How User Behavior Affects SEO

Written by Neil Patel on October 18, 2015

user behavior

Organic search rankings are heavily influenced by user behavior data. If you want to stay at the top of search listings and make your brand noticeable online, you’ve got to understand your users.

Optimizing your content is the best approach to collecting and making use of user behavior data to improve your rankings.

A research study by Experienced Dynamics showed that unoptimized page content prompts 70% of users to leave in search of another site to complete their task.

Most SEOs and content marketers aren’t integrating user data into their content campaigns. They only focus on the keywords. In fact, Forrester Research estimates that organizations effectively utilize less than 5% of their available data.

Changes in search engine algorithms have resulted in a greater focus on the user. Yes, keywords are still important because the searcher uses them. However, what really counts isn’t just the keyword – it’s the intention behind a given keyword as it relates to the algorithm.

When it comes to studying users, remember that people may forget what you did or wrote about, but they will never forget how you made them feel. When you read a piece of content that gets you excited, you feel like all of your questions have been answered and concerns addressed.

User behavior data constantly changes. As their knowledge grows, users become better searchers. That’s why you’ve got to know the how and why behind a particular keyword. That’s what reveals why one keyword has more search volume than another.

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What happens when a user searches for a specific term on Google? Why did they choose to search a head keyword instead of a long-tail keyword?

In this in-depth article, you’ll gain an advanced understanding of user behavior data and how it impacts your search rankings. 

Download this cheat sheet to learn about user behavior data that affects search rankings.

1.    How Search Engines Collect and Interpret User Experience

Search engines use complicated algorithms to rank web pages. Marketers may not completely understand these algorithms, because they’re not engineers and also because the search engines aren’t going to give up their competitive advantage. In fact, there are more than 200 search ranking factors, but they all point to one important metric:  user experience.

How do search engines collect and interpret user data? It may not be one of the usual SEO questions, but it’s worth considering, because the long-term sustainability of organic rankings depends on your knowledge about modern SEO as it relates to user intent.

Even though the algorithms themselves are proprietary, Google has given some inside peeks into how its search engine works and how the company collects data from users.

The process starts with search spiders that crawl and index web pages. That’s an ongoing job, given the growth of the web. In 2013, the web had 30 trillion unique individual web pages. In 2008, that figure was only 1 trillion.

Google has an index (just like a database), where it stores updated information about these individual pages the spiders find. To store this data, Google needs the equivalent to 100 million gigabytes or 1000 terabytes.

What happens when you search for a keyword? How do search engines figure out what information you want in a fraction of a second?

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Here’s how it works: When you type a keyword into Google, you’re sending a request to Google’s index. But, before it returns the result you’re looking for, it first has to initiate the algorithm, which is basically just a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem.

Then, you get millions of results returned to you in a ranked list – and this all frequently takes less than a second.

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So what happened in the search with the keyword “baby boy names” above?

First, Google tries to figure out exactly what the keyword is about – not just the literal meaning but what the user had in mind. The initial search triggers a flowchart that Google uses to judge content quality.

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Remember that the user isn’t a novice. If I type a keyword into the search engine, it means that I’ve got some level of knowledge or information about it, even though I still don’t understand everything I want to know.

For example, if I search for best acoustic guitar, I may not be a professional acoustic guitar player, but I know it’s a musical instrument which I can become skilled at with practice.

Second, the algorithm checks for spelling, synonyms and query understanding in the industry they perceive the keyword belongs to.

In other words, the keyword “rent apartment in Los Angeles” is related to the real estate industry. The search engine will look for results in that field – not in an unrelated industry such as entertainment or health.

Freshness, relevance, and quality are the new rules of SEO that Google uses to determine which page should come first in the organic listings.

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The moment that the search engine is sure about your needs, based on the meaning, intent, context or industry associated with the keyword, it’ll pull relevant search results from those 30 trillion pages.

At this stage, Google is ready to showcase the search results, but first it needs to figure out how to rank all those pages. It makes this determination based on over 200 ranking factors including the age of the domain, freshness of the content, user context such as search history, geographical location and more.

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Google then delivers the search results to the user. All of this work is invisible to the search user, because the algorithm isn’t seen. It’s simply a set of programs that are constantly updated to rank web pages in the organic listings in a consistently fair manner.

The user behavior data that Google relies on includes click-through rate, duration on web page, bounce rate, frequency of visits, channel of navigation and more. We’ll explore each of these items later.

Other search engines such as Mamma.com, Duckduckgo.com and Yandex.com are classified as metasearch engines because they use another search engine’s data to determine the relevance of a search.

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Understand relevancy rankings: Search engines like Google use “relevancy rankings” to sort their results.

The aim is to show the page that Google perceives as most relevant to users at the top of the list. You’ll notice that in Google’s personalized ranking factors, relevance is prominent.

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When it comes to collecting user behavior data, you’ve got to understand relevance, because it’s the key.

Let’s say your topic is “Apple.” Google will try to understand what you meant. Do you want Google to rank your page for Apple products or apples, the fruit? Through the use of the right keywords and relevance, you’ll guide the search spiders correctly to your content.

Search engines, after all, are like babies that need to be spoon-fed. The search engine wants to understand the keywords you use.

2.    User Behavior Data That Affects Search Rankings

Search engines more readily understand how users interact with your site when you regularly add fresh content. Content is King and the lifeblood of your online business. It’s also the key to improved rankings on Google.

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The demand for useful, current content will only increase, so savvy marketers invest money and time into content creation. Content Marketing Institute found that 86% of B2B marketers reported using content marketing, while 70% are creating more content than the year before.

Creating engaging content is the key to surviving in any competitive field.

And, recent stats show that marketers who consistently create high-quality content through blogging generate 126% more leads, 97% more inbound links and substantially increased revenue.

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In this section, we’ll examine the user behavior data that affects search rankings. Remember that there aren’t any set-in-stone rules. No matter how much data you extract from these metrics, it can’t compare to initial market research and having a deep understanding about your target audience.

Let’s say that you’re a blogger whose organic traffic is always increasing. Maybe more people are discovering you via social media networks.

But guess what? You’re still wasting time if your content doesn’t solve a significant problem for your users. When people visit your web page from search engine results, they’re looking for one thing: useful information.

Sure, a professional site design could catch people’s attention. But, what will sustain them is the value in your content.

Let’s quickly explore the metrics that Google uses to gather user behavior data on your site and how each of these metrics impacts your search rankings.

a).     Click-through rate: Before going any further, you’ve got to understand that click-through rate is a metric that Google uses to collect user behavior data.

When that data is collected, it’s evaluated using the algorithm before being used to influence search rankings. This is equivalent to user behavior.

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So why does Google care about click-through rate? Well, each click-through signifies a “user vote.”

It means that search users have discovered a useful page that should be elevated. Users believe that the search result is the most relevant to their search query based on title and meta description and they vote by clicking.

The concept of click-through rate is simple. It monitors what happens to a link in the search organic listings and how users navigate from the web page.

Over the years, Google had changed the ranking rules. Consequently, user behavior also changed, and CTR hasn’t been consistent since 2006 – 2008.

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A research study by Advanced Web Rankings reported that, on average, 71.33% of searches resulted in a click on an organic, page-one Google result. Results listed on page two and three receive only 5.59% of the total clicks. On the first page SERPs alone, the first 5 results account for 67.60% of all clicks, whereas results from 6th to 10th position account for only 3.73%.

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Next is a chart that shows the click-through rate by exact position:

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CTR is a powerful search metric that measures the total number of search users who click a link against the total number of web users who got exposed to the link but didn’t click. The simple CTR formula is:

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In essence, if your web page ranks in the organic listings, and 15% of search users who viewed that search engine results page click on the link, it means that your CTR is 15%.

There are things you can do to improve your CTR, whether it’s search, paid ad or call-to-action. For example, Qualaroo changed their call-to-action text from “Request a quote” to “Request pricing” and ran an A/B split test experiment to determine which one generates more clicks.

Control – “Request a quote”

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Variation 2 – “Request pricing”

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“Request pricing” performed better, with a 161.66% increase in click-through rate, from 0.54% to 1.40% with 100% statistical confidence (VWO reports 99.9x% as 100%).

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Remember that the objective is to help Google extract the right user behavior data for your web page by increasing your CTR. Many SEOs don’t believe that CTR is a ranking factor. Instead, they focus on building more links, instead of working on improving the CTR.

Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz.com, expanded on the impact of long clicks vs. short clicks in a recent Whiteboard Friday. He talked extensively about the metrics that Google likely employs to learn about user behavior, specifically queries, CTR and long vs. short clicks.

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David Harry addressed the question in a post published on Search News Central entitled “Are Click-Through Rates a Viable Ranking Factor?

As David notes,

It just seems logical that behavioral data that is closely-connected to clicks will influence rankings. But, there is a list of factors to consider as well, namely:

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I can affirm that CTR is a metric that improves user experience on the search results pages.

This means that if your CTR is high and your users actually spend more time on your page, Google concludes that users are finding the information on your web page useful.

Google will then push your rankings to the top, giving you more visibility and attention. According to Search Engine Watch, “Pages that get clicked more may get a SERP boost for that particular keyword.”

Google also uses click-through rate as a major determining factor in paid search to calculate quality score. A higher quality score will push your ad to the top while reducing the cost per click (CPC).

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Google is basically a machine that extracts data from users, based on their behavior when they arrive at your web page from the search results. Several companies and brands have deposited huge quantities of user behavior data into the Google index, as a result of their click-through rate.

Consequently, their organic rankings keep improving. For example, Rambler increased its click-through rate by up to 32%, by optimizing for the user, embracing personalization and focusing on high-value content.

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In a bid to increase organic CTR and search rankings, Purina Friskies brands implemented Bazaarvoice ratings and reviews on Friskies.com. They optimized their meta descriptions and integrated the right keywords in a natural way.

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The result was that their search results stood out, with star ratings and over 650 customer reviews.

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Friskies saw a 147% increase in traffic coming from keyword phrases that contained the word “review” and its CTR increased significantly.

In essence, CTR supports other key ranking factors and adds more power to them.

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And, truthfully, if Google actually used CTR as a direct ranking factor, that would pose a problem. How would it know what position to rank a brand new web page in before it accumulates enough click history to enable appropriate ranking based on that factor?

Here’s what Ted Ives said about click rate and rankings:

If a page initially ranks in say, position 100, you and I know that it would take an extremely long period of time to generate enough impressions and clicks in order to know if the result is clicked on more often than would be expected.

Ted went further to say CTR has a drop rate of 60%. Obviously, when your page ranks on page 20, you’ll get very few clicks and it’ll take a long time to generate enough impressions to change that.

Personally, I’ve noticed that a new page with fresh content will initially rank highly in the SERPs (say positions 4, 5 or 7). After the first week, it either slips down the organic listing positions or climbs up.

The determining factor is the number of clicks that search results generate per day, and the average time on site, assuming that no significant quantity of links have been built to the webpage.

User behavior data became relevant to search because it helps people find better results. Here’s the checklist for high-quality content from Amit Singhal, head of Google’s core ranking team:

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Since we can’t be 100% sure of the user feedback signals that affect search rankings, the best thing you can do for your site is to continually create data-driven content that’ll engage the right people and keep them engaged until they’ve finished reading.

As you work consistently at it, you’ll be supplying a lot of useful user behavior data that Google can use to understand your site, your customers and your brand.

If you want to increase your CTR, these resources will help:

b).   Navigation path: In a research study titled “Active Exploration for Rankings from Clickthrough Data,” which was conducted by Filip Radlinski and Thorsten Joachims from the Department of Computer Science at Cornell University, the researchers reported that rankings rely on training data collected from users.

They recognized that useful data can be collected from clickthrough logs, which will be judged based on the algorithm. Even in email marketing, clickthrough logs are used as a basis to test user behavior over a period of time.

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In the same vein, navigational paths are tracked by search engines. A navigation path is simply the channel by which search users came to your site and the path of their departure.

When you’re on a particular web page, search engines want to know how you got there. For example, did you visit the homepage first, before you clicked through to the internal pages (e.g. popular posts)?

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When you study your Google Analytics, you’ll gain insights on the navigation path. In turn, you can use these insights to increase your organic traffic, search rankings and click-through rate.

For example, if you want to know the pages that users entered your site from, it’s easy to find on Google Analytics. Just follow this path:

Log in to your Google Analytics account, then go to > Behavior > Landing Pages:

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Next, click the “Entrance Paths” tab to reveal the landing pages that users entered your site from:

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From the screenshot above, you can see that the “blog” generated 87 sessions in the last 30 days. The percentage of sessions equals 33.21%, which is higher than the homepage’s 63 sessions.

There are several reasons why the blog got more views from users. One of them is because the blog was easy to navigate and everything the user wanted (e.g., blog posts, guides, videos) can be easily seen.

When it comes to navigation path, you need a simple channel whereby your customers can navigate your site without asking too many questions. For example, this is the navigation path through BBC sites, right from the homepage:

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The two important metrics to consider where navigation path is concerned are:

  • Landing pages
  • Exit pages

Landing pages: These are the pages search users entered your site from. You need to first identify your top landing pages (the page(s) that users entered your site through), then work to optimize them.

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This is where you figure out how to write a better headline, design a better blog theme or test your background color against a background image to determine which one converts better.

The more landing pages users discover on your site, the more Google will reward you with organic traffic.

Remember that this is quite different from the typical landing page used for building an email list. Those landing pages are optimized to convert visitors into email subscribers or buyers.

Here, we’re talking about landing pages which are actually blog posts and other pages optimized for search users. There’s a deliberate use of keywords and these pages are structured to lead users straight into your funnel.

Exit pages: In the navigation path, right after the landing pages you also have to consider the exit pages.

These are the final pages within a user’s visit. If you have an online store, you’ll notice that your checkout page has a high exit rate. That’s because the moment a customer adds a product to the cart and checks out, they most likely exit without taking any further action.

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However, you want to reduce exit pages and increase landing pages. In other words, you should aim to lead visitors to your other pages and retain them when they come to your site through any of your landing pages.

The reason is simple: as long as they came from search engines, the user behavior data is tracked and their time on site will be recorded.

Eventually, time on site will help Google perceive your site as a useful, valuable and informative platform for users. And guess what? You’ll be rewarded with more organic traffic from long-tail keywords, and your search rankings will equally improve.

c).   Behavioral data that is influenced by search position: In a research paper titled “Beyond Position Bias: Examining Result Attractiveness as a Source of Presentation Bias In ClickThrough Data,” Rajan Patel and Hein Roehrig give an overview of the state of clicks.

They said that one must take care when interpreting clicks, since user behavior can be affected by various sources of presentation bias.

I quite agree with the findings in this research work. Since users must decide whether to click on a search result based on its summary (e.g., title, meta description and URL), one might expect clicks to favor “more attractive” results.

But, from what we’ve seen, it doesn’t work that way. Your position in the search engine results pages largely determines how many clicks and how much organic traffic your brand will get.

Your search result may be very attractive, but if you’re in the 7th position, whereas my decidedly mediocre search result is in the 2nd or 3rd position, I’ll get a higher CTR. In all, don’t just try to improve your rankings – instead, focus more on the CTR.

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In 2013, Chitika, an online ad network, conducted a research study and found that 33% of search users clicked on the first result in Google results. The second result gets an 18% click-through rate, 11% on the third result, 8% on the fourth result and so on.

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Note: These are not typical results. Different industries and keywords (branded vs. non-branded) can yield different results. The attractiveness of the headlines in the organic listings play a major role, as well.

So, the position of your search results matter. Since you can’t manipulate Google or other search engines to rank your content pages higher within a short time, what you should do is make sure that your headlines are compelling and include the main keyword that your targeted users are searching for.

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d).   How compelling results attract more clicks: 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine.

Some of these online experiences involve your ideal customers. If you want to get these customers to your site, then you’ve got to make your search results compelling.

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Without a doubt, customers are happy when they find the solution to their problems. In the same way, when users search for a keyword, they’re not just looking for results with keywords in the headline, but rather for the right information.

All things being equal, if you can improve your organic clicks, you’ll definitely drive more customers to your business, because SEO leads are highly targeted. According to Search Engine Journal, SEO leads have a 14.6% close rate, while outbound leads (such as direct mail or print advertising) have a 1.7% close rate.

A research study by Outbrain showed that search is the #1 driver of traffic to content sites, beating social media by more than 300%.

Looking at these statistics, you’ll agree with me that tweaking your content to align with what search users want is the key.

Make your search results clickable through your title: Of course, the first thing that you’ve got to do in order to make your search results clickable is to write powerful headlines.

The headline is the most important element in your web page, because 73% of buying decisions are made at that point, according to direct response copywriter Ted Nicholas.

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Though I’m using title and headline interchangeably in this article, remember that they’re not actually the same thing. For example, the title is what you find when you search for a keyword:

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The headline is what users see above the article. Many times, your headline will be over 70 characters long, but your title should never be more than 60 characters.

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If you’re a WordPress user, then you can easily tell Google what to display in their search engine results pages (SERPs) as your title.

All you’ve got to do is install the All-In-One SEO Pack or Yoast SEO plugins. Then, after formatting your post, scroll to the settings area and set your title tag – it’s okay if you make it slightly different from the article headline. Here’s how to add the SEO title if you’re using Yoast:

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Let’s quickly model some titles that are already ranked highly in a Google top 10 result to create more clickable titles that will increase our click-through rate.

Follow these simple steps:

Step #1: Search for the best performing content titles – Let’s assume that you want to write about “negotiation strategies.” First, go to Google search, and plug the keyword in:

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Step #2: Analyze the titles – Take the first 3 titles. Study how they’re structured. Then, create a better one.

From the screenshot above, the 3 titles that outperformed others are:

Negotiation Strategies: Seven Pitfalls to Avoid

Six Surprising Negotiation Tactics That Get You the Best Deal

Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and Skills

So, what strategies can you use to make your titles more compelling and attention-grabbing?

i).  Add odd numbers: Adding numbers – odd numbers, preferably – to your title will definitely make it stand out from the rest. More importantly, it’ll increase its value.

A study by Content Marketing Institute revealed that odd numbers increase click-through rate by 20%. This chart from Backlinko explains it better:

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Let’s now rewrite the 3 titles above by integrating odd numbers into them:

Negotiation Strategies: Seven Pitfalls to Avoid

7 Negotiation Strategies and Pitfalls That You Should Avoid

Six Surprising Negotiation Tactics That Get You the Best Deal

5 Surprising Negotiation Tactics That Get You the Best Deal

Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and Skills

13 Effective Negotiation Strategies and Strategies for You

ii).  Use the “how to” formula: Some of the SEO titles and headlines that went viral were actually written with the “how to” style, which tends to generate lots of social shares. Just take a look:

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These huge social shares happened in the past 12 months. People are naturally drawn to these titles, because they sound useful and anyone can read and implement the tips.

Let’s model the 3 best performing headlines above to create a better one using the “how to” style:

Negotiation Strategies: Seven Pitfalls to Avoid

How to Avoid 7 Negotiation Pitfalls Easily

Six Surprising Negotiation Tactics That Get You the Best Deal

How to Get the Best Deal Using 6 Surprising Negotiation Tactics

Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and Skills

How I Use a 3-Step Process to Negotiate Like a Pro

When these titles rank highly in Google, they’ll grab users’ attention and entice them to click.

Other kinds of user behavior data used by Google include duration and frequency of visits. But above all, when designing your web page, focus on usability because that’s what matters most.  

3.    Maintaining Your Search Rankings Long-Term

How fast is SEO changing? I think that the change is rapid. Whether you’re a B2B or B2C content marketer, these rapid changes will continue to influence the web, because Google owns 66.8% of the search market.

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For most marketers, getting decent long-term search rankings is the goal. According to Fourth Source, it’s true that SEO has changed, but the basics – a well-optimized web page with engaging, useful, high-quality and unique content – still remain the same.

First and foremost, if you want sustainable organic search rankings, then you’ve got to pay ample attention to on-page optimization.

One study found that 70% of Google ranking factors are on-site. This means that what you do before you go out to build authority links to your web pages has a strong impact on your future search performance.

Content is the key to your SEO campaign. If you want to thrive and build a real online business that attracts qualified clients and customers from search engines, the only way to succeed is to consistently create and promote the right content.

Why is content so important? Here are the benefits of useful and practicable content:

a).  It drives your blog: Without fresh content that appeals to your customers, you’ll struggle to grow your online business, even if you’re not interested in organic traffic.

b).  Content attracts natural editorial links: What you need, more than anything, is incoming editorial links.

These are links that you didn’t build yourself. Rather, people chose to link to you within their post because your content was great and helpful. Here’s an example of an editorial link:

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Don’t forget, Google Webmasters Guidelines insist that any link pointing to your site must be natural. Otherwise, you’re at the mercy of Google Panda and Penguin updates.

c).  Content encourages social signals: Google has changed everything pertaining to link building. Even guest blogging links were challenged by Matt Cutts a while ago (although he later clarified he only meant low-quality guest blog posts that provide little value to users).

According to Dr. Peter J. Meyers,

80.2% of search engine results pages (SERPs) change daily. There’s always an update. This is why you could rank #4 today, and tomorrow be at #7 or #3, though you did nothing to effect this change

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Social media marketing isn’t just for celebrities and big corporate brands. It’s also for you, if you want to prove that you deserve higher rankings in Google. Google cares about signals from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the rest.

Sure, these signals may not directly improve your rankings, but they’ll definitely improve your brand recognition and link authority. Then, Google will reward you accordingly.

Conclusion

User behavior data isn’t a complicated subject. But, it’s important because it helps you to see your target audience better and communicate in a way they’ll understand.

Often, we forget that search users are actually humans beings. People have questions all of the time. Some of them could wake up in the middle of the night to search Google, looking for answers to the questions that keep them awake.

Bottom line: Focus on your users. Get to know them for who they are, and not as the type of person you want them to become.

Whether your focus is on link building, email marketing or relationship marketing – or perhaps something else entirely – the moment you realize that the content is what powers “effective connection” on the internet, you’ll begin to drive more organic traffic, get referral traffic, earn authority links to your web pages and grow your revenue.

As always, I need your contribution. What other types of user behavior data do you think Google relies on to rank web pages?

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