- Google’s success relies on whether or not they can give people the results they want. Enter: Google ranking factors.
- Because some SEOs confuse correlation with causation, a lot of myths are floating around about Google’s organic ranking factors.
- What REALLY matters to Google? Expertise, authority, trust, and user experience (e.g., page speed and mobile friendliness).
- Other factors such as bounce rate and content length are more subjective — they’re important for YOUR understanding of your site’s success, not Google’s.
Many SEOs don’t understand Google ranking factors — and that’s a huge problem.
Even reputable members of the SEO community aren’t immune. Search for “SEO Google ranking factors” and you’ll find blog posts, infographics and studies that all contain incomplete or flat-out inaccurate information. Many SEOs confuse correlation with causation and incorrectly list factors like content length, domain age and even social media shares as important ranking factors.
As a result, marketers who venture down the path to learn more about the elusive “secret sauce” of SEO wind up tangled in the brambles of misinformation. That’s not only infuriating; it’s costly. Marketing directors can funnel a disproportionate amount of money to the factors they think will help with organic search performance, only to underutilize the strategies that are known to help.
Rather than add to the confusion and drown you in another list of 200 possible signals, we’ll explain four things in this post:
- Why the Google algorithm has organic ranking factors in the first place
- How to tell if something might be an SEO signal
- What we believe the most important Google ranking factors are
- Some common myths about ranking signals
There’s no doubt that Google’s top ranking factors are critical to SEO success. But so is understanding how to critique the information that other people share. The SEO community relies on sharing information with each other as we reverse-engineer Google’s search algorithm, so it’s the latter skill that leads to a successful SEO strategy over the long term.
Why does Google need ranking factors?
Every time you search, Google sifts through an estimated 60 trillion indexed web pages to find you the best possible search engine results. The factors that help Google prioritize some results over others are called ranking factors. If Google ranking factors didn’t exist, the search engine wouldn’t be able to meet the needs of its user base.
In short, Google wants to serve users the best results possible so they return to the search engine again and again. More users translates to more search advertising revenue for Google. You can read more about SEO vs PPC here.
Although only a fraction of search engine users click on paid ads, those clicks drove more than $134.81 billion to Google in 2019. If we’re talking about revenue streams, Google is an advertising company. And ad revenue is pinned to the number of people who use — and trust — search. So, they have a vested interest in making sure users are satisfied with their results every single time.
To summarize, search algorithms use ranking factors to improve their ability to deliver top-quality results in order to drive more advertising revenue.
Because Google doesn’t actually reveal what most of its ranking factors are, or how much weight it gives each of them, SEO is somewhat speculative in nature. That’s why you’ll read a lot of articles about experiments and tests as SEO strategists try to determine:
- Is a particular quality a Google ranking factor?
- If so, to what extent does it impact rankings?
It’s a little like reverse-engineering a recipe. Google has given us more than enough information to deduce that chocolate chip cookies contain butter, flour, sugar, and chocolate chips. But how much of each item makes the best cookie, and what are the missing ingredients?
More importantly, will people like your cookie?
How to evaluate Google ranking factors
There’s a lot of noise out there about Google organic ranking factors. Most of the misinformation comes from two big issues:
- Confusing correlation with causation
- Drawing conclusions about how Google measures nebulous metrics like “quality content” or “user experience”
Correlation vs causation
SEO is subject to the same fallacy that plagues all types of data science: confusing correlation with causation. When two things are seemingly connected, it’s easy to assume that one thing leads to the other. But because most changes don’t happen in a vacuum, the truth is a lot harder to unpack. There are usually many events that happen simultaneously.
For example, there’s a strong correlation between social signals and ranking position. That doesn’t mean social signals are a ranking factor — in fact, Google has stated multiple times that they aren’t.
What really happens when a site has a lot of social signals?
First of all, it means the content was great. It has clearly resonated with readers, which means it’s not just being shared on social media; it’s probably being shared on blogs and websites, too. And the more social shares it receives, the more likely it is to attract the interest of more websites and blogs.
Backlinks from high-authority sites are a strong, clear ranking factor. A healthy social media presence influences the success of that factor. But, it’s not a ranking factor in and of itself.
Drawing the wrong conclusions
On the surface it may seem easy to measure user experience, but there’s actually a lot that can go wrong if you apply the wrong optics.
One of the fundamental tenets of SEO is that Google cares — deeply — about how useful people find the page. We also know that Google uses some form of anonymous user data to help determine whether a page is useful or not. But what type of data, or how much, or what the other usability factors are…that’s where things get murky.
Through the lens of Google Analytics, time on page, bounce rate, and page-per-session count seem like good metrics to measure user experience. But, as we’ll cover later on, those metrics don’t reveal anything about the user’s actual experience.
Think for yourself
To evaluate whether something might be a ranking signal, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does it make the page better for users?
- In which scenarios might this not be true?
- Can this be gamed to hurt user experience?
- Is this a cause or a result?
Search ranking factors are universal. However, their weight may change according to the type or location of the search. For example, if a Google search is related to a trending topic, the freshness of the content will be given more weight. But, for Google’s algorithm to work, a blend of factors that can be universally applied to the searcher’s scenario needs to be created. It can’t be tailored to each individual website.
Google has no way of knowing if a page’s high bounce rate, for example, is a good thing or a bad thing. The answer to a question like that depends on the page’s goal. After all, if someone is searching for a specific piece of information, and they immediately find it in your first paragraph and then bounce, they just had a great user experience even though they bounced. Conversely, if they had to dig and click around your site to find the information, it would have been a more friction-filled experience.
Top Google ranking factors (according to Terakeet)
Gone are the days when Matt Cutts would announce Penguin or Panda algorithm updates about keyword stuffing and duplicate content. Now, Google uses hundreds of different signals to determine SEO rankings, but, only a handful of them are critical.
It’s worth noting that there is a difference between on-page SEO best practices and ranking signals. So, just because something isn’t on our list, doesn’t mean it’s not important.
For instance, having an organized website architecture helps Google better understand your site. And internal links help distribute PageRank from inbound linking domains. So, while those are essential for SEO, they’re not “Google ranking factors” in the sense that we’ll discuss below.
Additionally, there are plenty of posts out there on sites like Backlinko and Ahrefs that cover the full spectrum. The scope of this article is to talk about the most critical factors, not discuss them all. So, no, we won’t be mentioning exact match domain names, image alt tags or pop-up interstitials in this post.
But, if you don’t have these eight things nailed, you’ll have a difficult time ranking for competitive search terms. For more, check out our article about the top SEO metrics to track.
Search intent alignment
If Google can’t serve the best results possible to its users, it can’t do its job as a search engine. Because of this, signs of relevancy are priority ranking signals. In order to determine relevance, search engines crawl the on-page content and meta tags and alt text to understand what your page is about.
Google’s semantic search capabilities are continuously evolving to uncover the intent buried within content. The search engine now reads beyond exact-match keywords and parses sentence structure and entities to understand context. When Bert rolled out in November 2019, Google’s ability to comprehend nuanced language improved even further.
Ultimately, search intent refers to what a user wants to achieve when they enter a search query. SEOs tend to break these intentions down into three categories: navigational, informational, transactional. However, we can further simplify them into actions that fit into the stages of the purchase funnel:
- Learn – awareness phase
- Do – consideration phase
- Buy – purchase phase
If you want to rank well for a search query, your content needs to satisfy the action a user intends to take.
Find out more about funnel phases in our post about ToFu, MoFu, BoFu.
Backlinks from relevant, trusted domains (authority)
When a page receives high-quality links from relevant, trusted websites, it’s a signal to Google that the page has subject authority as well. That’s why backlinks continue to be one of the three biggest search engine ranking factors today.
However, we’re long past the days when link building was purely a numbers game. Volume still matters; the more people mention something in a particular context, the more authority it has.
But, one look at Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, and you see that quality and relevance matter more than quantity. Citations from relevant, high-authority sites are essential to boosting the authority of the page.
Anchor text is another highly valuable signal in Google’s ranking algorithm. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most dangerous in the hands of inexperienced SEOs. Anchor text provides users, and search engines, with more context about the page the link points to. In fact, Google now considers nofollow links to be a hint about context, even if they don’t pass PageRank.
What makes anchor text such a high-risk signal? It’s very easily manipulated through clumsy use of exact match keywords. Often, exact match anchor feels unnatural and out of place within a piece of content. Instead, SEOs should use broad match, long-tail, or omit the target keyword entirely when building backlinks.
Brand mentions (expertise)
The rise of social media posed an interesting dilemma for Google. It didn’t want to weigh links from social media the way it weighed backlinks from websites. But, it also couldn’t ignore what it meant when tons of people were talking about a brand. So, they started tracking brand mentions.
In tandem with sentiment and tone, unlinked brand mentions tell Google a story about your brand’s expertise and popularity. These can also be thought of as trust signals.
HTTPS and SSL (trust)
Speaking of trust, it’s huge to Google. There are a number of factors that signal a site’s trustworthiness, but you can consider HTTPS the primary one. Not every site that uses HTTPS protocol has miraculously great SEO, but every site that doesn’t use it is weakening its SEO performance.
Optimized title tags and heading tags
Title tags are still weighted strongly enough to be considered one of the critical Google search ranking factors. While meta keywords have long fallen by the wayside and meta descriptions are written for click-through rate (CTR) rather than rankings, Google’s reliance on keyword-rich title tags remains strong. That’s because titles serve an important purpose: they accurately and succinctly summarize the entire contents of the page. As such, Google leans on them for a lightning-fast way to sort the page.
Although they aren’t quite as powerful as title tags, H1 tags are also a strong signal to Google about what your page is about. What’s more, they also tell users they’re on the right page after clicking through from the SERP.
Fast page speed
Usability factors are important to Google, and that creates a lot of noise. People hear this information and draw false conclusions about how the search engine determines usability, which creates a couple of the myths we’ll discuss later. The bottom line is, few things impact usability as dramatically as site speed does.
Nearly half of your users expect a page to load within 2 seconds. Therefore, it’s obvious that site speed is an important usability metric. Your site could have the best content quality in the world. But, if it doesn’t load then it won’t rank.
Like site speed, mobile friendliness is a non-negotiable usability signal. In 2016 Google started rolling out mobile-first indexing. By 2018, they had expanded the rollout. The sites that haven’t yet been moved to mobile-first indexing can expect to do so in the near future. Your site’s performance on mobile devices deeply impacts its rankings, so pay attention to your mobile reports in Google Analytics and optimize poor-performing pages.
What are the most common ranking signal myths?
Information about Google’s focus on relevance, authority, and usability can lead to some wild extrapolations. These speculations can later be “confirmed” by anecdotal data or uncontrolled site tests, leading to widespread misinformation. Here are some of the most common mythical SEO ranking factors:
Bounce rate is a useful metric in Google Analytics that can give you information about whether a page is accomplishing its goal. If the goal is, for example, to move visitors to browse additional pages on your site, a low bounce rate is optimal.
However, that doesn’t mean a high bounce rate is a universally bad sign. Sites like Wikipedia or large content hubs have high bounce rates because people receive the information they’re looking for and leave. For those visitors, that’s the ideal user experience — they don’t want to have to keep digging on the site to find answers.
Similarly, if you’ve written a high-funnel page designed to generate awareness and boost brand credibility, a high bounce rate can be expected. And the page can still accomplish its goal regardless.
Because Google can’t draw universal conclusions about low or high bounce rates, it doesn’t pay attention to them. That information is for your benefit only — because you, the human, are the only one who can give it subjective context.
Time on page/site
Like bounce rate, time on page is a for-your-information Google Analytics metric that has been misconstrued as a ranking signal. Also like bounce rate, the reason Google doesn’t pay attention to time on site is because there’s no way to apply the information universally.
Assuming people read both posts, a blog post with 500 words will register a lower time on page than a blog post with 5000 words. That doesn’t mean the post with the lower time on page is less useful.
Similarly, dwell time is another metric tossed around. Just because someone spends more time on your website doesn’t mean they’re having a good experience. In fact, the opposite might be true.
There’s a strong correlation between content length and its SEO performance. That’s because longer content is more likely to be in depth and useful, leaving the user satisfied. It’s not because Google pays any attention to word count.
Misunderstandings about this can lead to a conclusion that vastly misses the point. If it takes 500 words to cover a subject in depth, then expanding the copy to 2000 words does your content a disservice. Useless fluff is useless fluff. If you develop your content strategy around value rather than volume, you’ll win.
Number of pageviews
Earlier, we recommended asking the following question to evaluate whether something might be a ranking signal: is this a cause or a result?
Page views is a classic application of this question. Great SEO leads to better visibility in the SERPs, which leads to more page views. The page views aren’t the cause of great SEO; they’re the result. Get it backwards and you’ll reach the false conclusion that page views are a ranking signal.
Moz Domain Authority
Some SEOs still refer to Moz DA as a ranking signal. It’s not. The truth is, Domain Authority is a tool to compare competing websites within the same space. It predicts a site’s ability to rank for similar keywords, and Google doesn’t pay attention to it.
Social media shares
Last but not least, we have the most notoriously misunderstood metric: social media shares. As we discussed earlier, social media shares pull people into a correlation vs. causation trap because pages with strong SEO performance usually have strong social media performance too.
There’s no evidence that links from social media are a ranking factor. We still consider social media shares a form of trust signal — but it’s about the brand mentions, not the links. If people are talking about your brand, that’s a good thing.
Believe it or not, some SEOs still think that outbound links to trusted websites will get them on the first page of Google. Obviously, something so easily gamed wouldn’t be a viable signal for Google. Although linking to trusted sources might be good for user experience, that’s only true if the link provides contextual value.
If something isn’t a ranking factor, that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time. But when you start with the improvements that really matter, the results will make waves that improve other components of your strategy. Don’t let long lists of ranking factors pull your focus from the optimizations that matter most.