I was asked why a link from a non-profit dot org association was scored low by a popular third party Rank Metric tool. The site in question does not host links to bad neighborhoods. It does not engage in link building. It does not engage in any SEO practices whatsoever. It’s simply a clean site, the kind that falls into the blue part of a link graph where the red part represents spam. The site is as gold as gold can be. Third party metrics are fairly accurate. So why did the tool score it so low? While Rank Metric tools are good tools to use, they do not actually measure whether a site is trustworthy or has positive rank signals. What they are measuring are characteristics of sites that tend to rank well. This particular site is a non-profit organization that has been around since before the Internet existed. The non-profit site does not try to rank, so consequently it was missing characteristics of sites that tended to rank well in search engines and ended up scoring poorly. The point isn’t that the tool was unreliable. The tools are very reliable and please keep on using them. The point is that we sometimes confuse the characteristics of sites that rank well with actual ranking factors. If you want to be successful online, this is an important distinction to be aware of, to understand and to internalize.
There have been some interesting articles that identify various metrics from readability scores to social signals as playing a role in penalties as well as ranking ability. I enjoyed reading them and they provided solid ideas to consider. However, aside from technical issues like a lack of control sets, what needs to be considered is that those findings are about characteristics shared by sites that have been penalized. Those findings are about charactertistics shared by sites that tend to rank in the top ten. Those are not necessarily the actual factors that caused the sites to be penalized. Those are not the factors that caused the sites to rank well. For example, if sites that rank well typically have thousands of Facebook likes or Twitter influence (as measured by retweets and shares), those are [i]characteristics[/i] of the ranking sites, but those are not the [i]ranking factors[/i] that caused the sites to rank in the top ten. Third party rank metrics typically measure characteristics, reflecting characteristics of sites that typically rank.
So… what are ranking factors?
The following is my opinion. Take it or dismiss it accordingly. Ranking factors are on-page and off-page factors that are given various levels of importance by search engines and used to calculate the relevance to a given concept or query. Rank factors also include categories that are sometimes referred to as buckets, determinations that are used to identify if a site, the type of site, location of site or information etcetera is relevant to the person making the query (user intent). Typical buckets are whether a site is educational, non-profit, affiliate, commercial, geo-local based, informational, a news media site, forum, blog, etcetera. Those are user intent ranking factors. Other buckets relate to the nature of a query, whether it’s educational, commercial, a trending topic, geographic specific, etcetera so that the answers can be matched to the right web page. Those are also user intent ranking factors. Both of those kinds of ranking factors act as filters to sift through and identify the most relevant answer to a query. If there are several intentions behind a query, for example if a query relates to an educational context, a commercial context, or a news context then you may see three different kinds of results. That means there are at least three different kinds of ranking factors in play to give you the results for an ambiguous search query. That is the difference between actual ranking factors and characteristics of sites that tend to rank well. Actual ranking factors are extremely complex.
Continue to use third party metrics
This is something to think about when using those tools for analysis. Do not stop using rank metric tools. They are valuable tools. Please keep using those tools. However keep in mind that third party metrics are not intended to take the place of your good judgement. Give the sites the benefit of your common sense and experience before making a decision. Whether a site scores well or a site scores poorly, third party tools are not a replacement for your experience and common sense. Take the data and sift it with your own good judgement, as those tools were intended to be used, and you will come out ahead!