The 7 Most Important Ranking Factors
Google is becoming more sophisticated and SEO is changing faster than ever before, so it’s crucial that SEO experts stay informed on the most important ranking factors.
Keep in mind that even as Google’s ranking factors continue to change, their main goal – to serve the user – does not. This is significant because even as the individual ranking factors change year after year, any SEO that is working to serve the user will ultimately be rewarded.
Take a look at some of Google’s past updates. One update that was catastrophic for many websites was when Google began to penalize content mills. It wasn’t because Google didn’t want more content; it just wanted better content that was more authoritative, unique and would ultimately be more useful to the user.
Here are the 7 ranking factors that will most efficiently move the needle for your business. As we go through this checklist, take a moment to think about how each ranking factor is creating a better user experience.
1) Brand Signals
As far back as 2008, Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, said:
“Brands are the solution, not the problem. Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.”
And by “cesspool”, he was referring to the Internet.
I’m sure you have noticed that it is very difficult to rank above an article on Forbes or Entrepreneur even if you have a better article that is much more informative and user friendly. Why? Because they have a stronger brand.
Let’s break down some ranking factors Google considers.
Direct Website Traffic
One way that Google can tell if you are a credible brand is by looking at the amount of direct website traffic you get.
Direct traffic comes from users typing in your exact website URL or accessing your site from a bookmark. Direct traffic is important, since it significantly impacts the top 10 positions on Google.
When looking at Google Analytics for your site, direct traffic will look like this:
In a way, direct traffic signals that users know your brand and visit your site often to find information, products, services or to log in to a member portal. It’s an indication of trust and brand awareness by consumers.
Important Note: Direct Traffic Can Be Skewed
True direct traffic can be skewed a bit. Google Analytics will report traffic as “direct” if it has no data on how a user arrived at your site (this might be via “dark social” channels, like emails).
Employees accessing the website using the URL can also skew direct traffic, so exclude employee IP addresses from Google Analytics. This will give you a better understanding of your audience and how many actual users are returning to your site.
Check out our video 6 Ways to Exponentially Increase Traffic to Your Content:
Dive Deeper: [Case Study] The Content Sprout Method: How to Use Strategic Content Marketing to Grow Your Traffic From 0 to Millions
Another way Google can distinguish a no-name website from a brand website is by looking at the number of brand queries. Here’s what a brand query for Single Grain looks like:
The more times that people type in the name of your business, the stronger the brand is in Google’s eyes.
In fact, a study done by Moz showed that having a large number of brand queries is even more important than DA or links:
Dive Deeper: Targeting Branded vs. SEO Keywords: Which Should You Focus On?
Finally, while Google doesn’t actually count social interaction as a direct ranking factor, it does play into branding and thus there is a direct correlation between social sharing and higher rankings.
Social signals are very relevant to SEO, so make sure that you take advantage of them:
Think about all the credible brands you know and trust. They all have social profiles and social proof around the web, so you should also have an active account on any of the following social platforms:
One of the best ways to elevate your brand is to offer a powerful user experience. Users are more apt to revisit a site that is easy to navigate and answers their questions in an easily digestible way.
Not only does user experience elevate the brand quality, but it also translates directly into revenue. Design Advisor claims that for every $1 invested in UX, you will get a $2-$100 ROI.
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2) Dwell Time
Once you get your audience to visit your site, you need to keep them around for as long as possible. If Google sees that people aren’t spending much time on your website, they will think your result isn’t useful:
We include dwell time on here as a major ranking factor, though it is only relevant if your page already ranks within the top ten.
Technically, Google does not claim that dwell time is a ranking factor, though they have stated that they are using machine learning to determine what the best results for the user are. One of the ways that Google does this is by determining how much time is spent on a website prior to clicking back on the SERP page, so dwell time is still very important to SEO.
It’s important to note that dwell time, bounce rate and time on site are all very different metrics.
Bounce Rate: A user clicks a website link on the SERPs but does not visit any other pages on that site. Note that even if the user stayed on that page for two hours before closing the window, if they did not click on any other page, it is still considered a bounce.
Time on Site: This is the amount of time spent on any page on a site before clicking away. Note that both bounce rate and time on page/site can be tracked in Google Analytics:
Dwell Time: Dwell time is simply the total time a user spends on your site prior to returning to the SERPs.
Why is dwell time important? Google wants to know that the content and information on the page is valuable to searchers. For example, if your dwell time is less than that of your competitor’s, this signals to search engines that the content you are providing may not be fulfilling a user’s needs. This can lead to a decrease in ranking.
While dwell time does vary depending on the type of page, it might be a good opportunity to reassess any long-form content that has an average time on site of less than three minutes.
How to Improve Dwell Time
There are a few ways to increase time on site. It is a delicate balance between providing easy-to-digest content while still giving a user what they are looking for.
Tips for improving time on site include:
- An engaging introduction to keep users reading
- Breaking up large paragraphs to make content easier to read
- Lots of section headings and bullet points
- A mobile-friendly website
- Highly visual assets like images, GIFs, and videos
- Delivering answers to questions in an actionable way
For example, delivering actionable advice about keyword research in your content gives users value, which means they will stick around for a few minutes to read, learn and understand:
Once you have users on your page and engaged, provide easy site navigation to increase pages per session.
How to Decrease Bounce Rate
Bounce rate is another good indicator that your content is providing a poor experience, which will lead to a poor dwell time.
There are a few SEO hacks you can employ to decrease your bounce rate:
- Deeper Linking: Linking to relevant pages within your content can keep users engaged.
- More Relevant Pages: Develop supportive pages that can add value, like relevant product pages such as guides, manuals, reviews and case studies.
- Use Side Bars: Side bars are widgets you can employ that link to popular pages within your website.
- Engage Users Visually: Videos are a great way to improve user engagement. For instance, you can embed a video into your blog post on the same topic.
- Examine High Bounce Rate Pages: Identify pages with a high bounce rate and tweak them.
3) Website Speed
Website speed is another ranking factor that continues to be significant. This update rolled out in July of 2018 and was named the Speed Update.
As I mentioned in the beginning, Google’s goal is to serve the user the best experience possible, so if your site doesn’t load quickly, you will definitely be missing out on some rankings. But regardless of rankings, slow site speed results in a poor user experience and this is proven to have a direct impact on ROI.
Amazon did a study that showed that for every extra second it takes the website to load, they lose $1.6 million in sales – so make sure your website loads quickly!
How to Improve Website Speed
If you aren’t a very technical person, this might be something that you pass off to your web development team.
Before you do that, put your website’s URL in Page Speed Insights. This is a free tool that Google provides that will show you your current loading speed and even give you recommendations on how to make it faster:
Keep in mind, though, that this is not always 100% accurate. You can compare it with tools like GTmetrix as well. In addition, Google announced that they will be releasing a more accurate tool directly in Google Search Console.
If you want to tackle the problems yourself, here are a couple of suggestions you can do without a developer:
- Use Good Hosting: This is an easy one. If you have a WordPress website, consider using something like WPengine.
- Optimize Images: If you haven’t optimized your images yet, this should be on your to do list. Compress large images with a tool like Image Optimizer.
- Browser Caching: When you visit a webpage, your browser will store (“cache”) information from the page so that it does not have to reload the whole page again. However, this will eventually slow down the site. To avoid this, just set the “expires” header for how long you want the information to be cached.
Dive Deeper: Overlooked SEO: Optimizing Images and Video For Search
4) Domain Authority
There’s no way around this one. As brands become more and more popular, it only makes sense that Google will care about the authority of a website’s domain.
It’s very unlikely that you will find a keyword with a high keyword difficulty score showing results to low DA pages. Look at the SERPs for SEO:
They all have DAs over 85.
Think about your biggest competitors. The ones that are always ranking above you no matter how much better your content is probably have a higher domain authority.
Dive Deeper: Starting From the Bottom: How to Build Up Your Domain Authority from Scratch
How to Improve Domain Authority
Improving domain authority isn’t a quick fix. However, if you’re in it for the long game, there is still hope. Here are a few things you can do to raise your domain authority.
Build Relationships (Links)
Notice how I don’t just suggest building links. Sure, everything I’m about to say next will eventually equate to links, but focusing on the relationship rather than the link will help you scale faster. Take the time to actually get to know not only other people in the space, but also your customers. They can really be your biggest advocates, especially if they have blogs, podcasts or video channels.
Connecting with influencers is another great way to get people to engage with your brand as well as earn those valuable backlinks almost effortlessly. You may even consider hiring a PR team for this.
Provide Value (Amazing Content)
Content is no longer king. Quality content is now king. We’ve all heard it. However, what happens when there are already over a billion blogs available and every single one of them has content? Google picks the content that is the most valuable to the reader. Nobody is going to give you a gold star just for producing another piece of content that says the same thing all the other blogs say. Consider writing 10x content using Brian Dean’s Skyscraper technique.
That’s right. It might not seem like a tactic that will directly increase your DA, but if you tell your boss/clients that this will take months and years, you will be saving yourself a lot of headaches down the road. It is true that the age of a site does play into its SEO rankings, so sometimes you will just have to wait it out. Keep providing amazing value and you will be fine.
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The number of backlinks that point to your site continues to be an important ranking factor. For instance, the top link in Google’s search results has double the referring domains as the content in position 10.
A recent study with Moz confirms this:
As Moz writer Eric Enge says:
“This correlation score comes in at a solid 0.293 score. Considering the complexity of the Google algorithm’s 200+ ranking factors, having one single factor come in at a correlation score that high indicates a strong level of correlation.”
Referring Domain vs. Backlinks
In Ahref’s recent study, referring domains are very strongly correlated with more organic keyword rankings:
A referring domain is simply the number of websites that are essentially vouching for the quality of your website, specific content on your site or the products and services you offer.
It’s sort of like having a network of friends. In the “real world,” people with a large network of experts, like CEOs at major companies, are usually great sources of information.
Google can look at your website’s network by analyzing the other sites that mention and link out to you. If each referring domain is the equivalent of a friend, Google sees the most authoritative person (or, in this analogy, website) as the one with the most friends/biggest network (in this case referring domains).
Dive Deeper: 4 Ways to Signal to Google that You’re an Expert Content Creator
You can have multiple backlinks from one referring domain, but they should both grow in a somewhat linear fashion, although you won’t necessarily get the same ratio of backlinks to referring domains every time. This is a pretty healthy example of growth:
Ideally, you need a mixture of referring domains pointing to your site, including high- and medium-authority sites.
Once you have one backlink from a domain, do you need any more? Do multiple backlinks from the same domain help? Multiple backlinks from a referring domain do help, though there are diminishing returns for each additional backlink from the same domain.
A good way to leverage this is to request additional backlinks to go to specific product pages or content pieces as it will still strengthen individual pages considerably:
How to Increase the Number of Referring Domains
Getting more referring domains works into your SEO link-building strategy and one of the best ways to build your link portfolio is to create high-quality content that is shareable. Here’s how:
- Broken-Link Building: Using this strategy, you hunt down broken links on other sites’ content with the intent of replacing it with your own. You can use the Google Chrome plugin Check My Links to identify broken links and then send outreach emails pitching your link as a replacement.
- Find Relevant Resource Pages: One of the easiest ways to earn backlinks is to find relevant resource pages you can get your website listed on. Find resource pages by typing in “Keyword” + “helpful resources” or “keyword”+ “useful links” into Google’s search bar. Identify the most relevant and send outreach emails.
- Brand Mentions: You may be surprised how many websites mention your brand without linking back to you. Using BuzzSumo, you can identify shares of your content and ask for a backlink.
- Influencer Marketing Campaign: For websites that offer products and services, you can employ an influencer marketing campaign to grow your number of referring domains. Why? Influencers get more content shared! Blogger influencers can be great for this, especially if they write for high-quality publications.
- Offline Efforts: This one is often overlooked and yet it is one of the most powerful link-building tools available. Remember that behind a blog are real people who have a real network of friends and colleagues. If a close friend asked you to share a quality article, you’d probably be happy to do it for free. Take time by going to conferences, having coffee meetings and other personal interactions to establish that friendship.
One of the best ways to earn more backlinks is to combine your link-building strategy with your content marketing campaigns. By producing high-quality and highly shareable content, natural links simply come without effort.
Other ways to combine your link-building efforts with your content marketing strategy include:
- Visual Content (infographics, charts and graphs, videos)
- Definitive/Ultimate Guides (like this one for YouTube SEO)
- Original Research Posts (data you have compiled)
Developing quality content is essential to your link-building efforts because content is an important ranking factor.
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Check out our video called Beginner’s Guide to SEO: Getting Started with Blogs and Articles:
6) Secure Site
Building a website used to be a complicated process reserved for those who had deep knowledge of coding. So it wasn’t uncommon to come across a website that wasn’t secure – and even today, many sites are still not secure.
What do I mean by secure? Check out this URL:
Secure sites have an https:// rather than just an http:// (the “S” stands for “secure”).
Google now makes it very easy to spot whether a site is secure or not by putting a green padlock and the word “secure” in the address bar. Clicking on the green lock will give you more information about the site’s security:
Here’s an example of a site that is not secure:
As of August 2014, Google announced that HTTPS is a ranking signal, so I had to look on the ninth page to find an example of a site that’s not secure!
Dive Deeper: How Poor Website Security Negatively Impacts SEO Rankings
How to Secure Your Website
First of all, what does it mean to have a secure site? Having an https:// simply means that your site has an SSL certificate. (SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer and, in short, it’s the standard technology for keeping an internet connection secure.)
If you have a developer, you can send this to them. If not, don’t worry, because it’s not too hard (read our guide on switching from HTTP to HTTPS here).
Here’s the short version of how to acquire an SSL certificate:
- Host with a dedicated IP address
- Buy the SSL certificate
- Verify and validate your new certificate
- Install your SSL certificate
- Redirect the HTTP version to the secure HTTPS version
7) Content Development
In many ways, the ranking factors that matter the most hinge on content development. From increasing direct traffic to increasing user interaction with your site, creating high-quality content is key.
Keep these requirements for powerful content that increases ranking in mind:
While content length isn’t necessarily a set ranking factor, there is a direct correlation between longer content and higher rankings.
The key here is to create long-form content, not long-winded content. A study done by Neil Patel reconfirms that higher-ranking results are usually longer:
Instead of filling up the page with fluff, use the skyscraper technique to write above and beyond basic, “been there, done that” content by using case studies, actionable tips and unique perspectives.
Dive Deeper: Do You Really Need to Write 1,890-Word Blog Posts to Rank on Page 1?
Use Bullet Points
Another important ranking factor to consider when it comes to content is lists (i.e. bullet points). This plays into the user experience, as bullet points make the page easier to skim and also usually increases dwell time.
Brian Dean of Backlinko shared his site’s average time on page for a piece of content that was nearly a whopping 7 minutes!!
And when you click on the post, you’ll see that there are a lot of lists, images and bolded headlines, which make it easy for a reader to stick around:
This explains why the average time on that page is so high.
After you’ve created your amazing piece of long-form content, you aren’t done. This is where the real work begins. You need to make sure that you are promoting your blog posts properly, such as on:
- Social Channels: Promote your content through Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, or any other site that is relevant to your business.
- Medium: Medium is a widely overlooked channel for promotion. Post the first couple of paragraphs and then link back to your website to increase your traffic.
- Link-Building Outreach: Don’t spam your post to thousands of people, but do push it out to the people or companies to which you linked in your post. Those people will probably be delighted that you linked to them and may help share the content.
- Paid Ads: If you don’t have a huge audience yet, consider running paid social ads because if people don’t know who you are, the easiest way to find them and target them by their exact interests is to use the filters in social platforms. For example, Facebook Ads are really good with targeting.
- Influencers in Your Space: If you link out to any influencers within your blog post, email each of them and say something like: “Hey [NAME]. I just want to let you know I’m a huge fan of your work, so much so that I even linked out to you in my latest blog post [ARTICLE NAME/LINK]. Thanks!” It’s that simple.
Dive Deeper: Why Content Marketing Should Always Be 20% Creation and 80% Promotion
Going omnichannel is perhaps one of the biggest focuses of late and will have a huge impact on your rankings and brand. You used to be able to build a brand with just an amazing blog, but that isn’t the case anymore.
If you want to compete in this ever-more-competitive marketplace, you have to have your content on multiple platforms.
How do you do that? You don’t have to produce a million pieces of different content. Consider using our content sprout technique and start with just one piece of content. It could be a blog post that you then turn into a video, which can become a podcast which can become an infographic, etc.
Dive Deeper: Omnichannel Marketing: Using the Content Sprout Method to Overcome Info Overload
Bonus: Recovering from Penalties
If you wake up one day and see a huge drop in traffic, it can only mean one thing: You have been penalized by Google:
So what can you do to recover from a Google penalty?
First thing, go to your Google Search Console. It will give you a message if there was a manual penalty.
If they have given you a manual penalty, simply correct what they have penalized you for. Then you can submit a manual actions report.
If it wasn’t a manual penalty, a lot of other people were probably affected as well. Check out some of the search publications, like Search Engine Journal or Search Engine Roundtable to see if they posted anything about a major algorithm update.
Most people got hit by the Panda and Penguin updates. Agile Media posted a case study about a site that had been hit with the Penguin penalty:
They had a client that had a number of spammy links, so when they saw the traffic drop, they made a list of all the websites that were spammy and asked to have the links removed. They filed a reconsideration request and the penalty was lifted within 7 days.
If you don’t notice any major uproar from the SEO world, track your revenue closely. Are you actually losing any revenue? Google might have been sending irrelevant visitors to your site and they might have been accounting for a large portion of your traffic, but none of them were converting. This is actually good news because your bounce rate will go down and your time on page will go up, which automatically increases the quality of your SEO.
Brian Dean once published a post How to Get High-Quality Backlinks. It was very high quality and therefore ranked for a lot of keywords, including “how to get high”. As you can imagine, this post was not serving the searcher intent, so Google slowly began to drop it in rankings for that keyword. As a result, the bounce rate decreased and the time on page increased.
Dive Deeper: How to Recover From Any Google Penalty
Ranking factors will continue to change, but for now these are the most important ranking factors. Each of the factors included here point towards creating a better answer for the user, which is an evergreen goal that Google has.
By improving on the above top-ranking factors, you can serve up quality content, improve key analytics, boost traffic, and build a robust link portfolio. In many ways, by improving just one or two of these points, the others will also improve. Like many things about SEO, the correlation between ranking factors are indeed powerful.