Needless to say, Google is popular, and marketers looking to perform well in organic search results need to know what factors Google takes into account when ranking content.
With as much effort as we put into optimizing content for search engines, you'd think we'd know by now exactly what Google's ranking algorithm considers when crawling pages on the internet. But we don't, and we can't -- mainly because Google has never publicly listed all of the factors it takes into account when ranking content.
What Google has confirmed is that it uses about 200 ranking signals when determining organic search page rankings. There are domain-related factors, on-page factors, off-page factors, site-level factors, and numerous technical SEO factors that contribute to where your website falls on Google's search engine results pages (SERPs) for the various keywords related to your industry.
Two-hundred ranking factors is quite a long list. How are you supposed to remember all of them? Luckily, Single Grain and Backlinko have scoured the internet to find all of the known Google ranking factors and created an all-inclusive infographic that categorizes them based on their role in Google's ranking algorithm.
But, this begs the question: Is every ranking factor equal in importance? Nope. Although this criteria is all relevant to where you end up ranking on Google, there are a handful of universal best practices that publishers should focus on first before solving for the rest.
To make prioritizing your SEO efforts easier over the next year, we've isolated eight of the most important ranking factors for you below.
Google Ranking Factors
There are 200 known Google ranking factors. The most important factors are related to the URL, inbound links, meta tags, the intent of a keyword, how your content is structured, how fast your page loads, and numerous technical SEO specifications that vary in importance based on the topic.
1. Website Architecture
There are factors that have a greater impact on your Google ranking than this one, but website architecture is the first thing you should get right upfront -- especially when launching (or relaunching) your website.
By organizing your website into subdirectories, and having clear strings of text (or "slugs") at the end of each URL, you'll make it much easier for Google to understand who you are and what topics you want to be an authority on. (We'll talk more about topics in just a minute).
For example, if you want to launch a blog on gardening -- and plan to publish content specifically about produce, watering, and pests -- it's in your interest to organize your website content into those three subdirectories. A good blog post URL might look like this:
2. Domain Security
Importance: Very Important
Notice the "https" at the beginning of the example URL, above? This is how Google identifies secure websites from non-secure ones. Hint: You want your site to be secure.
HTTP stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol -- a virtual process that transfers information from a website to the visitor's browser. HTTPS is the secure version of this protocol, and it ensures Google that the information it's indexing is safe to the searcher. The "S," as you've likely guessed, stands for "secure."
To secure your website domain, you'll need what's called an SSL certificate. Learn more about getting this certificate in this blog post.
3. Inbound Links
Inbound links, also known as "backlinks," are all the hyperlinks that direct back to your page from elsewhere on the internet. They can make a major difference in where you rank -- even which number page you rank on.
Why do these links matter to your Google ranking? You don't rely on these referral sources for all your traffic, so why does Google care who links to you? Inbound links from other websites tell Google that people trust what you have to say -- enough to link to it from their own websites. Trust is huge in the eyes of Google, and the more trustworthy the source linking to you is, the greater the impact their inbound link has on your ranking.
Inbound links don't work the same way if you're simply linking to your blog post from another one of your blog posts. The influence of these backlinks comes almost entirely from outside domains.
For this reason, "link building" has become an important (but delicate) process for earning backlinks from other publishers. Some publishers, who have the same perceived authority, agree to trade backlinks from each other. Others write a guest post on this publisher's website and link back to themselves. Learn more about link building in this blog post.
4. Topic Authority
Importance: Very Important
Topics are the bread and butter of your Google ranking -- they help lay the foundation for the page authority you'll need in order to rank highly over the long term.
In their simplest form, topics mean: The more content you publish on a particular topic, the higher each piece of content belonging to that topic will rank in Google's SERPs.
Remember our gardening example from the first ranking factor, above? Let's say this website has 20 articles all about garden pests. By now, Google knows this website is probably an authority on the topic of pest prevention. The website therefore has a much better chance ranking highly for a blog post about plant-friendly pesticides than it would for an article on, say, Google's ranking factors -- even if this article is keyword-optimized and incredibly well written.
Learn more about topic creation in this post.
5. Keyword Intent
Topics might be more important in the long term than individual keywords, but that doesn't mean keywords aren't still a ranking factor. In fact, when done right, keyword optimization is one of the most important factors you can address in your website's SEO strategy.
The earliest iteration of Google simply looked for the most instances of a keyword, phrased verbatim, in a webpage or blog post. This was known as "exact match."
Today, "exact match" means something much different, and the website that carries the most instances of a keyword doesn't rank the highest for that keyword. Rather, it's the website that best matches the intent behind that keyword.
Let's once again consider our gardening example from the first ranking factor on this list. If this website wants to rank for the keyword, "best organic pesticides," it won't rank well by simply including this three-word phrase several times throughout the article. Instead, it should include the keyword at least once, followed by real examples of organic pesticides, their ingredients, where you can buy them, why they're so highly rated, and perhaps even what makes these pesticides organic.
Because this is the information readers are looking for when they enter their search term, websites that serve it to them will receive more engagement by website visitors. Google then interprets this increased engagement as a good answer to the visitor's question, ranking the URL higher as a result.
6. Content Structure
It's not enough to just serve your website visitors the info they're looking for. As more websites give visitors good answers, how that answer is structured becomes a major tie-breaker when ranking content under more competitive keywords.
Good content structure includes a variety of headers and sub-headers to make an answer easier for a person to digest and understand. It might also include bullet points, numbered lists, supporting images, and clearly cited research -- all of which help keep readers engaged with your content.
The more engaged a reader is with your content, the longer they'll stay on your website -- increasing what is known as their "session duration," another relevant Google ranking factor that comes as a result of creating good content.
7. Meta Tags
A meta tag sounds like something that is best left to a programmer, but meta tags are easy and often underused aspects of your content management system (CMS). They also happen to be linchpin SEO maneuvers to rank well in Google results.
Meta tags help Google identify the specific purpose of a page and what role each component of that page plays to the topic and target keyword. There are several types of meta tags that should be filled in, either with the target keyword or details related to that keyword:
The title tag is usually the title of your article, represented in the HTML of that article. This helps Google create the blue, clickable headline you see on the SERP itself. Title tags are helpful to non-article webpages that don't have natural, article-style titles by which to describe themselves. In these cases, you can go into the webpage's HTML and add a keyword-optimized title tag that serves the same purpose as an article title.
Image Alt Text
Google can't read or "crawl" images the same way it crawls text. And that's a shame, because images can help blog posts and webpages rank quite well in organic search results. To help Google read images, content creators are encouraged to give their images alt text (or "alt tags") that best describe the image in context of the webpage on which the image is published.
A URL's meta description is the brief string of text that appears underneath each blue link on Google's SERPs, summarizing the content inside. A meta description doesn't have to include specific keywords, but having it filled in is an important box to check off according to Google. Most CMSs have a dedicated field where you can populate your meta description.
8. Page Speed
Page speed refers to how fast your webpage loads when a searcher clicks on it from a Google search result. Several on-page factors contribute to how fast your page loads, but in general -- the faster the website, the higher it can rank on Google.
In general, pages that load in less than three seconds are considered fast enough for their visitors. However, this can vary based on the purpose of the website and the type of visitors it attracts. For example, ecommerce websites are encouraged to be a bit faster -- fully loading in as little as two seconds, according to Google.
Different font types and sizes can weigh your site down somewhat, but one of the biggest causes of slow page speed is uncompressed images.
Websites with lots of heavy, complex types of media on the page can cause the website to take longer to load, and thus decrease your website's page speed. Sometimes this is hard to avoid, but one thing you can control is the file size of each image on the page. Compress your images before uploading them to your CMS using websites like compressor.io or, for compressing images in bulk, tinypng.com.
Ready to dive into the full list of Google ranking factors? Check out the exhaustive guide below and make sure to save it as a reference for your future SEO needs. Just remember that the inclusion and importance of these factors changes over time.
Originally published Oct 22, 2018 8:20:00 PM, updated October 24 2018