"Rankings continue to matter more and more for SEO." What is the importance of Rankings in 2015 as far as you're concerned?
I agree with Rand that rankings are still important and matter for reporting purposes. Having said that, you need to look at rankings in their proper context. Taken as a single data point, a SERP rank for a webpage is a fairly useless piece of information. It's crucial to look at is rankings over time for a variety of search terms, and look at the type of rankings as well. Which page on your site is actually ranking? Is it a local ranking? Does it have some sort of rich snippet? What is the flux of the rank on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis?
Rankings can provide very valuable data about your website's trust and authority over time, and allow you to predict future rankings - and traffic, to a degree - of a new piece of content you publish on the same site. But rankings alone don't paint the complete picture. You also need to report on a variety of additional metrics that combine to give a more rounded view of SEO success, such as traffic, engagement, conversions, and customer retention.
What are your favorite strategies to get your site or content ranked in the Google SERPs?
First the content needs to be good enough to deserve to be ranked. Too many sites expect to be ranked high simply because they feel it's their right. But Google doesn't care about what you think you deserve. Google wants to serve the best possible results to its users, and that means you need to have content that's worthy of that top spot in Google's SERPs. So make sure your content is more than good enough.
Next you need to make sure your content is popular. Links are still the crux of the matter, so make sure you promote your content far and wide to expose it to as many people as possible so that it can earn links and achieve top rankings. Paid social promotion is one of my favourite channels at the moment to help make content popular, because with the right demographical targeting you can ensure your content is seen by people who are genuinely interested in it.
What would you say are the 3 critical elements to be covered in an SEO site audit?
First of all SEO audits need to look at crawl efficiency: Can search engines easily crawl all the right pages on the website, and is crawl budget being wasted on URLs that shouldn't be crawled? Crawl efficiency draws on numerous different aspects of technical SEO, and at its core it is about making life easy for search engine crawlers.
Secondly you need to look at content quality. Like I said before, your content should deserve its top spot in search results. Too many websites, especially ecommerce sites, make abundant use of boilerplate content, which is really disastrous for your SEO. Write unique content and make it worth reading.
Thirdly, when auditing websites nowadays you need to look at penalty risk factors. Especially if the site has had previous SEO work done to it, you'll want to make sure the link profile is sufficiently clean to avoid Penguin or manual penalties, and the on-page content won't trigger a Panda filter.
What features do you think are missing in mainstream SEO tools? Are there any processes you'd love to see automated?
I think across all the SEO toolsets you can probably find every feature you'll ever need. The trouble is that different SEO practitioners want different levels of automation, so one tool might work great for some SEOs but may be inadequate for others. There's no one-size-fits-all solution in SEO tools. If someone could find a way to automate quality outreach linkbuilding, I'd be a very happy bunny indeed. But I don't see that happening any time soon. :)