The holy grail of SEO is understanding Google’s mysterious ranking algorithm and the “signals” they use to determine the ranking of search results. Google keeps the precise details of how they rank websites close to the vest. If they didn’t, spammers would have a heyday gaming the system and web searchers would find it impossible to find quality on-target information.
However, Google does reveal in general how they rank pages. They do this to encourage legitimate website owners, like people running small businesses, to employ good common sense “white hat” (non-spammy) SEO methods that actually improves the relevancy of the search results. Their goal, of course, is to provide the best, most credible results for the searcher’s query. For example, if someone is searching for a surf shop in Santa Barbara California, Google actually wants that user to find the best surf shop in that geographic region at the top of their listings for that search term. However, if you owned a surf shop in Santa Barbara but did not have the words “surf shop” in your page title and you don’t have your Santa Barbara address on the page, Google would have no way of ranking your site at the top of the listings for that particular search, even though that would be best for their users and for you.
When many people approach SEO, they think of Google as a combative opponent they need to somehow trick into listing their website at the top of the search results. However, it would be far more effective for you to view Google as a cooperative marketing team member. If you learn the basics of the primary Google ranking signals, you can use these “white hat” methods (that Google actually encourages) to ensure your website is listed toward the top for relevant keywords.
Here are the top Google ranking signals you need to know:
1. The Link Score
This is the most important Google ranking signal, so you should take it very seriously. It is essential developed by looking at how many websites link back to your website (and webpages) with one major caveat: the QUALITY of the websites that link back matters a lot. So, for example, ten links from ten shady websites with thin content is not going to help you as much as one link from a high quality website that Google recognizes as an authority site. For example, a link from a local newspaper or an active chamber of commerce directory would improve your link score. An article in a popular online magazine or in an academic publication published on the institution’s website that links to your website would improve your link score.
According to Jeff Bickley, CEO of [white hat], “Ethical [white hat] link building is one of the most powerful ways to help build site authority. The more quality links you can get back to your site, the more your rankings will continue to grow for your targeted keywords. They also have a long-lasting benefit and trickle down effect as most of them never stop existing.”
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2. Is the Website or Page Mobile Friendly?
We probably should have put this one first, because if your page isn’t mobile friendly, Google will not even show your pages in mobile searches. Mobile searches account for more than half of all searches, so you MUST make sure your pages are mobile friendly. In the very near future, Google has hinted that they may use whether of not a webpage is mobile friendly as a serious ranking factor in ALL searches, both mobile and non-mobile. If that happens, you should definitely consider mobile friendliness as the most important ranking factor in Google, even more important than your link score. Talk with your web designer and SEO expert about how to make your website mobile friendly.
3. Anchor Text Relevance
Anchor text is the text that someone clicks on in a link. Sometimes the text is very specific, something like “the best Santa Cruz surf shop.” Other times, the wording is rather generic, something like, “Click here to visit the shop’s homepage.” In many instances, the link will simply be the URL of the webpage that is being linked to. Google analyzes the text in all the links pointing to a webpage as one factor in what keywords your webpage, should be ranked for. Before you go asking all your friends for keyword specific links, don’t! Google is very good at detecting unnatural patterns in anchor text. If you have an unusual number of links that are all keyword optimized for the same phrase, you may actually have your rank lowered.
4. Content Signals
Generally speaking, the more content you produce on your site, the better. However, within that content, you do need to think about several factors. First, what are most important keywords and key phrases that you want to include on an individual page. The title of the page and the top headers are the most important for keywords but you should think about keyword usage throughout the whole text. Second, the number of words on a page is important. Pages with fewer words and sparse content may not get ranked as high as pages with more detailed content. Third, the “comprehensiveness” of your content is also very important. This concept is best explained through an example. If you have a tennis site and you attempt to optimize a page for “tennis equipment,” it would not be a very comprehensive page about tennis equipment if there was no mention of tennis racquets! Likewise, if you have a page optimized for “Things To Do In Memphis Tennessee” and you fail to mention the Elvis Presley Mansion or the Pink Palace, Google would not likely see this page as comprehensive and you may receive a lower ranking because of this.
5. Page Speed
This is a measure of how fast a page loads. If a page takes an unusually long time to load, your ranking may be dinged a bit. On the other hand, if you make sure your pages load fast, then you may be rewarded with a rise in rank. Scripts, videos that automatically start playing, and extra large graphics can slow down a page.
6. Click-through Rate (CTR) For Search Engine Results Page (SERP)
When Google searchers type in a particular keyword, Google keeps track of which of the results these searchers click on the most and rewards them with higher rank. The logic is that the searchers are the best judge of relevancy and the results they click on the most often must be the most relevant. Given this, one thing you need to be aware of is how enticing your link and description are to a searcher scanning through search results. In other words, don’t just use titles and descriptions that are optimized for keywords. Make sure a real human will find the wording of them attractive to click on.
As you can see, Google ranking signals make a lot of common sense if you place yourself in the shoes of the searcher, as Google tries to do, when developing and tweaking their ranking algorithm. Remember, Google’s primary purpose to is to provide relevant results to their users. If you partner with them on this purpose when planning your SEO, you’ll likely do better with your search rankings than if you treat Google as an adversary.