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Top 10 Current Google Ranking Factors (2021)
What Are the Most Crucial SEO Ranking Factors?
We’ve all had to make peace with the fact that nobody knows precisely which ranking factors Google uses (except for Google, arguably). The exact Google search algorithm is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the modern era. To add to the inscrutable mystery of it all, Google regularly releases updates that can shift the weight of existing factors or add entirely new considerations to search engine optimization.
But, thanks to years of trial and error by the SEO community (and a few tips here and there from Google), a handful of factors have proven crucial in helping web pages rank higher. All of them deal with the fundamental SEO question: Is your page relevant, high quality, and useful?
But before we delve into these critical Google ranking factors, let’s define a few basic SEO concepts first.
Understanding SEO, or “How Do I Rank Higher on Google?”
SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is a collection of techniques that help website pages reach top positions in search engine rankings. The goal is to be the #1 entry on the first page of a relevant Google SERP (search engine results page).
But why would you want to rank high in SERPs?
When was the last time you visited the next page of a Google search result?
Exactly, because who has that much time on their hands?
When people search for something online, they want reliable answers, and they want them fast. Searchers are most likely to follow links in the first few entries on the results page because they intuitively understand that these provide the best answers to their search query. In contrast, less relevant pages will be listed on subsequent result pages.
Only 5% of internet users report exploring results on the second page of a Google search. Have you ever heard the SEO maxim that search results behind page one are all tied for last place? It’s explained by the graph below:
Okay, Google wants its users to have the best experience possible, so it returns the most relevant pages first. But how does Google determine page relevance? The search engine applies a set of criteria known as Google ranking factors.
How do Google ranking factors work?
First, search engines like Google index web pages and add them to their catalog. To efficiently index trillions of pages on the internet, Google utilizes an army of search bots — automated software that crawls and catalogs pages on the internet.
Someone looking for something will type a phrase into the Google search bar. The components of this query are known as “keywords.” Google uses natural language processing to decipher the real meaning behind these keywords, surmising a “search intent.” If you’ve ever mistyped a word when searching for something, you know that Google will correctly interpret your intention, and rather than fruitlessly searching for matches to “hambugers,” it will tell you it’s showing results for “hamburgers.”
Armed with the user’s search intent, Google combs through its index to find the most relevant web pages based on those keywords. The primary indicator to establish relevance is the number of times the keyword appears on a particular page.
But because it’s learned from keyword stuffers in a bygone age, Google no longer bases relevancy on keywords alone. (Remember the annoyance of clicking on a search result to land on a page that contained little more than nonsensically repeating keywords?)
That’s why Google developed a broad set of ranking factors, resulting in an algorithm that considers user experience to assign a score to each page based on authority, quality, and usability. The higher the score, the higher its position in the search results.
Google claims to consider over 200 different SEO factors, including the user’s location and past search history. The truth, though, is that only a fraction of those really matter when it comes to high search engine ranking positioning. We’ll look at a few of these crucial factors later in the article. But first, let’s talk about E-A-T.
What is E-A-T and Why Does It Matter?
E-A-T stands for Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness, and it’s Google’s way of defining high-quality content.
E-A-T is a vital evolution in the Google algorithm because it ensures that users are served correct, helpful, and accurate information in their search results. This is especially important for websites that Google classifies as YMYL (your money or your life) websites. YMYL is any site that deals with sensitive information like health and wealth. If these webpages give the wrong advice, it can have severe consequences for a person’s health or wellbeing. Google has a vested interest in returning content only from websites with a beneficial purpose — those created to help users.
To better understand E-A-T, let’s break it down into its separate elements, using the example of a medical website that offers advice on arthritis treatment.
- Expertise establishes whether the author has the right skills or qualifications to answer a particular question. Is the author of the page a qualified doctor with a medical license? Or is he or she just someone who claims to be?
- Authority indicates whether the author is the best source of information for that topic. Is the author the best doctor in treating arthritis, or is there someone else better than him or her elsewhere
- Trustworthiness evaluates whether the author is presenting an honest, unbiased view of the topic. Are they being paid to promote that treatment, or is it an impartial recommendation?
While E-A-T is a well-defined ranking factor, the formula is a closely guarded secret by Google. Nobody knows precisely how it works. However, we do know that Google uses real people to judge the accuracy of the E-A-T algorithm.
According to Ahrefs, Google measures E-A-T in three steps:
- Engineers tweak the algorithm to improve search results;
- Quality Raters (the human searchers) compare search results with and without the algorithm changes.
- Google takes feedback from the Quality Raters to decide whether or not to include the algorithm change permanently.
While the system isn’t infallible, it has proven to be a surprisingly accurate way to measure a site’s expertise, authority, and trustworthiness.
Since E-A-T isn’t a directly measurable SEO search ranking factor, some pros are reluctant to embrace the idea that it can significantly impact rankings. Suffice it to say that Google’s algorithm is too complex to know all the direct measurements. Especially as Google moves in the direction of giving preference based on user experience, we think it’s more useful to think of ranking factors in terms of what is modeled or rewarded, even if those effects might indirectly impact rankings.
Regardless of whether the effect is direct or indirect, it’s pretty tough to make a case against maintaining an excellent online reputation.
E-A-T Best Practices
- Respond to negative reviews and online complaints professionally.
- Provide only accurate and objective information on your website.
- Offer multiple ways for visitors to contact you.
- Widen your authority and reach with SEO outreach campaigns like guest posting.
- Include relevant credentials and certificates on your website. This is especially crucial for websites that deal with sensitive data, such as medical and financial information.
How to Monitor Search Engine Rankings
Committing to SEO is a lot like committing to a fitness routine. Long-term gains come from long-term effort. All the hard work you put in to improve your rankings on Google SERPs only matters as long as you sustain your focus and maintain your position. (Just like your hard-won fitness starts to atrophy when you spend less time at the gym and more time on the couch.)
There are forces at work that threaten your search gains. Remember, other businesses want to outrank you! That means, if you decide to rest on your laurels, they’re going to keep crafting content to bring organic traffic their way. Google also regularly updates its algorithm, and failing to respond to significant changes might lower your page rankings.
SEO isn’t a destination. It’s a journey. And who takes a journey without regularly checking their speed and direction?
That’s why monitoring your ranking is an essential part of the SEO process. Staying on top of data and insights will help you maintain (or improve) your ranking. At the minimum, you need feedback to know whether your SEO efforts are working, and if you see a return on your investment of time and money.
Two Ways to Monitor Your Rankings
1 – Use Google. The simplest and quickest way is to check your ranking on Google itself. Make sure you browse incognito, so Google’s personalization feature doesn’t skew your results. Type in the keywords that your customers might be using, and see where your page ranks in the results. Look at the pages that rank higher than yours. What are they doing right? Follow their lead and tweak your strategy to make your content more relevant to Google.
If you want to be sure your search doesn’t include local results, use isearchfrom.com to emulate a national search.
2 – Try an SEO toolset. Google Search Console is a free but powerful SEO tool, but if you have the budget for something with more robust features, you can go with industry-standard paid platforms like SEMRush, Ahrefs, and Moz.
Using any of these tools, enter your domain name and check all the keywords your website ranks for. More importantly, set a date range and see how your rankings change over time. You’ll also get to know the number of sites linking to your webpage and how that affects your ranking.
SEO tools can provide additional insights that help you formulate a sound SEO strategy. For instance, you can check the search volume for your chosen keyword to see if there’s enough traffic to make it worth the effort. Also, take a look at keyword difficulty, which tells you how hard it is to rank first for specific keywords. Using both of these metrics, you might discover some easy pickings — like high volume keywords with hardly any competition.
Top 10 Current Google Ranking Factors in 2020
As we mentioned, Google’s algorithm never stays put in one place for long. They update it often, and sometimes there’s a significant change that can drastically impact your ranking, seemingly overnight. To avoid being unprepared, make sure you stay current with Google ranking factors. The best thing to do is always to stay updated on which ranking factors are working right now.
With that said, here are some of the important SEO factors that we’ve found to have a significant impact on ranking during 2020.
1 – A Secure and Accessible Website
This is basic. Make sure you have an accessible and structured site that Google can easily index. A secure website reassures your users that their sensitive information is in good hands.
Why it matters: Getting Google to access and index your website is a crucial first step for ranking on search pages. After all, Google can’t rank what it can’t find.
Security protocols tell Google that your website is secure for users and is, therefore, safe to visit. If your website doesn’t use HTTPS, a “Not Secure” label will be indicated beside the user’s address bar. This can be a deterrent for visitors, even if you rank high on Google SERPs.
How to implement: Let’s talk about simple accessibility fixes to help Google search bots crawl and index your website as efficiently as possible. If you use a popular CMS (content management system) like WordPress, much of this will automatically be done for you. But there are additional strategies that you can implement to improve your site accessibility.
Use a sitemap
A sitemap lists all the pages on your website and how they link to each other. Sitemaps make it easier for Google to crawl and index large websites. It’s especially important for websites with “hanging” pages that aren’t linked through your main site navigation. Find helpful site map examples on our blog.
Include a robots.txt file
This simple text file is part of the robots exclusion protocol (REP), a group of web standards that govern how robots crawl the web, access and index content, and serve that content up to users. By issuing “nofollow” commands in your robots.txt file, you can instruct crawl bots not to index certain pages on your site.
Why would you want a page to be excluded from the Google index? If you have members-only pages, photos, and videos that you don’t want to be returned in Google search results, list them in your robot.txt file, and Google will skip them.
Get a SSL Certificate
The best way to secure your site is to use data encryption via SSL or Secure Sockets Layer. Websites with SSL will have the URL begin with “HTTPS” instead of the “HTTP.” Fortunately, there are free SSL certificates available online.
2 – Page Speed (That Includes Mobile!)
Page speed has been cited as one of the leading SEO ranking factors for years because Google wants to improve users’ experience of the web, and it favors fast-loading web pages to do that. Since just over one-half of online traffic comes from mobile devices, Google is also ranking your page’s mobile load times.
Page speed can refer to one of two things: 1) How long a web page takes to display all of its content fully, and 2) how long it takes for a web server to send the first bits of data to a user’s browser.
Research shows that Google measures page speed by the latter metric, known as Time to First Byte (TTFB).
Don’t confuse page speed with site speed, which is a measure of your site’s average page speed.
Why it matters: Quickly loading pages is one of the minimum requirements of a great online experience. Websites that take slower to load will generally have a higher bounce rate and lower conversions.
Google will penalize pages with excessively long load times. Additionally, a slower page speed means Google bots take a longer time to crawl your website, which affects your site’s indexation.
How to implement: Before getting into the weeds about fixing your page load time, set a baseline for your page speed, and find which areas are slowing it down.
Google’s PageSpeed Insights is a free tool that measures load times and makes recommendations to improve speed for desktop and mobile users.
If your pages are loading slow, there are plenty of straightforward fixes that can speed things up.
Optimize Image Size and Format
The images on your site can take up a lot of bandwidth, which affects your page’s loading time. It’s not enough to downsize your website’s images in HTML because that only changes the image’s appearance and not its actual file size. Resize huge images in a photo editor (like Photoshop) and export them at 72dpi.
- Plugins: A site that requires plugins may slow your page loading speed. Make sure you’re not using any unnecessary plug-ins.
- Tracking Scripts: While it’s a good idea to keep tabs on your website’s traffic stats, it’s not advisable to use more than one tool to do it. If you are using a CMS such as WordPress, allow either WP stats to run scripts on your page or Google Analytics, but not both.
- CMS Software: Keeping current with software updates can help you improve your page speed.
3 – Mobile Friendliness
Like we said before, people browse on smartphones now more than on their desktops, with nearly 60% of all searches happening on mobile devices. This trend spurred a change in Google’s ranking algorithm, and they implemented a mobile-first index. So, whether or not your page is mobile-friendly matters to how it will rank for all queries, whether they’re conducted from a desktop computer or a phone.
Is your website mobile friendly?
Does your website…
- Automatically resize depending on screen size and orientation (whether portrait or landscape)?
- Have appropriately formatted text (no long paragraphs) with fonts that are easy to read on smaller screens?
- Use accessible menus for easier navigation?
- Feature images and videos that have been optimized for smaller screens?
- Have links that are optimized for touch controls (no clickable elements that are too close together)?
Why it matters: If your website isn’t responsive, smartphone users will have a subpar experience on your pages. Without the benefit of a larger screen, browsing a non-responsive site can be challenging and requires constant scrolling and zooming. This makes it likely that visitors will leave in frustration, which will raise your bounce rates and negatively impact your search rankings.
How to implement: If you’re building a website using a builder like WordPress, making your website mobile-friendly is relatively easy. Most of the elements you’ll use will be adaptable to any device by default. These builders will also provide a mobile preview, so you can check how your webpage will appear to mobile users.
Google also has a solution to make your website more mobile-friendly, called Google Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). Pages built with AMP specifications load up to four times faster and use eight times less data. The only con is that you may need to rebuild your website to fit into AMP.
Not sure how mobile-friendly your website is? Google Search Console makes it easy to find out. It conveniently scores your site’s mobile accessibility and lists any issues that need to be addressed.
4 – Domain Ranking Factors
Did you know that almost 60% of the sites with a top ten Google search ranking are at least three years old? Data from an Ahrefs study of two million pages confirms that very few sites less than a year old achieve top ranking positions.
The good news is, if you’ve had your site for a while and are working to optimize it, you’ve got a head start on domain authority.
Why it matters: Your domain’s age can be a powerful factor to boost your web page’s ranking. That’s because websites that have been around longer and have an excellent track record can achieve better search rankings and hold on to that ranking longer than new domains.
The opposite is also true: If your domain has a history of being penalized by Google, it might be harder to recover and achieve a higher ranking.
In some cases, the domain name matters. Though Google has penalized exact-match domains (where the search keyword is part of the URL itself), it generally only does so for spammy sites with thin content.
Key takeaway: If you use an exact-match domain that doesn’t contain high-quality, relevant content, Google is likely to penalize you for spammy tactics.
Finally, the authority of your domain is also a significant factor for ranking. A highly reputable website, or one that features a credible source, can be instrumental in getting on Google’s first page.
How to implement: When it comes to your domain’s age, many would say that the only thing left to do is wait. That’s not entirely true, as there are things you can do to make that history matter. Quality content goes a long way, so invest as many resources there as you can, and make it a point not to violate any of Google’s rules to prevent permanently tarnishing your domain’s reputation.
If you already have a mature site, the good news is that you certainly have an edge. Leverage your site’s maturity by optimizing your page using the other Google ranking factors in this article.
5 – Optimized Content
Content optimization is all about creating and tweaking content so that it’s usable, relevant, and highly searchable.
Why it matters: Because Google wants to present searchers with the pages most useful for a given query, creating content that covers what they want to know is an essential part of ranking in search results. High ranking content must provide real value to the user, incorporate engaging visual content, and include keywords relevant to search queries.
How to implement: The primary technique for optimizing content is the strategic use of keywords. As you remember, Google uses keywords to help match your content with relevant search terms. Use the keyword enough times (but not too many times!) in your content, and Google will recognize your page to be relevant for searches on those terms.
NEVER spam a keyword throughout your content just to rank higher. This is called keyword stuffing, and Google will penalize you for it. There’s a good chance that your readers won’t like it, either, because keyword-stuffed articles don’t read very well and lack true value.
Key takeaway: Use your keyword naturally and organically in the article or content.
It’s also important to include terms related to the main keywords people are searching for. These are called LSI (latent semantic indexing) keywords. These secondary keywords can provide more context for Google’s search algorithm to know which results to show. For example, if your content is about Apple products, using semantic keywords like “iPhone” or “iPad” will alert Google that you’re referring to the Apple brand and not the actual fruit.
Aside from using keywords, you want your content to match the user’s search intent. People use Google search to fulfill a specific need, such as:
- find a particular website;
- get answers to a question;
- research a product or service before buying;
- make a purchase.
As a content optimizer, your goal is to match the intent with relevant content. If you don’t do this, the user’s query won’t be satisfied, they’ll bounce, and your rankings will take a hit.
For example, if people used the word “compare” when searching, then that’s a hint that they’re choosing between one or two products. Your content can then provide product reviews or comparisons to satisfy that search intent.
6 – Technical SEO Ranking Factors
How your site is built, and the code that’s included (or not) on your page does impact how Google “reads” your content and attaches relevance to it in the context of search queries. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “techie,” and the thought of optimizing the code on your website for better SEO ranking is intimidating, take heart. There are relatively simple improvements within your grasp that will make a difference.
Why it matters: Technical SEO is the foundation that supports all your other SEO efforts. You might have the most informative, relevant, and authoritative content on the internet, but that won’t matter if there are technical barriers that keep it from being found.
How to implement: Technical SEO is a collection of techniques that all have one goal – to make your website crawlable and searchable. While it’s true that some improvements require coding knowledge, there is plenty you can do even if you don’t have technical know-how:
- Use header tags to establish structure in your webpage. Google loves these tags because it helps its algorithm better understand the content of your page. Merely using the h1 (title) tag can already boost your SEO considerably.
- Speaking of the h1 tag, it’s a good practice to include your main keyword in it since this is the first thing Google looks at to determine if your page is relevant.
- Give a descriptive and enticing meta description. The meta description is a short (around 160 characters) paragraph that describes what your page is about. While it doesn’t directly affect ranking, Google presents it in the search results, and having a great meta description is likely to boost click-throughs, which can affect your ranking. Just make sure the meta description and actual content match!
- Use alt tags on your images that include relevant keywords and accurately describe the visual. This is especially useful for visually impaired people to understand your image’s content even if the image itself is not visible.
- Use schema markup to tell Google what kind of content you’re producing.
7- User Experience
In recent years, Google has been evaluating user behavior to determine how users feel about specific pages, and your website needs to deliver a positive user experience for it to rank higher in search results.
The component of the Google algorithm that processes user experience information to influence ranking is called RankBrain. It uses machine learning to deliver better search results by reading signals that indicate user satisfaction. These include:
- Click-through rate or CTR. If more people click through to your page from the search results, Google interprets this as proof that you offer content relevant to the search query.
- Bounce rate. If people immediately leave after clicking on your link, it might mean your content doesn’t match your page title and meta description, or it’s not relevant to their search.
- Dwell time. The longer people stay on your site, the more Google credits your content as being high quality.
Why it matters: Giving a great user experience is all about providing relevant results, which Google likes very much. If your CTR is too low or the bounce rate is too high, it sends the signal that your website offers little value to searchers, and that will lower your ranking.
Apart from SEO purposes, though, giving a great user experience is a sound overall strategy. A great experience makes it easy for visitors to find value in your content, which means they’ll return for more and eventually convert into customers.
How to implement: Good formatting, easy-to-read fonts, informative graphics, and responsive design all support a great user experience. Serving intrusive ads on your page can negatively impact the user experience and might lower your page ranking.
Key takeaway: Every optimization you make should create a better experience for your users.
8 – Links
Whether inbound, outbound, or internal links, the internet is a complex web of interconnected content built on links.
Why it matters: Google assesses inbound links from trustworthy websites as a signal of how authoritative and relevant your content is. The more reputable sites link to your content, the more value Google assigns to your page, and the higher it will rank in SERPs.
How to implement: There are many strategies and tactics to get backlinks — probably enough to fill a book. Guest posting, blogger outreach, and broken link building are a few things to consider.
Internal links to other pages on your site can help Google and users navigate your content and introduce them to other valuable pages. If you link from a page with high authority, it lends its authority to the page you link to.
Finally, outbound links help point your readers to other high-quality posts on the web. This generosity provides your users with even more value, which can help you rank higher thanks to a better user experience.
9 – Social Signals
It’s long been a source of speculation that social media shares can help your pages rank better. Although Google has clearly stated that links from sites like Facebook or Twitter are not ranking factors, there’s still an indirect correlation between having a high rank and lots of social shares.
Why it matters: Any influence that social signals have on your page ranking is most likely indirect, but this doesn’t make it any less valuable. For example, having viral content on Facebook will generate lots of mentions, and that, in turn, can increase traffic to your website. Not only that, but social shares improve the odds that websites will quote your content and create valuable backlinks to your page.
How to implement: The key to making the most of social signals is to make your content easy to share through social media. Add Facebook and Twitter share buttons on your pages to make it effortless for users to share your content.
You can also use third-party plugins to display your social media feeds on your website. People can find other great content on your social media accounts, engage with them, and, most importantly, share them with their network. It’s also a great way to increase your social following.
10 – Real Business Information
If you’re a business with a physical store, you need to consider local SEO strategies. In a nutshell, local SEO is all about promoting your brand to people who search for you in a particular geographic area. It uses a whole new set of SEO techniques in addition to the other tactics in this article.
The foundation of an excellent local SEO effort is giving accurate and real business information. You might hear this referred to as NAP, short for Name, Address, and Phone number. Sometimes this is extended to NAP+W, with “W” being your website address.
Why it matters: NAP forms the foundation of your brand’s local SEO because it’s how potential customers can reach your physical location. The key with NAP information is consistency and accuracy – it must be correct and consistent wherever your business is listed. If Google sees any inconsistencies, for instance, from sources like local data aggregators, it can lower your site’s ranking.
NAP information can also increase your search and Google Map ranking by helping build citation links. For example, if someone were to search “veterinarian,” that will trigger a local search. In addition to the usual SERP about veterinarians, it would also bring up a Google Map result listing all veterinarians near the user’s location.
How to implement: For citation link building, list your business in as many relevant and high-quality business directories as you can. Be sure to audit all the websites and directories you’re listed in to check that the information is consistent and up-to-date.
Now That I Know What Google Ranking Factors Matter, How Do I Possibly Do It All?
It’s a legitimate question! Even if you’re confident in your SEO skills, implementing improvements for all of these Google Ranking Factors is time-consuming, and monitoring your progress and making adjustments is a long-term commitment. Looking for a credible partner to undertake the SEO journey with you? Our SEO agency has a proven process and team of SEO pros who are ready to get your business the attention it deserves. To get started, reach out for a free SEO consultation!