Google Ranking Factors

Google’s Ranking Factors: the keys to the kingdom.

Every true SEO on the planet would give their second born child for a list of Google’s magic formula – every factor, in order of importance, to get their website to rank on the top of the search engines.

However, it’s not that simple.

Google doesn’t just give away the recipe to their secret sauce – you have to know where & how to find them.

So, to save you years of trouble, we have compiled a list of Google’s top ranking factors – the things you’ll want to focus on during your search engine optimization journey to the Holy Grail of SEO – #1 in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Page).

These ranking factors come from:

  1. First hand experience working in the field for years
  2. Test results from peers, colleagues, and partners in this industry
  3. Hints from Google’s patent filings
  4. Articles from other trusted SEO experts
  5. In-depth research by SEO pioneers

In addition to providing you with a list of Google’s ranking factors, we have categorized them into manageable groups so they are easier to understand & conceptualize.

Finally, before we dive into the full list of Google ranking factors, we broke down the top factors that will help you rank in Google (and other search engines as well), we wanted to compile just the top ranking factors for all of you with limited time & resources.

The Top 10 Google Ranking Factors

These factors, the top 10 things to focus on for maximum SEO impact with limited resources, come from our personal experience.

Years of testing, experimentation, and research.

If you have ever heard of the Pareto Principle (aka the 80/20 rule) you will understand that focusing on these top ranking factors will yield the biggest bang for your buck in SEO.

1. Referring Domains to your Domain (RDD)

The quantity & quality of referring domains (aka other websites) that link to your domain (aka website) without rel=”nofollow”, rel=”ugc”, rel=”sponsored”.

2. Referring Domains to your Page (RDP)

The quantity & quality of referring domains (aka other websites) that link to your specific page (aka URL) without rel=”nofollow”, rel=”ugc”, rel=”sponsored”.

Getting links directly to a specific URL/page is an excellent way to boost the keyword rankings that page is indexing for.

3. Keyword in Domain

Getting the primary keyword you are targeting in the root domain will help.

For example, let’s say you are trying to rank for “diet pill reviews”.

  1. EMD = Exact match domain (the root domain matches your keyword exactly (aka dietpillreviews.com)
  2. PMD = Partial match domain (the root domain matches your keyword partially (aka thedietpillguy.com)

Having an “EMD” or “PMD” will help you rank for your desired keyword.

It can also be a problem though if it is not actually your brand name and you are just using it in your domain to rank – you can easily over-optimize the rest of the factors on accident.

4. Keyword in URL

If you can’t get the keyword in your domain name (understandable) then having it in your URL will be your next goal.

For example, if your business name is SERP Co but you want to rank for “digital marketing for dummies” it would be best to create an inner page on your website that is all about that topic:

5. Keyword in Title

If you can’t get your keyword in the URL for whatever reason, the next logical place Googlebot looks to understand what the page is about is … the title of the page!

Seems obvious right? Well, it is.

Don’t overthink this stuff.

Get your keyword(s) in the Title of your page.

For example, our article about branding for lawyers:

We like to lead with the title, and then add additional terms that are either designed to make the page title more enticing to click on, or we use keyword variations to give additional assurance to Googlebot that it is, in fact, in the right place.

One of the major ways Google understand & establishes relevance/credibility of a page (or website) is by looking at who is linking to that page.

Getting links to a page about Topic A from other domains that are all about Topic A help solidify that you are in fact relevant for that Topic.

7. Topical / Keyword Relevance of Entire Site (Page Relevance Matching)

Now that you understand that getting links from domains that are all about Topic A to your page about Topic A is important, it is also important to get links from pages that are all about Topic A.

Your goal should be to match the relevance from incoming link to link destination.

6. Keywords in Content

This should be obvious, but you want to get your keywords (and the variations) spread throughout your content.

If they are in more important places (like headings, bolded content, etc.) Google will see you are trying to place extra importance on them.

Don’t go overboard, just be natural and cover all your bases.

At our agency, we plan all our content beforehand – finding keyword variations (which we call semantic keywords) and also additional topics that can support the purpose of the article (which we call supporting keywords).

It looks a bit like this:

7. Content Quality & Length

Content length has been known to be a ranking factor in Google. That being said, you can also rank with very thin content – we see it all the time.

But it does help to have more content.

Pro-tip: See how long the top ranking articles are, and beat it. But always keep on the top of mind that you don’t want to write longer just for the sake of writing longer. Answer the search intent of the query. Help the user.

8. Established Entity

  1. Use schema markup
  2. Brand establishment across relevant business directories & websites where a presence would be expected
  3. Claimed & optimized business properties (GMB, Facebook, Yelp, etc.)
  4. Quantity & quality of reviews

9. Technical SEO Optimizations

  1. PageSpeed
  2. Mobile Friendliness
  3. No Indexing non-important content (tag archives, etc.)
  4. Reducing keyword cannibalization

10. Time

An important factor that people miss.

Time refers to multiple things:

  1. The length of time your domain has been around (domain age).
  2. The length of time the page that you are trying to rank has been live.
  3. The length of time since you acquired links to a page (link age).
  4. The length of time other websites have been competing for that term.
  5. etc.

The Full List Google Ranking Factors

Google’s ranking algorithm is gigantic. And over the years has only continue to grow & become increasingly complex.

If you search for “google ranking factors” you will see articles with 200+ factors, 500+ factors, and even a software that claims to track over 880 factors:

So, as the algorithm grows & as we continue to uncover additional ranking factors we will continue to add/update this list.

For convenience, we broke down the full list of Google ranking factors into the following categories:

  1. Domain Level Ranking Factors
  2. Page Level Ranking Factors
  3. Site Level Ranking Factors
  4. Backlink Factors
  5. User Signal Ranking Factors
  6. Brand Signal Ranking Factors
  7. Local Ranking Factors
  8. Negative Ranking Factors
  9. Other Ranking Factors

Domain-Level

8 domain level ranking factors
  • Domain Age: Newer domains don’t have as much trust – especially in the beginning. We have seen a big difference trying to rank keywords on a domain that has age vs. one that is newly registered.
  • Domain History: Domain history is huge. Check the history of domains before you buy them. If a domain was previously penalized it can easily carry a penalty over to you (this has actually happened to us before).
  • Keyword in Domain: This is a huge benefit to ranking for that keyword. Covered above here.
  • Keyword in Subdomain: Keywords in a subdomain is a ranking factor for the keyword. Pretty obvious.
  • TLD: For years, SEOs have sworn that the more common TLDs (.com, .net, .org) carry more weight than the newer TLDs. Additionally, having a TLD from a certain country may help rank in that country but could limit you from ranking in other countries (have you seen a .co.uk domain ranking here in the USA lately? I haven’t).
  • Whois Owner: If an individual is flagged by Google as a spammer, and they register additional domains, that is a clear signal that more inappropriate behavior may follow. #seoCriminalHistory
  • Whois Privacy: Protecting your identify with Whois privacy is not bad. But if you have alot of links coming to your website all from protected domains (an unnaturally high level) then it could be a sign you are up to something.

Page-Level

60 page level ranking factors
  • Affiliate Links: Affiliate links are fine. Sites built entirely around affiliate commissions are subject to being suspect by Google. Why? Because the entire purpose is to make money – so it stands to reason that the site owner potentially doesn’t have the users best interest in mind.
  • AMP: AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) load faster & are easier to access via mobile devices than non AMP pages. A clear signal that AMP would be preferred over non-AMP pages, considering Google’s interest in mobile.
  • Broken Links: Broken links on a page, or throughout a website, can be a sign that the webmaster has neglected, or abandoned, a website; and that it may no longer be trustworthy.
  • Bullets and Numbered Lists: Bullet & numbered (aka ordered & un-ordered lists) help with readability. If not a direct ranking factor, it is an indirect one because people will stay on your page longer (which definitely helps).
  • Content Length: Our tests, and our colleagues tests, show that content length really can significantly help your page rank. And at the very least, it will allow more keywords to be correlated with your page – thereby giving you more keywords to rank for.
(source: backlinko)
  • Content Recency / Update Frequency: Google’s Caffeine Update helps to provide more recent versions of indexed web pages, faster. Here’s how it works. Especially for time sensitive material (breaking news, etc.) it shows that the recency of your content helps to determine its validity. Even this article about Google ranking factors needs to be updated regularly, as Google’s index continues to change.
  • Content Update Size: Similar to content recency, the magnitude of the updates can be a signal to show how committed the webmaster/website owner is to providing quality, relevant & authoritative content.
  • Domain Authority (Rating): Domain Rating (Domain Authority) is a measure of how authoritative and trusted a website is in Google’s eyes, based on the quantity and quality of the backlinks it has. This is, in our opinion, the #1 Google ranking factor.
  • Topical Relevance / Hummingbird: The Google Hummingbird update was engineered to helping Google understand the overall topic / theme of a webpage, rather than solely relying on reading keywords to determine its purpose.
  • Spelling / Grammar: Quite obvious and easy to deal with. Use correct grammar and spelling on your page. Computers can tell if your document is written like a legitimate trusted piece of content, or if it is spun & rife with fundamental errors. You don’t trust things with spelling errors, neither does Google.
  • HTML/Code Errors: Just like we humans don’t trust content with spelling & grammar mistakes, Google does not trust content with HTML mistakes (the computer equivalent of spelling/grammar). Follow W3C Standards.
  • Human Editors: Human editing, similar to crowdsourcing (think Wikipedia), helps show Google that independent 3rd parties are confirming (or correcting) items on a website and that is a signal of trust. This happens alot in Local SEO on Google Maps.
  • Internal Links (Quality): Internal links from a strong/authoritative page on a website have more SEO impact than internal links from a less authoritative page. This is sometimes called authority sculpting. Key takeaway: find the pages on your website with alot of links (high UR) and link out from them to pages you want to add some power to.
  • Internal Links (Quantity): All else being equal, more links = more power & authority. So it is quite obvious to say that a page with more internal links pointing to it will carry more authority and a page with less.
  • Image Alt Text: Adding Alt Text to images helps web crawlers & screen readers understand more about the page. This is a signal of trust. It is also an opportunity to add relevance by using descriptions & keywords that tell web crawlers more about the page topic. Don’t keyword stuff.
  • Image Description: In WordPress (and other CMS solutions) there is an area to add a description to images. Like alt text, this is an opportunity to provide more context about what is on the page. Don’t keyword stuff.
  • Image Filenames: Image filenames are another place where you can add descriptive content about what an image is. Avoid generic or gibberish filenames for your images, but don’t keyword stuff.
  • Image Uniqueness: There’s nothing that Google loves more than fresh new content. Using unique images in your content, and throughout your business profiles (like Google My Business) is always a good idea.
  • Keyword Density: The amount of times a keyword appears in your text (in relation to the amount of total text is a signal to Google that it must be important. Otherwise, why would it show up so many times? This is similar to TF*IDF, but not the same. Do not over optimize. The formula for keyword density is simply: # of Keywords in content ÷ Total # of words in content
  • Keyword in Meta Description: When you google something you will see keywords in the meta description being bolded, so we take that as a legitimate signal that Google is reading meta descriptions and placing importance. Another sign, is that Google sometimes re-writes meta descriptions (meaning that they want to exert control) thus showing their hand a little that meta description carries some weight. We prefer to use it for sales copy to get the user to click on the results more-so than as a place to put keywords for Googlebot.
  • Keyword in Meta Content: This used to be a place for SEOs to stuff keywords in and snatch up rankings, but as of 2009 Google’s official stance on the meta description area is that it no longer affects rankings. Source:
  • Keyword in Title: This is one of our Top 10 ranking factors.. Keyword in Title is a huge signal to Google. Utilize it.
  • Keyword in URL: This is one of our Top 10 ranking factors. Keyword in URL is a huge signal to Google. Utilize it.
  • Keyword in <h1>: This is one of our Top 10 ranking factors. The h1 tag is a very powerful section of your content. It is the “header” or “title” of your post, and carries with that alot of emphasis of importance. Putting a keyword(s) in your h1 tag is a direct sign to Google that you want to emphasize its importance.
  • Keyword Prominence (Content): Keyword prominence in content means that the main keyword you are trying to rank for appears within the first 100 words of the content. According to this study by Ahrefs, this is a confirmed ranking factor.
  • Keyword Prominence (H1): Keyword prominence in the H1 means that it is the first word(s) of the h1 tag.
  • Keyword Prominence (Title): Keyword prominence in the Title means that it is the first word(s) of the h1 tag. This is a strategy you will probably notice that we use when publishing content. For example, our article about digital marketing certifications.
  • Keyword in Outbound Link Anchor Text: For a long time SEOs have believed (and practiced) that outbound links to authoritative domains helped your SEO. This is the next step of that thought process, that the outbound links anchor text will add additional relevance.
  • Keyword in Heading tags (h2 to h6): In order of descending impact, heading tags h2, h3, h4, h5, h6 all show emphasis to Google. Putting keywords in H2 tags can definitely help your SERP visibility. In fact, we have snatched up alot of knowledge panels this way.
  • Keyword in <b> or <strong> HTML tags: When you bold or “strong” words on the page you are telling the HTML to put emphasis on those words so users pay extra attention to them. It only stands to reason that web-crawlers will mimic that behavior and pay extra attention to them as well.
  • Latent Semantic Indexing Keywords (LSI): LSI keywords help search engines understand meaning like humans do. For example, if I write the word “Target” am I talking about the thing you shoot with a gun, or the business that sells paper towels on the cheap? LSIs (or the other words in the content) help us make a determination.
  • LSI Keywords in Title: We like to use titles with semantic (similar/synonym) keywords. Using LSIs also seems like a good idea to build relevance & understanding.
  • Multimedia: Google loves video (they own YouTube after all). They know that multimedia makes content more engaging, which makes people stay longer, which makes them happier. Include multimedia for a better user experience and search engine ranking boost.
  • Outbound Link Quality: Quality is always something Google has cared about. And I will tell you with first hand experience, that if you link out to a toxic website it absolutely has the potential to negatively affect your search engine rankings (and can even get you a full blown penalty). If you don’t believe me, review The Hilltop Algorithm.
  • Outbound Link Quantity: There are 2 things to consider with outbound (do follow) links. #1: Too many links distracts from the pages purpose. #2 Too many DoFollow outbound links can bleed your page’s link power, and cause a decrease in rankings. We have seen this one firsthand, but this point is highly contested in the SEO industry.
  • Outbound Link Theme: I like to compare this to our description about LSI keywords in content. On your page about “Target” if you are linking out to gun sites, bow sites, hunting sites, etc. this helps Google understand you were in fact not talking about the place with great deals on paper towels.
  • Page Age: We listed this under our Top 10 factors of “Time”. Page age definitely helps. Yes, we have ranked things overnight – but it’s easier to rank pages with age. And over time they seem to continue to improve their rankings (all other factors equal).
  • Page Category: In WordPress you can create Category. These are archives (groups) of pages that all are about one primary topic. Having a page listed within a Category is a relevancy signal that Google can pick up on.
  • Page Tags: In WordPress you can create Tag pages. These are archives (groups) of pages that all are about one primary topic. Having a page listed within a Tag is a relevancy signal that Google can pick up on.
  • Content goes in-depth on Topic: A page that goes in depth about one topic has a better chance to rank for that topic than a page that just briefly mentions the topic, or is not comprehensively about it. We have seen this work very well in the affiliate space for terms breaking out separate articles “best shampoo for red hair” and “best shampoo for thin hair” vs. “best shampoo for hair”. The specific, in-depth, comprehensive articles will usually perform better.
(source: backlinko)
  • Page Load Speed: Page Load speed drastically affects user satisfaction with a website, and so Google places a high importance on this ranking factor. So much so, that they even created a PageSpeed Tool that will help you understand & optimize your page speed.
Looks like we got some serious work to do!
  • Page Priority in Sitemap: Where a page is prioritized in an XML Sitemap could potentially be a signal to Google about its importance.
  • Quantity of Additional Keywords a Page Ranks For: If it’s showing up well for other keywords then it must be trusted to some extent.
  • Ratio of Text to Code: Google’s official answer on this ranking factor is “No”, they do not care about the ratio of Text to Code.
  • Reading Level: Softwares can easily detect the reading level (sophistication) of a page. You want to make sure that the reading level of your page matches the intent of the page & intended reader.
  • Readability Score: In addition to reading level, there is readability score. This effectively determines the amount of energy needed to read a post, and could very well be a ranking factor. For example, it would not be too difficult for Google to know that a medical journal should have a higher readability score than a post about ant farms.
  • References and Source: Citing your work with references/sources is a great way to show that the information you are quoting is credible. Good does this quite alot, so does Wikipedia. That should say something about its legitimacy.
  • rel=canonical: We see alot of websites that have duplicate content issues, or problems with keyword cannibalization. Use the canonical property to fix these issues. See instructions here.
  • Supplementary Content: This refers to items on a page that help to understand content. Things users can interact with. Like loan calculators, interactive items, etc. Google loves this stuff (their entire SERP is made out of it).
  • Syndicated Content: You see this alot with press releases. Websites syndicate (aka take content from somewhere else and post it) content to provide interesting things for their readers. This content must be treated properly to duplicate content issues.
  • Tabbed Content: John Mueller has stated that content behind tabs is something that Google is cautious about, but they use it alot. And we use it alot. And we have not seen any problems from it so far, in fact mostly just benefits.
An example of tabbed content
  • Table of Contents: Using a properly coded table of contents is definitely something you want to do. It helps users with navigation, it gives Google more clicks that can be considered a user interaction signal, it creates a bunch of inner page (anchor) links, the list goes on. Use a TOC where necessary.
  • TF-*IDF: TF*IDF is a math equation made into an acronym. It’s a way for search engines to tell what is on your page based on the frequency of other related terms. If you can cater to the TF*IDF equation you can help your pages create relevance and improve your search rankings.
  • Unique Content: Google wants content that is unique, and brings a fresh perspective (or research/information) to its index. It doesn’t need multiple websites all saying the same things – that’s just clutter.
  • URL Depth (Folder/Path level): Depth of a URL is something that I have always touted as a ranking factor. I have first hand experience that it matters. The closer your keyword is to the root folder path the easier it is to rank, typically.
  • URL Length: An Ahrefs study has confirmed that shorter URLs rank more easily. Enough said.
  • URL String: URL strings come from breadcrumbs. Google likes breadcrumbs. Google displays URL strings in SERPs. I think that is indication enough that they could be considered a legitimate ranking factor.
  • Ads Appearing Above the Fold: Google does not like this. They have stated it many times. Try to avoid if possible.
  • Use of Flash: Google is discontinuing Flash in 2020. That should tell you enough about their sentiment.

Site-Level

14 site level ranking factors
  • Contact Us Page: Having a contact us page helps show trust.
  • Google Analytics: Having Google Analytics properly installed on your website is a trust signal.
  • Google Search Console: Having Google Search Console properly integrated with your website is a trust signal.
  • Mobile Optimization: Mobile optimized, mobile responsive, mobile friendly – these terms are used to state that your website is easy for consumers to use when accessed from a mobile device. Mobile devices come in 100s of different sizes, and having a website that is functional at all those screen sizes helps with rankings. Mobile test your website here.
  • Privacy Policy & Terms of Service Pages: These pages show Google that your website has that extra layer of trustworthiness.
  • Reviews / Website Reputation: How your website is seen by other non-related websites helps Google establish trust, the same way we humans do in real life.
  • Server Location: Some SEOs believe that the geographical location of the server where your website is hosted affects your rankings.
  • Sitemap: A sitemap helps Googlebot crawl, understand & index your website. Learn more about sitemaps here.
  • SSL: An SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificate is a digital certification that authenticates the identity of a website & encrypts the information that is sent to the server. Aka – an SSL certificate helps information stay safely encrypted when people interact with your website.
  • Website Freshness: How often (or not often) your website is updated, or how recently it has been updated, is believed to show Google that the site is being actively cared for and helps with the freshness. This has been denied by Google.
  • Website Structure: Your website’s structure (architecture) shows how organized you are to Google, and can give Googlebot an easier time crawling, indexing & understanding your website.
  • Website Uptime: ‘Uptime’ is exactly what it sounds like. The amount of time (expressed in a percentage of the whole) that your website is up, available & working for users to access it. Google doesn’t like websites that are always going down or having problems because it presents a bad experience for searchers.
  • Website Usability: If your website is problematic for users to use, then your rankings will be negatively affected. Googlebot can tell via user signals.
33 backlink ranking factors
  • Alt Tags (Image Links): When you get a link from an image the “alt text” of the image is the anchor text. Utilize it.
  • Authority of Linking Domain: A link from a more authoritative domain is more powerful (all else being equal) than a link from a domain with less authority. Try to get links from domains that have alot of links (a high DR in Ahrefs).
  • Authority of Linking Page: A link from a more authoritative page is more powerful (all else being equal) than a link from a page with less authority. Try to get links from pages that have alot of links (a high UR in Ahrefs).
  • Co-Occurrence: Co occurrence refers to the words that are in close proximity surrounding your link (anchor text). The sentence or two before and after. If you get relevant keywords in the proximity of your link it should help with the relevance.
  • Contextual Links: Links found within the content of a page are generally thought to be more powerful than links in other places.
  • Keyword in Title: Getting a relevant keyword in the title of the page that you are getting a link from is massively powerful. This is called relevance matching, and we cover it in our list of top 10 most powerful Google ranking factors, above.
  • Link Age: Links take a while to kick in. So, the power of a link will increase as time goes on. We have observed this first hand. Some links we have placed have taken up to 9+ months to fully kick in.
  • Link Anchor Text: The anchor text of a link is the clickable part. The words that are “clickable” are a very important ranking signal to Google. Use them wisely.
  • Link Diversity: Diversity in your link profile is a huge factor for ranking. Diversity between link types (guest posts, citations, socials, etc.) and link rel (dofollow, nofollow, etc.) and link anchor text (the clickable words), etc. Blend in with your competitors, keep it natural, keep it diversified.
  • Link Type: Different link types carry more weight. For example, a homepage link from an aged domain that is relevant to your target keyword (ie: a PBN link) will carry much more power than a link from a Twitter post.
  • Link Rel: Link rel is an HTML thing. There are alot of different rel types, but the main ones to consider are dofollow vs. nofollow. Dofollow links are more impactful than nofollow links.
  • Link Title (tooltip) Attribution: Link title (tooltip) is the text that shows up if you hover your cursor over a link. This could potentially be used as a Google ranking factor.
  • Linking Domain Age: An older domain with trust could be factored into Google’s algorithm as carrying more weight than a newer site.
  • Linking Domain Relevancy: Always remember “Relevance Matching”. The more relevance you can match the bigger SEO impact you will achieve.
  • Links from .edu or .gov Domains: Links from EDU or GOV domains are thought to carry more weight, because they are much harder to get.
  • Links from “Expected” Websites: Getting links from websites where Google would assume you would have links (for example: if you are a business it would be expected that you would get links from common business directories) should help your website establish trust.
  • Links from “Hub” Pages: Another speculation on the Hilltop Algorithm, but one that makes sense to us. Getting a link from a page on a domain that is all about one type of resource, could “batch” you in with (or “associate you” to) other “like minded” or “relevant” websites and give you a relevance boost.
  • Links from 301: a domain that is 301d carries all the weight of all its backlinks. If 301 a website to your website, it has alot of power – but be careful with this strategy it is easy to mess up. ProTip: make sure you match relevance everywhere.
  • Links From Ads: Affiliate links and links from ads are supposed to be nofollow. But, we still believe that if the ads are relevant they can help sculpt your relevance profile, even if they don’t directly pass link power.
  • Link from a Competitor: If you can get a link from your competitor, that would be awesome. Enough said. Just do it.
  • Links from Different C-Class IPs: Websites are served from hosts. Hosts are on IP addresses. If you get links from different blocks of IP addresses it can show Google that your popularity is diversified, or spread. Or at the very least, less likely to be manipulated.
  • Link Velocity: Link velocity is a term that refers to how quickly you are acquiring links. A website with only a handful of links should not be acquiring links as quickly as a website with tens of thousands of links. Make sure your link velocity is natural. On the flip side, a negative link velocity can show that your website is losing momentum & interest.
  • Natural Link Profile: One of the keys to victory in the SERPs is to blend in. Having a link profile that is unnatural is a very obvious way of not blending it, and something that Google notices quickly. Have a look at your competitors and see what types of links they are getting and the anchor text ratios
  • Nofollow Links: No follow links do not carry as much power as dofollow links. They are still helpful though, in that they can help sculpt your relevance, and balance out your link profile so it looks/is natural.
  • Quality of Linking Content: If you get a link from a page that has been deemed ‘poor quality’ it can pass a penalty to your website.
  • Quantity of Referring Domains: More referring domains = more power (all else being equal).
  • Reciprocal Links: Reciprocal links refer to websites that link to each other hoping to both power each other up. From our experience, this is okay in moderation, but if you over do it you run into link scheme problems.
  • Schema: Schema is a way to give Google more information about what is on your website/webpage. From our own testing, this is a great way to get better ranking results.
  • Site-wide Links: Site-wide links (like footer links) have been known to pass less power than contextual links.
  • Sponsored Links: Sponsored links are links that were paid for. They now have their own link rel, rel=”sponsored”. They pass less power because Google knows you paid for them (aka they are not difficult to get and be used to manipulate your rankings). However, from our experience they still help your rankings.
  • User Generated Content (UGC) Links: User generated content is easier to get than earned links. They now have their own link rel, rel=”UGC”. Therefore, it is easy to see how Google would value them less. However, they are still a good thing to do for link diversity, “normal behavior”, “blending in”, etc.
  • Web 2.0 Links: Web 2.0s are a huge way to build links in SEO. Blogger, Tumblr, wordpress.com, etc. Google has recently implemented a link rel for UGC “user-generated content” and I image these blogs will begin to adopt it. Yes, it will affect the power these links pack.
  • Word Count of Linking Content: More words = more effort. Google knows that spammer try and put in the least amount of effort possible, so this could be a ranking signal, however, from our personal experience, it does not matter.

User Signals

10 user signal ranking factors
  • Bounce Rate: High bounce rate means users are coming to a page and leaving without doing anything. Aka, the page is not providing value. Google can easily see this, and would clearly want to supply their users with pages that seem to do a good job. Get your bounce rates under control.
  • Chrome Bookmarks: Google tracks everything you do (that they have the ability to track) and bookmarking pages in Chrome is absolutely something they can do. Bookmark links used to be a huge way to build links. Many people see them as somewhat spammy now, but in moderation – I believe they can still be beneficial
  • Direct Traffic: Google loves brands. And brands get direct traffic. I’ll let you do the math on that one.
  • Dwell Time: Dwell time is similar to Bounce Rate. It’s how long someone stays on a page when coming in from a Google search. Obviously people who stay on your page longer will only benefit you.
  • Number of Comments on a post: Comments show engagement. Google likes engagement.
  • Organic CTR for a Keyword: If a lot of people are clicking on your result, it shows that the general population is intrigued by what you have in your page title. This is a user signal Google can easily pick up on and reward you for.
  • Pogo-sticking: Pogo sticking is the behavior of a user when they get to a SERP, click on a result, and then hit the ‘back button’ to the SERP and click on another result in an attempt to find a proper answer to their search query. I’m sure you can relate to this one.
(source: backlinko)
  • RankBrain: RankBrain is “a machine learning-based search engine algorithm …. that helps Google to process search results and provide more relevant search results for users” (source). Although not really a “single Google Ranking Factor” it is worth mentioning here as it does affect your SERP position.
  • Social Media Likes/Interaction: Real businesses get some kind of interaction on social. This is definitely a trust signal to Google. And don’t fake it – Google can tell that too.
  • Repeat Traffic: Repeat traffic is a fantastic way to show Google that your page is valuable. So valuable, in fact, that people come back again and again. Pro-tip: Use re-marketing to get people back to your page.

Brand Signal Ranking Factors

6 brand signal ranking factors
  • Authorship: Authorship ties content to an entity (person). This creates trust. If there is a notable or known, author we humans trust that person more (usually). Google works the same way:
  • Branded Searches: Google captures & catalogs all searches. If a brand is getting search volume for its brand name, then Google sees this as a trust signal – because the brand is notable enough that people are actively searching for it by name. The more, the better.
  • Brand + KW Searches: The next logical evolution after a brand name search is brand + keyword search. From our personal testing, we have seen this helps build the trust of a website/brand.
  • Brand Mentions: Brand mentions are anytime a website writes your brand name somewhere in their article. Maybe it was mentioned on Twitter, or maybe within the content of a post. For example, we just brand mentioned “Twitter” right there in the last sentence. Did you pick up on that?
  • Branded Anchor Text: Branded anchor text is normal. Big brands get alot of links pointing to them with their brand name as the clickable anchor text. For example, here is the anchor text profile for a large brand called Best Buy. Look how many links they have with branded anchors:
  • Social Foundations: Having well established, completely filled out, and legitimately followed social media accounts is a natural part of any brand building. These are key signs to Google that your website should be trusted.

Local Ranking Factors

10 local ranking factors
  • Consistent Citations: Probably one of the most important local ranking factors, making sure that your business is listed properly & consistently across all online directories is a huge task, and very important. If Google sees that all the only directories have the same information it gives Google a lot of confidence that the information is still accurate and trustworthy. Check the consistency of your online presence here.
  • Geo-Targeting: Some SEOs think that if your server (host) is local to the geography you are targeting, that you will get ranking preference. The jury is still out on this one. We don’t really think it matters.
  • Google My Business: Claim & verify your Google My Business if you even want a chance to show up in the maps.
  • Google My Business Categories: Google something local related, look at the categories that show up, and you will see how much weight categories carry. Fill them outright, and fully.
  • Links from Local sites: There are a lot of websites that are geo-specific. For example, if you are a business in Los Angeles, it would be very beneficial to get a link from the West LA Chamber of Commerce. Get those types of links, and your local rankings will love you for it.
  • Local Searches: For geo-related searches (ex: “dentist near me”, “dentist in los angeles”) Google will display a map pack. Make sure you have a verified Google My Business if you want the option of showing up there.
  • Physical Location: Having a physical location is not a requirement, but it does show that your business is less likely to be a spammer than a real, trusted business.
  • Proximity to the Searcher: Being close to the origin of the searcher is a huge benefit to showing up locally.
  • Reviews: Both quality & quantity. Google loves reviews because they are done by independent 3rd parties – a great source of trust.
  • Review Responses: The next best thing from reviews is responding to your reviews! This shows Google that the business is active and actually cares about its reputation, and how customers are being served.

Negative Ranking Factors

30 negative ranking factors
  • Duplicate Meta Info: Duplicate meta information falls under the duplicate content purview. Use Screaming Frog to check your metas, and make sure they are unique.
  • Affiliate Sites: Google knows that website owners need to make money to run their business, and affiliate marketing is a legitimate way to do it. However, sites that are created solely to refer traffic away and make an affiliate commission are not looked favorably by Google. Try to show that you have at least some sliver of non-monetary reason to be there.
  • Affiliate Link Hiding: Hiding anything usually means you’re up to no good. And if you just read the bullet point above, this one needs no explanation. Don’t do this – or be very careful. Proceed at your own risk.
  • Autogenerated Content: This just screams spam. Google hates spam. Enough said.
  • Cloaking: Cloaking is when you show a user one thing, but show a search engine another thing. This is intentionally and obviously deceptive. If you get caught by Google you will be penalized/de-indexed.
  • Doorway Pages: Doorway pages are looked on as a kind of black hat seo trick, and Google does not like them. Full article here.
  • PageRank Sculpting: Page rank sculpting is defined as no-following all (or most) of your outbound links with the intention of keeping all your link power on the page, and not letting it flow out anywhere. Some SEOs think that Google picks up on this and will look unfavorably on it.
  • Fred Update: Fred update targets low-quality pages. Keep them off your site, and you won’t need to deal with Fred.
  • Full Page Popups: Full page pop-ups, aka “interstitial” pop-ups, can be a bad user experience. Especially when they are hard to close, or there are multiple of them, or the user is on mobile, etc. Avoid annoying and unhelpful things and keep your user in mind, and your website rankings should benefit.
  • IP Flagged as Spam: Obviously, if you have been flagged (or the host / IP you are on has been flagged) as spam, you will have a harder time earning trust. Avoid flagged IPs. Avoid bad neighborhoods.
  • Linking to Bad Neighborhoods: Didn’t we just say avoid bad neighborhoods? Yes, we did. Linking to (or getting links from) is a way of associating your website with others. Don’t associate with stuff Google doesn’t like. Only link out to websites you are 100% confident you can trust.
  • Meta Tag KW Stuffing: Keyword stuffing anywhere is a no-no, and meta tags are just another place to not do that.
  • Panda Penalty: A Panda Penalty is a content-related penalty. Usually having to do with thin/poor content or over-optimization of content. Don’t over-optimize.
  • Pop-up Ads / Distracting Ads: Are you old enough to remember how annoying the internet was just a few years ago? If you went to the wrong website you seriously had to shut down your computer to escape the onslaught of never-ending pop-ups. Users don’t like it. Google doesn’t like it. Don’t do it.
A day in the life of going on the internet not too many years ago
  • Google Dance: The Google Dance can shake up your rankings temporarily.
  • Google Sandbox: A heavily debated/contested topic in SEO, the Google Sandbox is basically what is responsible for link delays (ranking delays). When you get a link or links from a powerful site, Google does not “fully release” the full effect of the link power immediately. In fact, we have seen it take up to 9+ months for a link to fully kick in. You have the Google Sandbox Effect to thank for that.
  • Hacked Site: If your site gets hacked, your rankings can be negatively impacted.
  • Link Profile, High % of High/Low-Quality Links: This goes back to link diversity. You want to blend in. If you have an overly high % of links that are bad (or good even) your website will stand out, and your rankings can be affected.
  • Links From Press Releases: Links from press releases can definitely hurt your site if you do them wrong. Getting a lot of dofollow links from a press release (especially if you use keyword anchor text) can seriously hurt your rankings for that keyword.
  • Links from the same Class IP Address: If all your links (or a high majority of them) are from the same IP Class (A, B, C) it looks suspicious, and probably is. Google notices that, and you can get penalized. We have seen this happen first hand.
  • Links From Unrelated Sites: Getting links from unrelated websites are said to not help you. In fact, we have tested this. A strong link from an unrelated website can definitely help your rankings. It’s better to get a relevant one though.
  • Low-Quality Directory Links: Getting links from directories that are irrelevant or low quality is something you probably want to stay away from. Check their traffic, DR, etc. and you will be fine.
  • Manual Actions: Manual actions definitely affect your rankings. Check Google Search Console to see if you have any manual actions that require your attention.
  • Penguin Penalty: If you get a Penguin Penalty your rankings will definitely be affected. This is a penalty that has to do with backlinks. If Google finds out (or suspects) that you have been manipulating your rankings, you will be penalized.
  • Reconsideration Request: If your rankings have been affected, you got a manual penalty, and you made the changes you can submit a reconsideration request to try and repair your rankings. It may take a while, it may not work – but definitely do it because it can save you.
  • Selling Links: If you are caught selling links Google will penalize or de-index your website. It happens all the time.
  • Sudden Influx of Links (without other signals): As you probably know by now, anything unnatural that pops up on Google’s radar is usually not a good thing. This applies to links as well. Sometimes websites naturally get a lot of links (breaking news, viral videos, etc.) but those are accompanied by a ton of other social signals. If you just get a bunch of links without traffic, shares, likes, etc. it looks very suspicious.
  • Toxic Links: Some links are toxic. Make sure that the links your website has acquired are quality. And if they aren’t good, disavow them.
  • Widget Links: Some developers use plugins to build links to their site. When you install a theme or plugin, it will automatically put a link back to their site. Google does not like this (but it works extremely well to build rankings).

Other Ranking Factors

  • Browsing History: Browsing history can, and will, affect the SERP you see. Make sure that if you are checking your rankings, you are browsing incognito.
  • DMCA Complaints: If you violate internet copyright laws, and someone files a DMCA complaint Google gets that information and sees that you are not playing by the rules, and can/will affect your rankings.
  • Domain Diversity: Google’s Bigfoot update was intended to make sure that when you do a search, you see a diverse selection of domains. Aka, they don’t want to have the same domain (URL) ranking multiple times on the page. They want to give the searched choices.
  • Easter Eggs: Easter eggs in Google refer to searches that trigger interesting things. If you are trying to rank for one of these, good luck – your rankings will be affected. One of my favorites is from the video game “Star Fox”. In Google Chrome, go to Google and search: do a barrel roll.
  • Rich Snippet / Featured Snippet: Featured snippets are a huge factor in ranking. First, if you are NOT the featured snippet, then the number of clicks you get from being on page 1 will be drastically lower than normal. Conversely, if you can get the rich snippet you will be snatching up a ton of clicks.
  • Image Results: Image results are not necessarily a ‘ranking factor’ but they are something you will want. Images can drive results, and sometimes they do display in the regular SERP area.
  • Payday Loans Update: The “PayDay Loans” update affects the rankings of spammy queries.
  • Query Deserves Freshness (QDF): For certain search types, Google will boost the rankings of pages if they need (or “deserve”) freshness. Think news, weather updates, etc.
  • Query Deserves Diversity (QDD): Google (potentially) recognizes search queries that have the potential for multiple different intents, like a search for the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature  or World Wrestling Federation?) and attempt to modify the SERP results to include more options so the users intent is satisfied – no matter what they were searching for.
  • Safe Search: Safe search is a Google feature that filters SERP results for the little ones. Parental controls basically. SERPs would have adult language and content removed.
  • Shopping Results: If your search query has shopping intent attached to it, Googs will display shopping results (and ads) and that will affect the ranking of your page.
  • Single Site Results: The opposite of QDD, single-site results will bring up the same site multiple times for a search. This primarily applies to brands.
  • Top Stories: The Top Stories Box is another SERP feature, that if triggered will affect the rankings of your page.
  • Transactional Searches: SERP results will be altered if the search has transactional intent/value.
  • YMYL Keywords: YMYL = Your Money Your Life. This refers to searches that can significantly impact the health, wealth, or wellbeing of a person if they were to read the wrong (or right) information. Businesses in the YMYL niche are having all sorts of problems ranking for things as of right now (late 2019) as Google is making gigantic changes to their algorithm. Many businesses (even very large trusted websites are getting destroyed in the SERPs).
Devin Schumacher

Devin Schumacher

Devin is one of the world's top search engine optimization experts, and the Founder of SERP Co.

8 thoughts on “Google Ranking Factors”

  1. Devin, thanks for breaking everything down here. This was an exhaustive article that anyone who’s looking to boost their site’s rankings should read through thoroughly. With all the various factors at play, I’m thinking of getting an SEO expert to work with me on my site. There are so many sites out there that you usually need some type of edge to make it to the top (or near).

  2. This looks helpful but frankly, it’s a lot to take in. Is there any way of processing this slowly that you’d recommend? I want to improve my google ranking for sure, but I feel overwhelmed right now. Help!

    1. Some people say learning SEO (or anything digital marketing) is like “drinking from a firehouse”… Believe me I can relate. Just keep chipping away at it!

  3. There are a TON of things not to do. I bet if you look at many web pages you’ll see some of the no-no’s you mentioned such as keyword stuffing and pagerank sculpting. BTW, I’m so glad that pop-ups are penalized. I still see them occasionally but not like before.

    1. Google should still do more… I was on cbs news this weeekend (i think?) looking at some info for a PPV boxing event and the entire page was ads and pop-ups I almost threw up.

  4. Updates sound like a big factor in google ranking. I try to maintain updates on my content at least 1x a week, preferably 2x. Is it important to change the layout (tweak, no wholesale changes)? Will this bump up my Google ranking?

    1. I wouldn’t worry too much about making updates for updates sake. Just make sure your content is relevant, quality, answers searchers intent & is not OUT of date.

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