Which one is the lie? If you’ve been doing SEO for any length of time, you know the lie is No. 3.
You can’t trust what Google says is or is not a ranking factor. But, like every other SEO has been doing for about two decades, you can listen to what they say about ranking factors and their algorithm to try to guess what the Google ranking factors are.
Or, if you’re short on time, you can just read this article. I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know about Google’s ranking factors. Let’s dive in.
A ranking factor is anything about your website or its backlinks that can influence where Google ranks you in search results and for which keywords you rank.
Google uses an insanely complicated — and completely proprietary — algorithm to display the most relevant results for every query users search. Nobody knows exactly how that algorithm works.
If someone tells you they know how it works, run. Run fast. They’re lying.
Even Google employees don’t completely understand every part of the algorithm. It’s just too big for any one person to know completely.
But people who don’t work for Google, in particular, don’t know how it works.
A huge part of being a professional SEO is using deductive reasoning to guess how the algorithm works. And that means guessing at what is or is not a ranking factor.
However, Google will sometimes weigh in on the various ranking factors.
From time to time, the company will release a blog post that confirms a particular website feature is a ranking factor.
Or sometimes John Mueller or another Googler will say in a webinar or public meeting that something isn’t a ranking factor.
Rule of thumb: You can trust what Google says IS a ranking factor. You should be more skeptical of what Google says IS NOT a ranking factor.
Various self-styled SEO experts and gurus have tried to sell us all on some mega list of Google ranking factors. And that list usually names somewhere around 200 ranking factors.
That’s a myth. A big one. I’m 100 percent sure of it.
Because, like I already said, no one knows all the ranking factors. And the likelihood that an enormous search algorithm — one that categorizes and ranks the ENTIRE internet — uses precisely 200 ranking factors is unbelievably low.
With that said, there ARE around 200 POTENTIAL ranking factors that SEOs have debated about for years. That’s where those lists come from.
But really, how helpful is that? Not all that helpful. Which is why I’m going to walk you through the Google-confirmed ranking factors first.
Then I’ll show you some of the unconfirmed but suspected ranking factors.
At some point, Google has revealed beyond doubt that the following factors do, indeed, influence their rankings.
From day one, backlinks have been a ranking factor. Google’s very first patent for its PageRank algorithm relied almost entirely on backlinks to rank various pages the search engine adds to its index.
Of course, Google has come a long way since those early days. But anyone who says PageRank is dead hasn’t been paying attention.
Backlinks just work. I’ve seen it in action for years.
And Google doesn’t deny that backlinks are a major ranking factor. In fact, a lot of their efforts lately have been all about REDUCING the impact backlinks can have on rankings because they are so powerful and so many people have figured that out.
This one is really two main ranking factors that MIGHT include a ton of sub-factors.
The first is content quality. Google wants to serve the highest-quality content possible. So it definitely, absolutely, without a doubt assesses the quality of the content that it serves in search results.
How, exactly, it assesses content quality is where the ranking factors come into play. Does Google read content that has higher dwell time as higher-quality? Maybe. No one outside of Google knows for sure.
Then you have the issue of relevance. The article you’re reading right now is high-quality (if I do say so myself). But if this is what Google served you when you searched “best brisket recipes,” you’d be pretty upset.
That’s because this article is not relevant to that search query. It’s high-quality, sure, but it’s irrelevant.
So Google considers relevance as a ranking factor. But here again, the real ranking factors involved are all about HOW Google determines whether something is relevant.
The obvious answer is keywords — does the content contain similar keywords to what you typed into Google? But it definitely goes deeper than that.
People who don’t read this article in full are probably going to attack me for this. But if they just kept reading, they would see what I’m trying to say here.
Domain authority (DA) and page authority (PA) are metrics that Moz, an SEO tool company, made up. Google doesn’t care about them.
DA and PA are meant to mimic the concept of PageRank. They’re as close as we can come to PageRank, now that the PageRank toolbar is gone.
PageRank is most certainly a ranking factor. At one time, it was THE ranking factor. So any measure that can even come close to PageRank is telling you something about the site’s or page’s ability to rank.
In other words, domain authority is not a ranking factor. But it closely mimics a ranking factor. And that’s worth pursuing.
Not to mention: DA and PA are primarily influenced by backlinks, a known ranking factor.
This Google ranking factor goes all the way back to the Google founders’ early days at Stanford, where they published a paper that says the following:
“Google makes use of both link structure and anchor text” in determining search rankings.
Anchor text is the text that accompanies a link — backlinks and internal links. Google uses it to understand what the page on the other side of the link is about. So your anchor text needs to be descriptive and keyword-rich.
That’s about as strong of a ranking factor confirmation as you could hope for.
This is one of those rare ranking factors that Google has DIRECTLY confirmed. They’ve been pushing site and page speed for ages, and they’ve really doubled down in recent years.
You can probably guess how it works:
If your site is too slow, that can hurt your rankings. If your site is fast, that can help your rankings.
Pretty simple, but it’s important to remember that this is one of those ranking factors that can be hard to manipulate.
Fortunately, I’ve put all the basics together for you in this site speed guide.
Core Web Vitals are a subset of the Web Vitals, which largely measure page and site speed but also delve into user experience.
And they’re another example of a ranking factor Google has directly confirmed.
In fact, Google announced Core Web Vitals as a ranking factor in mid-2020 and gave website owners several months to improve them before officially updating the algorithm to reflect them.
In case you need a refresher, here are the Core Web Vitals:
It’s important to note that Google has established very specific thresholds for what it considers a passing score for each of the Core Web Vitals metrics. This guide can help you understand what you need to aim for.
Title tags are the titles you set in your content management system (CMS) that appear in search results. Like this:
Google has, on several occasions, said title tags affect rankings.
How, exactly, they affect rankings remains something of a mystery. But I can tell you from personal experience that it’s all about putting your target keyword in the title tag.
So, if you want your page to rank for “family lawyer in Austin,” put that in the page’s title tag.
Way back in 2015, Google announced that mobile-friendliness was a ranking factor. This one hasn’t been in question for a long time. And since then, Google has switched to a mobile-only index.
But what, exactly, does mobile-friendliness mean? A few things:
This is such a powerful ranking factor that Google even released a free mobile-friendliness test to help webmasters get into compliance.
Trust me: Making your site mobile-friendly is only going to help your rankings.
If you’re more than a few years old, you remember when most web addresses started with HTTP. Now, most of them start with HTTPS.
That “s” stands for secure. I won’t bore you with the details. But this references the security and encryption of your site’s server.
Google has said that having HTTPS on your site is a minor ranking factor. It may be a lightweight factor, but it’s also an easy win.
If you’re technically minded, you can install an SSL certificate yourself to make your site into an HTTPS site. And if you’re not technically minded, just ask your hosting provider.
Most of them will happily do it for you.
If you’re a local business, you need to know about this Google ranking factor: proximity to the searcher.
Google has confirmed it, and it makes sense. If you run a plumbing business in Tucson and someone in Miami searches for a plumber, they’re not looking for you. And you can’t help them.
So, Google takes that into account. But it’s important that you don’t just let Google guess at where you are and the areas you serve.
Instead, claim and optimize your Google Business Profile. And optimize your service pages for your locations served. Google can and often does get it wrong, so don’t leave it to chance.
On its own, “search intent” isn’t really a single thing. But put simply, it’s what the Google user is looking for when they type something into Google.
When you type in “personal injury lawyer Cleveland,” your intent is to find a personal injury lawyer in Cleveland.
When you type in “Mike Tyson birthday,” you want to find out when you should send a card to The Baddest Man on the Planet.
You get the idea.
Google has never come out and named search intent as a ranking factor. But it’s really what Google is all about: serving users exactly what they’re searching for.
So, it’s a ranking factor. No question there.
The idea here is that you need to optimize your content to match the search intent of the keywords you’re targeting.
If you want to rank for “personal injury lawyer Cleveland,” don’t publish a page discussing how to become a personal injury lawyer in Cleveland. Publish one that showcases your services as a Cleveland personal injury lawyer.
Optimize for search intent, and you’ll see results. It may be one of the most important Google ranking factors there is.
I promise I’m not going to make you sit through a list of 200 unconfirmed Google ranking factors.
We’ve already covered the confirmed ones, and those are the big ones. But the factors I list below are some of the most often discussed or most likely relevant SUSPECTED ranking factors:
What are you supposed to do with all of this information? I’ll help you out:
Stick to the basic, confirmed ranking factors first and foremost. Worry about backlinks, content quality, site speed, search intent and so on before anything else.
Then, you can get more granular. You can start thinking about the unconfirmed ranking factors.
It just makes sense to do it that way. Focus on what you KNOW will move the needle. Then focus on what you THINK will move the needle.
On the unconfirmed side of the Google ranking factors, sometimes you’ll be right. Other times, you’ll still improve your website.
For example, meta descriptions aren’t a direct, confirmed ranking factor. But spending a little extra time sharpening your meta descriptions isn’t going to hurt anything.
In fact, it’s only going to help your click-through rate (CTR), and that could, indirectly, influence your rankings, anyway.
But if you’re short on time, stick with the basics. You can’t go wrong there.