Research from Brightedge shows that organic search accounts for 53.3% of web traffic, making it the most significant potential source of leads for your business. The same study reveals that 83% of traffic from search engines comes from SEO and only 17% from paid search. Therefore, ensuring you do everything possible to optimize search engine rankings is critical, rather than plowing all of the marketing budgets into paid advertising.
At the start of 2020, Google uses 200 ranking factors to determine where a website appears in search results. The elements are constantly changing to keep up with consumer trends, but right now, some stand out as significant contributors to a high ranking.
If you are reading this post, you are probably aware that SEO stands for search engine optimization. In simple terms, SEO means optimizing your website or blog to make them appear nearer the top of search engine results. Although we tend to focus on Google due to its dominance in the search world, Bing, Yahoo!, and others work similarly.
A website that appears towards the top of search engine results gets more people clicking through to it as the image below from Backlinko shows.
Moreover, 95% of internet users will never go beyond the first page of results that they see in a search engine. As the number of internet users continues to grow in 2020, both organically and as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, a high ranking has never been more critical.
A brief summary of how search rankings work
Before taking a closer look at some of the most critical factors for search engine rankings, it is worth having a quick recap on how the algorithms work.
Imagine you are a consumer, going online to find a new 60-inch television. In many cases, you will go to Google and type “60-inch TV’s” rather than going directly to a retailer. The phrase that someone uses to search is known as the keyword, and this is what Google will use to match the content it discovers on your website.
When scanning your website content, Google will be looking to gain an understanding of its target audience. The goal of the search engine is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” so delivering relevant search results is a critical success factor in accomplishing that.
Some of the things that Google bots look for are:
- The target audience and purpose of the page
- Ensuring well structured and high-quality content
- Information about where and when the website was created and who designed it
- The reputation of the website
- How users interact with the website and whether they stay there for a long time
- The authority and trustworthiness of the website
Using these are general guidelines, albeit with many metrics feeding into them, Google will present searchers with the most appropriate websites for the search term they enter.
While there are over 200 factors that go into the Google ranking algorithm, this post will focus on seven of the most important.
Secure and Mobile Friendly Accessible Website
To rank your website in the search engine, Google bots need to be able to reach it and crawl through it. Essentially, it needs to find your URL and understand what every page of your site is about. Without that knowledge, there would be no way for Google to match the search term of a user to the content of your website.
For a clear structure, you should always have a sitemap. Essentially, this is a list of all the different pages of a website, written in XML. An XML sitemap makes it easier for the search engine crawler to read the content of your site and be able to index the pages. In making it easier to crawl, you boost the SEO ranking.
The sitemap tells the search engine information such as the location of a page on a website, when it was last updated, and the importance of the page. You can find a sitemap template online to get started.
If you are using a website builder like WordPress or Wix, they tend to have plugins that help you build a sitemap.
The security of your website also acts as a ranking signal. To secure the data on your website, and show visitors that you have done so requires an HTTPS domain rather than HTTP. An HTTPS domain indicates that the site owner has a security (SSL) certificate. Google uses HTTPS as a ranking factor to protect uses from sites that are outdated and lack proper security features.
In having an HTTPS domain, visitors will also trust you more and help improve your website search ranking organically.
A mobile-friendly website is critical to meet the demands of the modern-day consumer. In 2020, the percentage of mobile web traffic exceeds that of desktop, at 51.53% in quarter 2. Google now indexes websites on a mobile-first basis. In simple terms, this means that rankings look at sites that are mobile-optimized first over those that are best viewed via desktop.
For a site to be mobile-friendly, first and foremost, it should be responsive. A responsive website is one that changes size and resolution automatically. The site should also have fonts and themes that are easy to read, as well as having mobile-friendly navigation. The majority of website builders, including Wix, Squarespace, Webflow, and WordPress, have functions to create responsive mobile sites that are SEO ready.
Moreover, a fully-optimized mobile site will help improve conversion rates. We talk about improving conversion rates in our previous post.
The top-ranking sites on Google have an average loading time of fewer than 3 seconds. In 2019, the average load speed of all sites was closer to 15 seconds, leaving an excellent opportunity for fast website to rank well.
Website speed has a direct impact on user experience, creating happy searchers, which is why Google considers it as a critical factor in their algorithms. The same standard has been part of mobile websites since 2018, as part of the mobile-first approach we spoke about earlier in this post. According to some reports, mobile users expect sites to load faster on their devices than via a desktop machine.
To test your website, you can use the Google load test for free. The analysis goes as far as telling you the potential revenue gains from increasing your speed. There are various ways to optimize page speed for SEO.
- Every time a page redirects to another page, it adds additional loading time by adding an HTTP request. For example, you might have redirects on a different device to ensure visitors get the correct version of the site. Keeping these minimal improves speed.
- Check your server for any bottlenecks like slow database queries or routing problems that slow the site down
- Images on the site should be in the right format and no larger than necessary. An image-heavy website will be slow to load.
- A content distribution network (CDN) can store copies of your site at multiple data centers so users have faster and more reliable access to your site.
In his blog, Neil Patel offers some advice on how to score a perfect 100 on the Google Pagespeed test. Doing so is a time-consuming task, but there is a strong correlation between speed and ranking, making it crucial if you want to appear towards the top of search results.
Domain Age, URL, and Authority
In August 2018, Google rolled out the “medic update,” which emphasizes expertise, authority, and trustworthiness as ranking factors. The objective of the change was to ensure websites have both high-quality content, and the right information for users.
If you consider something like a health or medical website, the information that they provide can be life-altering for a visitor. The Google medic update ensures that users get accurate information, as well as high-quality content.
The way it works is by looking at the reputation and authority of the user as well as the content. In other words, as well as knowing what the page says, Google tries to understand who is saying it. There are three key attributes that are important when recognizing the authority of a website, known as the E.A.T framework.
Expertize – Does the author of the page have knowledge in the field?
Authority – Is the website the best source to answer the question posed by the user?
Trustworthiness – Does the author provide an honest opinion on the content topic?
The bad news is that while we know Google is looking to understand the website, the algorithm it uses to do so is unclear. Therefore, knowing how to optimize expertise, authority, and trustworthiness is tricky. However, some things that may help are including an “About Us” section on your website, ensuring you have reputable guest posts on your blog, keeping information unbiased, and providing contact details.
Optimizing the attributes that associate with a framework like E.A.T is just the start. According to Ahrefs research, 60% of sites within the top 10 rankings of Google are three years old or over. The statistics suggest that the age of the website does act as a signal of authority. Sites that have been in existence for longer also have more substantial domain authority.
Domain authority is a measure of the SEO power of a website. Calculators such as the Moz Link Explorer, use metrics like the number of total links, linking root domains, and strength of those links into a domain authority score. The score given is between 1 and 100.
After you first register a domain, it takes time to build up authority. The most significant factor to increasing domain authority is your link profile or the total number of backlinks that direct to your site. We talk about links later in the post, but in brief, getting backlinks from other high authority domains can quickly accelerate your domain authority.
In terms of your website URL, it doesn’t necessarily have to match user keywords exactly. However, the URL structure of your site should be intuitive and make it easy for users to navigate. Also, the search engine crawler can logically piece your website pages together if the URLs are consistent and relevant. Let’s say you are writing a blog about a niche subject. Each URL should contain the root domain of your website and a primary keyword, as per the example below.
The page name should contain the primary keywords relating to your website to ensure the crawlers know what is applicable information. When using website builder tools, some generate default URLs like www.example.com/page_id=645184754. Check that every page has a clear and distinct URL that tells search bots what the purpose of it is.
There are several benefits to having high-quality content on your website, and ranking is one of those. Many resources talk about optimizing content to improve search rankings, but let’s take a closer look at what that means.
The integral part of content creation is keywords. A keyword is a phrase that the searcher uses when they are looking for information via a search engine. In the context of the content, keywords describe what your site is about and give crawler bots the information they need to index it.
To obtain a higher ranking, the keywords that you use in your content need to match up with what people are searching for. Keyword research and understand search behavior is a topic in itself that would be too vast to cover here. Google offers a keyword research tool, and Moz provides a free 30-day trial. The tools guide you through discovering, prioritizing, and building lists of high-quality keywords to use in your content.
An effective SEO strategy is not just about loading your page with a primary keyword. The example below shows how it shouldn’t be done. Duplicating keywords too often can harm ranking, known as “keyword stuffing.”
Keywords should also include terms related to the one people are searching for, known as latent semantic indexing (LSI). The words provide an association with a primary keyword, letting search engine crawlers understand that your website is still valid. For example, LSI keywords tell Google that if a user searches for “rose”, you only want to appear in results that relate to flowers and not to wine.
The way people search in 2020 is evolving as more people turn to voice. The top 3 common keywords in voice searches are “how,” “what,” and “best.” People tend to type searches as statements, but voice searches are longer phrases and offer up more questions. The LSI keywords that you use must account for these differences and incorporate the intent of voice searches.
Search intent is a crucial factor in optimizing content. Rather than matching keywords in your content, the goal of search intent is to understand what people are looking for. For example, is the goal of their search to find information or to make a purchase? You should decide whether searches for your website will be navigational, informational, or transactional.
As a way to test, enter your keywords of choice into a search engine and see the types of sites that appear. If those towards the top are how-to-articles, but you are looking for customers ready to purchase, the keyword strategy still needs some work.
Your site does not have to restrict itself to only one type of keyword. For example, you can optimize for navigational and transactional search terms if necessary.
When content doesn’t match user intent, Google will pick up on it, to the detriment of your ranking. Indicators will be a high bounce rate, which you can see through Google Analytics, or short sessions on your website.
Research from serpIQ shows that the length of content, as well as quality, seems to impact ranking results. The statistics could be misleading, as by default those with longer content probably have more relevant search terms, but the graph below shows the average content length of the top 10 results.
The more extended content appears to attract backlinks and shares, which is another likely reason for it being towards the top of search engine results.
Video content should form part of every digital marketing strategy. There are many positive statistics, but Broadbandsearch says that users spend an average of 40 minutes per day watching YouTube video, with over 500 hours of new videos uploaded per minute.
Video content is highly engaging, relatable, and easy to share when comparing to purely written information. Useful videos rank well in search results too.
Technical SEO can require a little bit of coding knowledge, depending on your website structure and the platform that you are using. A bit like the sitemap, there are other technical aspects to a website that will help with search engine ranking.
Firstly, you can give robots directions on your site using a robots.txt file. The file contains the code that tells a browser what your website should look like and how it works. If the robots.txt file is blocked, the search engine does not know if your site is working correctly.
Yoast provides an excellent guide to constructing a robots.txt file.
There are key attributes that you can control within your code to ensure it optimizes search engine rankings. If you are using a website builder platform, there will be places to enter these, without requiring you to code. However, if building a website from scratch, you will need to add some basic script into each of the pages.
- Page titles should include keyword phrases from your research. The title is where Google first looks to see if the page is relevant to a search
- Header tags need to be in place throughout your content to give it a hierarchy. For example, an h1 tag will be the main subject, h2 the sub-heading, and h3 the next breakdown. Some platforms allow you to go as far as h8.
- A meta description is a snippet of up to 155 characters in HTML that summarizes the contents of your page. Search engines will show this in results.
- Images should have alt tags that explain why they are relevant to the content. Alt tags can include keyword phrases just like the rest of your content
Each of these elements is under your control and will ensure search crawlers can better understand website content.
Links are a common theme in this post as they are a primary factor in search engine rankings. There are typically three different types of links that you need to think about for SEO ranking signals.
An inbound link is representative of authority and relevance. It is where another site includes a link to your content within theirs. The best-case scenario is when another reputable site adds your link, creating a double up in positive ranking factors. An inbound link tends to be known as a backlink, and you want as many as possible from influential people and businesses. Semrush can help find all the backlinks to your site that currently exist.
A backlink is thought to have a more significant weighting than other types of links in search results, as it is like a “vote of confidence.” If you are a new website or business, use backlink tools like Link Explorer to look at the sources your competitors have, which will give insight into where you can start.
An outbound link is where you point to another site from your own. Take a look back through this article. As much as we want to be as informative as possible, other experts have some great content that needs to be shared. Outbound links show that a person, business, or writer has researched a topic and found visitors the best sources and quality of information without the need for searching.
An internal link is one that refers back to your content. The content may be a previous blog post or a specific page of your website when applicable. Internal links help visitors quickly find the pages they need without having to use navigation. As a side, it will boost the authority of both pages, rather than only the one that the user landed on. The number of internal links you use can grow over time, as and when you add new content.
Any links within your content should have anchor text. Anchor text is the visible, clickable text shown in a hyperlink, like all the blue underlined words in this post. It requires a small piece of Html code around any links, similar to the ways to would do headings or alt tags as part of technical SEO. SEO friendly anchor text needs to be short and succinct, such as referring to the page it is targeting. An example could be as below.
<a href=”http://www.example.com/about-us”>Company XYX – About Us</a>
Search engine crawlers will use anchor text to determine the purpose of a link and ensure that it is relevant to the content.
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It is no secret that social media is popular. According to Statista, an estimated 3.6 billion people were using social media in 2020 worldwide, projecting at 4.41 billion in 2025.
Google has said that social shares are not a direct contributing factor to search engine ranking. The links from Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter are not counted in the same way as those from sites of authority. However, while social media itself does not impact ranking, the broad audience it reaches generates traffic to your website.
A study by Cognitive SEO found that there is a definitive link between social shares and website ranking.
The reason for the trend falls into a lot of the other categories discussed in this post.
Getting more share on social media gives more opportunity for people to see your content and link to it. One study shows a company that achieved 130,000 Facebook shares to a page and went up the rankings as the keyword phrases were competitive. The content promotion gave the site better domain authority, even if the social links did not benefit ranking directly.
Building a social audience
Content promotion on social media helps to create an audience. It is a proactive way of getting people to know whom you are without waiting on longer-term SEO plans. Facebook has something like 2 billion users, each of whom has the potential to share a link or like some content. Building an audience who visits your site will naturally start to improve search rankings.
YouTube is the second most searched search engine and can positively influence your SEO. Videos that promote your brand and service will engage viewers, leading to shares, likes, and ultimately links. Videos can rank organically in search engines in their own right, given that Google owns YouTube.
To get the most out of social media, you need to be posting regularly. The odd post here and there is not going to make you have a loyal audience suddenly. Depending on the platform, this could be anything from once per day to one per week. For example, LinkedIn is aimed at the B2B world, and regular posts are not expected as they might be with Twitter.
Research shows that have a catchy headline, images, and videos makes it more likely that people will respond positively with a share or follow. The study even goes as far as to say that asking for shares explicitly tends to work well, so readers know what you are expecting.
Tools like Buzzsumo can tell you what works well by searching for your content keywords. That platform will give a list of the most shared content overall and by your chosen social media site.
Finally, take part in conversations, join groups, and offer feedback to others on social media. The platforms are a perfect way to show you off as an expert in your field. The aim is to make audiences want to link with and listen to what you have to say. A smart tactic is to seek out influencers in your field and try to work with them to promote your brand. If you can get influencers talking about you, it will boost your authority rankings.
In this post, we talk about some of the essential factors to search engine rankings. The main takeaway is that when creating a website and content, you need to think about how you are going to please both Google and your potential customers. Being online is only the first part of the job, getting found is the challenge, and it can take time to get near the top of search engine results.
Using the advice in this guide, you will be able to accelerate your search engine ranking. If you create something with passion, that has an audience and solves a problem, people will come. Optimizing that content helps Google understand why it is so great, allowing you to position yourself in a place of authority.