How do your customers find you?
For modern-day businesses, the answer is simple: they go online. In particular, they go on search engines like Google.
While paid search ads are a great way to gain immediate exposure on this go-to search engine, you should also be working to build up your organic rankings as well. With a strong presence in both paid and organic search engine results, you can increase your visibility—and no matter what kind of business you run, having visibility on search engines is critical if you want to attract customers and drive revenue results.
While you can’t control how search engines think and operate, there’s still a lot you can do to boost your website’s chances of appearing in search results. That’s where the practice of SEO comes in, which is about aligning your website with Google's various ranking factors. In this post, I'm going to:
- Explain the difference between technical, on-page, and off-page ranking factors.
- Lay out the top 10 Google ranking factors you can optimize your website for.
- Accompany each ranking factor with an actionable suggestion for improving your rank.
But first, let's go over the basics of ranking factors to get our foundational knowledge established.
What are ranking factors?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of optimizing your website to rank as high as possible in organic search engine results. When talking about search, we use the term “organic” to refer to search results that are unpaid. This is different from pay-per-click advertising (or PPC), which is a strategy that focuses on paid traffic generation.
Note the differences between the organic and paid search results in the image below:
Both paid and organic rankings on Google are determined by algorithms that take into account various characteristics and metrics considered by Google to be important—and these are your ranking factors. We will never know all of Google's ranking factors, but we do know many of them based on what Google has revealed to us and what we find through experimentation and empirical practice. We also know that while ranking factors and algorithms may shift, the characteristics Google is trying to parse out through them are quality, trustworthiness, and performance.
Types of Google ranking factors
Before we get into the top 10 Google ranking factors around which you can optimize your website pages, let’s first go over the different types. Marketers usually talk in terms of on- and off-page ranking factors, but there are really three groups:
- Off-page ranking factors: These are being measured by Google elsewhere from your site, and primarily involve backlinks.
- On-page ranking factors: These are mainly related to the keywords and informational quality of your pages.
- Technical ranking factors: These are also measured on your site, but have more to do with it's overall performance as a whole, as opposed to individual pages.
It’s important to note that there isn’t one single ranking factor that will make or break your SEO. It’s the combination of all your technical, on-page, and off-page efforts that work together to build an SEO-friendly website.
Now that we have the foundational knowledge set in place, let's get into the top 10 Google ranking factors, broken down by these groups, starting with technical.
Technical Google ranking factors
Search engines work by crawling and indexing all of the information that’s featured on your website. For this to happen, there are a few core technical elements that need to be working properly. Think of these elements as the back-end building blocks that make up your website and allow it to function the way it’s supposed to.
For many marketers, technical SEO can feel daunting. Knowledge of website structure and content management systems is required to execute many of these ranking optimizations. For this reason, fixing technical SEO errors is commonly a joint effort between marketing and development teams. Although this may seem complicated, once your website is in good working order, there’s not a lot of ongoing maintenance required in terms of SEO. Here are the technical strategies for improving your rank:
1. Site and page speed
Nobody likes a website that takes forever to load, and if you could ask search engines what they think, they would agree. That’s why having a website that loads quickly and seamlessly is a core component of technical SEO.
If your pages are taking too long to load, you’re likely going to see your bounce rate skyrocket, which will hurt your ranking. Users expect a pain-free browsing experience, which is why page speed is an important ranking factor. Always keep this in mind when auditing your site for SEO improvements.
There are many tools available on the market that allow you to test your website speed. I recommend checking out GTmetrix or Google PageSpeed Insights. These tools are free, simple, and provide valuable insights about site speed that allow for easy optimizations.
Image source: GTmetrix
2. Usability on mobile
Google uses mobile-first indexing when crawling websites. This means that the search engine predominantly uses the mobile version of a website when it's evaluating a page.
Even if the desktop version of your site is flawless, your search engine ranking could take a huge hit if the site isn’t optimized for mobile. Always preview your web pages to ensure that they’re easily accessible across different types of devices, not just desktop.
Most content management systems have built-in features that allow you to do this before you hit the publish button. Additionally, you can use a free mobile usability testing tool such as Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test that will provide you with similar insights.
3. Internal links
As mentioned earlier, search engines work by crawling and indexing different pieces of content on your website. The crawlers use internal links as a signal that helps them to analyze and properly index this information.
The term “internal links” refers to any hyperlink that points to an internal page within your website.
Image source: Moz
The more organized and tightly-knit your internal linking structure is, the easier it is for search engines (and users) to find what they’re looking for.
To do this, you must be mindful of what pages you’re linking to each time you create a new page or a new piece of content.
One popular method for keeping your internal links organized is by creating topic clusters. The idea is simple: you create content around a specific umbrella “pillar” topic and keep your interlinking within this cluster.
For example, let’s say you’re writing several articles around the topic of sales prospecting.
Your main resource would be an “ultimate guide” type of article that covers everything there is to know about sales prospecting. From there, every additional article that covers related subtopics (i.e. cold calling tips, best email outreach templates, etc.) should link to others in the cluster as well as back to your main resource.
This strategy works because it keeps all of your links tightly-organized around the same topic.
Image source: HubSpot
It makes it so that search engines can easily understand and index the content. Topic clusters are also beneficial from a user experience perspective. It makes your content easier to navigate and readers will realize that they don’t have to go to multiple sites to find what they’re looking for.
The key takeaway here is clear: SEO can’t work without a properly structured and smoothly functioning website.
It’s likely that your website already undergoes regular maintenance to check for things like bugs or server errors. For SEO purposes, it’s a good idea to do a technical SEO audit your site every couple of months to check for things such as 404 errors, redirect loops, and broken links.
On-page Google ranking factors
The above technical search engine ranking factors have to do with your website as a whole, while these next ranking factors are more page-specific.
4. Keyword targeting
Keywords are at the center of an effective SEO strategy. These are the search terms that people use when they go on a search engine to find what they’re looking for. Before you can start creating content for your website, it’s critical to conduct keyword research.
In a recent survey conducted by Directive, 78% of marketers identified keyword research as a high-impact practice for driving new traffic. The research process allows you to better understand what your audience is searching for and create content that directly addresses these search queries.
Image source: Directive
Before you build out content for a page or write an article, identify 4-5 related keywords that you want to target. Incorporate these keywords whenever they fit naturally into the text, and insert them into other on-page elements, which we'll cover next.
The key word (no pun intended) in the last paragraph is “naturally.”
Always write for the reader, not the search engine.
Search engines are smart, and they can recognize when marketers try to repeatedly and unnaturally fit keywords onto a page for the sake of SEO. This is called keyword stuffing, and your website can be penalized for doing it.
Don’t compromise the quality of your content because you want it to rank higher. As we stated above, quality is a priority for Google, so focus on producing content that’s compelling and easy for your audience to understand.
5. Title and header tags
Once you know which keywords you want to rank for, it’s important to insert them into specific places on your page, like the title and header tags. Search engines use these tags to learn what the page is about and index it appropriately.
The title tag is what’s displayed the most prominently in the search results pages (see below).
6. Meta description
The meta description is a short description that lives in the HTML code of your web page. Although it doesn’t appear on the page itself, it’s displayed in search results. In the image below, you can see the meta description that appears in light gray text.
Although the meta description is not a major ranking factor, Google will sometimes use it to pull a featured results snippet. Plus, it gives searchers more information about the page, which can increase click rate. For this reason, it’s still important to include the meta description as part of your SEO checklist and make sure it accurately summarizes the content on the page.
7. Image alt-text
If you’ve ever searched for anything on Google Images, you can probably guess that there’s an SEO component to images as well. Every image on your website comes with alt-text, also referred to as an alt-tag.
This text serves several purposes:
- It makes your website accessible to visually-impaired readers who rely on screen readers to browse the internet.
- If your image fails to load, the alt-text will appear in its place.
- It helps search engines to understand the image and index it properly.
Properly optimized alt-text has the ability to move your images to the first page of image search results, giving you an additional shot at higher ranking.
8. URL structure
It may seem simple, but the way you structure your page URLs does have some impact on your search engine ranking. A jumbled URL with many mixed characters doesn’t do a good job of helping search engines learn about the page.
On the other hand, a URL that follows a simple structure, is concise, and incorporates the target keyword — now that’s an SEO-friendly URL.
9. Information quality
Unless it's completely evergreen, most content loses its value over time. Let’s face it, your “top tips of 2018″ just aren’t cutting it for your audience anymore. We know that Google search trends change over time. The terms that your audience used to find your content could’ve easily changed since the time that older piece was created. We also know that Google values freshness as well as accuracy and relevancy when determining rankings. If your website has been around for a while, there’s a good chance there’s a lot of old and underperforming content that’s just sitting there.
In addition to writing net new content, a simple way to see some additonal SEO wins is by updating outdated pages with new keywords and information.
Start with the pieces that used to perform well and update them for keywords that are relevant today. Some articles may need to be fully rewritten, while others may just need updated data to bring them back to life. As you update these posts, incorporate them into your regular content cadence by republishing them with the new publication date.
Off-page Google ranking factors
Off-page ranking factors have to do with entities outside of your website, such as social media platforms, influencers, and other websites, but there is one focal point to any off-page SEO strategy:
A backlink is a hyperlink that comes from a page outside of your website. Google launched its game-changing PageRank algorithm update back in 1996, which made clear that the number and quality of links to a page would be a strong indicator of the quality of a web page, and more than two decades later, it still is.
From our page on link building
So how do you get backlinks? There are four strategies:
If your content is high-quality, unique, and provides value to your audience, it will start to generate backlinks on its own. A page with a lot of links pointing back to it indicates to Google that the particular page is providing exceptional value, and is coming from a credible website.
However, it can take years to build this kind of web authority. It’s going to take some extra effort if you want to push the needle and grow your backlink profile, which I’ll cover next.
This backlinking strategy requires finding related content and pitching your pieces to the author for a link. Like any form of cold outreach, not everyone you send a message to is going to reply, especially when so many others are vying for the same backlinks. It’s a numbers game, and everyone is playing it.
Another method for building backlinks is sourcing guest blogging opportunities on external publications. Guest posts are a solid way to establish your expertise, while also building links back to your website. The key is to make sure you’re sourcing high-quality and original posts from credible domains that actually serve your audience. Writing lackluster content for websites that your audience wouldn’t visit doesn't do anyone much good.
Thought leadership content
Finally, a growing number of marketers are recognizing the value of thought leadership backlink building. There are two parts to this strategy:
- Identify opportunities to get featured on podcasts, webinars, or other forms of media.
- Create data-driven content that generates links on its own.
This type of outreach revolves around establishing your brand as a thought leader in your respective industry. When you get featured in a speaking engagement run by another brand, it’s likely that the other company will promote the feature and link back to your website. On the other end, a piece of thought leadership content that’s based on original research makes it instantly “linkable.”
Whichever method you use, remember to be tactical in your approach and focus on quality.
One link from one quality domain is much better than five links from several low-authority websites.
When you build quality backlinks on an ongoing basis, you’ll notice that your content will begin to perform much better in organic rankings.
Optimizing for these Google ranking factors takes time
When it comes to real SEO, there’s no such thing as a silver bullet. The most important note to keep in mind is that climbing the search results pages takes time. If you optimize your website for several ranking factors today, it’s not going to magically appear in the number one spot tomorrow. The optimization process requires ongoing effort to keep your site as fresh and relevant for your audience as possible. As long as your website is functional and optimized with your target buyer in mind, you’ll start to see organic growth.
About the author
Izabelle Hundrev is a Chicago-based content writer at Directive. A lifelong lover of reading and writing, she graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 2017. After 1.5 years in sales, she returned to her journalistic roots and made the career transition to content marketing. Making the career switch re-ignited her passion for writing as she learned to navigate the world of SEO-driven content creation. At Directive, Izabelle combines her “sales hustle” mentality and creative writing expertise to cover a wide variety of SaaS marketing topics and support long-term marketing strategy.