There are around 200 factors that Google uses to determine where your website should rank in their results. Trying to ensure your site meets every single one of these factors is practically impossible — and also pretty useless. For instance, Google’s algorithm considers the age of your domain when it’s determining rankings. But most of the time, you can’t control the age of your site. Plus, relatively speaking it’s not an important factor at all.
A good portion of Google’s ranking factors is similar to age of domain in that they aren’t important enough for you to sweat over. In fact, there are some factors that may seem important (or at least used to be important) that really don’t matter too much anymore.
The cold, hard truth is that Google isn’t really too open about what ranking factors matter. In fact, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Meuller says the most important ranking factor is: “Awesomeness.” While he may just give that answer because Google engineers may not fully understand the search engine’s algorithms, the fact is that SEO experts are left testing different potential factors to determine what actually matters.
Fortunately, this research has yielded some pretty informative results. By experimenting with hypothesized ranking factors and seeing their effect on actual pages, we can determine which ranking factors have the biggest impact through objective data.
After hours and hours of research and trial and error, most SEO experts agree that the most important ranking factors include:
1. Having Spectacular Content
It’s been true for years, and it’s only becoming more important: you NEED high-quality, intentional content on your site.
There are a few reasons why great content is so important. First and foremost, Google wants to see that you’re providing value to your visitors. Pages on your site should be more than just sales pitches. They should provide valuable, accurate information that informs the reader.
Unfortunately, Google doesn’t provide a hard and fast list of rules for “quality content.” Rather, it’s all about finding success in your content. Basically, if your blogs and webpages aren’t delivering the results it should, it’s not quality content. Whether you’re looking for leads, product sales, or some other result, content is high-quality if it’s contributing to that goal.
Despite popular belief, long content does not equal high-quality content. For example, have you ever tried to look up a recipe online, only to have to skip paragraphs and paragraphs of pointless background from the writer before you finally get the actual recipe? Writers know you probably won’t read that content, but they include it because they think it makes Google happy.
It doesn’t. This kind of content can actually drive readers away, leading high bounce rates and lower time on page — not ideal for ranking well. What’s more, this bloated type of writing doesn’t meet one of the most important content factors today: search intent. As the name suggests, your content should answer the question(s) that the searcher is looking for. In the case of recipe pages, knowing that the recipe was discovered in an old cookbook from a thrift store two states over isn’t answering the question of the searcher.
Of course, keyword research and implementation is highly important, as well. But stuffing your content with keywords is a sure way to plummet in rankings. Instead, use keyword research as a roadmap, and explore semantic keywords — that is, keywords that have similar meanings. For instance, you don’t want to just say “plumber in Tulsa.” Instead, include other keywords as well, like “how to fix a leaky sink,” “toilet repairs in Tulsa,” and the like.
2. Optimized Website Structure
In 2014, Google began cracking down on websites that aren’t secure. Now, if your site doesn’t have an SSL certification (shown as “https” in your URL), your rankings will suffer. More than that, visitors using the Chrome browser may receive a warning when they come to your site that their data may not be secure. This may appear as a “not secure” warning in the URL bar, or it may even be all but block people from visiting your site.
Luckily, making your website secure is easier than ever. You simply have to buy an SSL certificate for your site. Many website builders and hosts like Squarespace automatically include an SSL certificate when you use their services. Note, however, then implementing an SSL certificate on your existing site can be tricky when it comes to making sure all of your pages are properly addressed. As such, it may be worth it to hire an SEO expert to secure your site for you.
In addition to having a secure site, it should also be mobile-friendly. In 2015, “Mobilegeddon” sent webmasters scrambling to make sure their sites were responsive on cell phones and tablets. While mobile-friendliness wasn’t quite as impactful as everyone thought it would be, it’s still an important ranking factor. Making sure your site is easy to use from every device shows Google that you are dedicated to user-friendliness. Plus, users are more likely to stay on a site if it’s easier to use!
Most major site builders and hosts, including WordPress and GoDaddy, include responsive sites in their packages. If you have to build a mobile site by hand, however, you’re going to want to hire a professional to do so for you (unless you’re a web designer by trade).
3. Easy-to-Use Website Design
If your site is difficult to use, well, it probably won’t be used. User experience is a major factor in rankings for a variety of reasons. About 40 percent of people say they won’t use a site if it’s simply unattractive, much less difficult to use. This has to do with dwell time, meaning how long people stay on your site before returning to search results.
Site architecture is a vital component of user experience. Your site should be easy to navigate from the top menu, which should be logically structured. Your most important or most popular services/products should be at the top of your menu, not buried in a submenu. It should take no more than three or four clicks to get to any page on your site, in most cases. Proper architecture not only helps users navigate, but it also allows Google and other search engines to more easily crawl your site.
In addition to site architecture, page speed is incredibly important for user experience. Slow sites are just as much of a turn-off to users as unattractive or difficult-to-navigate sites. If it takes too long for your site to load, potential visitors (i.e. customers!) will find somewhere else to go. The good news is, it’s relatively easy to speed up your site.
Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool will let you check your entire website, as well as individual pages, for any speed issues. It will also provide you with tools and tips to improve your site speed, such as shrinking image sizes and removing unused CSS. While some fixes can be done by anyone with basic website knowledge, some fixes may require the assistance of an experienced web design expert.
4. Correct On-Page Optimizations
Google wants to make sure they can quickly tell what your site is about. That means having proper on-page SEO. While these back-end optimizations won’t really be noticed by visitors to your site, the search engine will definitely appreciate your efforts.
Perhaps the most important optimization you can make is implementing metadata. Metadata includes your page titles, meta descriptions, image alt text, and more. There are plenty of tools that can help you implement metadata on your site. However, some of these tools may also insist you have outdated meta tags like “revisit after” or “distribution” that is pointless and, in some instances, potentially detrimental to your site. An SEO expert can make sure your metadata and meta tags are properly added to your site.
Schema markup is also important for your site. First created in 2011, there are now something like 600 different types of information you can include in your schema. Some of the most common markups include geolocations, types of products or services provided, business owner information, business contact information, and much more. Schema is an incredibly powerful tool for telling Google exactly what your site is about without the search engine having to dig through pages.
Finally, you should make sure the pages on your site are internally linked to other relevant pages on your site. Interlinked pages help both visitors and search engines move through your site to other relevant content. By having a proper internal link structure, you can manage where traffic goes once a visitor gets to your site. You can also build a virtual hub around specific topics, and make sure top pages like high-level services pages are prioritized through internal links pointing toward them.
5. Earning High-Quality Backlinks
Speaking of links, backlinks are one of the easiest ways to show Google that you have Authority and Expertise — two of the major components in the search engine’s newest algorithm updates. Some major sites, like those for massive corporations, don’t need backlinks to succeed, since most people trust their sites and content inherently (and Google does as well). But for your site, having high-quality sites link to your content shows Google that you are trusted in your industry.
Backlinking can be tough. But there are a lot of different strategies that can help you get the backlinks you need. These include:
- Client case studies, which your clients will likely link to
- Guest blogs on authoritative publisher websites
- Expert or industry leader roundups that you can be included in
- Infographics that will be shared and linked to on other sites
- Ebooks, whitepapers and other free content that can be linked elsewhere
- And much more
While quality backlinks will continue to be important for years to come, having your site linked on bad or low-quality sites can be detrimental. Be sure to regularly check your backlink profile and disavow ones that could have a negative impact on your site.
Make Sure Top Ranking Factors Are Always Present on Your Site
These ranking factors all contribute to more technical aspects of SEO, such as bounce rate, time on page and more. For now, these ranking factors are important. But that could change on a dime. If you don’t want to continually check your site to make sure it meets Google’s standards with every algorithm update, we can help.
Our SEO experts can work alongside your team to continually make improvements to your site to help you rise through Google’s rankings — and stay at or near the top. Give us a call or contact us online to learn more about how we can help you.