Figuring out the best way to have your website rank well with Google can sometimes feel like running a maze, not knowing which turn will get you’re the closest to the end goal: ranking your website for key search phrases that will convert visitors into paying customers.
And asking SEO pros for their opinions on what moves the needle doesn’t get you much further, with each “guru” having their own “special formula” or “theory” as to what does and does not work.
The fact of the matter is, no one but Google knows what moves the needle in the right direction and to what extent you should focus on one ranking signal vs another.
Throwing another wrench in the works is that things change. Constantly. Google releases a new algorithm update, or they prioritize different factors, and you’re left feeling like you’re already behind the ball.
A myth that’s been pervasive in the SEO industry for about a decade is that Google has a list of 200 ranking factors that are used in determining how individual websites are ranked. No one’s completely sure where this myth started from, but it seems to have stemmed from a time in 2009 where Matt Cutts of Google mentioned there were “over 200 variables” in the Google algorithm
However, there’s no hard-and-fast evidence to back this up. And, even if it was true that there were 200 ranking factors in 2009, it’s almost guaranteed that this number has fluctuated in the decade since then.
In the past couple of years, Google has announced huge updates and changes, including (just to name a few):
- The push for HTTPS
- Prioritizing mobile-first indexing
- A whole slew of updates and changes
Even if there is a specific list of rankings factors that are kept by Google, every factor on that list is not an all-or-nothing checklist. Some factors may rely on others to trigger, while others don’t need any other preconditions. This layered approach makes each factor largely interdependent on the other, and makes it ever so difficult to manage your virtual team in charge of isolating and capitalizing on individual ranking factors.
Now that we’ve laid that myth to rest, let’s take a look at some of the things that we know do impact your rankings in Google:
Proven / Google Confirmed Raking Factors
HTTPS Is a Ranking Factor
This one’s easy to confirm, as Google’s July 2018 deadline for prioritizing sites with SSL certificates can attest. Although it isn’t a reportedly large ranking factor, it is a factor, according to a 2014 Google blog: “… we’re starting to use HTTPS as a ranking signal. For now, it’s only a very lightweight signal.”
However, that announcement was four years ago, before Google announced it would prioritize websites with SSL certificates. It could play a much larger part now than it did then.
Site Speed Is a Ranking Factor
Way back in 2010, Google confirmed that the amount of time it takes your website to load has an impact on its rankings. Faster loading times mean better rankings.
What is still up for debate, though, is exactly how fast your website needs to be to see a boost in rankings. While some experts say 2 seconds or less is ideal, the industry you’re in and your site’s speed in relation to all the other websites in your niche could cause this number to increase or decrease.
Mobile-Friendly/Optimized Is a Ranking Factor
Until recently, Google indexed the mobile versions of websites in a scattershot manner; some websites were indexed using the mobile version, while most were indexed using the desktop version.
In March 2018, Google announced in its blog that it was rolling out mobile-first ranking to all websites, in waves. If your website isn’t mobile-friendly, it won’t be indexed as well as others that are.
Title Tags Are a Ranking Factor
This one was confirmed by Google’s John Mueller a couple years ago: Your title tags are a ranking factor. Mueller did clarify that title tags are a ranking signal, but that your time spent tweaking your website’s SEO is probably not best spent focusing heavily on title tags.
PageRank Is (Likely) still a Ranking Factor
PageRank used to be something that SEO pros lived and died for.
Each link your website garnered was looked at as a “vote,” with the votes being weighted based on how strong the site linking to you is (In other words, stronger sites passed more weight in their links, and therefore had more weight in the votes).
Back in early 2016, Google stopped updating and displaying the PageRank toolbar, meaning its prominence as a ranking factor fell out of favor with many SEO pros.
However, Google has continued to use PageRank internally since then, and recently updated the patent to include trust signals.
While we don’t have any full confirmation that PageRank is a ranking factor, updating the patent on something that’s not going to be utilized is pointless. We’ll put this one in the Maybe pile.
Anchor Text Is (Maybe) a Ranking Factor
Whether or not anchor text is a ranking factor has been up for debate for many years. We know overusing anchor text can result in decreases in your rankings, which should be enough to negatively confirm that proper use of anchor text has a positive impact on rankings. However, there’s not been official word from Google on this one.
For years, anchor text has been included in Google’s own SEO Starter Guide, and it still is to this day. Taking the time to discuss something in resource material meant for beginner SEOs that isn’t actually going to make any difference for websites seems silly. Another one for the Maybe pile.
Links Are a Ranking Factor
Ah, links. Those hotly sought-after commodities that are passed around and bargained for in the SEO world.
Google has confirmed many times over the years that links impact a site’s rankings – both positively and negatively. Good-quality, relevant links from well-ranked sites send out positive rankings signals to Google, while low-quality links to bad sites, or large amounts of links that appear to be spammy, can cause your rankings to fall.
Domain Authority Is a Rankings Factor
Google has confirmed domain authority – both the authority of individual pages and of sites in their entirety – in roundabout ways over the years. No one from Google has expressly said, “Yes, domain authority is a rankings factor,” but Mueller gave some backhanded confirmation on domain authority during a Google Hangout.
User Intent & Behavior Are Rankings Signals
With the rise of AI and intelligent search, user intent has increasingly become an important part of the rankings factor discussion.
Google is always looking for the best ways to connect search engine users with the information they’re looking for, and sites that give Google confidence in recommending based on related groups of keywords are going to perform better.
Similarly, sites that make information easier to find and keep users from “pogo-sticking” (hopping from one page to another) are likely faring better in Google results.
Geolocation Is a Ranking Factor
Have you ever searched for a general topic, such as sushi restaurants or landscaping, but didn’t include a geographic location, and Google showed you results near your current location anyway? Google showing you location-based results without you even asking for them shows that the algorithm is tuned to helping users find providers nearby.
If your site is optimized for your geolocation service areas, you’re going to be prioritized above your competitor down the street who isn’t.
Over-Optimization Is a (Negative) Ranking Factor
Too much of a good thing can easily be a bad thing, especially with optimizing websites. Overusing the same keyword, trying to target too many keywords with one page, having too many pages all talking about exactly the same topic … You get the idea.
SEO is a delicate balance, and too much optimization can damage your rankings.
What Are the Takeaways?
Early on, we (hopefully) debunked the long-held belief that there’s a strict list of 200 ranking factors that Google keeps. If anything, there are probably far more than 200 factors that come into play when determining whether one site ranks higher in the search engine results than another, though the weight of each individual factor differs. Regardless, there is no cut-and-dried list that you can keep next to your desk and check off each item, arriving at a first-page ranking once you’ve finished.
Google is notoriously cagey about confirming what it does and doesn’t consider when determining how a website ranks. If they did, what would be the fun in the SEO guessing game? Although we don’t have a ton of things confirmed as official ranking factors, the items that we do know are important can help us guess some of the others.
No matter what, search engine optimization is an ever-changing industry, and it continues to get more complex with every algorithm change and update that Google puts out. Google’s great at keeping SEOs guessing, and what’s a ranking factor today might not matter tomorrow.