Top 6 factors for ranking SEO


Are links on other websites that point to your site an important Google-search ranking factor?

The answer was once obvious, and for some, it still is. Google, on the other hand, has made significant changes to its search engine algorithm in recent years. The company also altered the way search results are displayed. Then there are mobile search results, which can differ from desktop results, the potential impact (or lack thereof) of social media shares, the emergence of Google’s RankBrain artificial intelligence (AI), and a slew of other factors.

It’s all enough to raise questions about today’s most important search engine ranking factors. We polled a group of SEO experts to get their thoughts on the most important ranking factors. They aren’t listed in any particular order because not all of the experts agreed on the relative importance of the various factors. However, all digital marketers, SEO experts, and other search professionals agree that the following six SEO ranking factors should be prioritized.

6 key search-ranking factors

1. Content relevance and SEO rank

Google eventually became the dominant search engine because it is adept at displaying the most relevant content that matches a keyword query on the first page of search results. Users eventually came to believe that the search engine only displays the most relevant results first, a behavior dubbed “Google Gullibility” by web-usability consultant Jakob Nielsen.

According to Eric Enge, CEO of Stone Temple Consulting, which provides content marketing, SEO, social media, and Google penalty recovery services, content relevance is often assumed or overlooked in studies of ranking factors.

Relevance is frequently assumed to be “on” or “off,” implying that content is either relevant or irrelevant to a query. “But, in my opinion, that’s not the right point of view,” Enge says. “You can’t assume that relevance is a binary factor, where you assign a 0 if it’s irrelevant and a 1 if it is. True relevance would be scored on a sliding scale from 0 to 1, with any possible value in between. To outrank the [higher score], the content with the lower score would need to score slightly higher on other metrics.”

2. Inbound links and SEO

According to Jayson DeMers, founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, a content- and social media marketing firm, Google has made a number of changes in the last year, including the introduction of RankBrain and a second mobile-friendly update, but the core ranking factors have remained largely unchanged. “The number and quality of inbound links pointing to your domain or page remain the most important ranking indicators.”

High Google rankings have always relied heavily on links. Google promoted its PageRank technology as a key competitive differentiator in its early days. According to Search Engine Land, PageRank is Google’s “numeric rating of how important it considers pages to be.” Google stated in 2011 that PageRank “works by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is, with the underlying assumption being that more important websites are likely to receive more links from other websites.” As of earlier this year, Google no longer publicly shares PageRank scores, but it still uses them in ranking calculations, Search Engine Journal reported.

Stone Temple Consulting recently conducted a research study to answer the question, “Are links still a powerful ranking factor?” The details are available in the company’s related blog post, but the gist is that links are still highly important as long as the content is relevant and the site doesn’t have technical or quality issues. And, after content relevance, “authority” is Enge’s No. 2 ranking factor, though it is primarily driven by the quality and diversity of backlinks, he claims.

Backlinko, an SEO consultancy, recently published the findings of its search engine ranking factors study, which was based on a million Google search results. Backlinko discovered that “the number of domains linking to a page correlated with rankings more than any other factor,” and that a website’s overall link authority, as measured by Ahrefs Domain Ratings, “strongly correlates with higher [search] rankings.”

Page-level link features, according to Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz, which provides SEO and other software tools as a service, are the No. 1 search engine-ranking factor today, assuming a site’s content is relevant. Google PageRank, the number of linked root domains, the quality of the link sources, and trust metrics are among these features. Moz publishes its own search engine ranking factors survey every other year, and in the most recent survey for 2015, page-level link features were the No. 2 ranking factor, just slightly below domain-level link features.

3. Content quality and SEO rank

Google wants to provide not only the most relevant content but also the best search results. According to Enge, quality can be measured in a number of ways, including proper grammar and spelling, reading level, comprehensiveness — how well the content covers the spectrum of user needs related to the query — uniqueness, and the absence of negative signals, such as excessive keyword repetition. (For more information, see “How Google Judges Quality and What You Should Do About It” and “What Quality Content Is and How to Help Your Clients Create It” on the Content Marketing Institute’s blog.)

“Marketers and SEO professionals should continue to focus on creating the best content possible in order to attract quality inbound links to their content, which usually means executing a solid content marketing strategy,” says DeMers. “It’s more difficult to stand out these days due to increased competition in the content sphere, so if there’s one change I can recommend… it’s investing more to ensure your content is truly remarkable, even if it means creating less content overall.”

According to the findings of Backlinko’s survey, “publishing focused content that covers a single topic may help with rankings,” and “longer content tends to rank higher in Google’s search results. The average Google first page result contains 1,890 words.” A separate study from BuzzSumo and Moz discovered that “long-form content of over 1,000 words consistently receives more (social media) shares and li

In its 2015 study of search ranking factors and rank correlations, Search metrics, an enterprise SEO and content marketing service provider, ranked content quality as the third most important factor. Keywords in the body of the copy, internal and external links, and meta-descriptions are among the factors that can influence such ranking; word count; and relevant terms are also factors that can influence such ranking.

4. Technical issues and SEO

Technical issues, like content relevancy, are sometimes overlooked in SEO ranking factor studies. However, technical issues can prevent a site’s content from ranking as highly as it could for relevant keyword queries — or from ranking at all.

Duplicate content, shady inbound links, poor navigation, and incorrect redirects are all common technical issues. Google’s goal is to provide a positive user experience, so content on sites with architecture issues is unlikely to rank highly. “If you want to play the SEO game, you have to solve those problems,” Enge says.

In fact, in Search metrics’ study, technical issues were ranked as the No. 1 most important factor to mitigate. However, technical issues aren’t limited to issues with a website’s structure. Technical on-page factors that can influence rank include whether or not the content has a strong meta-description, whether or not H1 and H2 tags are used, and whether or not a site is encrypted via HTTPS. According to the Search metrics report, “HTTPS is becoming more relevant and even a ranking signal for Google — but it is not required for every site.” “To increase trust and conversion rates, encryption is primarily important for sites with purchasing processes or sensitive client information.”

5. User engagement and SEO rank

Is your website’s content truly engaging to visitors? If this is the case, Google may reward you with a higher search ranking. Unfortunately, Google does not specify how it measures user engagement. “I don’t think anyone in the industry has a good handle on what user engagement measurements might be,” Enge says, adding that click-through rates are not a direct ranking factor.

According to Enge, high bounce rates are a good sign for some pages. When visitors arrive on contact pages in search of phone numbers and then leave, for example, that’s a good example of user engagement. “However, I believe Google is considering user engagement in some ways,” Enge says. In a March 2016 presentation, Google software engineer Paul Haahr confirmed as much, saying that Google uses user engagement to evaluate the quality of its ranking algorithms.

According to Moz’s Fishkin, user interaction and engagement, as well as usage-data signals, are among the top SEO ranking factors. Clickstream analysis, which collects, analyses, and reports aggregate data on which pages site visitors see and in what order and visitor traffic are examples of such signals. Moz outlines some user engagement metrics in its beginner’s guide to SEO, as well as an explanation of how usability and user experience impact search rankings.

Search metrics ranks user experience as the second most important ranking factor, based on factors such as the number of internal links and images, responsive design (when a website adjusts to both mobile and desktop screens), and time spent on the site.

6. RankBrain and SEO

According to Search Engine Land, a Google search executive stated in March 2016 that RankBrain, links, and content are the three top ranking factors. According to Search Engine Land, RankBrain uses AI to help Google “interpret the searches that people submit to find pages that might not have the exact words that were researched for.”

However, some SEO professionals are skeptical that RankBrain is such an important factor. According to Enge, Google has stated numerous times that RankBrain has a greater impact on long-tail queries. (Long-tail queries are search phrases with multiple words that are highly specific.) According to him, RankBrain runs on all queries, but it has no effect on broad or generic keyword search terms. Instead, it affects more complex keyword terms “infrequently,” while RankBrain affects long-tail keyword phrases “fairly frequently,” according to Enge.

SEO tips and best practices for 2016

1. Don’t overemphasize social media shares

According to Moz’s Fishkin, after Google+’s demise, social signals lost a lot of search clout, particularly for personalized results. According to Enge, “social media sources can be turned off at any time, so Google doesn’t want to make it part of their core algorithm.”

2. Ranking factors are intertwined

According to Holly Miller, a Searchmetrics SEO expert and professional services manager, some misconceptions about ranking factors stem from the belief that site owners can make a few changes or tweaks to pages and quickly see their rank. “A lot of factors are at work,” she says. “A lot of technical and content elements have to work together in concert to provide a superior user experience; ultimately, ask yourself, ‘Does this content help the user accomplish X?’ or, ‘Does this content answer their question?'”

3. Always keep user experience in mind

According to Fishkin, usability, user experience, speed, and the ability to deliver unique value are critical to SEO. “In the past, these were frequently the domains of other marketing and website professionals, and SEOs merely assisted with more technical and keyword-based on-page and off-page signals,” he explains. “However, in order to succeed long-term in search, you must have these elements of stickiness and remarkability.”

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