And besides, we've all noticed that pages often rank on the front page of Google without even having the target keyword mentioned anywhere in their content.
So does this mean you should no longer worry about optimizing your page for a specific keyword and just let Google figure out what your page is all about?
Well, we have studied the correlations of different on page SEO factors with Google rankings across 2 Million random keyword searches and even though correlation is not causation, the takeaways are very interesting in a lot of cases.
What is “On Page SEO”?
“On page SEO” refers to a set of web page optimization best practices that you can apply to the pages of your website in order to improve their ranking in search engine results.
The majority of on page SEO advice that can be seen around the web revolves around using the exact match keyword that you want to rank for in a few "strategic" places of your page: Title, H1, meta description, content etc.
But this kind of advice is actually outdated, because in 2016 Google is sophisticated enough to understand synonyms (and overall relevance of the page), meaning you no longer have to obsess about exact match keyword usage.
When people who are fairly new to SEO are picking a keyword to rank for, they might look at the SERP and see that none of the top10 pages has a "perfect" on page SEO for this exact keyword:
Isn't this a great opportunity to rank with their own "perfectly optimized" page?
I'm afraid it's not.
The fact that these pages don't have your exact match keyword in a bunch of "strategic" places, doesn't mean that they are not relevant to the search query.
According to our data, the usage of exact match keyword in Title, URL, H1 or even within the actual content of the page doesn't have a significant correlation with Google rankings.
If we were to study "partial match" keyword usage, synonyms and "LSI keywords" (which we're about to) - the results would most likely be different.
But "on page SEO" doesn't end with using the keyword you want to rank for in the content of your page, right?
It also implies quite a few "general" optimizations that should make your page better in the eyes of search engines (and searchers), such as:
- page load speed;
- usage of https;
- length of your content;
- outgoing links to quality sites;
So let's take a look at the correlations of all these on page SEO factors and compare them to backlink factors:
How "On Page SEO" Factors Correlate With Google Rank
At this point I'd like to mention one more time that correlation is not causation.
These correlations show you the common traits of the pages that tend to rank well, but they do not necessarily imply that these pages rank well because of these traits.
Correlation is measured on a scale from -1 to 1 with "0" meaning "no correlation at all". And as you can see, all the most popular on page SEO factors that we studied hardly reach 0.1 mark.
You can clearly see that on page SEO factors that revolve around using an exact match keyword in "strategic" places of your page showed a very small correlation.
Another interesting graph would be this one:
Such a huge difference in correlations suggests that backlinks have much more influence on your page's rankings than usage of exact match keyword in the copy.
But even though our research data suggests that usage of exact match keyword on your page has a very low correlation with Google rankings, this doesn’t mean that you should completely refrain from using it.
So let’s look at each on page factor one by one and discuss if you should or should not care about it.
For most of the below experiments we tried to exclude the influence of backlinks by focusing on SERPs where top 10 ranking pages had similar DR and UR (the standard deviation is less than 30% of their Average value).
For each of the experiments we calculated 4 correlations:
- Across all keywords;
- High-volume keywords only (50k+ searches per month);
- Medium-volume keywords only (20k-50k searches per month;)
- Low-volume keywords only (less than 20k searches per month).
If you have any questions about the methodology behind any of the below experiments - just post them in the comments section at the end of this article (or tweet me @timsoulo).
Usage of Exact Match Keyword
First of all let's look at how using the exact match keyword in a few “strategic” places of your page correlates with Google rankings.
TL;DR: all our experiments with exact match keyword usage in different places of a page(code) showed a very small correlation with Google ranking.
1. Keyword in Domain Name
Back in 2012 Google rolled out an update that was meant to decrease the value of the so-called EMDs (Exact Match Domains).
By looking at our graph it may seem that EMDs are still in the game, because there's clearly a "jump" in position #1.
But I believe that this “jump” is caused by so-called “branded keywords”.
For example, if you search Google for “addicting games” - you’ll notice that it’s actually a brand name for a popular gaming website, which ranks #1 for the term:
The correlation of 0.0877 may seem pretty high (compared to other on page SEO factors), but if we were to re-calculate it without that #1 position I'm sure it would drop a lot.
Please also note that we didn't focus on EMDs exclusively, but counted any website that contained an exact match keyword as part of its domain name.
YES, you can!
I did just that with my WP plugin called "Content Upgrades PRO" that resides under the "contentupgradespro.com" domain name.
And it ranks quite well for the keyword "content upgrades" - apart from the fact that it can't outrank Brian Dean's article that's not even nearly optimized for this keyword (but has tons of backlinks):
Is EMD a strong ranking signal? I don't think so.
2. Keyword in URL
Interestingly, out of all “keyword-related” on page SEO factors that we’ve studied this was the only one that showed a negative correlation.
So does this mean that Google doesn't use "keyword in URL" as a ranking factor?
Well, just recently John Mueller of Google has stated the following:
I believe that is a very small ranking factor. So it is not something I'd really try to force. And it is not something I’d say it is even worth your effort to restructure your site just so you can get keywords in your URL.
#1 You can copy/paste a descriptive URL in your online conversations and people will know what your page is about before even clicking on the link:
#2 This kind of link will automatically contain your target keyword as part of the anchor text:
#3 Google will highlight the keyword that you're searching for in the URL of the search snippet:
So if you’re still using URLs that look like “mywebstore.com/?product_id=7924Gh” - you should definitely rethink that format.
But just like John Mueller has stated - I don't believe that changing your existing URLs to include a target keyword will lead to any significant increase in rankings.
3. Keyword in Title
As you can tell by looking at this graph, the vast majority of pages that rank on the front page of Google don’t have exact match keyword in their "Title" tags.
Funnily, even the #2 result for "on page SEO" doesn't have the exact match keyword in its "Title" tag:
But in this research we've only studied the effect of "exact match keyword" and omitted any partial match occurrences or synonyms.
If you scroll down that SERP you'll see that the Titles of #4 and #6 results are not "perfect" either.
So does this mean that "on page SEO" is an easy keyword to rank for if you use "exact match keyword" targeting on your page?
Not at all!
That might be a hint that Google is de-valuing the importance of having an exact match keyword in the Title.
Looks like they want searchers to actually read Titles before deciding which one to click, rather than quickly skim through to find where the exact match keyword is highlighted.
So do I recommend putting your target keyword in the Title of your page?
I'd say it depends.
You can often craft a very catchy Title without a keyword in it and still rank well:
But will using an exact match keyword in the "Title" tag of your page make it rank better?
Unless of course your page doesn't have any other content on it and the Title is the only clue that Google can get about it.
Like in this experiment by Distilled, where targeting a different keyword in the Titles and H1s of their pages actually improved search traffic.
But I'll get back to commenting on this experiment in the section about H1 tag.
4. Keyword in the beginning of the Title
I wanted to study this ranking factor in isolation, so we only looked at the SERPs where keyword was present in the Titles of all top10 pages.
And that experiment resulted in a very small positive correlation.
But I believe that using an exact match keyword at the beginning of your Title doesn't give you any significant advantage over pages that don't.
So if the Titles of the top 10 pages in a SERP don't start with a target keyword - you should not consider this as an easy ranking opportunity.
5. Keyword in Meta Description
First of all we studied how many SERPs in our data sample had the "meta description" tag filled in:
And it looks like the vast majority of pages ranking in Google top 10 don't have meta descriptions.
Which kind of implies that filling in this tag is not crucial for your rankings.
Then we took the segment of SERPs where all 10 "meta description" tags were filled in and studied if using exact match keyword within this tag correlated with rankings:
And again, over 50% of all meta descriptions don't have a target keyword in them and the correlation with Google ranking is very close to 0.
I'd say it's recommended, but not crucial for ranking well.
In most cases Google will omit your "meta description" anyway and just pull a short excerpt from the content of your page (that it thinks is the most relevant to a user's search query):
And yet, as much as I hate filling in "meta descriptions", they just have to be polished for a few core pages of your website:
All in all, I don't believe that using an exact match keyword in your "meta description" tag will improve the rankings of your page.
So you probably shouldn't take this factor into account when analyzing your chances to rank for a certain keyword.
6. Keyword in Headline (H1 tag)
Looks like 85% of pages that rank in Google top10 don't have the keyword in their H1 tags (based on our data sample).
I guess that's mainly due to improper use of H1 tags in the layout of web pages - our data has shown that over 70% of pages that rank in Google top10 don't have H1 tags on them.
Sadly most web developers are still not familiar with the basics of SEO.
YES, I do!
#1 Having a proper headline improves the user experience and the "scanability" of your page.This way visitors can quickly guess that they are in the right place and dive deeper into the page, which translates into all sorts of "behavioural ranking factors".
#2 By framing your headline around a specific keyword or phrase you can influence how people link to you:
And as you already know, the anchor text of your backlinks (and most likely the surrounding text too) does have a certain impact on the keywords that your page will rank for.
But do I think that using an exact match keyword in the H1 tag of your page is a strong enough ranking signal in itself?
NO, I don't think so.
Unless of course the H1 tag is the only unique content there is on your page, and the keyword you're targeting is very-very long tail.
Like in this experiment by the guys from Distilled that I've mentioned earlier:
Do I recommend using a keyword that you want to rank for in your H1 tag?
YES, I do. (for the reasons mentioned above)
7. Keyword in Subheading (H2 tag)
This time over 93% of pages that rank in Google top 10 don't have a target keyword in their H2 tag (based on our data sample).
So the recommendation will be very straightforward.
So when writing subheadings I advise you to think about your readers, not the search engines.
8. Keyword in Content
Our research has shown that almost 75% of pages that rank in Google top 10 don’t have even a single mention of an exact match keyword in their content (based on our data sample).
And the correlation of this on page factor with Google rankings is very close to 0.
Initially we also wanted to study the correlation of the good old "keyword density" too, but after seeing these numbers it no longer made sense to do it.
This is clearly yet another hint for us SEOs to stop being obsessed about how many times we should use the exact match keyword on a page and focus on creating resources that perfectly address user intent behind a certain search query.
9. Keyword in the first 100 words of a page
To study the correlation of this on page factor we only looked at the SERPs where all top 10 results had at least one keyword occurrence in content.
And in about 80% of cases we saw it in the first 100 words.
Though the correlation appeared to be almost non-existent.
When writing content for your page you should first and foremost focus on helping searchers, rather than worry about where in the content of your page this exact match keyword should appear.
10. Keyword in image "alt" tag
This is yet another case where the vast majority (70%+) of pages that rank in Google top 10 don’t have the target keyword in the “alt” tags of their images. And actually over 50% of all pages that we saw in Google top10 didn't have their alt tags filled in.
But please be advised that we’ve studied regular search results.
For Google Image Search the results as well as the correlation would most likely be very different.
That's because this text will later be used if your image didn’t load or your visitor is using a screen reader.
Most likely a descriptive "alt" tag will help your image rank higher in Google Image Search (we didn't study that though).
But flooding your "alt" tags with keywords that you want to rank for is unlikely to move the needle.
And this wraps up the section of on page SEO factors that imply using your exact match keyword on a page.
Up next are…
General On Page SEO factors
In this section we’re going to look at the on page SEO factors that are independent from the keyword that you want to rank for.
In some cases they actually showed a much better correlation with Google ranking than "keyword-dependent" factors.
But they still look very weak when compared to backlink factors.
1. Age of the page
Out of all the on page SEO factors that we’ve studied, this one showed the best correlation with Google rankings.
We also studied that factor from another angle - by looking at the percentage of pages that were less than 1 year old.
And here’s what we’ve got:
So if you need to grow your organic search traffic fast, consider investing your time and resources into the old pages of your site that already rank for a bunch of keywords.
With a little effort you should be able to push them up in the search results.
2. Using HTTPS
Looks like over 80% of pages that rank #1 in Google are not secure (based on our data sample).
But at the same time you can clearly see that the percentage of secure pages in positions 1-3 is visibly higher than in positions 4-10.
So should you consider switching to https?
And our own research has confirmed that "https" does correlate with Google rankings (a little bit).
This is why I do recommend you to make your website secure.
Especially in case you’re collecting any kind of personal data from your visitors.
To be honest it's very unlikely that a switch to "https" will lead to any significant boost in your rankings, but at least visitors will notice “https” in your web address and perceive your website as more trustworthy (try Let's Encrypt).
3. Page load time
Last year we saw some rumors that Google might have stopped considering page speed as a ranking factor.
And according to the results of our research, the correlation of this on page factor with higher position in Google is very small.
But if your site loads “fast enough” to keep your visitors happy, optimizing it even further and cutting down on a few dozen milliseconds might not be the best use of your time and resources.
4. Length of content
This on page factor showed the second best correlation across all on-page SEO factors that we’ve studied (the first one is "Age of the page").
The conventional wisdom says that "long form content" (the one that tends to attract tons of backlinks and social shares) starts roughly at 1500 words.
But notice how our median value for #1 result only shows 800 words - is that "long form content"?
I think Rand Fishkin has the point here, by saying that “Great Content ≠ Long-Form Content”.
So my recommendation would be pretty much in line with this idea.
In the words of Antoine de Saint Exupéry:
Perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.
So don't make your pages longer just for the sake of it.
Do the opposite actually - give more value with less words.
5. URL Length
We've studied the part of the URL that starts where the domain name ends:
And as you can tell from the graph above, shorter URLs tend to rank better.
So then we studied if there was any correlation with number of "folders" in URL:
Here's how we were counting them:
- http://domain.com (Folders = 1)
- http://domain.com/folder1 (Folders = 2)
- http://domain.com/folder1/folder2 (Folders = 3)
And the results of this experiment are pretty much in line with the previous one.
Somehow URLs with less folders tend to rank better.
I do recommend you to keep your URLs short, but mostly for user experience reasons and not because this will help you rank higher.
6. Linking out to authority sites
We’ve all heard Google say that outbound links are not a ranking factor, right?
But at the same time we’ve seen some nice proof that they actually are.
And our own experiment resulted in a small positive correlation of pages that link to DR70+ sites VS Google ranking.
Does this mean this helps you rank better?
Probably in some cases when Google is lacking other ranking signals, it will have no choice but to take this into account.
But I don't believe that there's any way for you to use this tiny ranking factor to your advantage.
7. Broken links
Broken links are considered a "bad user experience", which Google might punish you for.
Well, according to our data only 2% of pages that rank in Google top 10 have broken links.
I don't believe that Google will penalize you for having broken links, but I'm pretty sure that your visitors will get frustrated once they happen to click one.
8. Social Shares
Ever since our beloved social networking sites started counting the number of shares that a page has generated, the SEO community got filled with rumours of whether or not Google is using these numbers as one of its ranking factors.
So we decided to study how many of the pages that rank on the front page of Google have at least 1 social share on any of the major social networks.
And here’s what we’ve got:
Looks like roughly 70% of pages that are seen in Google top 10 have zero shares (based on our data sample).
And yet there’s still a very small positive correlation between having at least one share and ranking higher.
So then we dug a little deeper and studied the correlation between the # of social shares on each individual social network with Google rank.
And here’s what we’ve got:
The number of social shares correlated with Google rank quite decently (compared to other on page factors that we've studied).
But let’s not forget that correlation ≠ causation and it could easily be the other way around: people share these pages more often, because they rank high in Google.
Our data (as well as our guts) do tell us that this could really be a nice ranking factor, but at the same time I do admit that it is too easy to fake.
The relevance of your page to a search query is something that we didn't study at this time, but we do believe it plays a much more significant role than simply using an "exact match keyword" on your page.
Back to my example of SERP for the keyword "guest posting":
Clearly Google understands that "guest posting" and "guest blogging" is pretty much the same thing and that is why when you google for "guest posting", "guest blogging" and "guest writing" - you'll see pretty much the same pages occupy top10 results (but in slightly different order).
Relevance beats backlinks.
Here's a cool case that was brought up while discussing "on page SEO VS backlinks" the trenches.
Search Google for "chocolate lab" (Total search volume: 74,000):
How come pages with 19 and 26 referring domains outrank pages with 278 and 1100 referring domains?
Because they are more relevant!
The first two pages rank so high with less backlinks because they are talking specifically about "chocolate labs".
I mean both these articles are entirely dedicated to THIS specific dog breed of THIS specific colour.
What about the other two articles?
These are general pages about labrador retriever dog breed that mention "chocolate labs" fleetingly.
Google only puts them on it's front page because there's not much relevant content that would talk about "chocolate labs" specifically.
And these two pages have too many backlinks to ignore them, even though they are too general.
I like to call this kind of scenario a "lack of relevant content in SERP".
But how does Google know if your article is relevant to a search query or not?
And, most importantly, how can you make sure you're sending the right "signals" to Google?
This article has some good answers: "More than Keywords: 7 Concepts of Advanced On-Page SEO"
Exact match keyword optimization works when there's a lack of content and backlinks.
Let's go back to that experiment by Distilled that I've mentioned earlier.
Please review a few important details behind this experiment:
#1 They were re-optimizing ~10,000 category pages.
Obviously, 99% of these pages don't have any backlinks pointing at them.
You can easily check that in Ahrefs:
And the pages that they are competing with in Google SERP are pretty much in the same situation.
(everyone knows the challenges of building backlinks to tens of thousands of category pages, right?)
So that's a "no backlinks" battle.
#2 All the keywords that they are targeting are "long tail":
There's no secret that long tail keywords are (generally) much-much less competitive than keywords with higher search volume.
So that's a "long tail keywords" battle.
#3 These category pages don't have any relevant content that Google could "read" and "understand".
Title, URL and H1 is pretty much all clues that Google has about these pages:
So that is also a "no relevant content" battle.
And under these circumstances (no links, no content, long tail keywords) - it doesn't surprise me that Google will refer to appearance of exact match keyword in Title, URL and H1 tags.
Back to you
This is it! We've shared all we got.
And more than anything we would love to hear what you guys think about it.
I know there are a lot of very experienced SEOs among our readers and I'm super excited to hear what you have to say about our research and the takeaways from it.
Also, note that the takeaways are based on analyzing the (very big) data and my own personal experience in SEO.
Ultimately however, they are my own opinions and I am happy to discuss where I might be wrong, or where the data may be open to other interpretations.
Do you have any interesting data or case studies that contradict our research? I'll be happy to take a look!
See you in the comments!