The search engine results page (SERP) is like a treasure island and all web owners (including pirates!) strive to arrive first. Google is constantly testing what users like and what they don’t, and putting everything on screen! Google has not stopped tweaking the algorithm to test more effective ways to deliver the right results to web visitors. These continuous updates have given rise to over 200 ranking factors. These factors can affect your rankings directly or indirectly; they can also work on-page or off-page.
The SEO industry is quite huge and over time, there have been several controversies about the factors that affect rankings. The search engine results page (SERP) is like a treasure island and all web owners (including pirates!) strive to arrive first. The question is: What could be the criteria for achieving this great feat?
Let’s take a tour back to November 16th, 2003, when Google released the Florida update, which led to the rebirth of SEO. During that period SEO was about to become a “thing” in the digital space.
But before then, most websites did really bad stuff to rank #1 on search engines. They depended on spammy content, keyword stuffing, cloaking, excessive (and unnecessary) links, etc.
Activities like these didn’t allow users to find the right answers to their questions. But after the update, most factors that affected the rankings changed, and more “original” websites were rewarded for their smart work.
From 2003 to date, Google has not stopped tweaking the algorithm to test more effective ways to deliver the right results to web visitors. While we may not understand the comprehensive scope of how Google works, we have insights into a few changes that it makes: updates that were beneficial, those that seemed strange, and others that were just discarded.
You should understand that the whole process is just like an experiment. Google is constantly testing what users like and what they don’t, and putting everything on screen!
From Searchmetrics, the term “Ranking Factors” describes the criteria applied by search engines when evaluating web pages in order to compile the rankings of their search results.
In simpler terms… imagine you want to prepare a meal, you’d need the right ingredients (and probably a recipe). Now, the prepared meal is your website; the ranking factors are the ingredients, and you’re probably the search engine that checks all the criteria to make sure the meal is fit for consumption.
When you search on Google, the results are displayed on different pages. If you want your website to be spotted on the first page (because nobody likes going to other pages), there are certain standards you must meet.
These standards are called the Ranking Factors.
As Google introduces newer updates that affect websites’ rankings on SERPs, they also tweak the algorithm to accept the most relevant results that suit any search query. These continuous updates have given rise to over 200 ranking factors.
This is an overwhelming checklist and it may not be advisable to consider them all every time you want to publish content. With SEO, being part of your total marketing strategy, you wouldn’t want to spend the whole year checking all the ranking factors, fixing them, and ignoring every other area of your business.
That being said, it’s important to pick out the relevant factors that have ripple effects on your rankings. This way, you can easily achieve your SEO goals.
A careful study of these factors will help you understand the concept of SEO and how to maximize its benefits. They include,
- Site’s accessibility and security
- Page speed
- User experience (RankBrain)
- Domain factors
- Technical SEO
These factors can affect your rankings directly or indirectly; they can also work on-page or off-page. With an inexhaustible list, you can check out these criteria to know if you’re on the right track.
From your blog posts to service pages, homepage, videos, products, etc., you will be amazed at the results your content can generate over time. All other factors will rely on your content for effectiveness (because that is the first thing that brings visitors to your site).
Your web content will determine your niche, expertise, and authority in any field. This will help you attract the right audience for your business. Google, including this in the webmasters guidelines, stated clearly:
“Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content”
A study shows that Google processes about 3.5 billion search queries per day. Without a doubt, your potential customers make up for a certain percentage here.
If your site magically finds its way to the top, most visitors will access it easily; however, they’d jump out as soon as possible, if they find out that your content couldn’t answer their questions. This is not a good indicator.
Also, when Google spots this, they’d feel that you don’t have authority in such a topic, and as such, don’t deserve to be on the #1 page (or any other nearby page). This, again, is not good.
On the contrary, well-written content (that fulfils the right search intent), will boost user interaction, and in turn, boost your rankings.
“Creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website… Users know good content when they see it and will likely want to direct other users to it.”
Google, in an SEO starters guide, further mentioned the importance of high-quality content, stating that it is a crucial factor that affects rankings and user interaction.
Google bots crawl all web content to find words or phrases that relate to the topic. In line with other factors, Google can freely choose a particular site over others, as long as it best explains the subject matter.
Google uses E-A-T to determine how well your site covers a particular topic. High-quality content not only satisfies user intent but also tells the algorithm that you have an important resource that needs to be displayed for everyone to see.
In line with quality content, on-page optimization also affects your
rankings. Some of these techniques include
- Adding keywords in H1, H2, H3 tags, etc (as long as they fit naturally)
- Fixing alt tags on images
- Using excellent meta descriptions
- Naturally fixing keywords in the body of content
- Adding necessary links
These and many more are ways you can use your content to affect your rankings.
2. Site’s accessibility and security
These factors work together to build trust and authority. When you don’t consider them, you make it difficult for your visitors to understand your process.
The major goal of SEO ranking is to find and display pages with the “best” answers to any search query. Once Google spots these pages, they expect the readers to find value and return positive feedback. Unfortunately, all hopes will be lost if they cannot access your site.
When Google bots, as well as, your customers cannot access your site, there’s no way to prove your expertise, and as a result, they’d quickly move over to a site they can easily navigate—no matter how insightful your content may be.
Your site architecture and page structure will help web crawlers and your users easily understand what you do. And as a rule of thumb, your pages should be 4 clicks away from your homepage for easy navigation.
An insecure site is prone to attacks from hackers, malware, virus, etc. The activities of these foreign elements can hinder Google’s bots from accessing your site. Moreover, they can stop your visitors from viewing your content, thereby, making you lose trust.
It is no longer news that installing HTTPS is a thousand times better than using HTTP. This first line of action assures your visitors that data is safe, encrypted, and not easily accessed by hackers.
However, this is not the only step you will make. There are other preventive measures you will need to employ to ensure and maintain the security of your site.
3. Page speed
This is a direct ranking factor, as it depends on the amount of time it takes for your webpage to load. Research has shown that 1 in 2 visitors abandon a website that takes more than 6 seconds to load.
More recent studies show that 53% of mobile site visits are abandoned if pages take longer than 3 seconds to load!
A low page speed can increase your bounce rate and at the same time, may decrease your dwell time. This will, in turn, decrease your conversions and finally, your rankings. A fast-loading page, (ideally 1-2 seconds) on the other hand, can improve ranking, as well as, page experience.
Your page speed can either be seen as page load time or time to first byte. When your site has too many unnecessary files, it may begin to slow down.
You can employ some cool ways to avoid this by reducing file size, optimizing your images, reducing redirects, etc. Using PageSpeed Insights from Google, you can measure your loading time and see how to improve it—if you find any anomaly.
The SERP can only accommodate sites with faster pages. Surprisingly, it can even remove relevant pages that take a longer time to load. In April 2010, Google stated,
“Like us, our users place a lot of value in speed—that’s why we’ve decided to take site speed into account in our search rankings.”
This is a clear indication that your page speed is one ranking factor you should not ignore.
Your site’s rankings also depend on how well it functions for mobile users. Optimizing for mobile simply means that visitors can easily access your site from their mobile devices. It removes the stress of always pinching and zooming, just to read every text.
In the 4th quarter of 2021, Google announced the addition of mobile-first indexing as part of a ranking factor. Research shows that mobile devices generated 54.4 percent of global website traffic.
It further stated,
“To make our results more useful, we’ve begun experiments to make our index mobile-first.”
If a greater percentage of any search comes from mobile users, Google will prioritize a mobile-friendly site over a site that functions only on a desktop.
The major goal is to enhance user experience and using only a desktop format will keep mobile users in the dark, thereby neglecting a majority of your potential visitors.
5. User experience (RankBrain)
As much as your content gives value and boosts trust, it won’t make any sense if your readers cannot comfortably read through; maybe, due to poor page color, poor typeface, unnecessary ads, annoying pop-ups, slow page loading, not being mobile-friendly, etc.
Good site architecture is important because it will help Google bots to find and index your pages, passing link juice from high to low-authority pages. In addition to aiding Google bots, it will also help your visitors easily navigate through your pages.
A good example of this is RankBrain. It is a machine learning algorithm that processes and understands search engines, thereby helping Google sort the results on SERPs. RankBrain detects the importance of backlinks, domain authority (DA), content length, etc.
After making these changes, it checks if the users like the new update: if a particular page gets more clicks, it is assumed that it gives a suitable answer to a search query. Seeing this, RankBrain will give the page a ranking boost. The reverse is the case for a site with low clicks.
Some of the activities it looks out for are, pogo-sticking, bounce rate, dwell time, pages per session, organic click-through-rate (CTR), etc.
Moreover, Google announced in an interview, in October 2015, that this is the 3rd most important ranking factor because it greatly affects your content and how users can access it.
If you read through this blog post, you’d notice that links are scattered all over and are hidden behind the colored texts. This shows the relationship between this content and other related content pieces.
Links are a crucial part of your SEO strategy because they boost your authority and allow your users to easily “read more,” while doing their research. They connect your site to other resources, making it in-depth and then, increasing your rank.
The evolution of PageRank has increased the importance of links in pages. Links are vital inclusions in your content. But PageRank not only looks out for the number of links on a page—but also checks the quality of those links.
If those links lead to irrelevant, malicious, or false sites, your site loses trustworthiness and authority. So, while extracting links, ensure that they are gotten from sites that fully explain whatever you’re trying to point out—remember that these sites may or may not always have high domain authority.
Types of links
There are 3 major categories of links that can affect your SEO rankings. You should know when and where to use them.
- Internal links
- Outbound links
- Inbound links
1. Internal links
These links belong to you. They point directly to other pages on your site (through the same domain name). They tell your readers that the particular query has been further explained on a separate page on your site.
So, when they use these links, they don’t leave your site. It’s an opportunity to take them around, showing them the useful resources you’ve got on your site.
2. Outbound links
No matter how many pages you’ve got on your site, you cannot have all the answers in the world. These links direct your readers to other websites that best explain the anchor text.
While looking out for these links, check the content and see if it satisfies the query. Most of them may have higher domain authority, so you may want to use those trusted sites.
3. Inbound links
When you create good content, other sites may find your content educational and attractive. In a bid to boost their content, they can easily direct their readers to visit your site and read your content. These links are popularly known as Backlinks.
These links, to your site, are inbound links; however, to their sites, they’re outbound links. These links boost your authority and tell web crawlers that you’ve got high-quality content that people need to see. The end product—rank boost!
Using quality links on your site will tell both web crawlers and your users that they have every answer they need concerning the search query.
7. Domain factors
These comprise a variety of factors relating to your domain, that can affect your rankings on SERPs. Factors like domain age, domain authority, URL, etc., may not have direct effects on your rankings but they can affect your brand perception, which will, in turn, affect your rankings.
For example, Google will trust an older site like Moz, with higher domain authority, than a newer site with low domain authority.
It is also important to state clearly that domain authority (DA), originally invented by Moz, is not a ranking factor. However, it can indirectly influence your rankings.
8. Technical SEO
This is probably one of the most important aspects of SEO that is badly neglected. In technical SEO, you go to the backend of your site to find and fix possible errors.
Liam Carnahan, the founder of Inkwell Content, sees technical SEO as the user experience and structure of your website. It is the hidden pillar that sustains your site’s online presence.
When Google bots crawl your site, they move through links to understand if your site talks about food, tech, fashion, crypto, etc.
The technical aspect of your site, if done correctly, will make it easy for Google to place it in the best category and give it to the right users. It covers indexing, crawling, structured data, Hreflang, and other seemingly ambiguous processes that affect the functionality of your site.
You may not necessarily need to overwhelm yourself with the data and errors you find. A simple strategy, with the right tools, will help you complete the basics and get your site running. If your core web vitals are perfect, you’re good to go!
If SEO is part of your marketing strategy, you should know how it works. Surprisingly, you may not need to consider all ranking factors. Some marketers use certain strategies that work for them.
You could focus more on creating high-quality content or technical SEO, and so on.
Remember that it’s just an experiment. And as you grow, you’d learn what your audience likes and what they don’t. And if you’re serious about SEO, you should do it the right way and make it count.