Do you know the factors that influence your search rankings?
Some people will tell you there are over 200 ranking factors to pay attention to — something Google once seemed to confirm.
In fact, this post goes about trying to list them all out, but as Brian of Backlinko himself says, “Some are proven. Some are controversial. Others are SEO nerd speculation.” So while it’s a great list, it’s always wise to test what you’re reading.
For as much as we know about Google’s algorithms through testing and observation, things change quickly, some things are correlated but not causal, and bad advice is everywhere.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can know for sure. There are things Google is quite clear about and factors we know for a fact have an impact.
As a business owner or marketer, it pays (literally) to have a basic understanding of the things that really do matter. So consider this your handy crash course.
We’re going to blitz through some of the most important basic factors you need to consider as part of your SEO. This isn’t everything out there, but it’s enough to give you a clear understanding of the things that matter most.
On-Page SEO Factors
When we say “on-page” factors, we’re talking about the content-based factors on your website that you can directly control.
Maybe you’ve heard “Content is king” or someone has told you to “create quality content.” There’s good reason for that! Google’s goal is to give users the most relevant, interesting content they can find, and to do that, they’ve got to analyze your pages. Here are a few of the on-page factors to be aware of.
Before we get into anything else, let’s talk about content. Content is the heart and soul of your website; it’s the message you send to customers, the information you share with the world, and the way you communicate everything you do.
You want your content to be…
- Completely unique to your site.
Google expects that you’re not just scraping other sites or borrowing content from other places. Create content that can’t be found anywhere else. That even includes product descriptions, which many sites take straight from the manufacturer.Whenever possible, make your content unique from any other website — and unique on every page.
- Engaging to your audience.
Don’t write to please a robot — create things your customers will love! Your content should engage, entertain, inform, and make life easier for your visitors.
- Easy to read.
Both Google and your users won’t take kindly to hidden text, garbled English, or haphazardly thrown-together pages. Make sure it’s easy to scan and consume.
- Thorough and detailed.
It’s not the case that you absolutely must hit a certain word count for every page of your site, and it’s also not true that more content is always better. That said, “thin” content that doesn’t add any value is always to be avoided.
Keep in mind: It’s your content that will be responsible for earning you links — a factor we’ll be covering in just a little bit.
Keywords & Themes
The keywords and topics you include in your content are really important, as Google is trying to figure out what your pages are about. Your unique content should target the phrases you’re hoping to rank for as well as an audience you’re trying to impress.
You want to target phrases that…
- Are directly related to your business and what your customers are looking for.
It doesn’t make any sense to try and target a phrase like “dog beds” if what you really offer is veterinarian services. You’re going to need to use these phrases naturally throughout your content, so don’t try to put round pegs in square holes.
- Get a reasonable amount of search traffic.
You want to target phrases people actually use when looking for your products and services. That said, don’t get hung up on targeting the highest-traffic phrases — a lower-traffic phrase can still be incredibly valuable.
- Have a realistic competition level.
There’s not much hope of stealing the top spot for a phrase like “insurance”; the competitors are too entrenched and have thousands of metrics in their favor. That said, you can think locally or more specific to find niches you can win in — like “Phoenix car insurance” or “tenants insurance in Topeka.”
Google uses advanced language processing techniques to understand the relationships and semantics between the words on a page, so your content should be written for human beings, not search engines.
Never “keyword stuff” or write awkward-sounding content just to cram your keywords in there. If you can use a phrase or a very close variant once or twice within a page, that’s usually enough to help Google get the hint.
Keep your pages thematically similar, grouping them together by topic or theme to ensure all your content is directly related. That might mean splitting out your products into categories or separating out individual services so you can cover them in proper depth.
Metadata refers to snippets of code that make it clear to search engines what certain elements of your page are. The important ones to know include:
- Title tags
Title tags are the titles of the blue links that show up in Google when someone searchers for a keyword. You can find the title tag of a page way up top in the bar of your browser.Your title tags should include the keywords you’re targeting on that specific page in a natural way, and they should be written to be enticing to click. You might also try to leverage your branding to make it clear to a searcher which website they’ll be landing on.As a general rule, Google typically displays the first 50 to 60 characters of a title tag in search engines — or as many characters as fit in 512 pixels. For your purposes, just try to keep your title tags short, sweet, and direct, with your keywords as close to the front as possible.
- Meta descriptions
Your meta description is the little block of descriptive text that a customer will see in search engines before they click through to your site. While Google doesn’t use these as a ranking factor, they’re still really important because they play a role in convincing someone to click through and check out your site, bumping up your click-through rate and giving you a chance to make a sale. Google will also bold the keywords a searcher used if they show up in your meta-description, giving you another way to stand out.
You might’ve noticed that I’ve been breaking up this blog with a few different headings for each section. While I primarily do that to make it easier for you to read along, Google also uses the content of your heading tags to understand the content of your page.These headers use a bit of coding that prioritizes them by prominence. Heading 1 (or <H1> in the code) should be your primary header, and there should only be one of those on a page. Other headings (<H2>, <H3>, etc.) can be used multiple times.As a general rule, try to include targeted keyword phrases naturally in your headings, but always write them to be compelling to human beings first and foremost.
While it’s not really “metadata,” you’ll want to try and include your keywords in the URLs of your pages. For example, instead of a product page for baseball jerseys using the URL onlinestore.com/Xrgntjty7?#123, aim to use a URL like onlinstore.com/baseball-jerseysThis is just one more small way Google determines what a page is about.
Technical SEO Factors
The next group of factors we’ll look at are what we’ll call “technical” factors: the coding, structure, and other technical elements of your website. While it’s not necessary to be a coding wizard, there are a few factors you should be aware of.
To index your website in its search engine, Google sends “bots” to crawl through your website and collect information about your content. To be able to do that, your site needs to be easily crawled.
- Using XML and HTML sitemaps to tell crawlers the structure of your website.
- Having a clear navigation bar that links to your most important content.
- Linking to your pages using words that describe the content of that page instead of “click here” or “read more.” This is called descriptive anchor text.
Google’s focus is on delivering not only the most relevant results to searchers but the best experiences as well. When sites load slowly, your visitors get frustrated and are more likely to leave.
That’s why, in 2010, Google said they would start incorporating site speed in rankings. Thankfully, they’ve given webmasters a suite of helpful tools to measure their site speed that even points out problem areas that can be addressed.
The faster you can get your site to load, the better the experience and the more likely you are to rank well.
Are you reading this on a tablet or smart phone? You’re not alone. In 2013, over 1 billion people used a mobile device as their primary access point for the Internet. As mobile usage continues to grow, Google has come out and said they’ll actively demote sites that are not mobile-friendly.
If you want to make sure you’re compliant, Google recommends using responsive design. “Responsive” means that all of your site’s pages will serve the same content to every user but will change the appearance of the site based on the device being used to access it. This is getting easier and easier to implement, as many popular platforms like WordPress have had thousands of responsive templates built by the community that business owners can use.
We already talked about not copying other peoples’ content, but duplicate content can also occur when there are technical problems on your site.
For example, imagine you have an online store built on a platform that generates the URL of the page based on how the person got there. Someone who is looking to buy a laptop case might land on the same page taking a few different paths:
Computer Accessories > Sale Items > Specific Product
That user’s URL might look like this: example.com/computer-accessories/sales/product
Or, imagine they came in this way: Computer Accessories > Bags & Carrying Cases > Laptop Bags > Specific Product
Their URL might look like this: example.com/computer-accessories/bags-cases/laptop-bags/product
In that case, you’d have two URLs for the exact same page. The trouble is that even though the content is the same, to Google these URLs look like separate pages, or duplicate content.
Whether it’s copying and pasting content from one page to another or a technical issue like we outlined above, you’ll need to address it or Google will either pick one of the two pages and ignore the other or, if the problem is very widespread, you may find your rankings suffering.
There are a few ways to clean this up, but for the sake of simplicity, we won’t cover them here. For now, it’s enough to know that duplicate content is something to avoid.
Backlinks (Off-Page Factors)
In addition to the way your site is built and the content you create, one of the biggest factors in how your site will rank is backlinks.
A “link” is just a hyperlink from someone else’s site to yours — for example, a blogger linking to a product on your website or a news article linking to your home page. Google views links as an editorial vote of confidence in your content; a sign of credibility that points to the fact that someone else thought your content was worth seeing.
That said, not all links are created equal, and you need to be careful about where and how you earn them.
- Links from trusted sites are worth more.
While quantity of links definitely matters in the long run, it’s not the case that more links is always better than less. The quality of your links is important to Google, and you should try to earn links from authoritative, trusted sites.For example, links from spammy websites or untrusted domains like a general directory or enormous link hub won’t be given the same weight as links from sites Google already knows and trusts, like a college or a well-known blog. A single link from a respected business or institution can be worth thousands of links from unknown directories or blog comments.
- Links from relevant sites are also worth more.
Google also looks at the content and subject matter of the site that sends you the link to determine how relevant it is.For example, if you run a pet store, links from other sites that have to do with pets and animals are likely to be worth more than links from sites about nuclear physics or microwave ovens. In fact, Google will take too many links from unrelated sites as a sign that something is amiss.
- Anchor text matters, but be careful!
Just like internal links, the ideal link to your website uses text that describes your site, or even uses your keywords.For example, as a homebuilder it would be better to get links that say “Arizona homebuilder” than “click here.”That said, be careful! Google is very particular about people trying to game this system, and they evaluate the ratio of your anchor text that is branded, plain (like your URL or “click here”), and anchor-text rich to see if you’ve been engaging in manipulative linking schemes.Earn anchor-text-rich links wherever feasible, but don’t try and game the system. If someone links to you another way, don’t sweat it — incoming links from trusted sites are beneficial, no matter how they come.
- The destination of the link matters, too.
You don’t want all of your links pointed to just one page. If you can, try to earn links to internal pages of your website as well as your homepage and other key pages. Again, this is a natural thing and will help those internal pages to rank more highly in search results.
User Experience Signals
The final category of factors we’ll cover is user signals — the behaviors and activities of your visitors while they’re on your site. This one is a bit of a hot-button topic as there is ongoing debate as to whether or not some of these metrics are correlated or actually cause ranking improvements.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter.
Your goal should always be toward improving these metrics, because they reflect the fact that your users are finding your site useful and interesting.
If users are searching your keywords but rarely, if ever, clicking through to your site, this may point Google to the conclusion that there’s something about your listing that’s less relevant to them than others. This may be especially true if other factors have pushed you temporarily into the top spot.
There’s a lot of speculation about this one, but the basic agreement is that if people are coming through to your site and immediately leaving back to the search results, this “pogo sticking” is a negative signal to Google that they may take into account.
Sometimes, bouncing is inevitable if your page shows up for a query you didn’t really intend to target — but if it’s a primary focus for you and people are leaving, that ought to be a “check engine” light that something has gone wrong.
It’s certainly the case that great pages tend to have lower pogo-sticking rates, and you should push for the same.
Time on Site
The final metric we’ll touch on is how long users are spending on your site. Again, this is a debatable one, but the general rule is that the longer people are sticking around, the more engaged they are with your content and the more relevant your site is for whatever they searched.
This is one to be careful with, as Google Analytics can only measure time on site based on when your visitor clicks through to another internal page. If they only read one, well… the data is skewed.
That said, aim to captivate your visitors, streamline their experience, and get them directly to the content they want to consume. The better you make their experience on your site, the better your user signals and the more likely you are to do well in search results.
It’s Not Rocket Science!
We’ve covered some of the most important things to consider, and now you’re armed with a basic knowledge of SEO.
At its most basic, SEO is just building a site that’s easy for search engines to crawl, great for users to visit, chock full of interesting content, and well-promoted to people who want what you’re offering.
That said, these factors are only the beginning. There are dozens of others that all interact with each other to influence your rankings, and being a full-time SEO means testing, tweaking, and monitoring those factors to reveal new signals and understand how they combine.
Still, with everything you’ve learned, you’re now armed to have a better conversation with your peers, your boss, and even your agency about what it takes to rank and how you can start moving the needle in your favor.