Google Ranking Factors Explained for Beginners
Businesses of all sizes are obsessed with ranking well in Google search results. There’s a good reason for that – topping the results for a term relevant to your business can bring in potential customers and boost your sales. But what factors does Google’s algorithm take into account when deciding which webpages should rank well? In this guide we’ll look at some of the top Google ranking factors and how you can use this knowledge to boost your search engine optimisation (SEO) skills.
It’s important to note, though: there’s no one individual — not even among Google’s own employees — who knows the total 100% recipe for how its search ranks pages. The algorithm is highly complex and there can be no guarantees for SEO. Hundreds (if not thousands) of factors that contribute to a page’s rankings.
Today, we’ll look at just a handful. With that in mind, you should always put your customers first. Create a website and webpages that work for them and provide them with what they need. This in itself will form the foundations of a website that works best.
1. A website must be crawlable by Google
Google sends out bots, known as spiders or crawlers, to go out and rummage through websites, thereby gathering the information contained within them. It adds the pages it discovers to its index and then uses this index as the basis of its search results.
Having a ‘crawlable website’ isn’t an SEO ranking factor per se —but it’s absolutely vital for success: if your website can’t be crawled by Google, it can’t be included in search results.
The robots can only find a website by following links to it, or if Google has been informed about the existence of a website because its owner has submitted a sitemap though Google Search Console.
If you have a website, set up Google Search Console as it will help you understand what Google knows about your website and how your website performs in Google search results.
Worried that your website isn’t being crawled by Google? Check out this guide.
2. Technical and usability ranking factors
Search engines exist to provide people with useful search results. Often, these search results lead people to click on a website.
Now, imagine you’re using a search engine, you click the top result, you go through to a website and the page take three minutes to load.
Suddenly, that top search result feels much less useful. For that reason, Google includes a number of technical and usability issues in its ranking factors.
- Page speed (called Core Web Vitals by Google)
- HTTPs encryption (provided by an SSL certificate)
- No intrusive pop-ups
Google collects these elements together to provide a “page experience score”. Put simply, pages with a poor page experience score are less likely to rank well in Google.
Improving your page experience score will increase your chances of ranking well in Google, but it won’t guarantee it.
If you want to know your page experience score, you can use this free tool from Google. It will also provide you with a list of things you can do to improve your score.
Some of the information can be quite technical, especially around Core Web Vitals. If you use a web designer, you can pass the information on to them.
Alternatively, if you need to improve your page experience score you could consider moving to a modern website builder like the one offered by 123 Reg. Modern website builders are designed to be fast and user-friendly, which means switching from an older website builder or hosting package could give your site speed a boost.
If you’re launching a new website, you should consider using a modern website builder or a fast, reliable webhost.
Finally for this section, let’s talk a little bit more about why mobile friendliness is important to Google.
Put simply, the majority of website visits now happen on a mobile device, so Google wants to ensure these people get the best possible experience. It now users mobile-first indexing, which means it considers the mobile version of a website to be the primary version of a website.
For this reason, you should ensure that both the mobile and desktop versions of your website offer users the same information.
Fortunately, the advent of modern website builders means it’s easier than ever for a small business owner to create a website that looks great and offers great user experience on any device.
Technical SEO can be very complicated for large website, but if your website only has a handful of pages there shouldn’t be too much to worry about.
3. Keywords as a ranking factor
Google ranks webpages on an individual basis. As it does so, it attempts to match a user’s query with the webpages that it thinks are the best match for that person’s needs.
In the early days of Google, it did this just by matching keywords in the query to keywords on a website. In fact, it used to be possible to rank at the top of Google for a keyword just by writing it enough times on a page. This is called keyword stuffing and it no longer works.
Although Google is a lot more sophisticated than it used to be, keywords are still extremely important as a ranking factor. If a page contains a number of keywords relating to a particular topic, then Google will know that it may be worth ranking that page for queries relating to that topic.
Keyword research is a complex and important topic. Check out this guide to finding the right website keywords.
Once you’ve found relevant keywords, you need to include them in your page in the right way. You’ll probably find that as you’re creating content for a webpage, you naturally include relevant keywords anyway. However, there are some things you should pay attention to.
Make sure you include relevant keywords in your page’s title and its headings. Ideally, you should include your most important keyword in the page’s title which will be coded with a title tag and (usually) an H1tag. Secondary keywords can be included in subheadings, coded with the H2 tag.
Remember, the idea isn’t just to stuff keywords into headings – the headings should help readers and search engines understand what the webpage’s content is about.
You should also aim to include the most important keyword for a page in that page’s URL. For example, a blog post about keywords might be example.com/blog/guide-to-website-keywords. The URL for a page which sells widgets might be example.com/widgets.
It’s also a good idea to include relevant keywords in alt text. Alt text is displayed when an image can’t be shown on a website and it’s also used by screen reading software to describe an image to someone who can’t see it. Don’t just stuff keywords into alt text. Instead, use relevant images for which a natural description includes one or more of your keywords.
If your website isn’t facing any technical issues, keywords are probably the most important on-page ranking factor. If your webpage doesn’t include relevant keywords, it will never show up on the first page of search results for the search query (or queries) you want it to target.
4. Expertise, authority and trust (E-A-T) as ranking factors
If you read anything about important ranking factors, it won’t be long before you come across the concept of E-A-T.
Some SEOs will tell you that this is perhaps the most important ranking factor of all but, as often is the case in SEO, there’s some exaggeration at play here.
It’s definitely important to indicate your expertise and authority on any topic you include on your website, for the sake of your customers as much as anything.
For example, if you’re writing blog posts about financial topics, you should include a bio explaining your experience and qualification in the field. This will show people you know what you’re talking about.
Trust signals such as a real-world address, a photo of you and your team, a contact telephone number and more also help boost people’s confidence that you’re not trying to rip them off.
Including E-A-T signals on your website will make people more likely to trust you and will make sure that Google doesn’t mistakenly classify your website as spammy, but it won’t play a big part in helping you achieve first-page rankings. Still, in business trustworthiness is always important, so include trust signals!
5. Links as a ranking factor
We touched briefly on how Google uses Google bots to crawl websites. Like human web users, these bots are able to follow links to discover and index new content.
Google also uses links as a ranking signal. You’ll sometimes hear SEOs talking about how Google views links as “votes” for a particular webpage, if you’re new to ranking factors this simple analogy can help you understand why links matter.
In reality, things are a bit more complicated. The votes concept implies that the page with the most links will rank first, but that’s not the case.
Not all links are equal and although we don’t know exactly how Google determines the value of a link, we do know that the authority and relevance of the website providing the link matters.
That means one link from a big important website in your niche is more likely to boost your page’s Google rankings than several links from small websites in an unrelated niche.
Anchor text, the words used to describe an HTML link, also matters. Both readers and Google use anchor text to understand what the page linked to is about. That means a link to a page with anchor text that matches one of that page’s target keywords is, if all other things are equal, likely to be more valuable than a link which uses generic anchor text such as “click here”.
It’s important to note that link building (that is actively asking other websites to link to your in order to benefit your SEO) is against Google’s rules and if you engage in it, you run the risk of getting a penalty from Google.
If you create and promote high-quality content on your website, you should start to pick up links naturally.
Internal links, that is links from one page of your website to another, also count as a ranking factor. The great thing about internal links is that you can create them yourself.
It’s important to only include internal links when it makes sense for a user such as in a navigation header or footer, or in blog posts that talk about your products.
You should also be careful when selecting your anchor text for internal links. Although you’ll want to use keywords, you need to be careful not to use the same keyword to much as this could be considered over-optimisation by Google, which could harm your chances of performing well in search engine results pages (SERPs). Mix up anchor text and make sure it always makes sense to your website users.
Finally in this section, you’ll sometimes see SEOs talking about “backlinks”. This is just another word for a link to your website from an external website.
6. Structured data markup as a ranking factor
Google’s algorithm may be complex, but it isn’t intelligent. That means it needs help identifying certain types of content so it can index and display them in a way that’s useful for users.
This is where structured data markup comes in. Essentially, structured data markup are little snippets of code which tell Google what a piece of content is.
For example, there’s markup to indicate that a piece of content is steps in a recipe. There’s also markup to indicate a piece of content is a “how to” guide.
Although adding markup to a bad piece of content won’t improve its rankings, adding it to a good piece of content that’s targeted at keywords for which Google shows rich results gives it a chance to appear as the rich result. So, in that sense, it’s a ranking factor.
Things that aren’t ranking factors
Sometimes, SEOs talk about things that they think are ranking factors but aren’t actually ranking factors at all.
Here’s some of the commonly mentioned “ranking factors” that aren’t.
Note: As Google’s algorithm is very complicated, we can’t be sure what is and isn’t a ranking factor. But you probably won’t need to worry about any of the below things impacting your search rankings.
Your bounce rate is the percentage of people who visit your website and leave without interacting with it (eg, by clicking an internal link).
The theory goes like this – if someone clicks a search results, visits a website and then heads straight back to the search engine results, Google will view this as a negative ranking factor that page because it’s a sign that page isn’t useful.
However, there’s no evidence that this is a factor Google considers and a high bounce rate isn’t always bad.
That said, it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on your bounce rate in Google Analytics and, if it’s high, examine any issues that might be causing that.
Click through rate
Click through rate (CTR) is the percentage of people who click your website’s link after seeing it in search results.
Whether CTR is a ranking factor is a hotly debated issue in the world of SEO, but the evidence suggests it probably isn’t used as a main factor when determining what pages to show in SERPs.
Plus, if you’re worrying about your CTR from Google, you’re likely to be in a good place anyway as it means your website is probably ranking well.
If you are worried about a low CTR for a particular page tackling from the point of view of a potential user, not a search engine. You can access your CTR from Google SERPs via Search Console.
Metrics such as bounce rate and CTR are important, but not for SEO reasons!
Meta descriptions used to be an important SEO ranking factor, so people would stuff them with keywords. Now they’re no longer used as a ranking factor at all. Your meta description may be displayed by search engines, so it is a good idea to use them to explain what your pages are about as they may be seen by search engine users.
Although there are other meta tags, the ones most commonly discussed when it comes to ranking factors are meta descriptions (see above) and keyword meta tags. There is no need to use keyword meta tags. Google ignores them.
Social media success
Google, as far as we know, doesn’t use the popularity of a social media post to help decide its rankings. That means going viral won’t help your SEO directly. However, if a piece of content attracts a lot of attention on social media, that increase your chances of it getting backlinks, which can boost your SEO.
You’ll often hear SEOs talk about domain authority and sometimes you’ll even hear them give a domain authority score.
However, such scores are generated by proprietary SEO tools and, as such, have nothing to do with Google.
Now, in most cases a website with a high domain authority is more likely to rank well than one with a lower score. But it’s not always the case and domain authority is not a Google ranking factor.
As a general rule, a long piece of content is no more likely to rank well than a short piece of content.
What matters is the creation of high-quality content that meets a user’s needs. For a simple topic this could be a piece of content that’s a few hundred words long. For a more complex issue, such as Google’s ranking factors, the content could easily be 2,000 words or longer.
As long as your content delivers what a user would expect, then its length won’t impact its Google rankings.
If you’re new to SEO, this article might seem a little bit intimidating. There seems to be an awful lot to think about and many potential pitfalls.
It’s understandable that you’re curious about Google’s ranking factors and having a broad understanding of them can help you optimise your website. However, you don’t have to memorise them all. You just need to focus on the most important ones.
If your website is new or not ranking well in Google, focus on the basics and worry about more complex things when you’re starting to see your website in the first page of SERPS for a variety of queries.
- For a new website, use a website creation platform that allows you to build a fast, mobile optimised website. If you have an existing website, test and improve.
- Do in depth keyword research and understand the search intent of your users.
- Use your keyword research to create pages that meet user needs.
- Monitor key SEO metrics such as search ranking and page speed.
- Adjust your SEO strategy based on these results and keep going.
Following this basic outline will help you achieve real SEO results. Obsessing over Google’s ranking factors won’t.