Where’s the first place people go when they need an answer, idea, product, or service? Not to the Yellow Pages. Not into town. Not even to family and friends at this point. They go to the Goog. And most of them do not go past the first page of results.
And it is for this reason that SEO, or search engine optimization, is a multi-billion dollar industry. SEO is the practice of getting a website to align with Google’s ranking factors. So what are those ranking factors and how can you optimize your site for them? Read on to find out.
SEO is the process of optimizing your website to rank as high as possible in organic search engine results (and yes, you can aim for the first page). When talking about search, we use the term “organic” to refer to search results that are unpaid. This is different from paid results, which come from PPC advertising.
Organic rankings on Google are determined by an algorithm that takes into account various characteristics and SEO metrics —and these are your ranking factors.
There are over 200 Google ranking factors, and while we will never know all of them, we do know many. We also know that while ranking factors and algorithms may shift, the characteristics Google is trying to parse out through them are expertise, authority, and trust (E-A-T).
E-A-T is not a ranking factor; rather, ranking factors are a way for Google to measure of E-A-T.
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.
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 help you rank higher on Google, get more traffic, and build trust.
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The top Google ranking factors according to First Page Sage are as follows:
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—hence the term on-page SEO.
The single most important Google ranking factor is the quality of your content. This correlates to the consistent publication of high quality content, user engagement, and niche expertise in the chart above. So what makes relevant, quality content?
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.
Once you know which keywords you want to rank for, it’s important to insert them into specific places on your page. This includes:
Keywords in the title tags are, by far, the most important, followed by H2s and URL.
This is an important one—not only because of Google image search but also because regular search results are getting more and more visual—especially on mobile. Here’s how to optimize your images for SEO:
A properly saved, tagged, sized, and compressed image.
It’s not just the quality of your content that indicates expertise in your niche, but also the quantity of that quality content. For example, WordStream has been publishing high-quality content about PPC for a long time now, so Google has come to see us as a trusted source in this niche. But if we were to publish a super high-quality post about, say, robotic process automation, our chances of ranking for that keyword are slim.
To build out your niche expertise, you can use the hub and spoke method (also known as pillar page and cluster content). With this method, you create a hub/pillar page on a particular topic, usually a broad, high-volume keyword. This serves as the main resource for that topic, and your various H2s cover different child keywords within that topic.
Then you have your spokes, or cluster content, which are the additional pages that dive deeper into each of the aspects (child keywords) covered in the pillar page.
In addition to demonstrating your expertise within this niche, this method also helps with your site structure, which we’ll talk about later. Since the cluster pages link to and from the pillar content, as well as to each other, this keeps all of your links tightly organized around the same topic.
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Since it involves knowledge of website structure and content management systems, technical SEO is commonly a joint effort between marketing and development teams. But 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:
Users expect a pain-free browsing experience, which is why page speed is an important ranking factor. If your pages take too long to load, your bounce rate will increase and your ranking will decrease. You can check yours with GTmetrix or Google PageSpeed Insights.
Back in 2019, Google told us it would be using mobile-first indexing on all new sites. This means that it makes its ranking assessment based on the mobile version of a site rather than the desktop. Then, in 2020 it told us plans for this to be the case for all sites, and as of 2021, all sites are now subject to mobile-first indexing.
In other words, even if the desktop version of your site is flawless, your search engine ranking could take a major hit if it isn’t optimized for mobile. Most content management systems allow you to make preview and adjustments for mobile/smaller screens. You can also use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test.
In addition to these tests, you should still always preview and test your web pages on an actual mobile device because there are some things that code just can’t pick up.
While SEO trends ebb and flow, ranking factors don’t often change. But in 2021, Google did introduce a new ranking factor—Core Web Vitals—as a part of the page experience update. Core Web Vitals quantify a person’s experience on your page, which dictates whether and how they engage with it. They include:
As mentioned earlier, search engines work by crawling and indexing different pieces of content on your website. Internal links refer to any hyperlink that points to another page on your same website. The more organized and tightly-knit your internal linking structure is, the more points of access you create to any given page, and the easier it is for search engines (and users) to find what they’re looking for.
Ideally, any given page on your site should be accessible in three clicks or less.
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.
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 of your site every couple of months to check for things such as 404 errors, redirect loops, and broken links.
Ever wonder what the s stands for in https (as opposed to just plain old http)? Well it stands for secure. And the way you get your site to be an https site rather than an http site is to get an SSL (secure sockets layer) certificate. There are a few different routes to getting an SSL, and the cost depends on the level of security you need as well as your hosting setup. HubSpot, for example offers free SSL through its CMS.
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:
Last but most definitely not least, we have backlinks. A backlink is a link to your page that comes from another website. 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. But one link from one quality domain is much better than multiple links from several low-authority websites.
From our page on link building
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 earn trust, build brand awareness, increase traffic to your site, attract customers, and drive revenue. The top 10 Google Ranking factors include:
Just remember, 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.
For more opportunities to optimize for Google’s ranking factors, follow our easy 10-step SEO audit, or you can use our free Website Grader tool to do it for you. Or, check out our full range of digital marketing solutions to learn how we can help with your SEO.
Kristen is the Senior Managing Editor at WordStream, where she helps businesses to make sense of their online marketing and advertising. She specializes in SEO and copywriting and finds life to be exponentially more delightful on a bicycle.
See other posts by Kristen McCormick
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