Google, and all other search engines for that matter, use a multitude of different factors to determine the rankings of a page for every single search query conducted. Through its many complex algorithms, Google basically takes into account three groups of ranking signal to decide where a site should rank in the search results for a given search query:
- Technical ranking signals — The overall performance of the site
- On-page ranking signals — The actual contents of the webpage
- Off-page ranking signals — How that webpage is connected to everything else outside of its own website
Google also hasn’t publicly shared what all these ranking signals are (a lot of experts put the number above 200), so there are likely to be much more than what the SEO industry has discovered, with some signals even being disputed among experts. The vast majority that have been agreed upon to be ranking signals also weigh very little in the big picture, only mattering for highly specific situations. It’s how they accumulate or work in conjunction with each other that matters when it comes to SEO strategy.
Whilst going over ranking signals at the granular level is beyond the scope of this guide, we will explore ten very important signals that determine how well a particular URL ranks.
1. Content Relevancy
If a webpage’s content provides information that would be useful for a searcher’s particular query, Google perceives that content to be relevant and would likely rank that page for the relevant search query.
Value is whatever it is that searchers are actually looking for. For instance, if a searcher Googles “best budget headphones,” they expect to find a list of headphones with good features at an affordable price range. Content that covers all these details in a clear and engaging way is valuable to searchers.
Word count is often correlated with quality content, as the longer content is, the more likely it is to be extensive in the coverage of its topic. However, this correlation doesn’t imply causality (in other words, long-form content doesn’t guarantee better rankings than shorter form content on the same subject matter).
People regularly consult Google for just about every question they have, from the most mundane of topics like how old a certain celebrity is to potentially life-altering subjects like what legal actions they can take if they have been sued. Google tries its best to accommodate for both types of queries.
Even for a simple fact like showing the correct date when a certain sports team won the championship for a regional tournament, Google wants to ensure that users can rely on it to be accurate, lest they lose trust and use a different search engine.
The stakes are much higher for queries that could majorly impact searchers’ lives, which Google covers with its ranking of “Your Money or Your Life” pages. These are web pages that provide information about law, medicine, advice on major life decisions (e.g. parenting, purchasing a home, etc), and financial advice. This kind of content goes through a much stricter ranking process.
3. Backlink Authority
Backlinks from reputable domains generally carry more weight than webpages from domains that have yet to build a reputation. However, just because one domain is considered to have a higher overall authority compared to another, that doesn’t always translate to higher search rankings.
When it comes to links pointing to your site, Google makes the distinction between reputable and relevance. This often manifests as an issue with offsite signals and link building. Marketers and businesses will often focus on getting links purely from high domain authority sites, whilst missing all the lower authority but super relevant sites in their niche, which may often carry as much, if not more, weight.
Freshness plays a significant role in search rankings as Google favours quality content that is fresh over similarly good content that is outdated.
It is important, however, to note that this ranking signal matters more for specific sets of search queries, especially for big events or trending topics.
For most businesses (those that don’t rely on selling the news anyway), all that is necessary to hit these ranking signals is creating a steady flow of relevant and fresh content, whether it’s evergreen guides and list articles or the latest industry or business news. Refreshing old but important pages can be done only when there is new information that requires it.
5. Keyword Usage
Keyword usage is still a major ranking signal for Google because keywords serve the important purpose of telling Google what a website mainly deals with. When a user conducts a search in a search engine, the algorithm will search through its indexes of webpages, in order to find those that have those keywords, either in the meta description or title, URL or in the content of the site itself, as it’s likely that those webpages contain the information searchers need.
The keywords that feature on a webpage are therefore one of the most important factors in determining how that page will rank, but also what search terms that it will rank for.
With the advent of latent semantic indexing, the process that Google goes through in order to understand keywords and their distribution on a site is far more nuanced than it was, with synonyms and context all helping to hit those same keyword signals.
6. Site Speed
7. Mobile Responsiveness
With the majority of people browsing the internet on their smartphones and tablets, users now interface with websites in a completely different way compared to those users using a mouse and keyboard.
Screen space is limited on a mobile device compared to a laptop or monitor screen, and the nature of mobile device usage encourages people to keep scrolling. Google caters to this audience by making mobile-responsive design a crucial ranking signal. It was formalised in 2019 that Google would look at a website’s mobile version first for indexing and ranking purposes.
Plenty of websites nowadays collect data that may even include sensitive private information, all of which puts user security in jeopardy.
Google took the initiative to help users avoid going to sites that are not secure by making HTTPS a ranking signal. HTTPS encrypts data being sent back and forth between a website’s server and a user’s browser. This encryption is one safeguard for users from cyberattacks. If a site wants to have its pages rank well on Google, it has to have HTTPS implemented.
9. Inbound Links
The one critical ranking signal that isn’t decided on what is directly on a webpage is its inbound link profile. Inbound links or backlinks are links on a webpage that come from other websites. These links matter because they act as votes of confidence that the webpage they link to contains valuable content.
Google factors in both the quantity and the quality of inbound links a page has when determining its search ranking. Inbound links from popular, relevant, and trustworthy websites are weighted heavily, and the more inbound links from such websites, the better.
10. User experience
The term user experience is a catch-all for the things on a webpage that influence a user’s perception of that webpage.
Such elements that make for a positive user experience include easily consumable content, intuitive site navigation, and the lack of intrusive advertisements.
Google attempts to measure user satisfaction on a webpage through:
- Click-through rate — The number of people that click on its link on the search results page
- Bounce rate — How often users immediately go back to the search results page after clicking on a link
- Dwell time — How long users stay on a webpage
There are more metrics Google uses for measuring how well the user experience is on a webpage, but these three are considered to be the most reliable.
E-A-T stands for expertise, authority, and trust. Although Google’s representatives have already clarified that E-A-T is not a ranking factor, members of the SEO community continue to incorporate this into their strategies, especially since certain websites won’t rank without these three factors. For instance, websites that fall under the YMYL category (Your Money or Your Life) like those in the health space need to have doctors writing medical articles to display authority and start ranking higher.
However, there is no way for algorithms to measure expertise, authority, and trust in terms of code (which is the only thing that crawlers can look at). If Google does look at E-A-T, there is also no evidence showing that these are or will be major ranking factors. Technical on-site optimisation and link building continue to be the recommended SEO tactics to prioritise.
12. Core Web Vitals
As of May 2021, Google has included page experience signals to determine search rankings. These signals measure a user’s experience on any given page outside that page’s information value, including mobile-friendliness, safe browsing, HTTPS, intrusive interstitial guidelines, and core web vitals.
Core web vitals measure three metrics:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) — How fast a site loads the largest single object on that page (this should be within 2.5 seconds)
- First Input Delay (FIP) — This measures interactivity like clicks, taps, or pressing any keys (this should be less than 100 milliseconds)
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) — This measures visual stability, looking specifically at elements on a page that move around while it loads (this should be maintained at less than 0.1)
These 12 major ranking signals cover all the basics of having a website that is thoroughly optimised for search engines. They tackle the technical, on-page, and off-page aspects that, when done properly, all search engines consider to provide value to their users.