Factors Google Use To Rank Websites

Rating

Google is said to use over 200 ranking factors in their algorithm. I’d like to point out that this well known SEO factoid is a gross underestimate of what is probably the case. That being said, the 200 ranking factor cliche, probably covers over 90% of the weight or the reason why a given website ranks where it ranks for a given search query. Beyond that (if not before) we move into the area of true speculation about an algorithm which is near constantly being tweaked and changed.

So let’s get going. I have vetted through the 200 known or assumed ranking factors from most to least weighted within the algorithm. I have ranked those that remain & are not merely either a) not ranking factors or b) another way to describe the same ranking factor. I find that Google ranking signals are generally presented in random lists leaving the reader somewhat lost as to what is really important and what isn’t. I hope this helps you delineate what is most important from what isn’t worth your time.

Many such listings are littered with repetition (in an attempt to reach the magical 200 ranking factors) – so I’ve compiled my list based on importance and included only those ranking factors that matter. I’ve tried not to repeat myself. Similarly, a listing of Google algorithm updates isn’t really a list of ranking factors (necessarily). Many of these sorts of lists descend into merely a list of 200 SEO or Google search buzzwords – I’ve seen one which lists, and I’m not joking, every major Google algorithm update of the last decade as a ranking signal. Now, many of these algorithm changes did have decipherable overriding messages or take home messages to them but they were not in, and of themselves, ranking factors.

Critical

Critical signals are those which are prerequisites for ranking prominently on Google on a regular basis.

  • Dwell Time – If you manage to keep the average visitor Google sends you on your website for say 15 minutes you’ve done your job and you can expect “more where they came from” in terms of Google traffic & quite frankly can largely disregard the majority of the rest of this list. Dwell time is the closest thing that exists in SEO to the Holy Grail. Dwell time means happy visitors means happy search engine means more will be sent your way. How you achieve this is the challenge. Create useful, entertaining, informative and/or uniquely valuable content and dwell time will rise. A high dwell time is a bit like scoring 30 goals in a season – if that’s the only thing we know about your season – you’ve had a good season. Recommended reading: What Is Dwell Time & Why It Matters for SEO; Dwell Time: The Most Important Metric You’re Not Measuring; Dwell Time: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?
  • Page Loading Speed – A slow loading page is a bit like smoking – there is no real use for it. Its universally bad. Internet users all hate it and thus so do Google. Never forget that is who Google’s loyalty will always be to – the user. That’s how they have built a trillion dollar enterprise – by keeping users happy. Virtually any website can do things to make itself load faster. Some require better (and often more expensive) infrastructure/hosting but many simply require prudent use of available resources and better best practice compliance.
    How to check your page load speed:

PageSpeed Insights
GTmetrix
Pingdom Tools: Website Speed Test
WebPageTest
Recommended further reading: Page Speed — 2021 Website Best Practices; How Fast Should A Website Load & How To Speed It Up; A Beginner’s Guide to Website Speed Optimization.

  • Cover topic in-depth and offer unique insights – quality content as far as Google is concerned generally forms part of an in depth exploration of a topic. There are various correlations which show this to be true including content length. Coffee table content which is if not exhaustive then certainly expansive around a topic is rewarded with organic traction. People search linguistically and you want to provide them with the answer so you need to do so with language and the more, and deeper, the answer you provide, generally speaking the better. The depth of the content on a given topic should obviously still line up with other factors such as user-friendliness and still be able to provide its share of unique insights but overall the deeper you go the better for SEO & ranking purposes. If an individual page doesn’t cover a topic in depth, that can be countered by the fact that, on the whole, the website does. Most websites don’t possess the inherent domain strength to rely on this though.

Signals vs Buzzwords

Many Google algorithm changes sought to stamp out loopholes for manipulating rankings but if you are coming to this fresh with the question “How do I get my website to rank well on Google?” Focusing exhaustively on the things you should not be doing or some people have used as a loophole in the past but has now been countered by Google is of limited usefulness.

I want to provide you with an actionable, ordered in importance plan to improve the value Google attaches to your website but this will implicitly involve becoming or providing a more valuable resource to your users.

I remember trying 100 different ways to improve my golf swing – I deployed cameras, single-plane swings, thicker grips, left-handed clubs, higher tees, lower tees – you get the picture. Until one day a professional golfer walked past me at the driving range and said I should try and stand a smidge further away from the ball when I set up. Instantly my swing and the results improved. The moral of the story is its not about trying to appear like an SEO expert by repeating and misleading your way to 200 ranking signals because (falsely) someone once claimed that’s about what Google use in their search algorithm. Firstly, they use significantly more than that – and secondly, most don’t matter to most websites. Not when you are making a mistake on one of the fundamentals. Like I was by standing too close to the golf ball. Smart changes leading to big impacts – that’s what I seek to convey here.

The rankings assume you are within 1 or 2 standard deviations of the mean – that is, a less important ranking signal is only a less important ranking signal if you don’t have some extreme version of it at play. Take something like Grammar and Spelling – which I rank rather lowly – it would be higher in the individual case of a website with extremely poor grammar but, in general, assuming it is somewhere between bad and good – its not that important a factor.

According to Google themselves the “core foundations of a delightful web experience” are a website that is

  • fast
  • integrated
  • reliable
  • engaging

Notice how almost all of the ranking signals presented below (certainly ever single onsite ranking factor) ticks one of those four boxes. I’ve included an icon representing each of those 4 core foundations each time a signal that qualifies is listed. Several contribute to more than one core foundation.

Very Important & Important

Very important signals are borderline prerequisites for ranking well on Google.

  • Mobile Usability/Optimised Is your web page mobile friendly?
  • Domain Age – Google favour older domains over younger domains because their algorithms have more data to go on when assessing their usefulness to users. This doesn’t automatically mean that any old domain will outrank a newer one but that provided a older domain has lived a non-toxic life it is at a distinct advantage over a younger domain. The size of this advantage, in my experience, in terms of being crawled, and of being ranked is deceptively large. Hence why it ranks as highly as it does on my listing. What’s implicit here is that you have an old site which has for a long time not upset Google and their guidelines. This is what puts you one up intrinsically against newer websites.
  • User Friendly Layout & Site Usability A user friendly layout with high levels of usability ticks a lot of Google’s boxes. Levels of both integration and engagement benefit. Its a massive topic but here are some useful articles on the topic. Recommended further reading: 5 Key Principles Of Good Website Usability; 18 Usability Guidelines and Website Design Standards; What Makes a Website User-Friendly?
  • Number of Links from Separate C-Class IPs – Separate C-Class IPs is a way to ensure some level of diversity in inbound link sources.
  • Number of Linking Root Domains
  • Site Architecture
  • Natural Link Profile with Diverse Sources & Link Types

Important Signals

Important signals whilst not required to rank prominently on Google are highly recommended and highly correlated with prominence on Google search.

  • Link Velocity
  • SSL Certificate
  • Server Location – You can check your website’s server location here. If you’re targeting the British market, the most logical place to locate your server is in Britain.
  • User reviews/Site reputation – Google take into account what reputation a website and its associated products or services currently holds online. More (good) reviews the better.
  • DMCA Complaints – The DMCA is the closest thing the internet has to Interpol. Don’t do anything that incurs their wrath because essentially ranking prominently on Google is being recommended and Google do their due diligence. You can count on that. There is a DMCA database checker available online to see if you’ve been naughty. Recommended resource: How to Issue a DMCA Takedown Notice (Or Handle Your Own).
  • Links to Bad Neighborhoods – This should start to make complete sense by now. A legitimate, upstanding business is unlikely to link to another website which is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Always best to double check you are not doing this and to periodically check the status of all websites you link out to. This falls under the SEO good housekeeping category. The downside for such violations is likely rather severe and possibly stealth for a long time.
  • Mobile Usability

Somewhat, Mildly & Slightly Important

  • Content Recency & Size of Content Updates
  • Domain registration length – an established, noteworthy business is far more likely to secure their domain for 5 years or longer than a shady fly by night operation. Google know this and they attach some value to a domain’s registration length. It’s one of the most common sensical ranking signals and a fairly easy one to optimise.
  • Avoid Duplicate Content – Google is tasked with reading the entire internet. Think about it logically. That’s a lot of content anyway you want to cut it. Its a lot more content when people are copying other people. They, rightly, will seek to avoid repeated content. Additionally, remember that Google’s foundations stem from the academic world where plagiarism is a capital offense. Don’t do it.
  • Inbound links from low quality websites – Deploy the Disavow Tool. These links often come with poisoned anchor text which further exacerbates the ranking losses.
  • Use a Sitemap
  • Keyword in or even starts the Title Tag
  • Contextual Links
  • Organic Click Through Rate for a Keyword
  • Contact Us Page – This is both a useability issue and a quality signal. Think about it logically – what legitimate business on the planet doesn’t have or wouldn’t have a contact us page? Facebook – you got me there. But seriously, if you were looking for a giveaway that a web property wasn’t on the up and up the absence of a contact us page is probably as solid a clue as you could hope to be given.

Mildly Important Signals

  • Use of Multimedia – Now I’m not saying you absolutely have to have images and videos in every single post. Far from it. But you should consider including a variety of content types to round out the user experience and the depth of interaction with your content.
  • Number of Linking Pages
  • Keyword Appears in H1 Tag
  • Keyword Prominence
  • Keyword in H2, H3 Tags
  • Keyword in URL
  • Avoid Systematic Reciprocal Links – This might have worked in 2004 but in 2021 and for many years now this is asking for trouble. But don’t be paranoid about it either, if on a relatively few and accidental occasions you link to a website that links to you its not the end of the world and is a naturally occurring phenomenon when it happens in small amounts all across the internet.
  • Site Uptime – You want your website to be available to users as close to always as is possible. A high site uptime might not make you on Google but anything less does have the potential to break you. After all, what worse place could Google send their users than somewhere which is effectively not even there? Recommended Resource: Website Uptime Test; Uptime Monitoring Service.
  • Terms of Service and Privacy Pages – as with but perhaps to a lesser degree than the Contact Page, these pages are in line with what you’d expect to see on a trustworthy member of the internet’s website. An easy enough win.
  • Linked to from universally respected domains (Wikipedia;.edu;.gov or .ac.uk and similar Domains) – links like these are potentially very potent but they don’t grow on trees which is why I’ve listed them this lowly as a ranking factor. A nice to have not a need to have… and don’t force it. If they come, they come. Focus on quality content and user experience and good things will follow which might or might not include links from universally respected domains.

Slightly Important Signals

  • Direct Traffic
  • Nofollow Links
  • Links From Competitors
  • Bounce Rate
  • Repeat Traffic
  • Image Optimization
  • Page Age
  • Linking Domain Age
  • Links from 301 have some value but doing so excessively with negatively impact rankings
  • Avoid Duplicate Content

Marginal, Very Marginal Situational & Nano

  • Breadcrumb Navigation
  • References, Sources & Helpful “Supplementary Content”
  • Outbound Link Quality
  • Exact Match Domain – Exact Match Domains were a useful ranking boost about a decade ago. Today, they’re of marginal benefit and possibly bring some extra scrutiny by Google and not in a good way. That being said, if you’re a legitimate operation and you can buy one of the few decent exact match domains still available they do, in my opinion, still give a (far smaller) ranking benefit. Just don’t expect this signal to carry a domain like it did in 2006. I’d just add that it is a far more complex issue than yes its good or no its not. If you want to dive deeper in to it check out: Google’s Exact Match Domains Patent (Detecting Commercial Queries).
  • URL Depth Within a Site
  • Quality of Internal Links Pointing to Page
  • Country TLD extension
  • Country TLD of Referring Domain

Very Marginal

  • Broken Links
  • Keyword As First Word in Domain or Sub-Domain (or at all)
  • Outbound Link Theme
  • Backlink Anchor Text
  • Brand Name Anchor Text
  • Page Category
  • Quality including Word Count of Linking Content
  • Schema.org Usage
  • URL Length – “A site’s URL structure should be as simple as possible….Whenever possible, shorten URLs by trimming unnecessary parameters” according to Google. This is more of an ease of indexation helper than a ranking signal but better indexation downstream will lead to better outcome for site owners.

Situational

  • User Search & Browsing History
  • Domain and/or WhoIs Owner History – If your domain has a history of violating Google Webmaster Guidelines the negative effects on your SERP performance can linger for weeks, months or even years later. This depends on the severity and nature of your domain’s previous violations. Similar long term damage is possible for WhoIs Owners with a bad history.
  • Public vs. Private WhoIs – for once the cheaper option is the better option here. A private WhoIs can, in some cases, make Google suspicious about the potential for link farm building and who knows what else.
  • Content Hidden Behind Tabs
  • Table of Contents
  • Number of Outbound Links
  • Use of AMP – AMP pages load near instantly, enabling a consistently fast experience. Especially useful for fast moving, news content. Not having AMP is not a disadvantage news providers can afford to operate under. Examples of AMP’s impact on news content include: AMP helps the Washington Post increase returning users from mobile search by 23%
  • Bullets and Numbered Lists

Nano Signals

  • Internal Link Anchor Text
  • Link Location In Content
  • Duplicate Meta Information On-Site
  • Keyword in Description Tag
  • Sitewide Links
  • Official Linkedin Company Page
  • Chrome Bookmarks
  • Reading Level – this is an exceptionally brittle (if small) ranking signal. It is most likely that Google ideally want you to write reading level appropriate content rather than all websites simply aiming for some random optimum level. That is a page about a high brow subject doesn’t need to be dumbed down but overly complicated writing on a subject aimed at a mass audience is not optimal either.
  • HTML errors/W3C validation
  • Link Title Attribution
  • Keyword Density/TF-IDF
  • Priority of Page in Sitemap
  • Forum Links
  • Grammar and Spelling