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Jonas Weber Interview: User Signals Are Essential to Maintaining Top Search Rankings

Jonas Weber is a freelance SEO consultant and a former member of the search quality team at Google. In this interview, he talks about current trends and developments in search metrics and SEO-relevant content and also discusses why WDF * IDF makes sense.


The SEO world is changing, and one reason is the integration of machine learning into Google searches. How do you see searches evolving in 2017?


We can already see the increasing influence of user signals on search rankings. Technical on-page optimization, content and link reputation is still very important for breaking into Google’s top 10, but now, it’s also important to have good user signals to confirm that top 10 ranking – otherwise, that prominent ranking will soon slip away. And thanks to Rank Brain, the artificial intelligence update, this trend is set to continue and intensify in the future.


In addition, Voice Search will make that No. 1 niche ranking even more important. As soon as the automobile industry finally comes to grips with it, there will be no stopping Voice Search. Younger people already communicate with me exclusively via WhatsApp voice messages.


What should be the priority for search engine optimization in 2017, and what is now less important?


The most important issue is a user-first strategy. It’s now crucial to create an inspired product for the user, which will generate excellent user signals. That means incorporating features like high-quality multimedia content (primarily for the user, and not just for the bot), mobile friendliness, speed and a smaller volume of high-quality backlinks that bring relevant traffic. Harmful, low-quality backlinks and poor-quality content should be avoided. It’s more important than ever to avoid content that’s unlikely to generate good user signals, such as content that’s keyword-optimized but not useful to the end user.


However, a strict no-index and index management of your available pages are also crucial. We should now think of Google as a shop that contains shop windows and a few shelves but which is trying to get by without basement storage. So, there are many unimportant products and webpages on Google that are just taking up resources. However, some websites only index their shop window products on Google, and because these can then be presented to a high standard, they are far more successful.


Translated, this means: It’s better to create just five landing pages with excellent content than to have 500 pages displaying short teaser paragraphs created without much care or thought. In addition to your written content, you should include images, videos, illustrations, tables and other quality elements as these will greatly increase Google’s quality assessment. It seems counter-intuitive, but sites with fewer pages commonly receive more Google traffic when done correctly. This approach, which I advocate in my SEO course, has been very successful for my clients.


Google has announced that it will be switching to a mobile-first index. What are the most important criteria for a mobile-friendly page?


To be honest, I believe that a complete switch will take a while to achieve. The desktop variant still contains too many important signals that Google needs to evaluate a website. For example, it makes sense from a mobile design point of view to omit a lot of the internal linking. However, this element is still very important for a proper understanding of the architecture of a website. Google’s crawling budget is based on the Pagerank distribution, which evaluates the topic relevance of internal text links.


Nevertheless, a mobile-first strategy should be prioritized – without having to abandon the desktop altogether. So, you should define your site layout first for mobile, then for tablet, and finally for desktop and do it in a way that will work cleanly, with unimportant items not just hidden but actually eliminated. Here, user signals are set to play an even greater role, and loading times and mobile-friendly processing of high-quality content will be essential.


How should good content be designed for a mobile-optimized site?


It depends on your website’s target group. Often, I’ll read some very detailed text content on my smartphone, like when I’m on the train or waiting somewhere. The key, therefore, is not whether I provide different or shorter content for mobile but whether that content is reader-friendly. It feels like 90 percent of the websites I currently access use font sizes that are too small, even on the mobile-friendly layout. I have an iPhone 6+ and my favorite feature is the reader function at the top-left corner of the browser. When I select this option, I have the font size I prefer and all the distracting elements are dimmed, so even longer texts are comfortable to read.


What does relevant content that meets the approval of search engines look like today?


Search engines can now distinguish between below-average, average and above-average content on the basis of semantics, spelling, grammar, the vocabulary used and other factors. Google has even displayed this filter in the search results, temporarily at least. In the case of very long and detailed content, it is, of course, easier to include the keywords and also incorporate words that are semantically close.


But, the text can’t just be written for search engines. This may still be enough in a small niche market, but in traffic-strong markets, the user signal will decide who remains at the top of the search results. So, we should use methods like WDF * IDF optimization primarily from the user perspective. We know how much Google likes checking! So, we can use this technique because, when properly implemented, it also creates valuable information for the target group. It often draws our attention to some very important points which have not yet been taken into thematic consideration. However, in just as many cases, it also provides non-relevant terms, especially for less competitive niches or when the best-performing sites can provide little content. I recommend using the method with caution – more as an additional source of research rather than as the Holy Grail.


In addition to text, I naturally also regard visual media such as videos and photos as extremely important content. Above all, it is content that the competition does not offer and which brings substantial added value. If I have “only” a paragraph of text content on a website but include a brilliant video, I will also generate good user signals.


Searchmetrics maintains that there are no more classic ranking factors because so much depends upon the intentions of the individual user. So, against this background, what would be the best SEO response?


What are classic ranking factors? It’s still very important to get the technical implementation of your website right, to create relevant content and to collect reputation signals in the form of brand searches or backlinks. If a site has no backlinks, it has no crawling budget. If web pages are not crawled, they cannot be indexed, and if they are not indexed, they won’t be ranked. If they are not ranked, they cannot collect user signals or respond to different user contexts. We are dealing here with a complex chain of consequences, each with its own cumulative effect. So, many points have to be taken into account, but technical optimization in particular because that’s what gets the process started.


Google’s policy update on keywords: What’s your view on where we are headed?


Also when I worked with Google, a good user experience was always the aim and the top priority. It is a means to an end: As long as the user is satisfied, the search engine won’t change. That’s why Google will continue to launch more and more major updates; it’s all to satisfy the end user. And as new technologies like Voice Search become more popular, the search engine will need to understand the user even better. Nobody wants to listen while the first 10 search results are read out. Users want the most relevant one read out immediately.



About Jonas Weber:

Jonas Weber is an independent SEO consultant and offers an online SEO course for SME companies, start-ups and affiliates. Among other activities, he previously worked as part of Google’s Search Quality team in Dublin. Weber is still an official Google Developers Expert.


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