Any marketers that claim they know exactly how Google ranks website isn’t telling you the whole truth. Except for Google insiders, no one knows the exact SEO ranking factors that are used to determine the positions of the website on the search result.
However, Google does give off hints on what could possibly contribute to a webpage’s ranking. SEO experts also spent time combing through the data to identify possible factors. Therefore, we have a good idea of what is considered as ranking factors for Google.
The bad news? Some of them may change over time. In this guide, we’ll take a look at important ranking factors that are unlikely to change and those that are given priority in 2020.
Google is quite secretive about what’s driving the search engine’s ranking factor. You can’t be totally sure of what it looks at websites to determine their SERP ranking.
However, Google does occasionally give off explicit confirmation on what it considers as a ranking factor.
Some of the confirmations come in the form of major SEO algorithm updates. For example, the Panda Update in 2011 targets websites with low quality and duplicate content. Here’s an excerpt from Google on the update.
Google introduced HTTPS as a ranking factor in 2014, where sites encrypted with the secured protocol are given a slight boost.
In July 2018, Google introduced mobile loading speed as a ranking factor, although it specifically mentions that it carries less weight than search intent and content quality.
These are just a few of the many ‘hints’ dropped by Google on what matters in SEO ranking. There are good reasons why Google isn’t making its SEO algorithm an open-book.
First, it prevents SEOs and publishers from trying to ‘game’ the system. SEO algorithm isn’t perfect and Google is perfectly aware of that.
There’s a reason why Google is the largest search engine in the world. It prides itself on providing the most relevant search results to users. As the secret lies in its algorithm, it only makes sense that Google is being tight-lipped about it.
Even if you’ve managed to glimpse at Google’s SEO blueprint, it will be pretty much obsolete within weeks or months. That’s because Google is constantly updating its algorithm, as it introduces new ranking factors, devalues, or changes the priority in existing ones.
In 2019, Google made 12 significant updates where 3 of them are broad core updates affecting websites across all industries. On top of that, Google is rolling up an average of 3 minor updates each day, according to Gary Illyes, a webmaster trend analyst at Google.
It helps to understand how Google identifies and ranks trillions of webpages on the internet, which seems like an impossible task if not aided by technologies.
While it’s impossible to peer into the inner-working of Google’s algorithm, you’ll have a good idea of how Google ranks webpages from this 168 pages Search Quality Guideline document. This document is used by manual raters, who are humans, to assess the quality of search results and provide recommendations for improvements in future updates.
If you don’t have time to read through all of the pages, or understand some of the technicality of SEO, here’s basically what it says.
For example, a medical article ought to be written by a health expert who has his/her works published elsewhere. E-A-T doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll need an expert to be involved. Content by non-professional experiences is also considered to be high E-A-T if they are written from their perspectives.
The ultimate goal for SEO is to generate organic traffic from search engines, particularly Google. This is only possible when you’re ranking on the first page of Google, which enjoys the highest click-through rate (CTR)
According to Backlinko, webpages that rank on position 1-3 have an average CTR of 25%. If you’re taking the top spot, expect the CTR to reach 31.73%.
Even if you’re on position 4-10, you’ll still get a decent amount of traffic. In fact, 95% of traffic goes to the first page of search result. As brutal as it is, making it to the 2nd page isn’t good enough, as you’ll only have a trickle of organic visitors to your site.
Regardless of the number of updates in Google’s SEO algorithm, there are elements that remain crucial to ranking webpages.
Content, particularly ‘evergreen’ ones, are helpful to sustaining favourable ranking on Google.
Here are the criteria for content that are favoured by Google.
Title tags or meta tags remain an important factor for SEO ranking. It helps Google to understand what your webpage is all about.
You’ll find title tags not only on the search engine but also on the browser and social media.
Here’s what users will see when your page appears on Google search result.
If you’re sharing it on Facebook, the meta title will appear too.
Users consuming the content will also see the title tag at the browser tab.
Considering the frequency of title tags making an impression on readers, it should be well-written and optimised for both humans and SEO.
Here are the golden rules for title tags optimisations.
As Google’s SEO algorithm continues to evolve, some factors are getting more prevalence than ever. Here are the ranking factors that you ought to pay attention to in 2020.
Backlinks are inbound links from other websites. They are used as an indicator by Google to determine the E-A-T factor of a website. This is specifically highlighted in this whitepaper on How Google Fights Disinformation
In other words, backlinks remain one of the major ranking signals on Google, particularly more so after the recent May 2020 update.
If your website has great content, but lacks backlinks, it will be outranked by competitors that have better backlink profiles.
The top two results of ‘digital marketing for beginners’ have more than 2,000+ backlinks each.
With that said, you shouldn’t build links without a proper SEO strategy. While backlinks are important, building links from low quality and spammy sites may lead to Google penalties. You can also be wasting time and effort in building links that carry little to no SEO value.
There are two important qualities of a good backlink; relevance and authority.
A link is considered more valuable when it comes from a source that’s related to your industry. For example, a business site selling basketball shoes will want to get backlinks from a basketball training blog and not a website offering hair loss advice.
Google recognises a backlink that’s relevant as it’s a sign that your website demonstrates considerable expertise and is accepted by the community.
The authority of the linking site also determines the ‘SEO juice’ of the backlink. By authority, we mean established sites in the industry. For SEO, authoritative sites are like SearchEngineJournal.com, Moz.com and SearchEngineLand.
These sites have been established for years, have tons of high-quality content and are linked to by many other sources. You can use authoritative checker from Ahref or Moz to get an idea on the authority of a site.
According to Moz, SearchEngineJournal has an authoritative score of DA 90. Meanwhile, a 2-year old personal SEO blog is likely to have a DA < 20.
Obviously, backlinks from a DA 90 site is more valuable than one from a DA 20 site. The question is, should you build backlinks only from authoritative sites?
No. The best strategy is to have a mix of authoritativeness and relevance. Sometimes, backlinks from low authority but relevant sites could be as effective in moving the needle.
What’s more important is that Google frowns on unnatural link building scheme. Having only links from high DA websites may trigger an alert on Google’s manual spam team.
Google is increasingly geared to promote relevant content to its users. If you’re hoping to break in the first page of SERP, you’ll need to make relevance a top priority.
Relevance covers content that matches what users are searching for and also those that are timely-updated.
If you search for “how to build a website using WordPress”, you’ll find that the results on the first page are tutorials and guide for building a website with WordPress.
You don’t see content for building websites with Wix, as it is not what users are looking for. Even if you’ve optimised the title with the search phrase, you couldn’t rank well if the content deviates from the topic.
Note how this website building guide, which is more generic, is ranked on page 4 of Google.
Besides being relevant to the users, content freshness is also important. Freshness means if the content is updated and reflects the latest facts.
You can’t trick Google just by changing the year in the title and content nor edit the published or modified date of the article. Google is smart enough to determine if the content is updated with the latest info.
This is very obvious when you search for queries that are time-sensitive. For example, the term ‘best web hosting platforms 2020’ returns this article from Cnet on the top position.
The Cnet article states the price of shared hosting at $2.59/month.
When you check at Dreamhost, the price matches the description in the article by Cnet. Therefore, it is ranked on the first page as it has fresh content.
If you’re just updating the year but didn’t refresh the content, Google may push it down the ranking.
Here’s a site that promotes the services of a2hosting, which is found further down the SERP.
However, the details of the packages have changed on the vendor’s site.
In this case, Google decides that the article by Cnet is more relevant, as it contains the latest information. Consequently, outdated content is pushed further down the search results.
You’ll also find examples of fresh content outranking outdated ones in ‘how-to’ articles. Users searching for ‘how to use Google keyword planner’ will find Backlinko’s article on the #1 position.
Here’s a screenshot of its content.
Meanwhile, this article, which is also about using Google keyword planner, is languishing on page 9.
In case you’re not aware, Google keyword planner was upgraded in 2019, along with Google Ads (formerly Google Adwords).
Therefore, Google considers the article from Backlinko to be fresher as it contains information that is relevant to the upgraded tool.
Besides using the old version of Google keyword planner for examples, the second article also suffers from readability issues. The paragraphs are written in large chunks, no headings are used and it was comparatively on-the-surface compared to Backlinko’s.
These factors are detrimental to the article’s ranking and they explain its miserable position.
If there’s anything you ought to focus on to boost SEO ranking in 2020, it is to become a leading voice in your niche.
In order to have topical authority, you’ll need to provide all the information that the reader could possibly look for. Readers ought to be able to find supplementary information on the topic without leaving your site.
If your site is on bed bugs prevention and you published a single article on the “best vacuums for bed bugs”, Google will consider your site as an authority in bed bugs but not vacuum cleaners. Therefore, it will be ranked lower against a site in vacuum cleaner niche for the same keyword.
Look how PestStrategies, an authority in pest control, is ranking lower than Bestvacuum.review, despite both having almost similar authoritativeness.
A good way to increase your topical authority is to identify questions that users may ask and build articles based on those search phrases. Connect those supplementary articles with the one you’re attempting to rank with internal links.
We’ve mentioned that producing relevant content is very important and much of that comes from meeting the search intent of users.
Search intent is the end goal of what the users are trying to achieve when they search for a particular phrase.
Today, Google’s algorithm is built with the intelligence to provide results that match the user’s search intent.
If a user is searching for ‘how to learn Korean at home’, Google knows that the user is seeking information on picking up the Korean language. Therefore, Google returns relevant ‘how-to’ articles that are informational and not reviews of the best Korean self-learning CDs.
When you’re providing content that matches search intent, users are likely to spend more time on your page. This leads to a lower bounce rate, higher dwell time and increased conversion.
There are a few types of search intent that you need to be aware of:
So, how do you create content that fulfils the user’s search intent?
First, the content itself needs to satisfy what the users are searching. If you’re targeting users who are trying to learn Korean at home, the content has to be so.
Next, you’ll need to optimize the meta title, description and the headings with the primary keyword or variations. Doing so helps Google and users to understand the purpose of the content.
Here’s how the top-ranking page uses the headings to ensure users digest the information easily.
If you’re optimizing for Google a few years back, you can still break into the first page by publishing lengthy content. However, such a strategy doesn’t work anymore.
Now, Google prefers in-depth content rather than a 5,000 words article full of fluff.
Content depth means you’ll have to address all of the questions the reader may possibly have, within the article.
Meanwhile, content length is determined by word count. You could have a long article that is barely scraping the surface of the topic.
Norton’s article on ‘What is a VPN’ is a textbook example of content depth.
The article not only answers the definition of a VPN but also goes covers every possible question in detail. It’s no surprise that the article takes the top spot on the SERP.
Compare Norton’s article with the one below, and you’ll see how lack of depth results in a lower ranking.
Whenever you’re creating content, you’ll want to explore ways of diving further into the subject. It could be quoting scientific studies, instead of making general statements or covering related questions.
You can use the ‘People also ask’ section as an inspiration.
Page speed is more important than ever if you’re trying to rank high on Google search results. In 2010, Google starts using site speed as a ranking signal.
Since then, more users are using mobile than desktop when making search queries. This lead to Google introducing page speed as a signal for mobile search ranking in 2018.
It is important to note that user experience differs on desktop and a mobile device. The mobile device is constrained to lower processor power and telco bandwidth. Some sites may load smoothly on a desktop but show latency on a mobile device.
Google’s move was based on a study where more than one-quarter of readers will leave the website if it was not loaded after 3 seconds. The bounce rate tripled if the delay hits the 5 seconds mark.
Therefore, Google has made it a point for webmasters to increase the loading speed of their webpages.
You can use Google Pagespeed Insights to find out if your webpage is well-optimized for speed. The tool will list out the actions that you could take to improve the page loading speed.
Some of the ways to improve page speed are:
With cyber threats on the rise, Google is keen on promoting secure and accessible websites. It has encouraged webmasters to use the Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) instead of the unsecured HTTP protocol.
HTTPS encrypts the data between the browser and the server, which prevents hackers from intercepting and misusing the communication for frauds. Meanwhile, communications on HTTP sites are unencrypted and can be spied on by attackers.
The importance of a secure browsing experience is highlighted when Google made HTTPS a ranking factor in 2014.
In order to operate an HTTPS website, you’ll need to install an SSL certificate, which holds the key needed to create a secure browsing session.
An HTTPS-secured website will have the ‘https://’ prefix at the URL and the lock icon.
In Google SEO, it’s impossible to achieve dramatic results overnight. Even if you’re able to get hundreds of links within weeks, domain age remains a major factor that Google considers.
If you’re having a brand new domain, you’ll find there’s little growth in ranking for the first 6 to 12 months. It is believed that Google has a proverbial ‘sandbox’ period for new domains. During the sandbox period, the sites are treated differently than older domains.
However, this doesn’t mean that buying an aged domain will necessarily result in a better ranking. If the domain is associated with spammy practices, such as link buying schemes, it will be even tougher to rank than a new domain.
Neither will the domain rank if it was never indexed by Google before. Domain age, in this case, specifically refers to the time when Google index the site.
SEO requires patience, especially when building on a new domain. If you keep publishing high quality, relevant content and use legit link building strategies, the growth in organic traffic will eventually happen.
In 2019, mobile phones make up 53.3% of traffic on the internet. It has grown a whopping 222% over the last 7 years.
Considering that more people are using mobile phones to browse the internet today, it is important for websites to be mobile-friendly.
Mobile-friendliness means that the content is easily readable by users on a mobile phone’s screen. Users do not have to zoom in or move the page around to access the content.
In order to ensure mobile-friendliness, website layout, navigation elements, and font size need to be adjusted to the size of the mobile screen. The mobile version of the website should also consider user interaction with the touch screen, instead of using a mouse.
Mobile-friendliness is often confused with mobile-responsiveness. The former is a fixed approach to design a website for mobile devices while mobile-responsiveness exhibits dynamic behaviour, where it could adjust to fit different screen sizes and devices.
Google has made mobile-friendliness an SEO ranking signal since 2016. In its mobile-first indexing approach, websites are ranked based on their performance on mobile devices and not desktop. The move was rolled out in stages and it will be applied to the entire web on September 2020.
You can use this Google tool to evaluate if your website is mobile-friendly.
During PubCon 2019, Gary Illyes of Google replied affirmatively when asked if content accuracy is a ranking factor.
It is in Google’s best interest to provide content that is highly-accurate to its users. Therefore, when you’re creating content for your site, you’ll want to ensure that facts, quotes, and claims are backed by credible sources.
For example, you’ll want to back medical claims with scientific studies, white paper or interviews with health professionals. In this article, we’re backing up the statistics and claims in the content by linking to the source.
Fact-checking your content before publishing not only helps with Google ranking but also create a sense of authority and trust with your readers.
Information may be distorted if it passes through a few parties. Therefore, you’ll want to study and cite from the original source where possible.
You’ve got the best content, layout and a perfect link building strategy. Yet, you’ll still need Google to discover and crawl your site before it can be ranked.
Technical SEO focuses on the structure, accessibility and crawlability of your site. It involves elements like:
Google crawls your site based on the instructions set on the robots.txt file. The XML sitemap, which contains a list of your published pages, help Google in indexing them.
Broken links, particularly internal links, may prevent Google from crawling your site efficiently. Crawlability is also affected by site architecture. Categorizing your content, and ensuring they are accessible from the menu, helps Google to understand your website.
Redirects should be kept to the minimum to optimize site speed while canonical URL is helpful to avoid duplicate contents. You can also improve how Google understands your pages by adding in structured data.
You can’t dismiss the importance of technical SEO. A single line of instruction in the robots.txt file may prevent Google from crawling any of the pages.
Google may be ambiguous on whether social signals are an SEO ranking factor. However, it is very likely that they play a part in improving SEO ranking.
For a start, promoting your website on social media is a form of validation of whether you’re providing engaging content. An engaging content could lead to clicks, likes, shares and potentially, backlinks to it.
While Google didn’t confirm that social media engagements are used in determining to rank, backlinks are definitely an important ranking factor in today’s SEO.
If you’re running a business, getting active on social media increases mentions of your brands, which indirectly contributes to positive movement on the SERP. Learn how to build effective links here.
One of the legal definition of business information is ‘all information and records (in whatever form held and whether commercial, financial, technical or otherwise) relating to the Company’, according to LawInsider.com
Business information helps to educate and inform the consumers on the activities, products and services offered by a company. It instils trust, authority and allows consumers to make informed decisions when interacting with the business.
As more businesses are shifting their activities online, it is important that business information is easily accessible on the internet. Companies have the responsibility to ensure the information is accurate for the consumers.
If you’re running a local SEO campaign, it’s important to keep Google updated with your business information. You need to create a Google My Business account and furnish it with the required info before there’s any chance of showing up on the GMB pack as follow:
Some of the most important details required by Google are the name, address, contact, website and the category of your business.
You’ll also want to remain consistent when you update your business information on social media and review sites. Irregularities in the information may lead to lower trust by Google.
If they are faced with slow-loading pages, confusing menu or tiny fonts, you have a problem with UX. The same applies when you’re creating low-quality content or unable to meet the search intent of users.
Disgruntled, the users are likely to leave your website without browsing further into it. This will result in a relatively high bounce rate and low time-on-page, which could signal Google to push your site further down the SERP.
Google expect webmasters to provide good user experience. Therefore, UX and SEO are inseparable. It doesn’t matter if you’ve optimized keywords for the articles if the page is not mobile-friendly. Google will rank competitors that are able to provide more comprehensive UX.
Here’s an example of a site with bad UX.
Some of the texts are not in contrast with the colourful background, which makes reading difficult.
It also fails Google mobile-friendliness test as the hyperlinked-text are placed too close to each other. On a mobile phone, it will be difficult to accurately select one of the items.
If you want to improve your site’s user experience, there are a few core areas to look into and we’ve covered some above.
Here’s the list.
When you’ve devoted your attention to get the UX right, you’ll have lesser bounce rate and more engaged audience. Improvement in engagement metrics will lead to positive SEO results.
To scale Google SERP, you’ll need to work on all of the SEO ranking factors. If you’re merely focusing on a couple of them, your effort is unlikely to work.
While you could work on areas like getting more social media engagement, you’ll be better off engaging professional help in others. For example, getting backlinks is a delicate process. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you could end up getting Google penalties.
Furthermore, you’ll be robbed off precious time if you attempt to master all of these SEO ranking factors. It’s more efficient and effective if you leverage experienced SEO agencies like Heroes of Digital.
We’ve spent years working with websites across industries and our team are armed with the latest SEO practices. We’re also adept in various aspects of SEO, including technical, on-page and off-page.
Talk to us to learn more about how we can optimize your website with the latest ranking factors.
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