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What’s the Difference Between Direct and Indirect Ranking Signals?

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Depending on how you classify SEO, there’s really only one primary goal: attain higher ranks in search results. Yes, all the tangential brand and customer benefits from content marketing and other peripheral strategies are nice bonuses, but in strict terms, ranking is the bottom line. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that most modern tactics evolved to take advantage of what we know as “ranking signals,” which are actions or constructs that send a message to Google’s evaluative algorithms that your site is an authority worth ranking. Get more ranking signals, move up in rank. It’s that simple.

The complexity comes from the fact that not all ranking signals are fully understood (since Google doesn’t publish its complete ranking algorithm) and from the fact that there are actually different types of ranking signals. Today, I want to address a critical difference you may not have known about: direct ranking signals versus indirect ranking signals.

Direct Ranking Signals

If you’ve spent any significant time in the SEO community, these are probably ranking signals you know about. They come in all shapes and sizes, but are all ultimately the product of an action or improvement that makes your site perceptibly more authoritative. For example, a new link pointing to your domain is a ranking signal; depending on the strength of the source, it could pass a little or a lot of authority to your site. Similarly, but to a much lesser extent, the loading speed of your web pages can serve as a ranking signal:

Direct Ranking Signals

(Image Source: Google)

Ranking signals also come into play when it comes to relevance. For example, if you create a page that targets a keyword phrase like “garden salsa,” it could help you rank higher for queries containing the phrase “garden salsa.”

For the most part, direct ranking signals are adequately published, and because the majority of them can be executed intentionally as part of an SEO strategy, there isn’t much mystery surrounding them, other than the fact that there are a lot and they change somewhat frequently:

study of google search results

(Image Source: Search Metrics)

Indirect Ranking Signals

What, then, counts as an indirect ranking signal? Like their direct counterparts, these are constructs or actions that can influence your rank—but they don’t do so directly. In fact, they have no direct bearing or influence in Google’s algorithm at all. Yet at the same time, they can increase your ranks in strong and sometimes unexpected ways.

For example, let’s say you’ve written a fantastic article about how to buy a perfect pair of shoes. It doesn’t get much traction at first, but one day, a major influencer in the fashion industry happens upon it and shares it with her audience of 100,000 followers. This action has no direct influence on your ranking whatsoever (contrary to popular belief).

However, imagine a few possible results of this action. A handful of users may read your article and link to it on their own blogs, establishing “direct” ranking signals as a result of an innocuous event. Others may specifically search for your brand in combination with shoe-related keywords, strengthening the correlation between your brand name and shoe-related words. Many of those 100,000 followers may share your article even further, multiplying these positive effects across other demographics and audience segments.

This is an “indirect” ranking signal, and there are many examples of how these can come to pass. Social shares, interviews, referrals, brand mentions, and even in-person discussions can all constitute indirect ranking signals.

Is It Worth Pursuing Indirect Signals?

This leads to an interesting question: if indirect ranking signals don’t pass authority, are they worth incorporating into an SEO strategy? Our example above is a pretty optimistic scenario, and arguably one worth pursuing. Having your article shared with 100,000 people, for most brands, is an incredible opportunity. However, there’s no guarantee that it will lead to measurable benefits; what if the share falls flat? What if lots of people read it, but few people take any course of action that results in a direct ranking signal?

The answer is pretty simple. Yes, indirect ranking signals are less concrete and less predictable than their direct counterparts, but if you look at averages, they’re definitely worth pursuing. If 10 influencers, each with a similar profile of 100,000 followers share your article, all it takes is one to hit home to generate tons of new direct ranking signals for your domain. Therefore, it’s a good idea to pursue indirect ranking signals, as long as you’re also incorporating direct signals into your strategy.

Indirect Ranking Signal Adoption

There’s some good news if you’re interested in incorporating more indirect signals into your strategy—you probably don’t have to change much. If you write content that people want to read, you’ll naturally earn more shares and generate more discussion. If you get active on social media, you’ll naturally earn more brand mentions and generate more attention for your work.

If you want to dig into semantics and get technical, than indirect ranking signals should not be a part of SEO. But they’re a natural part of many peripheral strategies that are closely related to SEO, including content marketing, guest posting, relationship building, social media marketing, and even in-person professional networking. Any positive PR for your brand, at any level, could contribute to attaining a direct ranking signal, so work to unify your strategies under a common vision for ranking growth.

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Timothy Carter

Timothy is AudienceBloom's Director of Business Development. He combines expertise in online marketing with a passion for helping others build a strategy for success. When not planning his next trip to Hawaii, he's writing at his personal site, OutrankLabs.com.

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