In an ideal world, Google would build its algorithm around factors that were not easily controlled (and therefore manipulated) by webmasters.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the factors we know are important. Think about each one in turn, and how much control a webmaster has over it.
Ranking Factors can be split into two groups, namely “on-page” and “off-page”.
1. Quality Content
Google is looking for high-quality content that is relevant to the search query. It will look at the language used on a page, and for words and phrases that are related to the search query. I call these “theme words”. Longer pages tend to do better, and the inclusion of photos and/or video works to your advantage too.
Furthermore, pictures and videos also help to retain the visitor’s interest. Google also looks at the design of pages, and what a visitor will see “above the fold” (before scrolling down) when they land on a page.
Good user experience is essential. If a visitor landing on your page sees a bunch of adverts and very little else, you can imagine how Google would view that page.
2. Page Load Time
Nobody likes waiting around for a page to load. If your web pages are taking five or more seconds to load, your visitors may not wait and hit the back button.
According to research, your average web user has an attention span of just a few seconds, less than a goldfish. So, it’s important that your pages load quickly. Slow page load times are unlikely to be directly penalized by Google, it’s more how a visitor reacts.
If the searcher came from Google, a slow loading page will make that visitor unhappy and even click the back button to Google. Google sees both the “bounce” and “exit” rates as negatives for your page. An unhappy visitor from Google means an unhappy Google. Optimize your page for speed or hire a team of wordpress developers to do it.
3. Internal Links from Other Pages on the Site
If you look at a website like Wikipedia, you’ll see a lot of internal links on the pages. Internal links go from one page on a website to a different page on the same site. These should be distinguished from external links. External Links point to a different website. Internal links are there to help the visitor navigate around your website’s pages.
As someone reads a page on Wikipedia, they might come across a word or phrase they do not understand, or simply want to know more about. By “internally” linking keywords or phrases to other pages on Wikipedia, visitors get to navigate around the site more easily and find the information they are looking for quickly. Internal links also help Google fully index your website.
4. Bounce Rates
We mentioned bounce rates earlier in the context of fast loading pages. A “bounce” is simply a visitor who clicks a link in the SERPs and then returns to Google. The quicker the return, the worse it is for your page as it tells Google the visitor was not satisfied.
Let’s think about how this might work.
Say a visitor on Google searches for “vitamin A deficiency” and visits the first page in the SERPs. Not finding what they want, they then click the browser’s back button to return to Google. They may then click on another site further down the SERP to see if that can provide what they are looking for.
What does this tell Google about the first page?
The visitor did not find the information they wanted on that page. Google knows this because they returned to the search results and repeated (or refined) their search.
If lots of people around the world search for a certain phrase, and an unusually high percentage of them bounce back from the same web page that is ranked #1 in Google for the search term, what do you think Google will do?
Doesn’t it make sense that it would demote that page in the SERPs – for that search phrase – since lots of people are not finding it relevant to their search query?
Bounce rates go hand-in-hand with searcher intent. If visitors find a page relevant, they’ll stay on the page for longer. They may even browse other pages on that site, so don’t bounce right back. This tells Google the visitor was happy with that recommendation, and Google is happy.
5. Time a Visitor Stays on Your Page / Site.
Google monitors the time visitors spend on web pages. One of the ways it does this is through its Google Analytics platform. Google Analytics is a freemium web analytics service for site owners. What it does is track and report on your website traffic. Because it’s free, a lot of webmasters install it on their sites.
This gives Google the ability to accurately track the site’s visitors. It’ll track lots of variables including things like time spent on the site, the route a visitor takes through your site, how many pages they visit, what operating system they use, the screen resolution, the device they are using, and so on.
Even if a site does not have Analytics installed, it is possible that Google monitors visitor behavior through its popular Chrome web browser.
6. Trust and Authority
I’ll cover this here even though it is controlled by off-page factors, simply because we think about the authority of a site as an on-site property.
This factor became huge in 2018. It was always important, but with the introduction of the “Medic Update” in August of that year, high trust & authority is now vital for ranking in health and finance niches (and other niches will follow).
Essentially, if a site can hurt your health or your financial well-being with the information (or products) available, it will require a lot more trust before Google will rank its pages. It is my opinion that the way Google is monitoring these factors is down to what other authoritative sites (and people) are saying about you and your site.
As we’ve seen, votes (links from other sites) pass on this authority. Now more than ever it is important to focus on high-quality links, relevant, and authoritative links, rather than high numbers of links.
Quality over quantity is the key. While trust and authority is something your site will build up, but as I’ve said, it is largely controlled by off-page SEO and we’ll come back to this later.
Those are the main on-page factors used by Google in its ranking algorithm. Except for the last factor, most of the on-page factors are within the control of the webmaster.
Even bounce rates and the time the visitor stays on your site is within your control, to a certain extent. If you provide quality content and the rich experience visitors demand these days, then you’ll get lower bounce rates while keeping the visitor on your page/site for longer.
1. Click-through Rates (CTR)
As webmasters, we do have a certain level of control over Click-through Rates. Let’s say a web page ranks in position #5 for a search term, and searchers seem to like that listing because 15% of them click on that link.
Usually, a page listed in position #5 would get around 5% of the clicks. When Google sees more people than expected clicking that link, it may give the page a boost in the rankings. After all, it’s apparently what the searchers are looking for and therefore deserves a higher slot on the first page.
On the other side of the coin, imagine a spammer. This is an “official” term used by Google to describe someone trying to manipulate rankings for one of their web pages.
Let’s suppose the spammer manages to bypass Google’s algorithm with a “loophole”, and ranks #1 for a search term. Remember, in position #1, a link typically gets 31% of the clicks. However, this #1 ranking page only gets 15% of clicks because searchers are not impressed with the link title or its description.
On top of that, 99% of people who do visit that link bounce right back to Google within 30 seconds or less, because it’s rubbish. Google now has clear user signals that the web page ranking #1 is not popular with searchers. Because of this, Google starts moving the page further down the rankings until it finally drops out of the top 10. It will continue to drop.
Today, bad content will rarely get to the top of Google, and if it does, it won’t get to stay there for long.
2. Social Signals
Social signals like Tweets, Facebook shares, Pinterest pins, and so on, are clearly used as ranking factors in Google, though they are not major factors. Any boost that social signals might offer your site will be short-lived. This is because of the transient nature of “social buzz”.
For example, let’s say that a new piece of content goes viral and is shared around by thousands of people via social media channels. This is typically done within a relatively short space of time. Google will take notice of this because it realizes the content is something visitors want to see, so gives it a ranking boost. After the social interest peaks and the shares inevitably start to decline, so does the ranking boost in Google.
Social sharing is a great concept and should be encouraged on your site. Even so, don’t expect the backlinks created from social channels to give you a big or longlasting ranking boost, because they won’t.
Re-read what I wrote about trust & authority a minute ago. When “web page A” links to “web page B” on another site, page B gets a “backlink”. Google sees this as page A (on site 1) voting for page B (on site 2).
The general idea is that the more backlinks (or “votes”) a page gets from other sites on the web, the more important or valuable it must be.
Today, and probably for the foreseeable future, backlinks remain one of the most important rankings factors in Google’s algorithm. However, more is not always better.
Let me explain.
A web page that has dozens of links from authority sites like CNN, BBC, NY Times, etc., is clearly an important web page. After all, quality, authority sites like the ones above would hardly link to trash.
On the other hand, a page that has thousands of backlinks, but only from spammy or low-quality websites, is most probably not very important at all. Backlinks are a powerful indicator of a page’s value, but the quality and relevance of those backlinks is the most important factor, not the quantity.
High-quality links build authority and trust, low-quality links have the opposite effect.
A site with hundreds or thousands of low-quality backlinks is helping Google to identify itself as a spammer.
Google factors in the authority of each backlink. Backlinks from high quality “authority” web pages will count far more than backlinks from low-quality pages/sites.
Therefore, a page that gets relatively few high-quality backlinks will rank above a page that has a lot of low-quality backlinks. Google may even penalize a page (or site) for having too many poor-quality backlinks.