implementing content strategies for clients. As we added content to our clients websites which genuinely aimed to inform and answer user questions, we naturally saw website engagement increase and more long-tail traffic being delivered. However, what we also saw was significant lifts in traffic across the board due to greater visibility on all keywords, including the highly competitive core terms.

So, for the sake of clarity; no investment in links, no anchor text, just great content designed to answer a query helped to achieve top three rankings for some of the most competitive terms our clients wanted to rank for.

Below are some recent Searchmetrics graphs showing visibility increases for websites that have invested in becoming a better search result, rather than just building links:

Searchmetrics - audience engagement 1

Searchmetrics - audience engagement 2

The above sites have benefited from greater visibility simply by addressing their engagement and becoming a better result for the user, this often means investing in content and ensuring users can find the answers they are looking for.

Due to numerous case studies and tests, we firmly believe that Engagement is the new ranking factor, critical to growth for your business. Without it, all the links in the world won’t save you.

We believe in this so much that at the beginning of this year, we created our new proposition around it – “Growth through engagement”.


We’ve considered pulling together a large piece of research to show the correlation between engagement and better visibility in Google, however our friends at Searchmetrics beat us to it and guess what came out as the top ranking factor? Engagement. Searchmetrics has used click-through rate and other user signals to identify engagement and in their results, it has the highest correlation with top rankings.

Ranking factors

We carry out our own tests, however this only goes to back-up our thinking; if you’re not the right result, Google will identify this through your engagement levels.

What do we mean by ‘Engagement’?

We don’t believe for a second that Google is spying on your website via Analytics or Chrome, however we do believe that Google is very interested in users that click on your result and how long it takes for them to come back and refine their search or select another result, “return to search”. We know Bing is using this to test results too, they refer to it as “dwell time”.

Ultimately, if you rank for a given keyword and a user doesn’t find what they want, the user will bounce without engaging with your website. If your website is slow, the user will give up, or if your web design is poor, the user won’t go any further. All of these signals are negative, however if you can turn them around, they can have a profound result on your search visibility.

It just makes sense

Any one keyword could drive traffic looking for multiple answers; therefore, if your content is only catering to a small percentage of those users, you are never going to have great engagement levels.

Moving forwards, brands need to consider not only conversions as an intention, but also what other information a user could be looking for. Not every searcher is ready to transact, regardless of what search query they use.

This is the real reason why content is so important, not because it’s a tool to optimise for keywords, but because it is a means of providing a comprehensive answer to a query and that’s the experience Google is looking to provide for users.

Brands need to change their strategies in light of this new landscape and start thinking not about keywords that convert, but the users behind those keyword and the information they are really looking to access. Get this right and you’ll be able to drive significant increases in search visibility as you begin to engage the audience rather than trying to optimise for Google.

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