Do you know the SEO ranking factors that’ll make a difference to your business this year? SEO requirements keep changing, and it can be hard to keep up with the latest developments.
But if you want your site to get traffic, you have to be in the know.
Well-optimized sites get more and more traffic over time, and that means more leads and sales. If you neglect SEO, no one will be able to find your site, meaning all your hard work will be for nothing.
In this guide, we’re going to share the essential SEO ranking factors you need to dominate search. By the end, you’ll have a well-optimized site that brings you more business.
To help you skip ahead to the ranking factors you want to learn about, we’ve created a table of contents for you:
What Are the Most Important SEO Ranking Factors?
- An Accessible URL
- Page Speed (Including Mobile Page Speed)
- Mobile Friendliness
- Domain Age, URL and Authority
- Optimized Content
- Technical SEO
- User Experience (RankBrain)
- Social Signals
- Real Business Information
Recommended Resource: Need more website traffic? Learn how to rank #1 on Google with our Ultimate Guide to SEO in 2018.
But before we get into the details of each ranking factor, let’s take a quick look at the basics of how search engine rankings works.
How Do I Rank Higher on Google? Understanding SEO
Many people wonder how Google rankings work, so before we get into the actual search engine ranking factors, let’s start by answering some of the basic questions most people have about SEO.
What is Ranking in SEO?
As you may know, SEO stands for search engine optimization, which is optimizing web pages for better search engine ranking, but how exactly does that work?
Let’s break it down.
In SEO, ranking refers to your content’s position on the search engine results pages (SERPs). A #1 ranking means that when people search for a particular term, your web page is the first result (apart from promoted results and answer boxes, which we’ll talk about later in this guide).
Appearing in the top 3 results is excellent, because almost half of the clicks on any search results page go to those positions.
Appearing on the first page at all, within the top 10 results, is also useful. That’s because 95% of people never make it past the first page.
What Does Google Look for in SEO?
Google’s own stated purpose is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Delivering relevant search results is a huge part of that. Here’s how they work:
First, Google’s search bots (pieces of automated software called “spiders”) crawl the web (which means visiting web pages).
Second, they add properly optimized and crawlable pages to Google’s index, which has trillions of web pages in it, and essentially catalog them.
Third, when people search Google, it shows what it thinks are the most appropriate results based on the search terms they enter.
At that point, you hope that searchers will click your link and visit your site.
How Do Google Search Rankings Work?
When people want to find information, they type or say words related to what they’re looking for. Those are called keywords, and we’ll look at those in the content optimization section of this guide.
But search engine rankings are not just about keywords; they’re also about the quality of information.
According to Google’s own search quality ratings, when it indexes the main content of each page, it checks factors like:
- The expertise, authority and trustworthiness of content
- The quality and amount of content
- Information about the site and who’s responsible for it
- The reputation of the website
These go into its ranking algorithm and help to determine SEO ranking.
Based on the rating guidelines above, Google shows searchers the most relevant, high quality results related to what they’re looking for. The most relevant are shown first, with the rest being shown over successive pages.
One of the goals of addressing SEO ranking factors is to let Google know when your pages on your site are relevant to particular search queries, so people will click the links and visit your site.
Let’s be clear, though: there’s never a guarantee of a page one or #1 rank, and with SEO guidelines changing all the time, search engine rankings change with them.
What is On-Page SEO and Off-Page SEO?
Two terms you’ll hear mentioned a lot when talking about SEO ranking factors are on-page SEO and off-page SEO.
On-page SEO refers to factors on your own website that you can optimize such as the underlying code and the content.
Off-page SEO refers to actions taken to affect your site’s trustworthiness and authority by building the right inbound links and social signals.
Both types are included in the top SEO ranking factors.
How to Monitor Search Engine Rankings
Before you start trying to improve your SEO ranking, you’ll need to know where you are.
There are a couple ways to do this. First, you could search Google using the terms you think your customers will be using. Use an incognito or private window in your browser, so the results aren’t skewed by Google’s personalization. See where your content appears.
However, that’s totally impractical for established sites with hundreds of pages, so you’ll need a tool to do it for you. For example, in SEMRush, you can type your domain name into the search box, wait for the report to run, and see the top organic keywords you are ranking for. Or better yet, use their keyword position tracking tool to track the exact keywords you’re trying to rank for.
See other keyword research tools in our guide.
Now let’s look in detail at the top Google ranking factors for 2018.
1. An Accessible URL
Unsurprisingly, the first of our SEO ranking factors has to do with having the right kind of URL. Specifically, that’s a URL that Google’s bots can easily reach and crawl.
In other words, Google has to be able to visit the URL and look at the page content to start to understand what that page is about. To help the bots out, you’ll need:
- A robots.txt file that tells Google where it can and can’t look for your site information
- A sitemap, which lists all your pages. If you’re running a WordPress site, you can set up a sitemap via Yoast SEO. If not, then then you can use an online sitemap generator.
In addition, Google has been promoting better web security for many years, introducing HTTPS as an SEO ranking signal in 2014.
With more changes on the horizon to explicitly flag sites as secure or not secure, that signal will affect visitors’ perception of your site, and potential search engine ranking. If you haven’t yet enabled SSL security on your website, now’s the time.
2. Page Speed (Including Mobile Page Speed)
Page speed has been cited as one of the main SEO ranking factors for years. Google wants to improve users’ experience of the web, and fast-loading web pages will definitely do that.
Google recently announced a search engine algorithm update focused on mobile page speed.
The “speed update” will start to affect sites from July 2018, so if your site doesn’t load fast on mobile devices, then it could be penalized.
Use Google’s mobile testing tool to see how your site stacks up.
And, if you’re using WordPress, check out these tips for speeding up a WordPress site from WPBeginner.
3. Mobile Friendliness
While we’re on the subject of mobile, mobile-friendliness is another major SEO ranking factor. More people use mobile devices than desktops to access the web, and that’s one reason there’ve been changes in how Google ranks search results.
Google’s mobile-first index is now a reality, which means it’s drawing its results from mobile-optimized sites first, rather than sites geared to desktop computers. If your site isn’t mobile-optimized you risk being out in the cold, in SEO terms at least.
Many of the SEO ranking factors we’ll look at in this article will help you lay the foundation for a good search engine ranking, but you also have to look after user experience when people land on your site.
Things to look at include:
- Whether you have a responsive site that automatically resizes to fit the device
- Whether you’re using large fonts for easy readability on a small screen
- Accessibility and navigability, including making it easy to tap menus
- Ensuring that essential content isn’t hidden by interstitial ads
Get more tips on mobile-friendly design to improve Google search ranking in our guide to improving your mobile conversion rate.
4. Domain Age, URL and Authority
Did you know that nearly 60% of the sites that have a top ten Google search ranking are three years old or more? Data from an Ahrefs study of two million pages suggests that very few sites less than a year old achieve that ranking . So if you’ve had your site for a while, and have optimized it using the tips in this article, that’s already an advantage.
In some cases, the domain name matters. Though Google has penalized exact-match domains (those where the target keyword is in the URL), that penalty is generally for spammy sites with thin content.
Other research shows that exact-match domains that are deemed to be relevant, valuable, and high-quality can see a ranking boost because of it. However, if you already have an established website, you don’t need to go looking for an exact-match domain for your business; focus on a URL that reflects your business and optimize the heck out of it instead!
When it comes to search engine ranking factors, authority matters. As you’ll see, that’s usually a combination of great content (see the next tip) and off-page SEO signals like inbound links and social shares.
You can check domain authority or page authority with Open Site Explorer. Just plug your URL into the onsite search box, and you’ll get a report showing domain authority, page authority, established links and new links.
We’ll look more at linking practices to improve SEO ranking in tip #8.
5. Optimized Content
We’ve talked a lot about content in this guide to Google SEO ranking factors. That’s because it’s one of Google’s top three search ranking factors (the others are links and RankBrain, which we’ll get to in a while). Now let’s dig down and see what optimizing content for SEO really means.
As we said in our keyword research guide, Google’s search algorithm relies on keywords. These are the words and phrases searchers use when they’re looking for information. They’re also the words and phrases that describe the topics your site is about. Ideally, those will match up.
That’s why it’s so important to use keywords in your content.
One negative SEO ranking factor to be aware of is duplicate content. For SEO, fresh, original content is always best. And if you do have content that’s similar, tell Google which one should be ranked as most authoritative by using canonical URLs.
Understanding LSI Keywords and SEO Ranking
It’s not just about the main keywords either; it’s also important to include terms related to the main terms people are searching for. These are called LSI (latent semantic indexing) keywords. They provide a kind of online word association to help Google know which results to show.
For example, using the right LSI keywords will tell Google that when searchers type in “mini”, your page is relevant to the car, rather than the dress, and vice versa.
Here’s an important point, though: keyword stuffing is absolutely outlawed, because it will result in poor quality web pages and will actually hurt your SEO ranking.
Understanding Search Intent for Content Optimization
Search intent is also important when optimizing content. That means understanding what people are really looking for when they type in search keywords.
Suppose you’ve identified “florida real estate” as a keyword you want to rank for. You might think that writing content for people looking for real estate in Florida is a good idea. But if the people searching for that term are really realtors, then your content won’t meet their needs, and your page won’t rank.
Sometimes, it’s clear what people are looking for. For example, if they use the word “compare”, they’re likely trying to make a decision about buying a product. And if they use the word “buy”, then they’re looking to make a purchase.
The keywords they use will change depending on whether they are looking to:
- find a particular website (navigational)
- get the answer to a question (informational)
- get information before making a purchase (investigational)
- make a purchase (transactional)
Well optimized business sites will include content for each of those search types. Learn more about keyword intent here.
Is Content Length an SEO Ranking Factor?
While content that’s relevant to what people are looking for is most important for SEO ranking, there’s research to show that content length also matters. While writing more just to stretch out the length is never advisable, if a subject calls for depth, give it depth.
The research suggests that content that’s over 2000 words gets more top ten positions in Google search engine rankings.
And that content attracts more links and shares too, two other important ranking signals we’ll look at later.
SEO Ranking Factors – Answer Boxes
Google’s increasingly delivering answers via Answer Boxes, so that’s another aspect of optimizing for better search engine rankings. Here’s what an answer box looks like:
Our experience suggests that optimizing for answer boxes means:
- Answering questions, of course
- Including those questions as headings, with properly formatted title tags (we’ll get to that in tip #6)
- Ensuring those answers are correct, relevant and not too long
- Targeting content to keywords that already have answer boxes
- Including lists or tables
Using Video to Improve SEO Ranking
By 2021, according to Cisco, video will represent a whopping 80% of online traffic.
Our own roundup of video marketing stats shows that:
- People are watching video across all age groups
- Some 79% of people would rather watch a video than read your blog post
- People are using video to help them make purchase decisions (remember those transactional searches?)
So it’s a no-brainer to include video in your content strategy. Video gets read, shared and linked to, providing plenty of signals to amplify your search ranking.
6. Technical SEO
We said earlier that getting the code right is one aspect of optimizing content for better search engine rankings. Here are some of the aspects you need to look at:
- Use keyword phrases in page titles, which is where Google first looks to determine which content is relevant to which search. You’ll see the page title as the first line of a search result entry.
- Use header tags to show content hierarchy. If your title is formatted as h1, then you use h2 or h3 for subheads.
- Create a meta description that both entices readers and includes your keyword phrase. Meta descriptions used to max out at 160 characters, though there are recent indications that they are longer.
- Use keyword phrases in image alt tags to show how the images are relevant to the main content. Google also has an image search, which is another way for people to find your content.
- Where it’s appropriate, use schema markup to tell Google what kind of content you’re producing. This can also help your content appear in rich card entries other than answer boxes.
7. User Experience (RankBrain)
- Clickthrough rate – the percentage of people who click to visit your site after an entry comes up in search results
- Bounce rate, especially pogosticking – the number of people who bounce away again, which basically means your site didn’t give them what they wanted
- Dwell time – how long they stay on your site after they’ve arrived.
If people land on your site, don’t like it, and bounce away, then Google will think it’s not relevant to their needs. If enough people do this, then you might find it more difficult for your site to rank higher in search results.
In contrast, if people click through to your web page and stick around for a while, that tells Google your content is relevant to their search.
So when you optimize titles, descriptions, and content to get the clicks and deliver value on the other end, you can boost your search engine ranking .
As we said at the start, the web is built on links, so naturally links are a crucial SEO ranking signal. There are three kinds of links to think about:
- Inbound links
- Outbound links
- Internal links
Google uses inbound links as one way to help determine how authoritative and relevant your content is.
The best case scenario is where an authoritative site includes a relevant link to your site in a relevant piece of their content. So, if the Content Marketing Institute includes a link to your content marketing resource, that’ll be perceived better than if a random person with a low quality site links to it.
Ideally, you want to have as few inbound links as possible from low quality domains. You can find your inbound links in SEMRush or one of the keyword research tools shared earlier in this guide.
At the same time, you want to show that you’re creating quality content for your visitors, to linking to relevant, authoritative sites in your niche is a good thing.
And finally, linking to your own content can help tie pages together for both Google and your visitors, making each page more valuable. If you have an authoritative page and link to another page on your site, that helps visitors find the other page, and passes on some of that authority. That will help that second page boost its search engine ranking.
Related Resource: See The Ultimate Guide to SEO Link Building to learn the tricks & techniques the experts are using to build quality links.
9. Social Signals
When people share your content on social networks, that’s another sign that it’s valuable. Cognitive SEO‘s study of 23 million shares found a definitive link between social shares and search engine ranking.
Google’s official word is that social shares are not a direct ranking factor. Links from Twitter or Facebook aren’t counted the same as links from other authoritative websites.
Still, there’s no denying that the highest ranking pages in Google search results usually have a lot of shares.
That’s probably because the more your content is shared, the more people will see it and decide to link to it. That means that getting more social shares does help your search engine rankings, if only indirectly.
Not only do you need to have a social media presence yourself, but you need to make it easy to share your content and amplify those social signals. We have some great tips for doing this in our guest blogging guide and guide to growing your email list with social media.
10. Real Business Information
This tip is important for businesses targeting particular local areas. The presence or absence of business information is one of the most crucial local SEO ranking factors.
So it’s important to look after areas like:
- NAP – name, address, phone number
- Business listings on Google My Business and Facebook
- Reviews on both those sites and on relevant directories like Yelp and others
- The right local search terms
That’s it! Now you know the essential SEO ranking factors, check out our other SEO guides:
- SEO tips and best practices from the experts
- How to use SEO for lead generation
- How to perform an SEO audit to catch any errors that are sabotaging your efforts