Google prefers to keep their criteria for SEO a top secret – and before marketers ever have a chance of figuring things out, they roll out last-minute updates, sometimes, without any heads up whatsoever.
Their massive algorithm just keeps on churning results and the race to figure out the ‘secret sauce’ for SEO success rages on. But if you want your website rankings to go from ‘barely noticeable’ to the ‘top of the list’, you have to stay in the loop.
It’s no secret that well optimized websites get far more traffic and exposure – and that always translates into more sales. Without SEO, your searchers won’t find your site at all and all your hard could come undone – unless you can piece together the clues that Google’s ever-evolving algorithm leaves behind.
In this guide, we’ll answer the big questions about the most essential ranking factors that will help you dominate the search results.
Here’s what this guide won’t cover:
Basic things like technical SEO, setting up an XML sitemap, optimizing site structure, SEO audit, and more – stuff that we’ve covered in our previous blogs. They’re the foundation of your website’s SEO and will ultimately pave the road for higher ranking, but they’re not the end-all and be-all. So without further ado, here’s what we know of the factors responsible for search engine ranking.
Note: If you would rather cut to the chase and get to the important info first, use the table of contents below.
The first factor on our list has to do with website accessibility. It should have the right kind of URL that bots can easily reach and crawl. Put simply, Google should have no problems visiting the URL and inspecting the contents to understand what the page is all about. To help Google’s crawlers out, you’ll need the following:
- A robots.txt file that can tell Google what it should and shouldn’t visit on your website
- A website with a clean, well optimized code
- A sitemap (we have already discussed in the previous blog)
If you have a WordPress website, you should face no issues setting up a sitemap via downloadable plugins like Yoast SEO. Alternatively, you can use an online sitemap generator to create a sitemap for you. This is free, for the most part.
Secondly, we have to consider the security of the website, especially if you are processing and storing sensitive information such as credit card details, SSN, home addresses, passwords, and more. While HTTPS is not a major factor when it comes to indexing a page, Google has made it pretty clear that it does play a role in ranking, albeit a smaller role.
You can use Let’s Encrypt to generate a free SSL certificate. It’s not the best form of HTTPS out there, but it’s better than nothing and should provide enough security for beginners.
Page speed is frequently cited as one of the most important SEO ranking factors. It has become even more important in recent years as people become more dependent on their smartphones for fast, easy access to content. Google wants to give users a fast, smooth experience when using the search engine. This also means that they will prioritize faster websites over smaller websites.
If your website isn’t fast enough and takes too long to load, it could be penalized. You can check your website’s speed (both desktop and mobile) by using Google’s official tool called PageSpeed Insights here. Make sure to test both desktop and mobile speeds. In typical scenarios, the desktop version of your website will load a lot faster than the mobile version. But the mobile version shouldn’t trail too far behind.
Here’s what PageSpeed Insights looks like in action:
Make sure to click on Desktop and Mobile to see how your website loads on different devices.
As a general rule of thumb, your website shouldn’t take longer than 3 seconds to load. Every extra second of delay results in a drop of 11% in terms of page views.
This means that even if you’re able to attract leads through search engine marketing and optimized Google Ads, they probably won’t stick around long enough for you to make your sales pitch. That means your ad budget goes down the drain. So make sure to choose a fast hosting provider.
Most SEO experts agree that long form content is the best possible way to rank high on Google. It’s not enough to just write content, you have to make sure you can cover the entire topic in a single post. This will have a direct or indirect impact on SEO.
This actually makes sense when you think about it. Readers can make better use of their time by accessing all the info on a single page instead of having to visit multiple sources before they can formulate their opinion.
It is content that has more than 2000 words. In fact, a study conducted by HubSpot found that articles with 2000 words got more social shares and backlinks (both of which play an important role in social media ranking).
Now here’s the thing with long form content: it doesn’t work for everyone and depends squarely on the niche that you’re targeting.
We have personally observed that in-depth long-form content does far better on Google these days than smaller blogs that are posted infrequently.
Long form content is not a magic bullet that will solve your SEO problems overnight though. Depending on the target keyword, it can be a long, drawn out process. But it is one that ultimately rewards your website.
As a general rule of thumb, you should be prepared to dedicate at least 100,000 words for a particular niche (targeting various long-tail keywords) and give the blog a time period of 6 months to rank.
If you do this right, you won’t even need social media shares and backlinks. Google’s algorithms will automatically perceive you as an authority in your niche.
Running out of ideas to write long-form content? The solution is rather simple. Reuse your old articles and give them a more modern spin in the context of the latest trends. For example, if you wrote an article in 2008 on SEO, it’s time you updated the latest trends that reflect the changes in 2020.
One of the best sources of ideas and inspiration for your content marketing strategy is to learn directly from your competitors. What types of posts are they working on? Carefully analyze the keywords that they’re ranking for (or want to rank for), and optimize your content marketing plan accordingly.
One trick that we’ve seen work every time is a higher word count per blog. If your competitor wrote 2000 words on “best mechanical keyboards”, you should up the ante by writing 3000 words. If your competitor wrote a blog on “20 smart devices every home owner must own”, you should take things up a notch by writing “30 smart devices every home owner must own”.
Do remember that you should not plagiarize their work because duplicate content will result in a penalty that could harm your SEO efforts.
Be careful not to write fluff because Google will detect this and quickly figure out that you’re trying to game the system. It can be tempting to write 4000 words of pure gibberish, but it does not work. Human readers don’t have tolerance to nonsense and will quickly go back to the search engine results page, resulting in a high bounce rate. Google will know that your long form article isn’t worth reading and boom – out goes your ranking.
If the search engine algorithms come to this conclusion, they could take drastic measures (such as blacklisting your website).
Google is now delivering answers to search queries via answer boxes. This, in our opinion, is one of the easiest ways of ranking your page higher. The answer box is also known as Google Snippets, and if you get featured, you’ll automatically earn customer trust.
Here are a few best practices to optimize your content for Google Snippets:
- Answer basic questions
- Use questions as headings
- Make sure that the answer is spot on and to the point (don’t go on a long and drawn out monologue)
- It should target the keyword
- Add lists, numbers, or tables (this is the most efficient way)
There may be a small disadvantage to getting the zero position however.
Since people now have the answers to their questions, they will no longer have any motivation to continue reading the rest of the content (therefore no need to click on your website). This means that if 10,000 people see your page in the answer box, only about 1000 will actually click to read the article.
But that shouldn’t be an issue to most websites that grab the ‘zero’ position (they weren’t getting 10k people to look at their page in the first place, so that 1000 is a huge help).
If Google gets you the zero position, it means they think your content is high quality and it is affirmation of your hard work. You will also get more brand recognition, higher traffic, more people linking back to you – what’s not to like? Either way, if you don’t get that position, someone else will.
An overwhelming number of online marketers ignore the potential of video marketing. In fact, data shows that video content will represent at least 80% of all traffic by year 2021. This is unprecedented.
This means that now is a good idea to include video in your content strategy. Videos get more views and are likely to be shared abundantly. This will give you tons of signals that will elevate your search ranking and wipe the floor with the competition!
More people now make use of mobile devices than desktops to access content because it’s easier and more convenient. If your website isn’t optimized for smartphones, your readers will take their business elsewhere.
Do keep in mind that the average online user has an attention span of less than 8 seconds, which is less than that of a goldfish. This leaves you with a very short window of time to work with where you have to make your sales pitch quickly, efficiently, and without becoming too obtrusive.
A website that is unoptimized for mobile-use will get in the way of your sales pitch. And it will drive users away. This is one of the reasons why Google made changes to their algorithm for this purpose.
You now have to contend with Google’s mobile-first index which has now been implemented. If your website isn’t mobile-ready, get ready to have your SEO efforts go down the drain.
Some of the most important factors revolve around user experience – it goes without saying that is must be top notch. Here are a few things to look at:
- The responsive website should automatically resize to fit the device that is attempting to connect to your website (whether it is a 12 inch smartphone or a 22 inch monitor connected to a desktop).
- Use a large font size to make readability easier on the smaller screen for audiences (if you do this right, users will spend a lot more time going through your content).
- The menus must be accessible to make the website easy to navigate and access.
- Make sure the ad experience (if any) doesn’t get in the way of your website. Most users no longer have the patience to sift through a barrage of endless ad popups. So make sure you tone it down a little (or by a lot).
- And if you want to make the experience even more optimized, you might want to use Google AMP (accelerated mobile pages).
Doing so will make your website load instantly (mostly in a fraction of a second). Besides, there are rumors that Google will rank websites built using AMP higher than others. This is relatively easy to do with an AMP plugin on WordPress.
The big disadvantage is that if you’re not on a WordPress website, you’ll need to create another version of your website that complies with AMP guidelines. As you can imagine, this is a very time-intensive process that could take you ages.
But whether you decide to optimize your website for AMP or not, you should make sure your website is fully optimized for mobile devices.
Here’s an interesting fact that may boggle your mind:
60% of the sites that are ranking in the top ten are at least 3 years older or more.
Ahrefs did a study on this and found that very few new websites are able to achieve top ranking. Time is not on their side!
So if you happen to own a domain that is old and a website that is optimized using the tips provided in this article, you’re already better than a million others.
It should be noted that the domain name may matter in select situations even though Google has been quick to penalize exact match domains (the ones where the URL is the target keyword). But for the most part, this has only been done to spammy websites.
If you follow the best practices for SEO and have an exact-match domain, you are going to have a major advantage over others. A study by Moz found that exact-match domains that have been deemed to have valuable, high-quality, and relevant content will receive a major ranking boost because of it.
That being said, if your website follows all the best SEO practices mentioned in this article, you don’t have to fish for exact match domains – it’s really not worth the try.
This is because over time, your website will develop ‘authority’. Think Neil Patel. You literally type Neil Patel into search engines and you’ll get hundreds of articles on SEO. This is because Neil Patel skillfully made his brand synonymous with SEO.
In other words, Neil Patel is to SEO what Apple is to smartphones. That is authority.
Neil Patel does not need an exact match domain such as ‘www.seo.com’.
Now building website authority is easier said than done. It requires a lot of meaningful content (and we mean a lot) along with even more off-page SEO signals such as social shares and inbound links. Together this will indicate to search engines that the content is worth putting on the front page of the internet.
Speaking of off-page SEO signals, backlinks are the strongest signal of quality content. If another human likes your article well enough to links back to it, then it must be good. For Google, this is all the verification they need to trust the authenticity of your content.
You can check a website’s domain authority using tools like SEMrush:
As a general rule, an authority score of over 20 is okay-ish. An authority score of 30 means you’re doing things right. A score of 40 means you’re really good. 50 means you’ve won over not only Google but also your user base.
So what is the recipe towards building a higher authority score? Being consistent and persistent with your content marketing strategy – you don’t need blackhat tools to create fake backlinks. That’s a disaster just waiting to happen, its SEO suicide – so don’t hop that train.
If you’re writing good content, people will share it among each other. And that is the best way to drive up your website’s authority score.
Links are literally the building blocks of the internet. This is why it comes as no surprise that they are an important ranking signal.
There are three kinds of links:
- Outbound links
- Inbound links
- Internal links
Most links use an anchor text that provides a rough description about the content that is being targeted.
Search engines use inbound links to figure out how relevant and authoritative your content is. If an authoritative website, such as Forbes, links back to a relevant link to your content, your website will be perceived in a better light than if a random website with low authority links back to it.
Your ultimate goal should be to get as many authoritative websites linking back to you as possible. This is typically done by reaching out to websites for guest posts – a mutually beneficial relationship. The website that links back to you gets free content in exchange for a backlink to your website. No harm done.
You can use a tool like SEMrush to analyze the complete inbound link (backlink) portfolio of your website. Click here to learn how to use SEMrush. It’s super easy and you can get a 7-day free trial to test the tool.
In order to prove that you’re creating high quality content for your target audience, you have to use outbound links that connect to authoritative, relevant websites in your niche. Does this mean you should randomly link back to every website with high authority? No!
It means that you’re doing your research and that there are other people out there who can agree and corroborate with you. The trick to using outbound links is that you should only pull information from reliable sources with a high enough domain authority. This will automatically make you appear more trustworthy to your readers.
Internal links simplify navigation for both Google and human visitors. Furthermore, they also provide context into what your page is about. If you have a page with high authority, it is good practice to link to it so that users can find the page. This could boost the search engine ranking of pages.
In general, it is a good practice to create a healthy number of internal links so that your content can support one another.
Pro tip: All the three types of links should be tied to an anchor text. This provides useful information to both search engines and the user about where the link is headed.
This last tip is important if your business is ranking for local search. The presence or absence of business information is crucial for local search engine ranking. Without going into too many details, you should try to get your business featured on as many business listings as possible, including Google My Business, Trust Pilot, Facebook, Better Business Bureau, and more.
At the end of the day, your goal shouldn’t be to game the system. Your goal should be to please your audience by creating the best possible content you can. It also helps to optimize content in a way that Google understands. But it is of utmost importance to begin your search with your users in mind – because that is what Google (and other search engines) care about.
If you’ve got more ideas or want to provide us with more SEO tips, feel free to let us know in the comments below.