Google considers many factors when deciding which pages to list for a particular search:
- Aspects of each page – content, speed, accessibility etc.
- How each page relates to other sites – incoming links, mentions etc.
- Visitor interactions with each page and site – how long people stay on a page, how many pages they visit etc.
- Actual reviews of the site and the business.
Google also considers your site as a whole
While many ranking factors apply to individual pages, Google also considers all the pages of a site together to determine its overall value, or ‘authority’, which it in turn uses when deciding which individual pages to list.
A ‘site’ to Google is every page with the same domain name – for www.domain.com ‘domain.com’ is the domain name. So you may hear SEOers talk about ‘Domain-Level’ factors vs ‘Page-Level’ factors.
Factors = Signals
Google often refers to these factors as ‘signals’, in that they’re signalling the quality of the page.
Here are some commonly known factors, or signals, presented in broad groups. Some hold much more weight than others. Some were historically important but are currently insignificant. Google evolves quickly.
A list of factors ranked by importance is below.
On page technical factors
Whether your site ‘responds’ to different screen sizes. Whether it’s easy to use and accessible at all screen sizes.
Yes = Good
A very important factor for searches on mobile devices.
Whether or not a site uses security certificates to encrypt its data. Browsers indicate sites that do with a small green padlock in the address bar.
Yes = Good
If you host with me on my Australian servers your certificate is included for free, thanks to my great hosting provider Panthur.
Faster = Better
Things like newsletter signup forms that pop up automatically. Google calls them ‘interstitials’ – anything that hinders access to the main content of a page.
Yes = Bad
Especially for mobile searches.
On page content factors
Higher = Better
In depth pages are generally better, if they’re interesting and relevant.
- Keyword in the business name
- Keyword in the domain name
- Keyword in the title tag
- Keyword in headings
- Keyword in the body of a page
- Keyword in the meta description
- Keyword in the file name (of images etc.)
- Keyword density
Historically important, currently debatable. Probably only benefits uncompetitive niches.
Keyword stuffing = Bad, you’ll be punished.
As Google gets better at providing ‘semantic’ or ‘contextual’ results – pages that may not contain the exact search phrase but are obviously related – the use of specific keywords will become less and less important.
Indeed the general advice now is to use a variety of terms related to the ‘target keyword’ (in SEO speak, ‘topic’ in normal speak). In other words, just write as if your readers are humans!
And as for business names and domain names, only include keywords if it makes sense from a business perspective with your customers in mind, don’t do it for SEO – it probably won’t help and it may even hurt rankings. A unique and catchy name makes for a much better brand and your domain should match.
Yes = Bad
Name, address, phone number (NAP).
Presence on every page = Good, especially for Local searches.
- alt attribute
Inclusion = Good
Along with the filename the alt attribute text should describe the content of the image. We’re not punished for not including alt text but if we do Google understands our content better and is more likely to list our page if the content of the image is relevant to the search. If the image is relevant then it should be easy to include relevant keywords, but don’t try to trick them!
(The ‘title’ attribute of images isn’t crawled by Google but it can be useful for users so try to include it when appropriate. Same goes for ‘Description’ in WordPress.)
Off site factors
Incoming links – total number
More = Better, generally, it depends on their quality – Google will punish a site for too many low quality incoming links.
Incoming links – relevance
Links from related sites.
More = Better
Links from unrelated sites don’t help.
Incoming links – authority
Links from high authority sites.
Higher = Better
And conversely – Google will probably punish you for links from dodgy sites.
Incoming links – referring domains
More = Better
Links from a range of domains is better than lots from a single domain.
Citations / Mentions
How often a site or brand is mentioned elsewhere on the net, not necessarily in a link.
More = Better
Especially for local searches. Get your NAP out there! (Name Address and Phone number) And keep the format of your NAP exactly the same everywhere.
The number of times a page is shared/liked/tweeted etc.
Currently debated. More is either good or neutral, it’s not bad.
Google My Business page
- Page is verified – claim and verify yours now! (Or get me to do it for you.)
- Business category is accurate.
- Product or service keyword in the page title. Careful with this one though, currently it works but could be penalised in the future.
- Location in the page title.
- Photos included.
All good, especially for local searches.
Off web factors – the quality of the business
Not the business website, the actual business. People are reviewing businesses online, they’re voting with their phones when they call from Google’s links, and they’re voting with their feet when they visit and have location tracking on.
I think ‘Off Web‘ or ‘Off Net‘ factors – the qualities of actual businesses – will be the next big thing in the world of SEO.
#offwebfactors – the next big thing in SEO?
— Max (@maxshmax) July 5, 2017
As customer reviews become more common the actual quality of a business will strengthen as a ranking factor.
And not just businesses, it might be how talented you are or how likeable or anything else that people form opinions about – if you can review it online then Google can rank it.
User behaviour factors
As Google collects more and more data about how we interact with its search engine and the sites we visit it doesn’t have to rely as much on other indicators of a page’s popularity like incoming links, it has direct data that proves if we like it or not.
Whether Google is currently using user engagement signals or not is somewhat controversial as they’re hard to study because only Google has the data. Most experts think they’re currently a bit to very important and gaining weight.
The more people that visit a page the more authority that page has.
Google assumes that if a lot of people are visiting a site there must be something good about it.
Time on site
The longer we stay on a site the more we like it.
Pages per session
The more pages we visit in a site the more we like it.
The percentage of people that visit a page and realise it’s not what they’re after, then ‘bounce’ back to the previous page they were on.
Lower bounce rate = better page, or more relevant page for a particular search.
Click through rate (CTR)
How often people click through to a page when they see it in the search results. Higher = Better.
The important factors
Remember only Google knows for sure. What works is hotly debated by the experts and I’m not one of them. I learn from sites like Moz and Semrush who are able to study their own data from their large user bases. But even with large amounts of data it’s hard to differentiate between correlation and causation.
The popularity of the niche probably matters too – keyword use may be used as a signal on low competition and low volume searches but ignored for popular searches.
And the type of search matters – for instance mobile friendliness is weighted heavier on mobile searches than desktop.
Factors to focus on
Make content engaging. Make it relevant. Give users what they came for.
This will help with all the user behaviour signals and will encourage links and mentions on other sites.
Don’t create content just to get links. Create content to help people. Google is rapidly shifting focus from ‘how many links we have’ to ‘how much people like us’.
Good quality links still help though. Promote your great content to try to get links from authoritative and related sites.
Don’t buy low quality links, they’ll have the opposite effect.
Ensure your site is responsive.
Google Business page
Verify your page. Ask happy customers for reviews.
Factors worth addressing
Writing naturally should be the first priority, then try including target keywords in titles and headings and body copy. Use synonyms of the keywords too.
Get the green padlock.
Make sure it loads fast.
Make it easy for visitors to share your content. Encourage it.
Claim your profiles on the platforms you’ll use – Facebook and Instagram are the biggest. Use them. Interact with your users.
Want more detailed information?
The website Moz is highly regarded, they periodically release detailed reports on ranking factors, here are their latest general and local reports: