Google's search ranking algorithm is incredibly complex, incorporating data from billions of web pages to form a comprehensive index, and serving user queries with relevant results in the span of less than a second.
And it just keeps getting more complicated. According to Andy Kuiper, "Google's search engine algorithm, which for many years had about 128 variables, now has over 200. Recent additions include page load time, use of engagement objects, and the introduction of semantic search technology."
So with more than 200 ranking factors taken into account when Google formulates search rankings, how is a search engine optimizer supposed to know which ones matter? Do you need to understand and work on all 200 to see results?
Do All Those Variables Truly Matter?
Let's start by addressing the question of whether all those variables truly matter.
- Weight and proportion. Not all ranking factors are created equal. Some, like the age of your domain, don't matter much at all, especially when compared to bigger factors, like the number and quality of inbound links you have. Accordingly, some ranking factors are simply more important than others.
- Secondary effects. Sometimes, a single strategy can influence multiple ranking factors simultaneously. For example, creating high-quality content can help you optimize for specific keywords, improve time spent on site, and attract high-quality backlinks all at once. Accordingly, it's often better to focus on strategies with multiple benefits than to zero in on individual ranking factors.
- Volatility. The number and weight of ranking factors can change without much warning, so it pays to stay vigilant and change with the times.
The Most Important Ranking Factors
So which factors are most important? There are a few different ways to look at this, such as judging each ranking factor as an independent variable correlated with site ranking. However, it's probably better to start by looking at the three broad categories of ranking factors:
- Content. The type and quality of content you produce can improve your site's visibility, authority, and relevance all at once.
- Backlinks. The number and quality of your links is still one of the most important considerations Google uses to evaluate your authority.
- Technical performance. Your site needs to be visible, and easily accessible to web users if you want it to rank.
We can also look at more specific ranking factors. According to a comprehensive 2017 study by SEMRush, the ten most important ranking factors (in terms of their status as a predictor of rank) are, in order:
- Visitors. The number of visitors your site gets and your site's ranking have a positive correlation, and tend to create a feedback loop that works in favor of top performers.
- Time on site. Time spent on site is a good indication that your site is providing value to web users.
- Pages per session. Another indication of site quality is the number of pages each visitor views per session, on average.
- Bounce rate. The lower your bounce rate is, the better.
- Top referring domains. The more authoritative your inbound links are, the more authoritative your site will appear.
- Total backlinks. Quality trumps quantity, but quantity is important too.
- Total referring IPs. See above.
- Total follow-backlinks. See above.
- Content length. Longer content tends to perform better than shorter, less descriptive content.
- Website security. HTTPS is becoming more and more important for websites.
Note that the appearance of specific keywords and phrases didn't crack the top ten (though do make an appearance in the next few entries on the list).
Utilizing Other Ranking Factors
So what about all those other ranking factors? Should you abandon them entirely?
It's a good idea to keep these on the back burner, and for several reasons:
- Awareness. Even if you're not actively executing them, it pays to remain aware of the ranking factors that exist. That way, you can steer your ground-level tasks to accomplish them when possible.
- Troubleshooting. Sometimes, you'll encounter a problem in your SEO campaign, despite executing an impressive high-level strategy. In these moments, all those little ranking factors (including technical factors) can help you find the root cause, along with the solution.
- Incidental opportunities. There's always a way to make your current strategy better. Incorporating a secondary or tertiary ranking factor into a mainstream strategy is a good way to boost your results a little further.
Do you really need to memorize all 200+ Google ranking factors? Not unless you're trying to impress someone at a job interview or client meeting. Instead, it's better to remain marginally aware of all the ranking factors that exist, but focus on the few dozen that seem to be the most important to get your site ranked.
Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.