Understanding SEO, or “How Do I Rank Higher on Google?”
Before we get into the details of each ranking factor, let’s take a quick look at the basics of how search engine rankings work.
Understanding SEO, or “How Do I Rank Higher on Google?”
Many people wonder how Google rankings work, so before we get into the actual search engine ranking factors, let’s get started by answering some of the basic questions most people have about SEO.
What is “Ranking” in SEO?
As you may know, SEO stands for search engine optimization, which simply means making the web pages better for search engine ranking, but how exactly does that work?
Let’s break it down.
In SEO, ranking refers to your content’s position on the search engine results pages (SERPs). A #1 ranking means that when people search for a particular term, your web page is the first result (apart from promoted results, featured snippets, and answer boxes, which we’ll talk about later in this guide).
Appearing in the top 3 results is excellent because almost half of the clicks on any search results page go to those positions.
Appearing on the first page at all, within the top 10 results, is also useful. That’s because 95% of people never make it past the first page.
What Does Google Look for in SEO?
Google’s own stated purpose is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Delivering relevant search results is a huge part of that.
Here’s how they work:
First, Google’s search bots (pieces of automated software called “spiders”) crawl the web… All that really means is they visit web pages.
Second, they add correctly optimized and crawlable pages to Google’s index and catalog them.
Third, when people search Google, it shows what it thinks are the most appropriate results based on the search terms they enter (out of the trillions of pages in Google’s index).
At that point, you have to rely on your page titles and meta descriptions to get searchers to click your link and visit your site.
How Do Google Search Rankings Work?
When people want to find information, they type or say words related to what they’re looking for. Those are called keywords, and we’ll look at those in the content optimization section of this guide.
But search engine rankings are not just about keywords; they’re also about the quality of information.
According to Google’s own search quality ratings, when it indexes the main content of each page, it checks factors like:
* The purpose of the page
* Expertise, authority, and trustworthiness – not just from the site and the page content, but expertise from the individual . creator of the content too.
* Content quality and amount
* Website info and info about the content creator
* Website reputation and content creator reputation
These go into its ranking algorithm and help to determine SEO ranking.
Based on the rating guidelines above, Google shows searchers the most relevant, high quality results related to what . they’re looking for. The most relevant are shown first, with the rest being shown over successive pages.
One of the goals of addressing SEO ranking factors is to let Google know when your pages on your site are relevant to particular search queries, so people will click the links and visit your site.
Let’s be clear, though: there’s never a guarantee of a page one or #1 rank, and with SEO guidelines changing all the time, search engine rankings change with them.
What is On-Page SEO and Off-Page SEO?
Two terms you’ll hear mentioned a lot when talking about SEO ranking factors are on-page SEO and off-page SEO.
On-page SEO refers to factors on your own website that you can optimize such as the underlying code and the content.
Off-page SEO refers to actions taken outside of your site to affect your site’s trustworthiness and authority by building the right inbound links and social signals.
Both types are included in the top SEO ranking factors.
How to Monitor Search Engine Rankings
Before you can improve your SEO ranking, you’ll need to know your starting point.
There are a couple of ways to find this. First, you could search Google using the terms you think your customers will be using. Use an incognito or private window in your browser, so the results aren’t skewed by Google’s personalization. See where your content appears..
However, that is totally impractical for established sites with hundreds of pages, so you’ll need a tool to do it for you. For example, with SEMRush, you can type your domain into the search box, wait for the report to run, and see the top organic keywords you are ranking for. Or, use their keyword position tracking tool to track the exact keywords you’re trying to rank for.
Contact us for other keyword research tools.
Now let’s look in detail at the top Google ranking factors for 2019.
1. A Secure and Accessible Website
Unsurprisingly, the first of our SEO ranking factors has to do with having the right kind of URL. Specifically, that’s a URL that Google’s bots can easily reach and crawl.
In other words, Google has to be able to visit the URL and look at the page content to start to understand what that page is about. To help the bots out, you’ll need:
* A website created with a well-coded website builder
* A robots.txt file that tells Google where it can and can’t look for your site information
* A sitemap, which lists all your pages. If you’re running a WordPress site, you can set up a sitemap via Yoast SEO. If not, . then you can use an online sitemap generator.
HTTPS isn’t a factor in deciding whether or not to index a page, but Google’s own John Mueller has tweeted that it’s a “light-weight ranking factor” and that “having HTTPS is great for users.” We at CPT SEO agree.
If you haven’t yet enabled SSL security on your website, get to it.
2. Page Speed (Including Mobile Page Speed)
Page speed has been cited as one of the main SEO ranking factors for years. Google wants to improve users’ experience of the web, and fast-loading web pages will definitely do that.
Google announced a search engine algorithm update focused on mobile page speed that will start to affect sites from July 2018. If your site doesn’t load fast on mobile devices, then it could be penalized.
Use Google’s mobile testing tool to see how your site stacks up.
And, if you’re using WordPress, check out these tips for speeding up a WordPress site from WPBeginner.
3. Mobile Friendliness
While we’re on the subject of mobile, mobile-friendliness is another major SEO ranking factor. More people use mobile devices than desktops to access the web, and that’s one reason there’ve been changes in how Google ranks search results.
Google’s mobile-first index is now a reality, which means it’s drawing its results from mobile-optimized sites first, rather than sites geared to desktop computers. If your site isn’t mobile-optimised you risk being out in the cold, in SEO terms at least.
Many of the SEO ranking factors we’ll look at in this article will help you lay the foundation for a good search engine ranking, but you also have to look after user experience when people land on your site.
Things to look at include:
* Whether you have a responsive site that automatically resizes to fit the device
* Whether you’re using large fonts for easy readability on a small screen
* Accessibility and navigability, including making it easy to tap menus
* Ensuring that essential content isn’t hidden by interstitial ads
Get more tips on mobile-friendly design to improve Google search ranking by contacting us.
4. Domain Age, URL, and Authority
Did you know that nearly 60% of the sites that have a top ten Google search ranking are three years old or more? Data from an Ahrefs study of two million pages suggests that very few sites less than a year old achieve that ranking. So if you’ve had your site for a while, and have optimized it using the tips in this article, that’s already an advantage.
In some cases, the domain name matters. Though Google has penalized exact-match domains (those where the target keyword is in the URL), that penalty is generally for spammy sites with thin content.
Other research shows that exact-match domains that are deemed to be relevant, valuable, and high-quality can see a ranking boost because of it. However, if you already have an established website, you don’t need to go looking for an exact-match domain for your business; focus on a URL that reflects your business and optimise the heck out of it instead!
When it comes to search engine ranking factors, authority matters. As you’ll see, that’s usually a combination of great content (see the next tip) and off-page SEO signals like inbound links and social shares.
Moz has codified this into page authority and domain authority scores, both ranked from 0 to 100, which tell you how likely a particular page or domain is to rank in search results.
You can check domain authority or page authority with Open Site Explorer. Just plug your URL into the onsite search box, and you’ll get a report showing domain authority, page authority, established links, and new links.
We’ll look more at linking practices to improve SEO ranking in tip #8.
5. Optimised Content
We’ve talked a lot about content in this guide to Google SEO ranking factors. That’s because it’s one of the most important search ranking factors (right up there with user experience, links, and RankBrain, which we’ll get to in a while). Now let’s dig down and see what optimising content for SEO really means.
As we said in our keyword research guide, Google’s search algorithm relies on keywords. These are the words and phrases searchers use when they’re looking for information. They’re also the words and phrases that describe the topics your site is about. Ideally, those will match up.
That’s why it’s so important to use keywords in your content.
One negative SEO ranking factor to be aware of is duplicate content. For SEO, fresh, original content is always best. And if you do have content that’s similar, tell Google which one should be ranked as most authoritative by using canonical URLs.
Understanding LSI Keywords and SEO Ranking
It’s not just about the main keywords either; it’s also important to include terms related to the main terms people are searching for. These are called LSI (latent semantic indexing) keywords. They provide a kind of online word association to help Google know which results to show.
For example, using the right LSI keywords will tell Google that when searchers type in “mini”, your page is relevant to the car, rather than the skirt, and vice versa.
Learn more about how to find and use LSI keywords here. It’s worth noting that as more people search by voice, content optimization includes optimizing for questions and natural language searches.
Here’s an important point, though: keyword stuffing is absolutely outlawed because it will result in poor quality web pages and will actually hurt your SEO ranking.
Understanding Search Intent for Content Optimisation
Search intent is also important when optimising content. That means understanding what people are really looking for when they type in search keywords.
For example, let’s say you’ve identified “Cape Town Plumber” as a keyword you want to rank for. You might think that writing content for people looking for plumbers in Cape Town is a good idea. But if the people searching for that term are plumbers looking to offer their services, then your content won’t meet their needs, and your page won’t rank.
Sometimes, it’s clear what people are looking for. For example, if they use the word “compare”, they’re likely trying to make a decision about buying a product. And if they use the word “buy”, then they’re looking to make a purchase.
The keywords they use will change depending on whether they want to:
* find a particular website (navigational)
* get the answer to a question (informational)
* get information before making a purchase (investigational)
* make a purchase (transactional)
Well-optimised business sites will include content for each of those search types. Learn more about keyword intent here.
Is Content Length an SEO Ranking Factor?
In a word, yes. Google wants content to be quality and have some length to it. While writing more just to stretch out the length is never advisable, if a subject calls for depth, give it depth.
The research suggests that content over 2000 words gets more top ten positions in Google search engine rankings.
Longer content attracts more links and shares too, which are 2 other important ranking signals.
SEO Ranking Factors – Answer Boxes
Google’s increasingly delivering answers via Answer Boxes, so that’s another aspect of optimizing for better search engine rankings. Here’s what an answer box looks like:
Our experience suggests that optimising for answer boxes means:
* Answering questions, of course
* Including the questions as headings, with properly formatted title tags (more about that in the next tip)
* Ensuring that the answers are correct, relevant, and not too long
* Targeting content to keywords that already have answer boxes
* Including lists or tables
Using Video to Improve SEO Ranking
According to Cisco, video content will represent a whopping 80% of online traffic by 2021.
Our own experience of video marketing stats shows that:
* People are watching video across all age groups
* Some 79% of people would rather watch a video than read a blog post
* People are using video to help them make purchase decisions (remember those transactional searches?)
Definitely start to include video in your content strategy. Video gets read, shared and linked to, providing plenty of signals to amplify your search ranking.
6. Technical SEO
We said earlier that getting the code right is one aspect of optimising content for better search engine rankings.
Here are some of the aspects you need to look at:
* Use keyword phrases in page titles, which is where Google first looks to determine which content is relevant to which search. You’ll see the page title as the first line of a search result entry.
* Use header tags to show content hierarchy. If your title is formatted as h1, then use h2 or h3 for subheads.
* Create a meta description that both entices readers and includes your keyword phrase. Keep meta descriptions short and grabby – you have right around 160 characters to convince searchers that this is the post they want.
* Use keyword phrases in image alt tags to show how the images are relevant to the main content. Google also has an image search, which is another way for people to find your content.
* Where it’s appropriate, use schema markup to tell Google what kind of content you’re producing. This can also help your content appear in rich card entries other than answer boxes.
7. User Experience
For a while now, Google’s been using artificial intelligence to better rank web pages. It calls that signal RankBrain. This includes other signals that affect your search engine ranking.
* Clickthrough rate – the percentage of people who click to visit your site after an entry comes up in search results
* Bounce rate, especially pogosticking – the number of people who bounce away again, which basically means your site didn’t give them what they wanted
* Browse time – how long they stay on your site after they’ve arrived.
If people land on your site, don’t like it, and bounce away, then Google will think it’s not relevant to their needs. If enough people do this, then you might find it more difficult for your site to rank higher in search results.
In contrast, if people click through to your web page and stick around for a while, that tells Google your content is relevant to their search.
So when you optimise titles, descriptions, and content to get the clicks and deliver value on the other end, you can boost your search engine ranking.
As we said at the start, the web is built on links, so naturally, links are a crucial SEO ranking signal. There are three kinds of links to think about:
* Inbound links
* Outbound links
* Internal links
Google uses inbound links as one way to help determine how authoritative and relevant your content is.
The best case scenario is where an authoritative site includes a relevant link to your site in a relevant piece of their content.
So, if the Content Marketing Institute includes a link to your content marketing resource, that’ll be perceived better than if a random person with a low quality site links to it.
Ideally, you want to have very few inbound links from low-quality domains. You can find your inbound links using a tool like SEMRush or one of the keyword research tools shared earlier in this guide.
At the same time, you want to show that you’re creating quality content for your visitors and linking to relevant, authoritative sites in your niche is a good thing.
Finally, linking to your own content can help tie pages together for both Google and your visitors, making each page more valuable. If you have an authoritative page and link to another page on your site, that helps visitors find the other page and passes on some of that authority. That will help that second page boost its search engine ranking.
9. Social Signals
When people share your content on social networks, that’s another sign that it’s valuable. Cognitive SEO‘s study of 23 million shares found a definitive link between social shares and search engine ranking.
Google’s official word is that social shares are not a direct ranking factor. Links from Twitter or Facebook aren’t counted the same as links from other authoritative websites.
Still, there’s no denying that the highest ranking pages in Google search results usually have a lot of shares – probably because the more your content is shared, the more people will see it and decide to link to it. That means that getting more social shares does help your search engine rankings, if only indirectly.
Not only do you need to have a social media presence yourself, but you need to make it easy to share your content and amplify those social signals. We have some great tips for doing this.
10. Real Business Information
This tip is important for businesses targeting particular local areas. The presence or absence of business information is one of the most crucial local SEO ranking factors.
So it’s important to look after areas like:
* NAP – name, address, phone number
* Business listings on Google My Business and Facebook
* Reviews on both those sites and on relevant directories like hellopeter and others
* The right local search terms