Think about the last time you searched for something on Google. Did you bother clicking through to the second page of the results? Probably not. Studies show that almost all search engine traffic (95%) goes to sites on the first page, with the top result getting approximately a third of all clicks.
If you want to attract visitors and customers online, it’s a good idea to learn how to get your site on the front page. This means understanding how search engines rank your site and how to improve your ranking using search engine optimization (SEO).
In this article, we’ll focus on SEO for Google because it’s the world’s most popular search engine. However, these strategies will also help if you want to improve your rankings in other search engines, such as Bing or Yahoo!
SEO Ranking Factors: What Are They, & Why Do They Matter?
There are billions of web pages. When someone types in a search query, Google uses multiple algorithms to decide which results to show and how to rank all the pages that could potentially help the user. In its own words, Google aims to “provide a diverse set of helpful, high-quality search results, presented in the most helpful order.”
When selecting which results to show on the front page, Google’s algorithms rely on lots of different “signals” from each website. These are called SEO ranking factors. Some of these signals tell Google about the site’s quality. This is called “on-page SEO.” Google also takes into account the type and quality of links between a website and other places on the internet, plus social media activity. These signals are called “off-page SEO.” So, what exactly are these factors, and how can you leverage them to improve your ranking? Google uses 200 known search engine ranking factors but hasn’t published a full list. Google makes minor updates to its algorithms every day, plus over a dozen major updates every year. These adjustments mean that best SEO practices are a moving target, so it’s crucial to stay up to date with the latest changes.
The company’s official guide to SEO sets out best practices, which outlines what Google’s bots look for when they scan (or “crawl”) a site. In addition, respected SEO professionals and marketers have been able to glean which search engine ranking factors matter most and how to leverage them.
Although SEO trends have come and gone, we can be confident that these SEO ranking factors will remain relevant in 2020:
1. Content Quality
Google aims to provide users with a positive user experience by serving users with the type of content they want and need. So if you want to improve your ranking, the first step is to produce consistently valuable content that establishes you as an authority within your niche. The classic SEO adage “content is king” still holds true. It’s been among the most crucial of all the SEO ranking factors for many years. Google states that your site’s content is probably the most important of all the ranking factors.
Here’s how to ensure your content offers value:
- Try to avoid sensationalist “clickbait” titles.
- Although you should never pad out articles just to reach a specific word count, a good general rule is to aim for 2,000 words when writing a piece of long-form content.
- Using scraped content isn’t a smart idea. Not only could it land you in trouble for copyright violation, but your site will be penalized by Google.
- Check that your content is clear, grammatically accurate, and free from spelling errors.
- If you aren’t sure whether your content is helpful, your bounce rates could give you some insight. If you run an e-commerce or retail website, it should be 20%-45%. For B2B websites, a bounce rate of 25%-55% is a good benchmark. If your bounce rate is much higher, it suggests that users arrive on your site, quickly conclude that your content doesn’t meet their needs or expectations, and leave.
- Use keywords sensibly, taking into account user intent. Google used to rank pages for a particular keyword based on how many times it was repeated. Nowadays, its algorithms are much more sophisticated; webpages that match keyword intent earn the highest rankings. In short, you need to create content that delivers answers and information users are looking for, not text that is stuffed with keywords.
- Do your best to optimize your images. Ideally, your file name should contain the keywords you want to rank for. Use image alt text if you can, along with the srcset attribute, to make the image responsive.
Consider your EAT: Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness
The more credible your content is, the better. This is particularly important if your site falls into the “your money, your life” (YMYL) categories because there could be serious consequences for users who choose to follow your advice.
For example, if you run a website that offers financial guidance, your content could have a significant impact on your readers’ financial future. To keep users safe and provide a good experience, Google wants to know that YMYL sites are run by people who are qualified to offer advice.
You can establish EAT (Expertise, Authority, and Trust) by:
- Providing links to reliable sources to back up your claims.
- Securing links from reputable websites.
- Asking people with proven expertise in your topic to contribute content.
- Displaying awards or other signs of trust and approval on your webpages.
2. Content Freshness
Google uses its Freshness Algorithm to ensure that users see recent content that meets their needs. However, freshness algorithms are more important when a user is searching for time-sensitive content. For instance, if you run an online dictionary, freshness isn’t a primary concern because most definitions don’t change over time. However, if you run a website about the latest sporting news or other time-sensitive issues, your content freshness is a key signal because your site will only be useful if it contains up-to-date information.
In summary, try to take into account what kind of site you run when deciding how often to update your content. If it’s time to refresh a page or blog post, there’s no need to give it a complete overhaul. Adding a few new paragraphs is enough to signal to Google that your site is still relevant. It’s best to avoid using very similar content across multiple pages. Neither Google nor your visitors will appreciate it.
3. Page Speed
Page speed has long been recognized as among the most significant SEO ranking factors. In a blog post published ten years ago, Google described themselves as “obsessed with speed.” The faster your site loads, the better. Longer load times could frustrate your visitors and lead to higher bounce rates.
Tiny delays can make a big difference. Almost half (40%) of visitors will leave if a page takes three or more seconds to load. Even if they stay and make a purchase, they will probably think twice about returning.
In May 2020, Google announced a new set of metrics called Core Web Vitals. They help Google measure your website’s responsiveness, speed, and visual stability. Google has provided a free tool called PageSpeed Insights. It analyzes any URL and highlights potential areas for improvement. You can also log into the Google Search Console and look under the Enhancements section for Core Web Vitals data.
By cutting down on your page load time, you’ll gain an advantage over many other sites. More than half (70%) of webpages take more than seven seconds to load, so offering a good user experience could set you apart from your competitors.
4. Business Information
For the sake of fairness, Google doesn’t offer a way to buy a higher local ranking. Neither does it make the full details of its local ranking algorithms public. However, Google advises that listing your business for free on Google My Business will improve your search ranking. It’s easy to add your business name, full address, opening hours, reviews, and phone number. The more information you supply, the easier it will be for Google to match users’ needs with your business.
Google calculates local ranking according to relevance, prominence, and distance from the customer. Although your business might be a mile or two further away than one of your competitors, Google could give you a higher ranking on its results page if your business description indicates your products would be a better fit for a customer’s needs. You can use the Google Keyword Planner to find keywords that people search for in your area, and incorporate them into your business description and on your website.
The search engine also takes into account links, online articles, and directory entries that contain information about your business. A positive review on a well-known website or backlinks from a reputable source could improve your ranking.
5. Social Signals
Google has not formally identified social shares as a ranking factor. However, some SEO experts have noted a correlation between page rank and social shares.
For example, a study by Hootsuite found that articles promoted on social media gained significant search engine visibility compared to a control group. Sharing can also improve your ranking indirectly by driving more traffic to your site, thereby improving your authority.
Consider encouraging your visitors to share blog posts by adding social sharing buttons. Making a direct request, like “Please share this if you found it useful” or “Please RT!” can also work well. Infographics and lists are shared more often than other types of content, so bear this in mind if you want to go viral.
Backlinks are a fundamental building block of your off-site SEO. Google’s PageRank algorithm takes into account how many popular, authoritative websites on a topic link back to your web pages when deciding where to rank them. PageRank’s algorithm is based on the principle that a link from a trustworthy site indicates that your content is valuable.
Using a tool such as Link Explorer will help you discover how your rivals are using backlinking to improve their search engine visibility. By learning which sites they link to and from, you can start putting together a strategy for securing high-quality links of your own.
Even if you haven’t yet established an online following, you can still start reaching out to other sites and earning a backlink by offering them valuable content. For example, you could offer to contribute a useful blog post that would appeal to their readers in exchange for a brief bio and link to your site or carry out an original study that people will want to share with their readers.
Your website’s outbound links can also affect your ranking. Ideally, these should point your readers to reliable sites in your niche. When you make a claim or cite a study, back it up with a hyperlink. When picking and linking to your sources, try to choose web pages that are as recent as possible.
Safer websites rank higher in SERPs. It’s easy to spot a secure website: its URL begins with https:// rather than http://. The “s” stands for “secure,” and indicates that when someone accesses the site, data they send from their browser to the server is encrypted. This privacy is particularly important on sites that ask for personal information, such as online stores that request credit card details.
Back in 2014, Google called for “HTTPS everywhere.” At the time, whether or not a website was secure was only a lightweight signal; it didn’t have a significant impact on its ranking. However, Google stated that they would consider making it more important over time. These days, it’s recognized by SEO experts as a key SEO ranking factor.
To ensure your website is secure, you need to get an up-to-date Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate. You can get one free from Let’s Encrypt.
8. Mobile Friendliness
Until mobile devices became popular, web designers would build sites for desktop computers, and then create a mobile-friendly version. This trend has now been turned on its head; the mobile-first design is now the industry standard. This has significant implications for your SEO strategy.
Over half of all web traffic now comes from mobile devices, and Google has updated its algorithms accordingly. In March 2020, Google announced that they will use mobile-first indexing for all websites from September 2020 using their Smartphone Googlebot. If your site doesn’t have a mobile-friendly version, it will still be included in Google’s search engine results, but it will be penalized.
9. Domain Factors
Although it’s a controversial topic—Google hasn’t identified it as an essential ranking factor—many SEO authorities believe that domain age matters.
According to an Ahrefs study of 2 million keywords, web pages that rank in the top 10 positions on Google’s results pages tend to be at least two years old. Less than a quarter (22%) of these pages were published within the preceding 12 months. One key takeaway from the study was that less than 6% of new pages can expect to rank in the top 10 search engine results in their first year. Obviously, you can’t do anything to age your domain faster, but it’s helpful to know that your patience will pay off.
Another factor to consider is whether or not your domain name includes your target keywords. If it does, it’s an exact match domain (EMD). For a long time, buying an EMD was an effective way to climb to the top of SERPs. Then, in 2012, Google reduced the weight of EMDs. In 2016, they went one step further and started penalizing websites that stuffed their EMDs with keywords.
These days, the general consensus in the SEO community is that an EMD can improve your ranking if it accurately reflects what your website is about. Still, an EMD can’t compensate for poor design and thin content. Try picking a name that works best for your business or brand rather than trying to find an EMD.
10. Structured Data
To index and rank a page properly, Google needs to understand what kind of content it features. By putting standardized information (known as “structured data”) in a page’s HTML code, you will help Google’s algorithms decide what your page is about and whether it is relevant to a user’s query.
Structured data changes the way Google displays your site in SERPs, and this can make them more appealing to users, thereby increasing your click-through rate. Ultimately, this can improve your ranking. For example, if you were to include structured data to indicate that your page contains a recipe, Google would display the main image and beginning of your recipe as a “rich snippet” in the results.
There are standardized formats for marking up many types of content, including FAQs, how-to guides, and critical reviews. Google has published an in-depth online guide that explains how and where to insert code for each type. You can test the quality of your structured data with the Rich Results Test.
Will These Ranking Factors Change?
History has shown us that as Google’s algorithms adapt, so do SEO best practices. An SEO ranking factor that is important today might not be as significant next year. However, there is one proven strategy that will always keep you on the right track: Put your audience’s needs first as you optimize your site for search engine algorithms.
Planning and implementing SEO strategies requires time and effort, but the underlying principle is easy to understand: When you deliver outstanding content using an attractive, secure, and fast website that is optimized for all devices, your rankings will improve. Search engines want to ensure a great experience for their users. Make it your mission to help them out, and you’ll see the benefits.