When Google launched ‘Suggested Search’ in 2008 (since renamed ‘Autocomplete’), few people realized the tremendous impact it would have on users even before they see the results of their search query. Eye-tracking studies show that people begin scanning the suggested search phrases as soon as they appear. With estimates of click-through rates running as high as 70% on desktops and 90% on mobile devices Google Suggest is the most used part of Google's search engine.
There are positives and negatives to Google Suggest. If your dealership appears in the suggested search listings for popular keywords and people click on your listing, your competitors will be virtually eliminated from the search results. Likewise if your competitor appears in the suggested search listings for popular keywords and people click on their listing, you will be eliminated from the search results.
Let’s look at an example of how Google Suggest eliminates dealers from the search results. Assume you live in Fairfax, Virginia and you just saw Ford’s television commercial promoting its new lightweight aluminum body F150. You decide to find your local Ford dealer and take a test drive so you go to Google and begin typing ‘ford fairfax va’. As you enter your search query Google displays a list of suggested search queries and by the time you get to the letter ‘v’ Google displays the following list of suggested search queries.
Google Suggest indicates Koons and Sheehy Ford are located in Fairfax, but in fact neither of these two dealers are in Fairfax. Ted Brit is the only Ford dealer located in Fairfax, but Google has not included Ted Brit in its suggested search recommendations. However, since you are not aware Ted Brit is the Fairfax Ford dealer you will probably click on the first dealer in the list. Let’s see what Google returns on page one of its search results when you click on ‘koons ford fairfax va’.
As you can see the Koons organization dominates both the organic search results and the map listings above the fold. Sheehy Ford and Battlefield Ford appear below the fold in positions 7 and 9, but only 4% of users click on the bottom four search results.
To understand why this occurs and how to make sure your dealership is not eliminated from Google’s suggested search recommendations and organic search results requires a basic understanding of how Google’s various algorithms work.
How Google Collects and Indexes Website Data
Google’s web crawler (Googlebot) discovers webpages by collecting the inbound links on a webpage and following these links back to the source page of the link, thus the derivation of the term ‘backlinks’. Googlebot collects three types of data; the identity of the page (it’s URL), the text (keywords and content) and the inbound links.
After Googlebot collects the data, Google’s indexing and quality scoring algorithms analyze the keywords, content and backlinks in order to index the keywords and assign quality scores. One of the quality scores measures On-the-Page ranking factors and the other quality score measures Off-the-Page ranking factors. Google then compares these quality scores to the quality scores of all other websites within the same industry (auto dealers for example) and establishes industry benchmarks.
On-the-Page ranking factors deal primarily with the content of a website and the level of user engagement. The most influential of these ranking factors include the following in order of importance:
Off-the-Page ranking factors deal primarily with measures of popularity and include the following in order of importance:
How Google Determines Page Rank Position
Google's original algorithm determined page rank position based on how many backlinks a page contained weighted by the quality score of the source page of the backlinks. In the fall of 2011 Google altered the way it calculated page rank position when it released the Panda algorithm. Since Google is extremely secretive about how its algorithms work, SEO professionals were forced to make educated guesses as to how Panda changed the calculation based upon a lengthy trial and error process. However, in March of 2012 the US Patent Office issued the Panda Patent and the SEO community got its first look at just how dramatically Panda changed the way Google calculates page rank position:
When you work through the mathematical page rank formula detailed in the Panda Patent you discover that doubling the On-the-Page quality score increases page rank position by only 1%, but doubling the Off-the-Page quality score increases page rank position by 32%. This indicates Off-the-Page ranking factors (measures of popularity) have 30 times more impact on page rank position than On-the-Page ranking factors.
However, this is true only if the On-the-Page ranking factor quality score is greater than the minimum quality score established for the industry. You see this in the mathematical page rank formula when you reduce the On-the-Page quality score below the industry minimum quality score and then increase the Off-the-Page quality score. No amount of increase in the Off-the-Page quality score will increase the page rank position. In other words, a thin content website with a popular keyword in the URL is not going to rank for that keyword regardless of its popularity (quantity of backlinks, social signals and brand searches).
The Most Important Ranking Factors
Every year Search Metrics compiles a list of ranking factors in order of importance (correlation) and the top fifteen for 2014 are listed below:
Notice that all of the top fifteen ranking factors belong to one of the following four categories:
Test Campaign Proves ‘Brand Search’ is the Key Component of Google’s Suggested Search and Page Rank Algorithms
When you compare the ranking factor correlations in the Search Metrics study you discover the correlation of Brand Search & Click Rate (.67) is twice as high as all other ranking factors. Combined with the results of the mathematical formula detailed in the Panda Patent above, there appears to be strong evidence that the number of people searching for your dealership by name (brand search) is the most important factor in determining whether your dealership appears in Google’s suggested search recommendations and ranks on page one of Google’s search results.
We decided to test this recently with a ten dealership group located in a metro market with 700,000 households. All of the dealership websites were supplied by auto industry website providers and none of the sites were under monthly SEO contracts. We compared the ten websites to each of the three to five brand competitor’s websites and found all to be approximately of equal quality. After eliminating any variables that could impact the results of our test, we then tapped into a large crowd sourcing network (750,000 members) and contracted members living in the dealership group’s metro market to perform daily search queries for 50 targeted keywords tagged with the name of the groups various dealerships.
After entering the branded keyword search query the contractors were instructed to navigate to the dealership group’s various websites via one of the third-party links in the search results (edmunds.com, yelp.com, etc.) so as not to alter the website's organic search traffic, and when reaching the site they were instructed to view at least three pages on the site for a minimum of two minutes.
Below is an example of a targeted keyword and the related branded keyword search query the contractors were instructed to enter (the dealership group in our test campaign wishes to remain anonymous so we are using Koons for this example – Koons was not the dealership group in our test):
Targeted Keyword: Ford Fairfax Va
Search Query Performed: Koons Ford Fairfax Va
After four weeks of entering daily branded keyword search queries we noticed the group’s dealerships began appearing in Google’s suggested search listings for the targeted keywords. We also tracked all of the keywords the dealerships were ranking for on page one of the search results and the organic search traffic to the websites. After ninety days the group experienced an average increase of 57% in the number of keywords the dealerships were ranking for on page one of the search results and an average increase of 34% in the volume of organic search traffic to the group’s websites. A few of the dealerships experienced 70% to 85% increases in page one ranking keywords and 50% to 60% increases in organic search traffic.