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Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Three Most Important Google Ranking Factors

To design your approach to content and your SEO strategy for ranking, start by thoroughly knowing Google’s goals and workings.

If only Google’s ranking algorithm was as straightforward as a list of ranking factors.

If only Google had a single algorithm, SEO would be as straightforward.

If only all locations and niches were ranked equally.

The days when keyword stuffing and a high number of links were blatantly direct ranking factors are long gone in today’s sophisticated search engines. Oh, and the only algorithm to be concerned about.

SEO has evolved over the past 25 years into a more sophisticated and subtle field of study.

By keyword and vertical, ranking variables vary. Local search is handled differently from how YMYL rankings are handled for e-commerce transactional queries.

With SEO, there is only one constant: the more you learn, the more you realize how little you still know.

There isn’t a formal plan or checklist for Google ranking variables that you can use. However, we are aware that Google values certain variables or signals when determining how to rank web pages.

The Myth of the “Google 200 Ranking Factors”

We need to discuss the fictitious list of 200 ranking variables that Google is said to use before we identify the relevant factors and signals for ranking.

If you Google “ranking factor,” you will find a ton of titles from some well-known sites that reference “200 ranking factors” on the search engine results pages (SERP).

Most likely, Google created the number 200 as part of a PR campaign to present its algorithm as intricate and multifaceted. Then it became stuck. The only known reference to “200” is from a speech Matt Cutts gave in 2009 at PubCon.

As we mentioned above, over the past 25 years, Google and ranking have developed enormously to the point that there are now hundreds, even thousands, of criteria and machine learning overlays.

What Yandex Disclosed Regarding Ranking Elements
According to a leak of Yandex ranking factors in January 2023, Yandex uses, give or take, 690 ranking criteria.

This was a glimpse at how a significant search engine used criteria and signals at the time to determine rankings.

Yandex and Google both use the same data points to index and rank websites, according to Dan Taylor, an authority on Russian search engines: “They both have the same data points to work with; on-page content, links, meta-data, mobile-friendliness, and user interactions such as SERP clicks and user behavior.”

He continued, “Both search engines also make use of AI for parts of their ranking systems (such as Vega), but have differences in how they weight certain signals, like backlinks and users clicking on results in the SERPs, and some of these are more easily manipulated than others in comparison to Google.”

Theoretically, according to Taylor, pages can be optimized in the same way for both search engines without sacrificing performance. That would imply that the Yandex breach could provide information about Google ranking.

Signals, Systems, And Factors
SEO experts stress over the meaning whenever Google material is revised or when Gary Illyes, John Mueller, or Danny Sullivan comment.

This is a problem for Google and the SEO industry as a whole since SEO experts frequently focus too much on the incorrect thing and lose sight of what is most important. Ranking variables appear to be subject to greater examination than anything else.

The semantic distinctions between factors, systems, and signals is becoming a fixation for SEO specialists.

Google was compelled to make the following announcement on X (Twitter) when documentation was altered to remove page experience from the Systems page: “Rating’systems’ (which often rely on’signals’) are different from’signal’ ranking systems. On that page, we included a few elements that truly signaled

but were described as “systems” in terms of the page experience. They weren’t supposed to be on the systems page. Taking them off didn’t imply we stopped taking page experience factors into account. It simply meant that these were signals used by other systems rather than ranking “systems.”

In fact, page experience is still taken into account when ranking pages (see below).

Regarding ranking criteria, Google provides two official pages that may be found by delving into the semantics:

An explanation of the Google Search rankings:

“Google uses automated ranking systems that look at many signals and factors about hundreds of billions of web pages and other content in our Search index to present the most relevant, useful results, all in a fraction of a second.”

How Search Works: “Search engines look at numerous factors and signals, including the words of your query, relevancy and usability of pages, expertise of sources, and your location and settings, to provide you the most beneficial information. Depending on the specifics of your inquiry, different weights are assigned to each aspect.

During an Ask Me Anything session at PubCon (September 2023) Gary Illyes discussed the distinctions between factors, signals, and systems and stated, “The main difference is just language.”

The simplest definition of system and signal is that machine learning layers are applied to Google’s ranking systems in order to improve search results. Ranking indicators have an impact on the systems and ranking.

Ammon Johns, an SEO specialist, explained this in a direct message, writing: “Not all things that are categorised as signals will be utilised in any one system. Numerous factors that Google considers signals may not apply to a certain query or may be weighted differently than they would be for another query. For instance, not even PageRank, the most well-known of all Google signals, is used to local search.

On Google’s “How Search Works” page, it is mentioned that there are “key factors that help determine which results are returned for your query.”

The key elements on this page are summed up as follows:

  • Meaning.
  • Relevance.
  • Quality.
  • Usability.
  • Context.

Semantic diversion is not important if you can comprehend the primary strategy that Google employs. Common sense is a significantly more effective and long-term strategy when pursuing the final goal for the end user.

In essence, Google is motivated by a desire to deliver the greatest search results possible in order to have a market-leading product. It’s a company. When you comprehend this, you comprehend the underlying idea behind SEO.

Here are the essential ranking elements that should all be taken into account for SERP visibility after all of that.

The 3 Ranking Factors That Every SEO Expert Should Concentrate On

1. High-Quality Content Understanding the user’s query comes first in the ranking process.

The query is compared to the information on a page in the second stage.

In addition to ranking, content is important for user experience and conversion.

According to Google’s Gary Illyes, ranking is essentially impossible without content. You won’t rank for it if there are no words on the website. The top two or three ranking variables for each website will vary.

Pages of content are actually the building blocks of the internet.

How about high-quality material, though? It can be summed up as content that adheres to E-E-A-T signals and exhibits:

  • Experience.
  • Expertise.
  • Authoritativeness.
  • Trustworthiness.

Below is more information on E-E-A-T.

The words and keywords on the page are an important component of content. There are hypotheses going around that claim keywords are no longer relevant and necessary for ranking. But fundamentally, keywords are still important.

The simplest indication that material is relevant is when it uses the same keywords as your search query, according to Google. In the case of web pages, the information might be more pertinent if such keywords are present on the page or if they appear in the headings or text body.

For the sake of avoidance of doubt and in order to be ranked, a page must explicitly state what it is about.

Former Google employee Pedro Dias clarified in an open discussion that basic ranking elements like keywords are still the foundation upon which we develop. The proper application and execution of these basics are still crucial.

Then Pedro said, “Google has introduced machine learning that is applied on top of the foundations so that they can provide results that take into account far more nuanced intents for queries.”

Machine learning techniques have been developed as part of the shift toward processing natural language searches since Google strives to constantly present the best results. Google is able to distinguish between a dishonest person using the word “cheat” and a method of gaming a system (such as a cheat code). Pedro cited a Gary Illyes example from earlier.

Without discussing entities, which Google uses to better grasp themes, it would be impossible to discuss content and keywords. This article goes into great detail about why it’s crucial to comprehend entities in SEO.

According to Ammon Johns, “Entities and semantic search have received increased attention from search engines. Google will most likely display results with the more popular term “Munich” in the headlines and snippets if you search for “History of Munchen” and it will not simply recognize the misspelling of MÜNCHEN.

The following are the systems that have the biggest influence on how content is ranked:

Educative Content System

Google’s helpful content system, which was introduced in 2022, is dedicated to giving users the greatest material possible.

Google wants content to show real-world experience, which goes back to giving readers the best reading experience possible: “more content by people, for people.”

The system is continually being upgraded, and as of 2023, we have gone through a number of update rounds.

According to Google, “The helpful content system aims to better reward content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience, while content that doesn’t meet a visitor’s expectations won’t perform as well.”

The following are a few recommendations for useful content, all of which are highlighted in E-E-A-T:

Keep focused on your core subject.
Display first-hand knowledge.
Don’t mix several topics on one website.

RankBrain

One of Google’s machine learning systems, RankBrain, which was introduced in 2015, can link words to concepts and aids the search engine giant in deciphering the purpose of a search query.

This is a component of the rank refining process, in which Google tries to provide the most pertinent results for a query. Additionally, it enables Google to respond to questions for which there is no prior history of searches.

Prior to RankBrain, Google didn’t comprehend synonyms and would only provide literal meanings for words. According to Google, “…before we had sophisticated AI, our computers only searched for similar terms. For instance, if you were looking for a slice nearby, you would probably have to rerun your search using the right spelling of “pziza” unless there existed a page with that specific error…Our computers can now more intuitively detect when a word doesn’t seem right and offer a potential correction thanks to enhanced machine learning.

BERT

BERT, a big improvement for Google that was said to have an effect on 10% of search queries at the time, made waves in the SEO sector in 2018.

The system is aware that word combinations, particularly stop words, might have various meanings. Because they add to a query’s meaning, even so-called stop words become relevant in search.

The following statement is from Google: “BERT was a huge step change in natural language understanding, helping us understand how combinations of words express different meanings and intents.”

MUM, or the Multitask Unified Model

MUM, a system that goes one step further by being multimodal and able to collect information from text, graphics, and possibly video, was announced at Google IO in 2021.

As Google stated: “While we’re still in the early days of tapping into MUM’s potential, we’ve already used it to improve searches for COVID-19 vaccine information,” MUM is not employed as a ranking method across all verticals.

It appears that Google Lens will be the primary application for searches that may include both text and images.

Google claims that it will start to transition from enhanced language comprehension to a more sophisticated understanding of facts about the world when additional MUM-powered Search experiences are introduced.

Content Reliability

The introduction of caffeine in 2010 marked a departure from the previous practice of periodically updating the entire index. The stated objective of Caffein according to Google was to “analyze the web in small portions and update our search index on a continuous basis, globally.”

In 2011, as the internet was expanding quickly, Google added “Freshness” to its platform by saying: “Today we’re making a significant improvement to our ranking algorithm that impacts roughly 35 percent of searches and better determines when to give you more up-to-date relevant results for these varying degrees of freshness.”

Not all searches take into account the recentness of the content. For some niches and inquiries, it is more crucial and query-dependent. Consider stock prices, the weather, or the latest news results.

If content isn’t updated, it will often degrade in search results over time. Users’ changing expectations are in line with the ongoing evolution of ideas, concepts, products, and information.

Individualization and Place

Although it has nothing to do with content quality, it’s important to note that there is a layer of personalization on top of all the other rank refining that takes user search history and geography into account.

For instance, searches like “best coffee shop” are regarded as location-dependent and will display results on a map based on your location. To find nearby suppliers, some product inquiries are provided by location.

On different devices, the same query can provide different results, and understanding the user’s motivation at a certain stage of the user journey influences which results should be displayed in the SERPs.

Using “London Zoo” as an example, the desktop SERPs emphasize research with video and image carousels, whereas the smartphone SERPs emphasize tickets, directions, and location.

If you’re looking on your phone, you might desire more local information because you’re on the go, according to John Mueller. On the other hand, if you’re looking on a desktop, you might want to see more photos or videos in the search results.

Understanding how customization and geography can affect ranking is crucial when conducting keyword research and developing content. Make sure to factor this into your plan.

E-E-A-T Is Important, But It Is Not A Ranking Factor

Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness, or E-E-A-T, is a crucial SEO principle that all content writers must consider. This is again not a straight ranking mechanism.

Previously a highly guarded document at Google, the Search Quality Raters Guidelines were eventually posted online. The document is now publically published by Google as an illustration of the criteria its Quality Raters use to manually examine websites.

Although it is more of a guideline than a ranking criteria, E-E-A-T is included in the Google Quality Search Raters Guidelines.

E-E-A-T is made up of a number of refining signals that highlight all of Google’s efforts to improve user experience and combat misinformation.

The idea is crucial for all niches, but it’s crucial in particular for anyone in YMYL niches like financial or health, where the outcomes might have a substantial impact on the user’s life.

As was already established, one of the most important ranking factors is the quality of the material, and the E-E-A-T guidelines are the best manual for showing you how to do that. Building a solid reputation as a subject-matter authority helps Google achieve its goal and offers a positive user experience.

2. Page Experience
The removal of page experience from Google’s ranking systems page caused controversy in the community, which prompted the Search Liaison team to state: “…As our guidance on page experience says in the first sentence: “Google’s core ranking systems look to reward content that provides a good page experience.”

In 2021, the Page Experience launched. Core Web Vitals (CWVs) had previously been emphasized as a significant ranking criteria.

Then, CWVs joined a larger entity in the collective group of “signals” that make up page experience. In essence, they are still a ranking factor, but they are now a component of the “Page Experience” factor group.

Understanding why this matters requires an understanding of Google’s overall goals.

Google strives to provide a positive user experience. Serving pages that take too long to load, perform poorly on specific devices, or are blocked by huge advertising does not favorably reflect on the company’s product.

According to Google, “Google’s core ranking systems look to reward content that provides a good page experience.”

Four primary indications are the focus of Page Experience:

  • HTTPS.
  • Page Speed.
  • Mobile Friendliness.
  • Core Web Vitals.

Although significant, page experience is not the most important consideration. When two pages are contending for position, it sometimes isn’t applied to ranking but is more important.

According to John Mueller, “If all of the content on the search results page is extremely similar, then using Page Experience probably helps a little bit to understand which of these are fast pages or reasonable pages with regard to the user experience and which of these are kind of the less reasonable pages to show in the search results.”

This is an essential component of SEO that has been disregarded, and Google wants to give the greatest product on the market.

3. Links
Links and ranking factors are closely related.

SEO experts have been utilizing links to affect results ever since Google’s debut. Additionally, Google has been battling link spam in an effort to enhance its rankings.

Many SEO experts believe that links are losing favor as a ranking element. In a Marie Haynes survey conducted in 2022, 44% of SEO experts who took part believed that link building was less effective today than it was a few years prior.

If we begin by considering the historical significance of links, we see that in the renowned Stanford paper by Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, links were given priority as one of the key ranking variables in a system that mirrored the citations given to scholarly articles.

Links soon emerged as the most effective spam strategy for ranking in the early days of Google. Since Google’s infamous Penguin update in 2012, which eliminated low-quality connections, it has been attempting to downplay the significance of links.

However, links were initially mentioned as a ranking feature by a Google representative online in 2016. The top three ranking factors, according to Google Search Quality Senior Strategist Andrey Lipattsev, are “Content, Links, and RankBrain.”

In an AMA at PubCon in 2023, Gary Illyes had a different opinion, claiming that links are not and have not been a “top 3” ranking indicator for some time and that “there really isn’t a universal top 3.” It is undoubtedly conceivable to rank without links, continued Illyes.

It’s important to keep in mind that Google may downplay the significance of links for a variety of reasons, including to cut down on link spam. Given how simple it is to manipulate links, Google is not likely to state unequivocally that they are a ranking factor. Technically speaking, it is possible to rank without connections, but more often than not, links help in ranking.

In response to his 2016 video, Ammon stated in a direct message conversation: “When Andrey Lipattsev responded with ‘Content, Links, and RankBrain,’ he was stating that on-page, off-page, and how Google processes a query are what matter – which is something anyone should have already understood. Based on that, those are still the three crucial variables, regardless of what Gary Illyes has said afterward.

Links are significant not only for the flow of PageRank but also because Google normally finds pages through crawling and navigates through links.

Because Google cannot find a page without links in order to crawl and index it, a page with no inbound or internal links may be challenging to rank. The possibility of missing links emphasizes how crucial it is to submit a sitemap, which informs Google which sites you want crawled.

Internal linking is a beneficial SEO content technique since it not only enables Google to crawl and index all connected pages on your website, but it also facilitates the interlinking of topic clusters.

The fact that not all links are created equally is crucial, and Google prioritizes link quality above link quantity.

According to John Mueller, although the quantity of connections may have been significant in the early days of PageRank, Google now gives priority to measures that are more useful for evaluating links.

Links no longer have the same influence they did in the beginning, when it was possible to rank with a lot of incoming links that were of low quality. Relevance and link quality are important today.

Many SEO experts agree that high-quality links still matter and still have an impact on rankings.

We can state with certainty that internal links and inbound links are still regarded as ranking factors at this time.

Takeaway from Google Ranking Factors
The key lesson from this post is that ranking and SERP visibility do not simply apply to “here is a list of ranking factors that we can work with.”

It’s one of the things that makes this field so interesting and difficult to work in.

Having said all of the above, there are a lot of elements and signals that are vital to get right in order to obtain the greatest ranking you can, even though there isn’t a defined set of Google ranking factors that you can follow.

Start by thoroughly comprehending Google’s purpose and operating system. Then, you can start to comprehend how to develop your content strategy and SEO method to rank.

Download a copy of the ebook Ranking criteria 2023 if you’d want to learn more about ranking criteria with a focus on prioritizing facts over speculative ideas.

The author of this post personally consulted with Dan Taylor, a Russian search engine and technical SEO expert, Pedro Dias, a former Google employee, and Ammon Johns. They are greatly appreciated for their advice and knowledge.

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