SEO Ranking Factors in Google Search – The Most Important Signals

What makes your website rank high on search results?

This is a question which has intrigued website owners and business owners since Search engines became popular and mainstream. Especially, what makes a website rank high on the first page of Google because most people use Google to find answers and find what they are looking for.

Google search is the most important and widely adopted discovery platform, so figuring out how to rank your website in the first page of Google is definitely not going to be a walk in the park.

That said, there are ways to ensure your website ranks high for specific keywords you are targeting. If you improve important key metrics and signals, it is not very difficult to achieve 1st position in Google search for specific keywords that are very important for your business.

In this article, we will discuss some of the ranking factors which Google may consider before deciding to rank a particular website on the first page in Google for a particular keyword. I used the word “may” because nobody knows how Google works, what signals they use and in what order. The SEO community and the community of webmasters can only guess from the data that it has and derive inferential conclusions by observing common patterns and themes.

Semrush  has released an excellent study which puts some light on what factors influence search ranks for a website, keyword or phrase. If you are not aware of what Semrush is, it is an excellent SEO tool to do keyword research, domain analysis, competitive analysis and have a bird eye’s view of the niche where you do business.

The Factors that Influences Google Search Ranks For a Website 

As of 2017, the factors that influences Google search ranks are given below (in no particular order). Please bear in mind that this is somewhat linked to the “Authority of a website” as per Google and other search engines. Higher the authority of a website, better are the chances of getting ranked in search engines for high volume keywords.

Direct website visits: If a website has lot of direct traffic coming in, it is a good signal to search engines that this website has great content and provides a positive user experience. Direct traffic coming from all over the world every day on specific pages or the home page of the site kind of hints search engines is that the website is really popular and being loved by readers and user worldwide.

Now you may wonder, how does Google know how much direct traffic a website gets? The answer is pretty obvious – Google Analytics. Google Analytics is the most versatile and popular web analytics solution which is used by more than 90% of the website owners worldwide. It is quite obvious that Google has it’s eyes everywhere and it knows how much direct traffic a website is getting.

Time spent on Website: The next factor is how much time are these users spending on the website? How engages the audience is? How many pages are they visiting? What are they doing once they reach the website? How many people come back again and again to the same website and spend a considerable amount of time there?

These are some of the things which Google looks into to understand which website provides a good user experience and which website provides a bad user experience. A spam site or a site with thin content, shallow content or content which provides no considerable value will have very low time spent on site. However, a site with great content and resources will hook the reader and the user will end up spending more time there, which is a great user experience search engines really love.

Pages per session: The next important ranking signal is how many pages are visited by a single user in one browsing session? What it means is that how many pages the user visited once he arrived on the website on any given instance.

If I visit a particular website 10 times a day, it means I start 10 sessions on the website. Now Google will look for each session, how many pages did I visit to understand engagement, usage and other important signals.

If a user starts 2 sessions and visits 5 pages in each session, that is considered better compared to when a user visits 20 sessions and visits only one page per session.

How many pages are being navigated through and what is the depth of visit is considered an important SEO factor for evaluating which website provides a better user experience.

Bounce Rate: Bounce rate is the percentage of visitors to a particular website who navigate away from the site after viewing only one page. If 100 people visit your website and out of these 100 people, 68 people close your website after viewing only one page, then the bounce rate of your website is 68%.

What Google and other search engines look for when evaluating bounce rate is – whether this website is supposed to have a high bounce rate because the content is for one time use only or whether there is something else fundamentally wrong which causes a very high bounce rate on the website, which kind of signals to Google that this website maybe a low quality one.

For example, a website which offers a Free download may have a high bounce rate. People will come to that page, they will download and then they will quit. That is the normal user experience and there is nothing wrong here if that website has 100fi bounce rate – it is possible that there is nothing else to be done on the website apart from downloading a file or something else.

However, if a website has lot of textual content in it and hundreds of thousands of pages in it but still people don’t navigate to another page after coming to the landing page, it might be a signal to search engines that users do not find the content interesting and engaging enough. In some occasions, it is not the case but it will be considered especially if the bounce rate is always high and no matter what page it is, the people always bounce off.

Total Referring Domains: The next very important signal which affects rankings in Google search is – how many domains refer this domain? How many unique websites link to this domain?

For example, if a website has 20 links from one domain and another website has 5 links from 5 domains, the latter is considered stronger and better. Google and other search engines will see how many domains refer to or link to your website. This includes domains that use the “rel = nofollow” attribute in their links. However, this does not include domains that link to you because they copied a widget you provide and that widget links to you or some kind of template you provide which has a boilerplate link in the footer. This only includes links which are used naturally by website owners or referring domains. Links from social networking websites and user generated content sites do count in this segment.

Total backlinks : The next and the most important signal to this day is how many backlinks your website has in total. This includes links with the “Nofollow” attribute in it and excepting widget and boilerplate and user generated backlinks, only links that are achieved organically are counted.

More the number of backlinks, more are the chances of improved rankings in search engines and over a period of time this has a compounding effect since the more people link to you, your website reaches more audience and eventually even more people link to you. However, the prerequisite in this case is that the content or the page in question should have really high quality meaningful and useful content in it.

Total referring IP’s: This differs to total referring domains in some extent. How many IP addresses link to your website or domain is also considered a ranking signal. So if there are 100 websites hosted on the same IP that links to your website or domain, Google and other search engines will consider it as one IP since all these websites are hosted in a single IP address or server. However, if there are 40 domains all hosted on different IP addresses that links to your site, Google will consider 40 domains and 40 IP addresses linking to your website or domain.

The latter is considered more valuable, original and natural in nature because hundreds of websites or blogs linking from the same IP addresses usually is an indicator of spam sites linking to each other or content farms who spin out sites using automatic website generators and then start linking to each other in order to deflate rankings. Hence, the more diversified your referring IP’s, the better.

In general, there is nothing that you can do here except keep your backlink portfolio as tidy and as clean and as natural as possible. The objective here is to only win links from high quality sites with great content in them and you would be in good shape.

Total Follow backlinks: How many backlinks are dofollow in nature? This is considered another important seo ranking signal, since if most of the backlinks to your website are nofollow in nature then Google and other search engines will eventually start to ignore those links and not pass much value or juice to your site in the longer term. Hence, it is important to win Dofollow backlinks from other domains or websites because it will positively improve your search ranks overtime and Google and other search engines will be able to pass search juice to your content and pages.

Content Length: This is something which many bloggers ignore and find themselves in trouble later on. The length of the content is considered a very important signal to search engines. Amount of textual content present in a webpage is considered a very important metric in evaluating the quality of a webpage. Not just text, but the amount of text minus the amount of boilerplate content present in a website is considered a signal on how much value this provides to it’s readers.

I have always believed that the length of the content is not necessarily a differentiating factor because there can be small web pages with quality information in just a couple of paragraphs and there can be pages with lots of textual content but the information could not be as valuable. However, it looks like Search engines now emphasise on how much content is available on the page as a ranking signal.

Website Security (HTTPS) : Website security is considered a strong ranking signal so the sites with a Valid SSL certificate has higher chances of ranking over a site which does not have the SSL certificate installed. For more information on HTTPS, please visit this article on Wikipedia

It is a general observation that spam sites or sites with low quality content do not care about security and do not invest their time and money in creating a really wonderful content rich website which offers value to their readers. However, on the other hand it is gain another general observation that sites which do create valuable and useful content tend to have an SSL certificate installed and they do care about the security of their readers when they are viewing or reading a website.

Total Anchors: The next signal “Total anchors” may sound a little confusing but it makes complete sense. How many websites link to you with an Anchor text and how many websites link to you without any anchor text is considered a very important signal to search engines. The more diversified, keyword rich and natural your anchor text’s are, the better. If hundreds of sites link to you naturally with keyword rich anchor texts, it is a strong signal to search engines that your site has really valuable and useful content in it related to the text that is being linked to.

It is said that the quality of those sites who link to you is also considered as a ranking signal for search engines but the study by Semrush does not cover the quality aspect of Anchor texts.

Keywords: Last but not the least, Keywords. The presence and distribution of keywords in anchor texts, body copy, first paragraph, Title tags, meta description, URL slugs.

Keywords are still important but it looks like their importance has significantly reduced over these years. Just having keywords in the copy of your webpage or meta tags is not enough, you must have other things taken care of which I have mentioned above. It helps to have all the relevant and meaningful keywords in place but having only keywords won’t help in ranking your page on top of search results.

The on-page SEO factors such as the presence of keywords in title, meta description and body of the text proved to be significantly less influential than other factors, however the adoption rate is impressive — keyword usage is one of the most popular SEO techniques

The study then elaborates on many other points such as backlink profile, referring domains profile, website security and shows trends over a factor which influences the chances of a webpage ranking in google search results.

To wrap up, it turns out that User behaviour signals are the most important metrics that Google uses to decide which page deserves to rank in the first page of search results. Signals such as bounce rate, the time that the user spends on the website in general and how many pages per session the user opens. These signals help identify user behavior patterns and can provide information on whether your content is engaging, whether the navigation on your website is convenient and how users generally react to your website.

The end result – a website with great content and high user engagement will outperform a website with great content and low user engagement. Content and usefulness still remains the primary metric however, when paired with user experience, behaviour, loyalty, recency and engagement, it turns out that you have to look after all these things on a day to day basis to ensure your website continues to rank on the first page of Google Search and is able to maintain it’s rankings over a period of time, no matter how stiff the competition is.

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