What are the Google ranking factors that will get my site onto the first page of Google? What does Google want now and will that change in the future?
These are the big questions for webmasters and businesses everywhere. Even the most SEO-conscious may find themselves floundering as Google adjusts and refines its algorithms to return the best possible results to search engines searches.
No-one knows with 100% certainty what the Google ranking factors are that will secure a website number one ranking for any given search term. As well as understanding that Google considers over 200 ranking signals, search results are influenced by factors such as your location and your search history.
And let’s not forget that different Google ranking factors affect different types of websites. A website selling clothes, for example, might be ranked based on factors such as being able to make secure payments, featuring unique product descriptions, the range and number of products, and product reviews by customers, as well as social signals. A medical information website, on the other hand, may be ranked around whether the content is accurate, trustworthy, supported by reliable sources, and with high-quality backlinks.
Google also looks at factors such as layout, code compliance, site architecture, internal links, high quality copy, different types of media/content on the site, unique meta data, structured data, and pages such as an About page, Contact Us page, Policy page, and Terms and Conditions page that prove yours is a real business.
Then, just when you think you’ve got Google sussed, you have a sense that the ground has shifted – or is about to shift – under your feet. Search engine optimisation advances at such a rate that it can feel like a race to keep up.
Why does Google keep changing and refining its algorithms?
Ultimately, Google is a business. Its customers are those of us who use the search engine and its main function is to answer our questions. As for any business, quality matters. Google is constantly developing savvier, more sophisticated ways to understand how people search and return the most relevant, high-quality results possible, so that its customers can find what they need in a matter of seconds.
With good search engine optimisation, we can help Google to locate, index and return our website to the people who will get the most value from its content. Although we must think about what works today and what will drive enquiries about our business, we must also try to stay a step ahead by understanding where Google will focus more of its attention in the future.
While many businesses still attempt to game Google with keywords and backlinks, a far more sensible, ethical and effective approach is to keep Google’s main function in mind. If Google wants to return high quality search results that add value for the searcher, your main task is to create a website that is built around the user and meeting their needs with well researched design and content.
But let’s get specific – what are the top Google ranking factors now and what will be the top 10 ranking factors of the future?
The user experience
The red hot SEO phrase of the moment is ‘user experience’. It makes sense that this is where Google is focusing its attention. After all, the search engine needs to know that customers are having a good experience on the websites it’s sending them to. If they’re not, then it reflects poorly on the SERPs and on Google.
Generally speaking, if you have a website that offers a fantastic user experience, high-quality unique content, easy navigation, and answers searchers’ questions with well-researched information, then the chances are high that Google will reward your efforts with better rankings. Although the user experience is only one of many Google ranking factors to consider, if you’re looking for a starting point to review your SEO, user experience is it.
What’s harder to define is how Google determines how good the user experience is on any given website.
There are several signals that are important. Initially, Google will look at the click through rate (CTR) you get through to your website from SERPs, i.e. the percentage of people who see one of your pages in search results and click on the link to find out more. By creating a unique and inviting title tag and meta description, you can help to create a call to action that entices visitors to your site.
Of course, just because visitors click through to your website doesn’t mean they will stay. This is why Google will then look at your bounce rate, i.e. the percentage of people who arrive on your site and click straight away from it without reading deeper into the content, and the time spent on the site.
If you have a low bounce rate because people are looking at two or more pages per visit and a longer visit time because visitors are sticking around to explore your content in more detail, these are two really strong signals to Google that you’re providing a good user experience and providing content that’s relevant to your target customers.
Actions to take:
- Check the bounce rate and average time on site in Google Analytics
Google Analytics will show you the bounce rate for your website and average time spent on the site, as well as where people are most commonly entering and leaving, and where they’re spending their time. These are all statistics you should keep a close eye on.
If people are arriving on a page and then immediately bouncing away, now is a good time to explore why.
- Can people see what you offer at a glance?
- Are you talking directly the customer and focusing on them rather than you?
- Is the website visually appealing?
- Are the images unique and do they reflect your offering accurately?
- Is your website easy to navigate?
- Is there a strong call to action that lets people know what they need to do next?
- Is it easy to contact you?
- Does the site load up quickly?
- Do you answer common customer questions?
- Can people read deeper into a topic if they want to?
The answers to these questions can all help you to improve the user experience for visitors on your website.
- Make sure each page of your website has a unique title tag, meta description and focus keyword
I’ve talked in-depth on this blog in the past about the importance of creating a mobile friendly website. In August 2015, Moz announced the results of its biannual Search Engine Ranking Correlation Study and Expert Survey – Google Ranking Factors: The Future of Search. Within that study, 88% of the SEO experts surveyed predicted an increase in the impact of mobile-friendliness on rankings. In fact, it was predicted to be the most important factor for the next two years.
Mobile searches have been on the upturn for some time and, in December 2014, finally outstripped desktop searches on Google. In April 2015, Google started giving mobile-friendly websites a ‘mobile-friendly’ label in mobile SERPs, so that customers would know that they were clicking through to a website that gives a good mobile user experience.
The ever-increasing use of mobile phones and devices means that people are moving away from keyboard/typed searches in favour of voice searches. And when we use voice searches, we tend to ask questions rather than just stating keywords.
Actions to take:
- Look at your website from a mobile user’s perspective.
- Is it easy to navigate?
- Is the website responsive or do you have a dedicated mobile site that offers the same experience as your desktop site?
- Does your website load up quickly?
- If people ask questions to find your website, are those questions reflected in the content and will searchers quickly find the answer they’re looking for?
- Does your website have a mobile-friendly label in mobile searches?
- Go to Google’s mobile friendly test to see how mobile friendly your website is.
Authority and perceived value
One of the challenges Google faces is deciding which websites contain accurate, well research content and which websites are claiming incorrect information as ‘fact’. As mentioned in the example in the introduction of this article, being able to trust that information is correct is especially important for medical or reference websites, but even with opinion or commercial websites, Google wants to send its customers to relevant, reputable sites.
In a recent article – Seven ways you can influence your website’s Domain Authority – we looked at different factors that can help you build trust in your website and grow your reputation and authority.
If, for example, lots of websites link back to yours as a place to find more information about a specific topic, this will boost your site’s authority. If you write a blog article that is widely shared on social media, this will act as a flag to Google that people want others to see your content too.
Google will now consider mentions and citations as well as direct links back to your website as a vote of confidence about your site’s authority.
Actions to take:
To build the authority and perceived value of your website, you can take steps such as:
- Regularly adding a high quality, well-researched blog to your website, supporting any facts with the source material
- Building your social media presence
- Disavowing bad links
- Developing the internal links on your website so that it’s easy for visitors to find related articles
Quantity and quality of instant answers provided in SERPs
As mentioned above, the increase in mobile searches and the use of voice search – plus the fact that we’re all becoming increasingly time poor – means that people often scan SERPs for an instant answer to their questions in the meta descriptions listed.
An extension of this is the Google Answers Box, which is a relatively new Google feature that you may already be familiar with. Most commonly, a Google Answers Box appears when a searcher types in a question beginning with ‘What’, ‘Why’ or ‘How’ – see the example below for the question ‘What is SEO?’
If your website answers a commonly asked question and you have used a structured data markup, such as Schema.org (see point 5 below), you may be able to secure a feature in a Google Answer Box with a prominent listing at the top of page one of Google with a link back to your website.
Actions to take:
- Add a frequently asked questions page or even add service- or product-specific FAQs to the relevant pages. Think about the questions your customers most commonly ask.
Google defines structured data markup as ‘a standard way to annotate your content so machines understand it. When your web pages include structured data markup, Google (and other search engines) can use that data to index your content better, present it more prominently in search results, and surface it in new experiences like voice answers, maps and ‘Google Now’.
Why do we need to use structured data markup?
When a person visits your website, they can usually tell at a glance what it is about from the information, images, etc. on the page. However, search engines may need more help deciphering the meaning of your content. An oft-cited example is a website about ‘Jaguars’ – human visitors can see at a glance that we’re talking about the cars, not the big cats, but a search engine would need more help to make that distinction.
Structured data markup is a way of showing Google what your content is about. If you have product reviews, event information, recipes, products, book reviews or other features that you would like Google to highlight in SERPs, structured data markup will help you achieve more visibility.
Schema.org is a collaboration between Google, Bing and Yahoo to help webmasters – even those who are non-techy or have limited coding knowledge – add structured data markup to a website.
Actions to take:
- Read about structured data markup on Google
- Visit schema.org to find out more about how structured data markup could help your website
- If you have a WordPress website, add a structured data markup plugin like the Schema Creator by Raven
- We’ve created a Beginner’s Guide to Schema and included a cheat sheet – take a look at Schema made easy
Association with mobile apps and app popularity
In Moz’s Google Ranking Factors: The Future of Search study, 64% of the experts surveyed said that we should expect that businesses with a mobile app may well see an increase in their rankings, especially if the app is achieving lots of downloads. It makes sense that, with the growing use of mobile phones for searches, companies that provide an added user experience or present important information in a mobile app will have their efforts recognised by Google.
Action to take:
- Consider whether an app could be created that would add to the user experience, and complement your business and website
There’s a strong case for arguing that the single most important technical factor for SEO purposes is site speed. In the Google Ranking Factors: The Future of Search study, 58% of the experts surveyed said they thought site speed as a ranking factor is set to increase.
Having a fast running website is essential because it dictates how users interact with it. If someone visits your website and it is slow to load, it will only take a matter of seconds for the visitor to decide to click back to Google and look for a faster-running website. The only exception might be if yours is a particularly niche site that contains information that is not easily found elsewhere.
According to stats by SEO expert, Tyler Collins, the top ten ranking sites for various search terms he looked at had an average load time of 0.99 seconds.
Actions to take:
- Check out your website’s load speed with the Google PageSpeed Insights tool.
- Follow the subsequent recommendations from Google to improve your site speed.
Back in March 2015, we looked in detail at How your website security and HTTPS could affect your SEO. Although HTTPS, compared to the many other Google ranking factors, is a minor ranking signal at the moment, the consensus is that its impact is set to increase over the coming years.
Although information sites may not store and use our individual data, the HTTPS Everywhere campaign explores the fact that, with each website we visit, we can help the orchestrators of malicious attacks build up a picture of who we are, our likes and dislikes, our hobbies, our jobs, our holidays and much more.
If, as proposed, Google does start warning people that they’re about to go on to a non-secure/non-HTTPS website, we are likely to see a big swing towards HTTPS websites across the board, rather than for just e-commerce sites or sites that collect consumer data.
Action to take:
- Read the article – How your website security and HTTPS could affect your SEO – and decide whether now is the right time to change your website to HTTPS. You will find links to helpful walkthroughs within the article above.
Understand the importance of Universal Search
Universal search is an important concept to wrap your head around. When someone carries out a search in Google, the search engine doesn’t have enough information to know exactly what content the searcher is looking for. Do they want an article, a video, pictures, a white paper, recent news, a PDF download or something else altogether?
To cover its bases, Google tries to return a good mix of results across different types of media. This is why you can narrow down the SERPs pages by categories such as Web, News, Images, Maps, Videos, and so on (see the picture above).
The concept of the universal search is that every query deserves diversity. If you are able to create a mix of media that your customers will love, this can positively impact your rankings. Google would love a page that contains links to videos, podcasts or audio files, images, related images, a white paper or free download, recent news, a PDF, and links in the content, all around a particular topic.
Actions to take:
- Add a mix of media to your website. If you have popular articles about a specific topic that’s of interest to your customers, can you enrich this with videos or a podcast, or add a free download to support the topic?
- Make sure that any media added to your website is optimised properly with the focus keyword for the page on which it will appear, tags, alt text, etc.
There is ongoing debate about the importance of social signals as one of the many Google ranking factors. How can Google count and measure signals from a platform as fast-moving as Facebook or Twitter, for example? Google maintains it does not directly use social signals as a ranking factor. However, social media and social signals should not be overlooked.
In reality, if you can build your profile on one or more of the main social media platforms by encouraging people to comment on and share your content, it is probable that you will boost the amount of traffic coming through to your website via social media. Once people are on your website, having come there to read a blog article or access a free download, the chances are that they will stick around for a while to do what they came to do. This can help boost the average time spent on the site, lower the bounce rate, and show Google that you have a strong stream of traffic coming in via social media. In turn, this is a signal that your website features content that people want to explore and digest.
If you also add a mechanism for sharing content from your website on to social media, this is another signal that people want to share what you have to say with their network. Google potentially sees this as a vote of confidence about your knowledge and authority.
So, while Google won’t rank your website higher in SERPs because you’ve got 100 more Facebook likers than a local competitor, if you’re getting more traction for your content, this is likely to boost your visibility in SERPs.
Actions to take:
- Regularly share your content on social media platforms
- Add social media sharing options on your website, so people can post content they find to their social networks
- Remember that social media can help you build brand awareness and drive organic traffic to your website
A word about traditional ranking signals in the present time and beyond
In addition to the ten Google ranking factors above, it’s fair to say that some traditional ranking signals will continue to be important as SEO moves forward. While most SEO experts agree that paid links and anchor text are largely set to decrease in value, the ranking signals around links from high authority websites and URL structures look set to stay the same. If you’d like more help with building the high-quality links that Google loves we created The Ultimate Guide to Backlinks and How to Get Them which was recently published on the Huffington Post.
We would also recommend that you review whether you’re using your keywords in the right places. The Google Ranking Factors: The Future of Search study found that placing your focus keyword for a page in the title tag has the highest level of influence.
So, these are our predictions for the top 10 Google ranking factors now and in the future. Do you agree or disagree with our list? Is there anything you would like to know more about in a future blog? We’d love to hear your thoughts – please add a comment below.
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Hazel Jarrett, director of SEO at SEO+, is well-known in the SEO space, has won many awards during her 20-year career and has been published on various well-known sites. Through her services and training programs, her SEO strategies have generated 10s of millions of sales for her clients, earning her a big reputation for delivering the results that matter.
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