SEO Beginners Guide: Google Ranking Factors (Updated)15 min read
Google uses over 200 factors to analyze your website and determine its rank within the search engine results pages (SERPs). This guide is a great place to start if you’d like to understand how Google sees your site and the basic factors it uses to determine where your site is placed within the search results.
Despite numerous algorithm updates over the years, Google has consistently broadcasted one message—good content is everything when it comes to SEO.
The focus on great content can be found at the heart of Google. The company’s stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Everything at Google (including its search engine) relates back to this ultimate goal. Even Google’s seemingly unpredictable search algorithm updates are an effort to improve the search engine’s ability to achieve its overall mission.
When a user types a query into its search engine, Google wants to make sure only the most useful and relevant results are shown. If your site is not relevant or useful to the searcher’s query, it is less likely to be ranked on the first page.
No longer dependent on contextual hints within a website’s code, Google now has an almost human-like ability to read a site and determine its relevance to search queries. This is where meaningful, relevant, and holistic content is vital for ranking well within Google. A 2013 search algorithm update (named “Hummingbird), helped Google go beyond keywords and understand the topic of a webpage. After the update, Google advised sites suffering organic traffic loss to optimize with natural writing and relevant content rather than forcing keywords into their copy. To get a better idea of what kind of content Google is looking for, I recommend reading Google’s Search Quality Raters’ Guidelines. This 168-page document isn’t a light read, but it does give you a clear idea of what Google considers high-quality, meaningful content.
To further complicate things, Google is not only looking for quality content, they want to see useful content. The kind of content with unique value and insights. Google has even said they’re happy to penalize sites who don’t bring anything new or useful to the table. Don’t settle for generic content with regurgitated facts and figures. Google wants to see more.
Once upon a time, keywords were the Holy Grail of SEO. It used to be enough to place relevant keywords in a few key spots and voila your site had a good chance of ranking on the first page. However, things have changed a bit since the early days. Keywords are still important, but Google has gotten much better at reading your site just like a real person. Keywords alone are not enough.
However, they are still a ranking factor. Google looks for keywords in a few key areas including URL, title tags, headings, and within the page copy. Beware of over-optimizing and forcing keywords where they don’t fit. Google’s algorithm doesn’t like pages with an unnaturally high keyword density as it could be an indication of “keyword stuffing” or other blackhat SEO tactics. Google can also recognize gibberish content or “spun” content. Typically they filter out spam and some types of auto-generated content from search results.
Backlinks are links from other sites to a page on your site. Google views backlinks as personal endorsements of your site. It’s a signal of your usefulness and relevance (which also relates directly back to Google’s mission). A massive study from Backlinko on top Google results found a few interesting things when it comes to backlinks and ranking:
- Pages with backlinks tend to rank higher than pages without.
- The first result in Google has an average of 3.8x more backlinks than lower results.
- A site’s overall link authority (number of potentially spammy links) correlates strongly with higher rankings.
- Sorry, this one’s slightly depressing…95% of all web pages have 0 backlinks.
However, like with any strong ranking signal, people have tried to game the system. Disreputable SEO vendors set up “link farms” to create thousands of artificial links to a web page. It didn’t take Google long to wise up to these tactics and now it evaluates your site for any of this suspicious activity. Thousands of links from a single domain name or IP address are strong indicators of a link scheme.
Beware of anyone who promises to get you hundreds or thousands of links for a seemingly low price. Of course, there is a right way to get backlinks, and that’s by letting your content do the work for you. Content that checks every box on Google’s list is more likely to naturally gain links back to your site. You may also consider contacting other relevant sites and asking them to link back to yours. This takes lots of research and time, but won’t get you blacklisted by Google.
3. User Signals
Google also looks at user signals to determine ranking. Google collects this user activity data through a plethora of services they provide to the public (Chrome browser, Android devices, Google websites and services).
Click-Through Rate (CTR)
Google uses CTR to help define quality and relevance. CTR measures how many users clicked on a page’s URL compared to how many times it was shown in the search results. A higher CTA tells Google your page is answering users’ search queries, which increases the chance your page will rank higher.
Bounce rate measures the number of users leaving a page without performing an additional action like filling out a form, making a purchase, or navigating to another page on the site. Users leaving the site without interacting any further (“bouncing” back to the search results) indicates how well your site fulfilled their search query. If a page consistently gets bounces for a particular search term, Google is much less likely to show that page in the search results again.
While some SEO professionals disagree on the importance of bounce rate as a ranking factor, a study did find a correlation between the two. An average bounce rate is between 41 and 51%, although it will vary by industry and the type of site you have. A blog is more likely to have a high bounce rate than ecommerce and retail pages.
Time On Site (Dwell Time)
Time on site (or dwell time) is exactly what it sounds like—how long a user stays on a given page or website. Google relates a user’s time spent on a website to how satisfied a user is with the relevance of the site. More time on site correlates with better page ranking.
However, a lower time on site doesn’t always mean something is wrong with your page or your content. A user leaving your site after finding the answer to their question is still a satisfied click. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t have a way to measure satisfied clicks (at least not yet), so for now, a higher time on site is better for ranking purposes. Just remember to keep the page’s purpose in mind when analyzing user metrics.
4. Mobile-Optimized Site
In April 2015 Google did something a bit different. They pre-announced an algorithm update. For this update, Google would now reward pages optimized for mobile devices. They wanted to make sure all searches find relevant and high-quality search results, no matter what device they use to perform the search. Sometimes referred to as “mobilegeddon” this update caused a pretty big shake up in the SEO world.
When Google first announced mobile optimization as a search ranking factor, only 31% of web traffic was from a mobile device. Now, around 52% of traffic comes from a mobile device. And Google’s not done yet. In March of 2021, Google is planning to switch everything over to mobile-first indexing. Prepare to be penalized if your site is not optimized for mobile.
5. Technical Factors
For all of Google’s focus on good content, they still care about technical SEO factors. Technical SEO is what happens behind-the-scenes on your site and encompasses everything from site speed to structured data to heading tags.
H1 & H2 Tags
H1 and H2 tags are HTML in the source code of a page. These heading tags tell Google (and human users) how the information on your page is structured. The H1 (“title tag”) is the highest level tag on any page. Lower level headings (H2s, H3s) are used to organize a page’s content even further. For example, this page has a title tag (H1), numbered sections (H2s), and paragraph headers (H3s). With Google’s human-like ability to read a page’s content, heading tags aren’t quite as critical as they once were. However, because they help readers navigate a page, they are still an important ranking signal.
Hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS) is the secure version of the HTTP protocol, which is used to send data between a web browser and a website. A secure HTTP means all communications between your browser and a website are encrypted. HTTPS requires the purchase and installation of a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate. Major web browsers have added a padlock icon to the search bar to signal if a site has an SSL certificate or not.
Even after confirming HTTPS as a ranking factor in 2014, in March of 2015 only 45% of pages in Chrome loaded with HTTPS. In 2018, Google began marking any site without an SSL certificate as “unsecure”. Before Google reserved this distinction for sites collecting sensitive information (names, emails, payment information), but now they label any site without an SSL as “unsecure”. This was part of Google’s continuing effort to make HTTPS the default state users can expect. As of May 2020, 96% of pages on Chrome loaded with HTTPS. Without an SSL certificate, your site will be labeled as “unsecure”, affecting your site traffic and search engine ranking.
Top Level Domain (TLD)
A top level domain (TLD) refers to what comes after the dot in a website’s domain name. Even though there are hundreds of TLDs, the most common are .com, .org, .edu, and .net. Some lower quality TLDs (.info, .biz, .name) are frequently associated with spam behavior and do not usually rank well in Google because of it.
Because it strongly impacts a user’s experience, site speed is a fairly important ranking factor. Visitors spend less time on site when a page responds slowly or does not load. Faster sites improve user experience, especially on mobile. When crawling the web, Google estimates your site speed based on a page’s HTML code. Google offers a PageSpeed Insights tool. GTMetrix is another free tool to help diagnose page speed problems.
Structured data is a way to help Google (and other search engines) find information on your website. Using specific snippets of code, structured data is basically a text file of a web page’s most important ideas. Instead of leaving it up to Google’s web crawlers to search for details on your site, structured data highlights and focuses the information Google indexes. Keywords, products, services, prices, business hours, and other details can all be highlighted in structured data. This helps your site populate within specific and relevant search results, giving searchers more detailed information, and increasing the likelihood of winning the click. Some sites with structured data have increased their click-through rate by 30%.
6. User Experience
Google looks at more than just content, backlinks, users signals, and technical factors. A user’s experience on the page must also be considered.
In some cases, Google infers the usability of your site by looking at on-page metrics. A confusing layout or menu structure will negatively affect the time users spend on your site, the number of pages per session, and your site’s bounce rate. Interactive and organizational elements like menus, buttons, or drawers can greatly improve a user’s experience if done correctly.
Images & Videos
Images and videos may be a signal of your content’s quality. A study from Backlinko found a strong correlation between images/videos and Google rankings. A large percent of pages also include embedded videos. Including “alt text” or an image description helps screen-reading tools describe images to visually impaired readers and allows search engines to better crawl your site. Like most on-page elements, don’t overuse images and videos. Place them where they will enhance a user’s experience by offering context and relevance.
Organizational elements like lists help break up large blocks of copy and make your content more user-friendly. Google seems to prefer bulleted or numbered lists and even tables of contents on longer form content. The Quality Raters’ Guidelines states “The page layout on highest quality pages makes the Main Content immediately visible.” Lists and tables of contents also make it easier for Google to understand your site and makes good content for featured snippets within the search results.
Internal & External Links
Think of internal and external links on your page as references and annotations in a research paper. They help confirm and validate your content and are a sign of quality. Interestingly, Google has denied they use external links as a ranking factor. This does not mean external links are irrelevant. Google’s Quality Raters’ Guidelines advises reviewers to keep an eye out for sources when looking at certain pages, and especially for topics “where expertise and/or authoritative sources are important”. This includes what Google labels YMYL sites (your money or your life sites), or any site offering information or advice on topics relating to a user’s money or life decisions (legal, financial, health, etc.).
In essence, if you claim to be an expert on anything, Google likes to see you back up those claims by linking to your sources. The Raters’ Guidelines also warns against sites with too many outbound links as these could distract from the main content. Use common sense when using external and internal links. Add them to give context and to reference sources, but don’t overuse them.
7. Brand Signals
Google wants to know if your website is a credible and reliable source of information. They look for brand signals around the web including branded searches, location data, news stories, official (and up-to-date) social media pages. Google even filed a patent in 2013 for determining if a social media account is real or fake.
Another important brand signal relates back to the credibility we discussed earlier. An article or blog written by a known expert is likely to rank higher than those that aren’t. In 2013, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification. This is yet another way Google is highlighting relevant content. An article written by a verified expert is more likely to be authoritative and reliable in Google’s eyes. Brands often work with authoritative guest authors to write posts or build up their company’s reputation as an expert in the industry.
The Wrap Up
As with any discussion about Google or SEO, it is impossible to know exactly how Google will rank a website or page. And even if we were to figure out the magic formula, Google is constantly revising and updating their search algorithm. However, expanding your understanding of the ranking signals will allow you to make informed and strategic decisions about your website.
If you feel overwhelmed or are unsure of where to go next, let me leave you with this thought—reference Google’s mission statement when prioritizing your SEO to-do list. Google wants to know why your site matters to the person on the other end of the search bar. Ask yourself what you have to offer a potential searcher. Your site should help facilitate a connection with your target audience, whether that’s by offering products, services, or information depends on your brand. If you aren’t focused on your users, Google is all the more likely to pass you by for someone who is.
If you would like a professional opinion on your website’s SEO readiness, contact us. The DVS team will be happy to review your site and provide a free opinion on how it’s currently performing and how to improve it.