People are always talking about ranking factors. You know, the secret ingredients to Google’s magic algorithmic formula. If you know them and find a way to please these factors, you’re well on your way to that coveted number one spot — or so people seem to think. In general, chasing all these individual ranking factors is not a good tactic. Focusing on building the best site is. We thought it’d be a cool idea to play a game of “is-a-ranking-factor” in our latest webinar. Here are the results!
Haven’t watched the webinar?
If you haven’t watched the ranking factor webinar, please do. Jono Alderson gives an incredible introduction to ranking factors, why people are talking about it, and what we should be talking about. After that, Jono and Joost get to pick cards with questions about possible ranking factors. Their answers are very insightful! You can find it on YouTube and embedded below.
The ranking factor FAQ
To guide you through this minefield, we collected some of the ranking factors we mentioned on the show in this FAQ. Let’s kick things off with an answer to the question: What are ranking factors?
Ranking factors are all the elements that search engines take into account to rank a specific page in the search results. This concerns technical considerations, content quality, site structure, links, user signals, user experience, reputation and many, many other elements. The number of factors that search engines take into account is unknown but run in the hundreds and maybe thousands.
Joost de Valk: User experience is a ranking factor. User experience, however, is not something you can rate on a 0 to 10 scale. The problematic thing with a lot of these factors is that they’re all both direct and indirect ranking factors. If your user experience is horrible, no one will ever link to you. If your user experience is excellent, probably more people are willing to recommend you to their friends, search for you again and go back to your website. All these things tie in together.
Jono Alderson: This is interesting because they’re not on your site measuring your site are they? So there’s a lot of conspiracy theories that they might read your Google Analytics or insights from Chrome, but that’s probably not true. What they are looking at when they visit your site is content, structure, speed, layout, color schemes et cetera. Not only that, but they’re also looking for those critical short clicks, bounce backs and pogo-sticking. They do check if people visit five other web sites when they visit this one. They’re analyzing their own search results. But it’s hard for them to quantify UX because they’re not there. They’re trying to work it out from the outside in.
Jono: There’s not one true answer for this. The point is, you need the right amount of content for answering the question that the user has. There’s no answer to how many words a post should need. There’s no obvious maximum and more isn’t necessarily better but more than enough is a good answer. If you can write 500 words on a topic and that feels right, then definitely don’t stop at 200. But in some cases, a short answer is what you want.
Joost: At some point, I chose to put a minimum word count into Yoast SEO for a reason. I think most algorithms still need a bit of content to be able to determine a topic. If you don’t have enough content, then determining a topic becomes very hard. So don’t get too hung up about an absolute amount.
Joost: If you think about this you’d say no, of course not. The weather doesn’t impact rankings. That’s true, not directly. But if you sell air-conditioning, people search differently during a heat wave than in regular weather conditions. Now, they’re looking for “ships today” or “delivered by tomorrow.” So it’s an outside factor. The weather influences the way people click. It changes their behavior and that click behavior can dramatically impact rankings quite quickly. All because of how Google works with these things. So the weather can influence rankings, but the question is can you play into it in a good way. That’s probably a lot harder, although not impossible.
Jono: I think once upon a time somebody thought it was. People thought it was a good idea to put the keywords they want to rank for in bold because Google would “recognize” those and deem them important. I don’t think it ever worked like that. Somehow, there are still people doing it. Maybe it correlates as being a _bad_ ranking factor. If you’re bolding your keywords instead of thinking about how to make this text good and readable, you’re probably making things worse.
Joost: I think that bounce rate is a result of a lot of things happening on your site. It’s a very measurable thing and it’s one of the results of good user experience. Bounce rate is often misunderstood. There’s a couple of different things at play here. People search, then click on your website and going back to the search results and click on the next result. They didn’t find a result they liked so they bounced back to SERPs. This is called pogo-sticking and I think that is an important thing to look at.
It’s also about bounce rate in general, because there might be a certain number of people who come to your site and immediately click away because of whatever it is you have on your site, whether that is a pop-up or you have a horrible design. Fixing your bounce rate by genuinely improving your site is helpful and it will help you regardless of whether your rankings get better.
Jono: Obviously, there are scenarios where bounce rate is fine. If you have a great article that answers the question the user has they come to read it and go away. That’s not a bad experience, because that’s what we want to happen. Plus, there’s something worth dwelling on here, which is the mental model we all have that somebody searches something and then clicks on a result isn’t how people behave. They search than change their search, they search again, they click on five different results and they see all these different brands and all these different pages and it’s that experience that decides whether they bounce and how they feel about the experience. That’s how we need to be thinking about search and optimizing. It’s not just why did they bounce from my site, but what was their experience and what role did I play in it.
Jono: Yes, site speed is a ranking factor. Google has confirmed in various publications that site speed affects the ranking position of your site. Now they do say that’s only the case when you are very slow, so it only affects a tiny percentage. But site speed is a huge part of user experience. All research says that people prefer fast web sites. So even if site speed isn’t a huge ranking factor the experience users have of your site is. It means they’re more likely to read, less likely to bounce, more likely to link, etc. It is a huge part of user experience.
Joost: The question is, does having a meta description by itself make you rank better? I don’t know whether we can answer that with a yes or no. If you’re lucky, your pages get a meta description in the search results underneath the title of your site. If you’re lucky, because in a lot of cases Google will show something else. So changing it might not directly impact what’s shown there. If it’s shown there and it’s good, it might influence the CTR from the SERPs to your website. So it might influence the number of people reaching your site, therefore, it might help your rankings overall et cetera.
Jono: Regarding progressive web apps, if you do it well and you take advantage of the technology, maybe that will affect your rankings, but is it a ranking factor? You might become eligible for rich results or use functionality that’s integrated into the search results. You might get the ability to book your restaurant directly from the search results, which might mean more people have a good experience, which gets you more good reviews, which might make you rank higher. It’s a technological platform, it’s not a thing that ranks you better or not but it unlocks capabilities for sure.
Marieke: I do think that Google knows what quality text is. They employ linguists. They know about language. They know that people can only have twenty words in their short-term memory, so longer sentences will be hard to read.
Joost: One of the things that our linguistic team learned while doing research, is that it’s hard to get the topic out of a text if the text is poorly written. So even if a text is more eloquent and uses more fancy words, it might actually be harder to figure out what the text is about. I think that good, readable and understandable text has a higher chance of getting Google to understand what it’s about.
Jono: Google tries to understand pages like humans do. They have a famous patent called The Reasonable Surfer. Here, they look at the layout of the page and try to assess what’s what. They know that a link in a photo is probably less relevant than a link in the header. They go further than that. We know they render the page, we know they process and parse all the CSS, we know that broken layouts and hiding things impact things. So yeah, they are looking at the design. How that manifests in the system: who knows. Your CSS might impact your rankings. So if you have an ugly shade of pink as the background for your page or all your stuff is moving or half of it is invisible, that’s an issue.
Joost: I don’t think it’s necessarily a ranking factor. I do think that if you do all the technical stuff around multilingual SEO well and you have a page ranking well in English and you have a page in Spanish then the fact that you have an English page that hreflangs correctly to that Spanish page might be helping that Spanish page. In that case, it’s not the fact that you have multiple languages, but it’s the fact that you have multiple places in which you can rank and gather links and whatnot. Having a translated version of your website can be beneficial.
Joost: I still feel that links are the result of other stuff you do. So if you do PR well, if you do your marketing well, if you do a lot of these things and then you get links as a result. It is important to remember that the time of getting links artificially is over. At least for the English-speaking market and maybe in a few other languages. Unfortunately, in other languages, like in Dutch, getting a ton of spammy links still works when the other sites aren’t very good. When you have strong competition it becomes impossible to rank against them.
A final note on ranking factors
When Google was much simpler, it was easy to spot the specific tactics or patterns which you could use to get ahead of the competition. You could tweak your page titles, get some more links and what not. But that’s not how it works anymore — Google is too sophisticated. The secret is to focus less on all these individual tactics and focus more on becoming the best result for your users.
Google doesn’t want site owners trying to reverse-engineer how they rank sites. They simply want better sites. They want better results for their users and that makes it harder to know what will have impact and what not. It also means that you’ll almost always benefit from improving your site. Understand your audience and solve their problems.
We don’t want to say that ranking factors don’t exist. They do exist. They’re real, but we are saying that if you’re focusing on which ranking factors you should be optimizing for you’re probably missing the big picture. You need to work on the overall quality of your website. Every one of your pages has to be awesome and there’s no faking that. You have to be the best result for each phrase you want to be found for. Getting all of that right requires a lot of hard work and a holistic approach to SEO.