Ranking factors can spell doom for your business.
That is, if you bet all your time and money on ranking factors that have little or no impact at all.
However, with thousands of Google ranking signals (some gurus whittled this down to about 40), how can you possibly know where to start?
After reading Google’s own words and scouring various case studies on the web, one thing became clear:
You don’t have to follow all the ranking factors to a T.
Remember the 80/20 rule?
Also known as the Pareto principle, it states that in almost any kind of endeavor, 20% of activities generate 80% of the results.
In this case, only 20% of the Google ranking factors have the most significant impact on your rankings.
In this guide, we’re going to put the spotlight on these ranking factors that matter the most so you can maximize your time and end up with more traffic, more leads and higher profits.
How does Google rank websites?
Nobody clicks a link unless it’s on the first page of Google.
But if you want to get the lion’s share of online visibility, aim for the top three positions.
As this latest CTR study proves, the first placer usually gets a 30% click-through-rate (CTR), followed by second and third positions which claim anywhere between 10-20%.
The lower you rank, the less likely that people will click on your link.
Your goal, of course, is to capture the majority of these clicks. Sounds simple but getting to the top positions requires science—something that Google is very good at.
Let’s have a quick overview of how Google rankings work.
Step 1: Crawling
The ranking process starts at the initial discovery of the web page. The search engine spiders “crawl” the web every day in search of new pages to add to the registry.
Google can discover and start crawling your site in two ways:
- By following a link from a known and established site to your new page. However, links from comments, advertisements, paid links or those that don’t comply with the Google Webmaster Guidelines won’t be followed.
- Submitting a page URL or your website sitemap for Google to crawl.
Crawling takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to complete.
Step 2: Indexing
Once the page is discovered, Google will then subject it to a cross-examination. It will analyze the entire page from the main content down to images and videos embedded on it.
All pages will be treated the same way and stored in the massive and ever-growing database collectively known as the Google index.
Step 3: Ranking
This is where the real battle begins.
To determine which pages in its index are worth including in the top results, Google uses machine learning algorithms. This technology is already good on its own but it still requires input from humans to improve the accuracy of the search results.
For this reason, Google employs over 10,000 search quality raters from all over the world to evaluate its results.
To give you an idea of how these raters operate, Google has published its 200-page Search Quality Guidelines, the same document used by the raters to separate the top-notch content from the mediocre.
The human raters don’t have a direct influence on the search rankings. In fact, pages they’ve rated poorly won’t be kicked out of the top results right away.
However, the data from the raters is fed to Google’s search algorithms. The algorithms, in turn, will eventually become smarter and weed out not just the low-performing pages reported by the raters but also other pages that weren’t reviewed.
Of course, Google is too smart to give away all its secrets in one e-book.
If anything, the Search Quality Guidelines provide valuable insights into what the search engine giant considers as “high-quality” content, setting the foundation for what we’ve all come to know as Google ranking factors.
Do Google ranking factors really exist?
That Google uses a set of ranking signals or factors to refine its top results is already an established fact. Their exact number is what remains a mystery.
Contrary to popular belief, there are no 200 ranking factors. This misconception probably started in 2009 when Google’s Matt Cutts mentioned at PubCon that the search engine uses over 200 variables in its algorithms.
When it comes to Google, nothing is set in stone. Between 2009 and this year, we can only imagine how many variables have been added to make Google the juggernaut that it is today.
We may not know everything, but Google pops up every now and then to give us a peek of how it ranks pages.
In 2014, for instance, it officially made HTTPS a ranking signal to make the internet a safer, more secure place.
The following year, it included mobile-friendliness among its ranking signals so people would find more high-quality content that was optimized for their devices.
In 2016, Google then released the artificial intelligence system called RankBrain, which enables it to generate results even for search words or phrases it’s not familiar with.
RankBrain then became one of Google’s top three ranking signals, the other two being links and content.
Based on these established facts, various agencies come up with ranking factors studies every year to paint a clear picture of how hard it is to rank in Google.
Despite their good intentions, these ranking factors are not the be-all and end-all of landing on top of search results.
For example, lengthy and in-depth articles may be ideal for topics like law and divorce but definitely a poor strategy for search terms that require a rather quick and short answer.
There are niches that don’t even require written content at all to rank high in Google.
Case in point is the fitness niche where top search results are usually populated by videos.
The reason? Google is aware that people learn quicker from video tutorials than from articles when trying new exercises.
The Google ranking factors listed here should only serve as general guidelines. There are nuances in every niche that may require you to fine-tune a ranking signal or reject it altogether.
But despite its limitations, this list will help you cut through the noise and put all your resources into metrics that will give you the best ROI.
Less Is More: The 6 Most Powerful Google Ranking Factors to Dominate Search
Backlinks aren’t dead—it’s the way you’re building them that is.
Since the first PageRank patent was released in 1996, backlinks have played a pivotal role in ranking sites.
Although there have been talks that linkless mentions are the future of SEO, that future apparently hasn’t arrived yet.
It wasn’t too long ago when Google’s Matt Cutts said that backlinks will continue to be important for several years.
A Q&A with Google’s search quality senior strategist Andrey Lipattsev also confirmed what we know all these years: Backlinks is one of the top three search ranking factors.
While knowing that backlinks are valuable is one thing, acquiring them in ways that Google approves of is another.
Let’s get to the bare bones of getting SEO-friendly links for your website.
A. Number of backlinks and linking domains
Why it matters:
Quality trumps quantity, they always say.
But in the case of backlinks, both are equally valuable.
Based on several Google patents, we can infer that a website’s link score is the sum of all quality scores extracted from different pages linking to it. In other words, the more pages linking to you, the higher your overall link score will be.
But not all links are created equal. More links won’t necessarily mean better ranking if the majority of these come from low-quality pages or what Google considers “link schemes.”
Link diversity also counts. Several links from a single website have relatively less value than several links from different sources.
Google only counts all the backlinks from a website as one, so diversify your links if you want them to influence your rankings.
Your action plan:
In an ideal world, all you have to do is create awesome content that people would naturally link back to.
However, the SERPs have grown extremely competitive so a “build it and they will come” mindset simply won’t get you far.
A competitor analysis is a better starting point. Look for the top websites ranking for the same keyword you’re aiming for and then analyze their link profiles and scores to see what you’re up against.
First, choose “Competitors” from the main menu.
If you haven’t done it yet, add the competitor websites whose link profiles you want to analyze.
Click “View Links” to get a detailed look at a competitor’s current backlinks, including the specific pages they’re pointing to.
From here, you can use the data not only to figure out the type of content you should create but also the specific websites you should ask for backlinks from.
Through this strategy, you can replicate your competitors’ backlinks and eventually outrank them by providing better, more link-worthy content.
B. Link authority
Why it matters:
In a way, link building is a popularity contest. The more backlinks you acquire, the more likely you’ll rank higher for your keywords.
But not all links have the same impact. Google loves it more when links pointing to your site are relevant, authoritative and trustworthy.
You already know Google hates link schemes. Now it’s time to learn how to get the right kinds of links. Below are some tried-and-tested link building strategies:
- Infographics – While some say they’ve lost their power, infographics remain a great strategy for acquiring links. Think of a cool idea that’s never been explored before in your niche/industry and then turn it into attention-grabbing art that people would love to share on social media or republish on their blogs.
- Expert roundups – This one has been overused too but it can still make an impact as long as it provides valuable information not found anywhere else.
- Influencer interviews – If you manage to have an influencer sit down with you in a podcast or video interview, it’s already a battle half-won. Leverage this opportunity by discussing a controversial topic or one that will make waves enough to get everybody linking back to you.
- Industry surveys – Depending on your niche, annual industry surveys are a great way to provide valuable insights about a certain topic and get backlinks from people (including the participants) who derive great value from such material. Content Marketing Institute’s report on B2C and B2B content marketing is one fine example.
- Free online tools – When you create an awesome free tool that exceeds users’ expectations, they can pay you back not with money but with tons of high-quality links. It may require more work than other strategies, but as proven by free tools like CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer, it’s well worth every single cent.
Your action plan:
Aside from creating “link bait” content, you also have to perform regular link audits to weed out bad links that may be driving your rankings down.
If you’re using Monitor Backlinks, you’ll get daily or weekly reports to help you keep track of incoming or existing links.
The tool also allows you to block bad backlinks before they even begin to influence your rankings.
To do this, choose “Backlinks” from the main menu to get a thorough overview of all your backlinks including their spam scores.
Low-quality links are flagged with an exclamation point symbol (enclosed in an orange triangle) so you can review them one by one.
Once proven to be harmful and spammy, you can click the orange symbol and choose “Disavow Domain” from the list of options.
This built-in disavow tool will basically tell Google to disregard the link and prevent it from influencing your rankings.
C. Link anchor text
Why it matters:
Google favors relevant links. But how does it know whether the backlinks are relevant or not?
You’ve guessed it: Anchor texts.
The anchor text is the clickable text in a hyperlink. It gives both Google spiders and readers an idea of what the page the link is pointing to is all about.
While there’s no official announcement declaring anchor text as a ranking signal, the fact that it’s been included in Google’s SEO Starter Guide speaks volumes to how important it is.
Anchor texts inform Google how relevant the linked page is and the target keyword it should rank for. However, you can’t optimize all your anchor texts with the same target keyword like people from pre-Penguin penalty days used to do.
The rule is simple:
Diversify your anchor texts or Google will see you as someone trying to game the system.
While there’s no perfect formula on what anchor texts you should use, the graph below provides a more balanced approach that will help you avoid Google penalties:
Your action plan:
Following the suggestions above, ensure that you use the proper ratio of anchor texts every time you write a guest post on other sites.
For backlinks that you’re not in control of, such as those nefariously created by your competitors or naturally given to you by other sites, Monitor Backlinks gives you an easy way to track their anchor texts.
(Don’t forget to claim your free, 30-day trial to immediately receive daily and weekly notifications about your link profile!)
With this tool, you’ll be able to track and filter new backlinks in real time as well as check the anchor texts of your existing backlinks. This way, you can either disavow bad links or reach out to website owners to have the anchor texts changed.
To view anchor texts, go to “Backlinks” and click “Filters.”
Look for the “Anchor text” among the list of options. You can filter your results by typing the anchor text in the box provided.
Choose “Exact” to show backlinks with the exact anchor text that you provided or “Containing” to show less restrictive results. You can also tick the box that says “Empty” to show backlinks without anchor texts.
Once the results have been filtered, click the links under “Link From” one by one to further investigate the anchor texts and find out if there’s an opportunity to optimize them.
2. High-quality content
Content is still king.
After all, you won’t earn a single natural backlink if your content stinks. And did I mention that Google’s Andrey Lipattsev revealed that it’s one of the top three ranking factors?
Needless to say, content marketing remains a powerful strategy to get your business in front of the right people. But to rank in Google, a keyword-stuffed article just won’t cut it anymore.
In fact, one study shows that Google is gradually leaning towards semantic search, meaning optimizing an article’s title with your target keywords doesn’t have as much impact as it used to.
So how can you groom your content for SEO success? By finding what your readers really need and serving them with content that answers all their questions and then some.
A. Content relevance
Why it matters:
Google has gotten smarter. With algorithm updates like RankBrain and Hummingbird, it’s clear that Google is serious about giving users a better experience.
RankBrain is actually a ranking signal and part of the bigger Hummingbird update. It’s artificial intelligence that works like an interpreter, enabling Google to produce accurate search results even if you use uncommon or hard-to-understand language.
If Google can come up with this update, it’s obvious that it’s hell-bent on giving only the best content that satisfies user intent. And if your content isn’t relevant to what the user actually needs, Google has a systematic way of figuring it out.
Although their functions as ranking signals are debatable, various studies prove that the following metrics influence how Google ranks your pages:
- Click-through rate (CTR) or the number of people who click your link on Google search results divided by the total number of views or impressions.
Lower CTR means your title tag and meta description aren’t doing a good job of convincing people to click your article. Google will take notice and drop the ranking of pages with poor CTR in favor of those that serve users better.
- Bounce rate and dwell time are metrics you can find in Google Analytics that provide valuable insights into how engaged readers are with your content.
If CTR is the door, your content is the showroom. Bounce rate is the number of people who leave your website after landing on a page, while dwell time is how long these people stay after they’ve arrived.
Although the ideal numbers vary depending on your niche, one thing is clear: You’re less likely to rank higher if people don’t stick around on your site and instead quickly return to search results (also known as pogo-sticking) to look for better content.
Your action plan:
To ensure that the content you’re creating is in line with user intent, you have to check the keywords they’re using in the first place.
Keyword research boils down to three things:
- What people are searching for (query)
- How many people are searching for it (volume)
- How competitive the keyword is (difficulty)
Both Google Analytics and the “Performance” page in Google Search Console should provide a list of keywords you’re already ranking for. But how well you rank for these keywords compared to your competitors is up to you to figure out.
Fortunately, Monitor Backlinks can do the heavy lifting for you in this area, too.
To start tracking the keywords you’re ranking for, simply go to the “Keywords” tab.
Scroll down and click “Add Keywords.”
Add all the keywords you want to track. These include all the keywords you’ve previously discovered in Google Analytics and Search Console as well as any new keywords that you’re trying to rank for.
Next, go to the “Competitors” tab and add the URLs of your main competitors.
Once you’re done, return to the “Keywords” tab to see if your competitors are ranking higher or lower for the same keywords.
If you’re being outranked by your competitors, it means your page is still relatively new or your competitor’s page satisfies user intent better.
Improving your rankings can do wonders for your website traffic. Even moving from position 11 to 10 can result in a 144% traffic increase.
You can push your pages higher by:
- Improving click-through rates (CTR) of your pages through rich snippets. These are images, ratings or other elements that improve your pages’ visibility when displayed in Google results.
- Getting more external and internal links pointing to these pages.
- Updating the content by discussing topics you might have missed or by adding more related (LSI) keywords.
- Proactively optimizing your content for voice search to get ahead of your competitors.
B. Content length
Why it matters:
In its 2015 search query guidelines, Google revealed that content length is an important element when judging the quality of a page and determining its ranking.
But here comes the tricky part:
It never mentioned how long the ideal content length is. And this has led to the popular advice that longer always means better.
In most cases, longer articles perform better than shorter articles. Backlinko backs this up by finding that pages ranking on the first page of Google contain an average of 1,890 words.
Your action plan:
Content length matters only when the keyword asks for it. Again, user intent is always at the core of content marketing.
You don’t need to write 2,000 words of drivel when the query can be answered in just 500 words.
As a rule of the thumb, use the top pages already ranking for the keyword as a benchmark.
Some keywords, like “time difference between UK and US” for example, obviously don’t require a lengthy discussion.
In contrast, keywords related to divorce, a topic that can confuse those who aren’t familiar with the laws concerning it, require a more in-depth approach.
3. Social signals
Why it matters:
The online marketing world has been—and perhaps always will be—divided regarding the influence of social signals over Google rankings.
It all started when Google’s Matt Cutts confirmed in a video that social media links, particularly from Facebook and Twitter, were used as a ranking signal.
Several years later, Cutts reemerged with another video telling something that negates his previous statement: Social media pages are treated the same as other pages, but not as a ranking factor.
The conflicting statements leave us with more questions than answers.
Can social media shares really move the needle? Unless someone from Google comes out from the veil of secrecy and tells the truth, we’ll probably never know.
Meanwhile, numerous case studies like Searchmetrics’ 2016 Rebooting Ranking Factors Whitepaper show that more social signals are associated with higher rankings.
Hootsuite also observed that higher social media engagement results in positive changes in ranking.
Correlation doesn’t mean causation. But based on available data, we can safely infer that social media shares can indirectly influence rankings.
Here are two reasons why:
- Higher social signals mean more eyeballs that will see your content. If an article goes viral or generates enough social media buzz, you can get the attention of other content creators and eventually earn backlinks.
- Social media promotion is an effective way to build your brand. As long as you consistently publish awesome content and engage with your followers, people will develop an affinity with your brand. As a result, those who already trust you can easily recognize your website’s name in Google search results and click it right away. Higher CTR, as we’ve pointed out earlier, can indirectly lead to higher rankings.
Your action plan:
Choose your platform.
Not all social media platforms will work for you. While some thrive on Facebook, there are other businesses who will find more success with less popular sites like Pinterest.
See where your competitors are getting traction and try to start building your audience there.
Engage with your followers.
The purpose of social media is to build connections. With various distractions from every direction, you need to think of ways for your content to stand out in social media newsfeeds.
Be ready to answer user queries quickly and appease those who are dissatisfied. Customer service goes a long way in building your online reputation.
Install social media buttons.
There are many WordPress plugins designed to make sharing easier for your readers and followers.
Make sure to check your Google Analytics to get insights into the social media platforms that give you the most referral traffic. Doing so will help you choose which social media buttons to display and avoid overwhelming your followers with too many buttons.
4. Mobile-first user experience
Why it matters:
As a result of Mobilegeddon sweeping the whole internet, more than half of search queries came from mobile devices.
Soon after, Google started mobile-first indexing which basically crawled and indexed the mobile version of website pages as opposed to the desktop version.
The goal, as usual, was to improve user experience across all devices. While mobile-first indexing had been ongoing for quite some time, it was only in 2018 when Google officially rolled it out.
While the new update may not have a huge impact on rankings, Google is now favoring pages that are mobile-friendly over those that aren’t optimized for mobile devices yet.
But with 85% of websites now optimized for mobile devices, it’s not enough to just be mobile-friendly. To beat your competition, you should always think mobile-first, meaning improving the overall performance of your mobile pages, particularly speed.
By using Google’s mobile website speed testing tool, you can find ways to fix technical errors and improve the performance of your mobile pages.
Your action plan:
For better rankings, Google recommends responsive web design for your website.
If you don’t have one yet, you can choose from this wide array of responsive themes for WordPress.
Also, ensure that the mobile version of your website has been added and verified in Google Search Console.
Lastly, don’t launch the mobile version until it’s complete and fully ready. Releasing a broken mobile site may only hurt your rankings, so stick to the desktop version while waiting for the completion.
5. Page speed
Why it matters:
As early as 2010, Google already announced that page speed was a ranking factor.
When it rolled out mobile-first indexing in mid-2018, page speed also became a ranking factor for mobile.
A sluggish website makes it impossible for a page to get indexed, let alone to rank. Google has limited crawl budget so when your website is slow, the search engine spiders can only crawl a few pages, ultimately hurting the way your content is indexed.
A slow-loading page can also negatively impact your bottom line.
Studies show that even a one-second delay in page load time can lead to a 7% reduction in conversions. For massive companies like Amazon, this translates to a staggering $1.6 billion in sales lost.
Your action plan:
Test your website speed.
Before applying measures to improve your page speed, take baseline measurements first so you can have data to compare to.
You can use Google’s PageSpeed Insights to have an idea of how well your site performs on both desktop and mobile devices.
Remove useless plugins.
While you may have valid reasons for every plugin installed on your website, some of them are huge burdens that can be replaced with better alternatives.
To see which plugins are weighing your website down, deactivate them all at once. Then, activate each plugin one by one, carefully testing your website speed after each reactivation to reveal the true culprits.
Once they’re identified, you can either search for alternative plugins or just remove them altogether.
Install speed-boosting plugins.
Google suggests aiming for two seconds or less of page loading time. However, most websites struggle to achieve this because of the uncompressed content like images, scripts and CSS files that’s bogging them down.
6. Other technical signals
While they may not have the same level of impact as the ranking signals above, the following technical factors can still drag your website down if you don’t play by the rules:
- HTTPS – In 2014, Google described having a secure connection as a very lightweight signal in ranking pages. Since its effect is minimal, you can choose to delay switching to HTTPS. But why delay the migration when non-HTTPS sites are now flagged as “Not secure” sites in Chrome browsers?
If you don’t want to scare away your new visitors and increase your bounce rate, the best time to switch is now.
- H1 and H2 tags – Google’s John Mueller himself confirmed that title tags are ranking factors. Don’t forget to optimize your heading and subheadings with your keywords. As long as you don’t over-optimize and keep things natural, these tags can help Google analyze your content better.
- Interstitials – Intrusive interstitial pop-ups can hurt your rankings if they’re blocking readers’ access to your content. The fact that Google implemented mobile-first indexing suggests it will crack down on anything that prevents positive mobile search experience.
Remove ads that are covering the main content and leading users to another page when clicked. Some exceptions include legally-required popups (like for age verification), login dialogs and small banner ads you can easily dismiss.
Final thoughts on Google ranking factors
Google ranking factors provide a roadmap on how to properly optimize your website.
While nobody except Google employees knows the full list of ranking factors, the ones discussed in this guide have been proven to have the most significant impact.
Zeroing in on these ranking factors will save you a lot of time and resources.
And if you combine your knowledge of Google ranking factors with an indispensable tracking tool like Monitor Backlinks, you’ll be able to see your website grow and replicate the same success for years to come.