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Not important to SEO today, tomorrow and the day after?

UPDATED June 14, 2007

Jill Whalen of HighRankings.com provided a list intended to bust myths about factors affecting search engine rankings in her latest e-mail newsletter. The list covers a number of widespread beliefs on things that supposedly hurt rankings but do not, in Jill’s view, make any real difference.

Some of the “myths” are simplifications arising from legitimate claims: e.g., the claim that large percentage of code should change between pages to avoid them being seen as duplicate content by search engines arises from a legitimate, albeit distorted belief that duplicate content across pages will be penalised.

Several alleged myths concern frequent coding conventions. These procedures have become broadly accepted best practices, while their original justification has been often forgotten: eliminating comments from code has no effect or only tangential, moving CSS and scripts to external files may help spiderability but generally should not affect rankings.

With one myth, however, I believe Jill has gone overboard. Her last debunked myth is that The site needs to be browser-compatible and screen-resolution-compatible. She writes: “This is another thing that’s nice to do for your site visitors, but it has no bearing on search engine rankings or relevance.”

Although seemingly primarily of concern with respect to usability and accessibility, I would argue that this factor is also a part of a prudent, robust and sustainable SEO strategy.

Specifically, there has long been speculation in the SEO community (backed by some evidence from patent filings) that “stickiness” – most simply defined as the length of time a visitor spends on a webpage, is an easily exploitable factor in determining how well a set of results served in response to a query meets the user’s requirements.

If Google serves up 10 results and detects (using whatever specific technological feature) that users return after a short visit from some of the results, this provides clear indication that the result has not satisfied them. This stickiness is certainly strongly influenced by this “mythical” factor busted by Jill: potential accessibility and usability problems caused for a subset of users by the site NOT being browser-compatible and screen-resolution-compatible will reduce the time spent on site by some visitors, indicating to the search engine that the result is less satisfactory than it would be without these problems.

Does Google take “stickiness” into account? A SEO blogger’s experiment’s results published in June 2007 point in that direction – a page’s ranking was improved by playing around with stickiness. SEOmoz describes a patent application, that would inter alia allow Google to measure aggregate user behavior, including the “amount of time one or more users spend accessing the document”. In forum discussions at WebmasterWorld.com a valid point has been made by numerous members: it is hard to know whether and to what extent Google (and of course, other search engines) use this metric but it is clear both that
1. there are ways to obtain the metric easily, using existing technology such as the Google Toolbar and other forms of tracking,
2. the metric provides some ranking-relevant information, which can be used to improve SERPs.

With this in mind, I would argue that robust and sustainable SEO-aware design will take this into account even given the possibility the metric is not in use today. A focus on screen resolution and browser compatibility may well have an effect on ranking now, later or both.

UPDATE: SERoundTable references a fresh discussion on WebmasterWorld stressing that the use of user behavior data is likely to increase with the advent of personalized search.