Google's 9 major ranking signals:
What they are and how to check your site against them
It's no secret that a top Google ranking is made up of 200+ components, or "ranking signals". But while it's definitely useful to know what all of those are, the entire list is a very time-consuming (and frankly, a little depressing) read. It's somewhat vague in terms of the impact of each individual factor, and all of those things don't seem doable if you try to get each one right. With the news about another Google update or algorithm change rolling out every other week, how can anyone keep up, ever?
But long-time SEO-ers have their tricks of the trade. The thing is, the 200+ ingredients in Google's recipe aren't all equally important. In the cheat sheet below, you'll find the 9 most important ranking signals that multiple studies have found to have the biggest impact on rankings today. The cheat sheet is based on our own research at SEO PowerSuite, as well as this year's ranking factors studies by SearchMetrics and Backlinko.
Read on to find out what the major ranking factors are and how to optimize for them — or, download a free PDF version of this guide to always have it at hand.
1. Number of backlinks and linking domains (18%)
A few years ago, link count was perhaps the major quality signal for Google. Over time, the search engine has learned to identify the so-called link schemes, or low quality links created solely for the purpose of obtaining higher rankings. Since then, it's often said that quality comes before quantity for Google — but this is only partly true. The number of pages and domains linking to a site still has a massive impact on your ranking potential; it's just that you can't afford to have any low-quality links in your profile anymore.
In several of its patents, Google suggests that a site's overall link score (arguably the biggest ranking signal) is made up by individual quality scores passed on to it by every incoming link. That literally means that more links will result in a higher score — as long as they aren't link schemes, of course.
It's also important to note that links coming from the same domain (especially site-wide links) carry little weight; Google will often only count one of those links when evaluating your link profile.
Checking on your top SEO competitors' link profiles is a good starting point to understand what kind of link scores you are competing against, and how much work is required for you to catch up.
When you've singled out top prospects, you can reach out to them right from LinkAssistant. Right-click a contact (or several contacts, if you'll be sending them a similar message), and click Send email to selected prospects. In your email, feel free to either put up a message of your own or use some of the ready-made email templates, depending on the link building technique you're using. You can check for replies and manage your correspondence with prospects in the Email module.
2. Link authority (14%)
The talk about link quality has been on for years, and most SEO-ers agree it remains one of the strongest ranking signals for Google. While high quality links can boost your site's link score (and therefore rankings), lower quality backlinks can get your site penalized (and even out of the SERP completely).
For the latter not to happen, make sure you run regular link audits so you can spot any dangerous links early and have them removed in time. To acquire more high-authority links, it's a good idea to look at your competitors' profile and try to win some of their links for your own site.
If you don't hear back from them, or if you've got a substantial number of low quality links, disavowing them is your best option. Disavowing is basically telling Google to discard that link (or linking domain) when evaluating your link profile. To disavow backlinks, you'd need to put up a disavow file following certain syntax and formatting rules, and upload the file to Google Search Console.
You can create a disavow file right in SEO SpyGlass in a few clicks. To do that, select the links you'd like to disavow, right-click the selection, and hit Disavow backlinks. Most of the time, you'd want to disavow links on the domain level; so make sure you select Entire domain under Disavow mode. Then, go to Preferences -> Disavow/Blacklist backlinks and hit Export to save the disavow file to your computer, and upload it to Google Search Console.
3. Link anchor text and its diversity (9%)
In general, you want your links to be coming from pages whose topic is similar to that of the page you're optimizing. But how can Google identify relevance, exactly? Primarily, from the backlink's anchor text. The title of the backlink page can also help to tell what the page is about, although it is a much weaker signal than anchor text.
The concept of relevance is tightly linked to that of diversity. While your backlinks are expected to be semantically relevant to the topic of your page, it's important to note that too similar anchor texts can get your under Google's Penguin penalty.
Understandably, there's no universally right ratio of different kinds of anchor text in your link profile. However, below you can find some averages to give you an idea of what a natural link profile typically looks like.
But just as it is with about anything in SEO, it's best to rely on the link profiles of your top ranking competitors instead of the overall averages.
Now, select the backlinks you've imported and hit Update > Get Contact Email. This way, you'll be able to reach out to webmasters right from LinkAssistant and ask them to make any changes to the links' anchor text (or contact them regarding any other matter).
4. Content relevance (19%)
Not surprisingly, your content has to be both original and relevant to the search phrase to rank well in Google. It doesn't even matter much what your site is about — starting from blog posts and on to e-commerce product pages, you need to bring unique value to the table if you are aiming for top rankings. Backlinko's found that focused content that covers a single topic significantly outperformed content that didn't cover a topic in-depth.
5. Content length (3%)
In its search quality guidelines, Google mentions the length of content as an important criterion for the page's quality — and therefore its rankings. Clearly, there's no ideal content length you should aim for; still, the SEO world is full of misconceptions like "Longer content ranks better" and "your copy should be over 2,000 characters long to rank in top 10". These assumptions do have their ground, but it's important to understand that the elusive "ideal content length" may vary a lot from niche to niche. For a realistic reference on the right size for your page's HTML, it's best to look at the pages that already rank well for the keywords you're targeting.
User Experience & Trust
6. Click-through rate (11%)
A click-through rate, or CTR, is a ratio of the number of times a given search listing was clicked on to the number of times it was displayed to searchers. Numerous patents filed by Google along imply that SERP click-through rates can have a massive impact on rankings. SearchMetrics' ranking factors study even found that CTR has the highest correlation with rankings out of all factors examined.
True, correlation doesn't always equal causation. But with real-life experiments showing that an increase in CTR can literally boost a site's rank in real time, it is more than likely that Google uses click-through rate as a factor in its ranking algo.
For every query, Google expects a CTR in a certain range for each of the listings (e.g. for branded keywords, the CTR of No.1 result is around 50%; for non-branded queries, the top result gets around 33% of clicks). If a given listing gets a CTR that is seriously above (or below) that range, Google can re-rank the result accordingly.
While CTR values for different positions in Google SERPs can vary depending on the type of the query, on average, you can expect at least 30% of clicks for a No.1 result, 15% for a No.2 result, and 10% for a No.3 result.
If the CTR for some of your listings is seriously below these averages, these could be the problem listings you'd want to focus on in the first place.
So the only efficient way to make your listing earn actual clicks from real users is to make it appealing and click-worthy. You can edit and preview your Google snippet in Content Analysis > Content Editor in WebSite Auditor, under the Title & Meta tags tab.
As you compose your title and description, make sure they clearly communicate the value of clicking through your page to searchers. If appropriate, use a call to action and instead of simply describing what your page is about, address the searcher directly, and inform them about the benefits of navigating to your page, choosing your product, and so on.
Once you're happy with your snippet, hit Save page to save the upload-ready HTML file to your hard drive.
7. Social signals (7%)
The discussion on whether or not social signals affect rankings directly is ongoing, but multiple real-life experiments prove that pages with more social shares rank better. SearchMetrics' study also found that Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and Google+ mentions strongly correlate with search engine rankings.
Now that you've got the necessary prerequisites in place, you've got to think about distributing your content for maximum exposure. Whatever your promotion strategy is (email marketing, social media marketing, or influencer outreach), remember that you need content that is truly unique and useful to be successful. If you're only starting out at social media, here's a great guide on social content promotion that can also help SEO and brand awareness.
Technical SEO factors
8. Mobile friendliness (12%)
Over a month ago, the news broke that Google's starting the "mobile-first indexing of the Web", meaning that they are beginning to index the mobile version of websites, when available, as opposed to the desktop version. The less obvious — but perhaps even more important — implication of this change is that Google will now also analyze mobile pages against the ranking signals to determine how a site should rank in both mobile and desktop search results.
If you think about it, it makes sense. Google's previously said that over half of search queries globally come from mobile devices. From a nice-to-have, mobile friendliness has turned into a must — if your page isn't optimized for mobile devices, it's likely to be discarded from mobile search results completely. If you already have a mobile page, then you should focus even more on improving it in 2017 than ever before.
The factors in the Page usability (Mobile) section are the exact features Google believes mobile-friendly pages should have, according to Google Developers' PageSpeed Insights, so you'll want all of them to be marked with a green Correct sign.
If your page isn't mobile friendly altogether, there isn't a better time to optimize for mobile than now. While there's a bunch of options available, responsive design is perhaps the simplest and most widely used solution — and it's the one Google recommends, too. If you use WordPress (or any CMS, really), choosing a responsive template for your site is about all it takes.
You're in for more work if your site is HTML-coded with no CMS in place. However, there's a bunch of documentation available on adapting responsive design for web developers. It might take a bit of work to get every aspect right, but it's an investment that'll definitely keep paying off increasingly.
9. Page speed (7%)
Google has officially confirmed that it uses page speed in its ranking algorithm. Page speed can also influence your SEO indirectly, as search engines will likely crawl fewer pages if your site is slow due to the allocated crawl budget. This, in turn, could negatively affect your site's indexation. Load time can have a massive impact on user experience, too. Slower pages tend to have higher bounce rates and lower average time on page. Research shows a 1-second delay in page load time can result in a 7% reduction in conversions.
So what's the page speed you should aim for? Google's mentioned they expect pages to load in 2 seconds or less. The most common culprit for slow pages is an abundance of uncompressed content on the page, such as scripts, images, or CSS files.
If there're any Uncompressed images or Unminified resources found on your page, you'll see link to a ready-made compressed version of these resources. Follow the link to download the lighter version of those, and feel free to upload them to your site right away.
One last thing…
Obviously, the best way to understand which of the signals above are making the biggest impact in your niche is to try optimizing for them yourself and track progress. One great way of doing that is using SEO PowerSuite's Rank Tracker to monitor your Google rankings, and document the SEO changes you make with Rank Tracker's Events. To do that, open your Rank Tracker project. Go to Preferences > Events and click Add. Briefly describe the event and set a date for it. On the progress graph in Rank Tracker, you will now easily see how your SEO changes are affecting your rankings, and which ones have bigger impact than others.
By: Masha Maksimava