Today I wanted to continue the trend of my last couple of posts by looking at what we really know about the ranking factors used by Google’s algorithm. What are our sources? How much of what we think is best practise can we truly be sure about and how much does it matter?
Throughout this post I challenge what we consider to be a ranking factor. A lot of SEO is down to one person finding something which works. Considering how little we know about how Google actually works it is hard to say whether something which works is directly a ranking factor or not.
That doesn’t hugely matter because if something works to get you ranking on Google it has to be a good thing. Right? There are a few cases where this isn’t quite true. Also one of the “most important ranking factors” may only be relevant to less than 1 out of every 100 websites.
If you follow one person’s view of SEO, or have somebody managing your SEO it is important to be able to tell whether what they are doing is actually going to benefit you. This means understanding how SEO works.
Read on and I will help you understand SEO and Google in so far as anybody can. The main point of this post is not to say that we know nothing about SEO, instead to understand SEO you need to accept that we know very little about how Google records and retrieves it’s data.
But that doesn’t matter if the result is that you have a website which has lots of healthy well converting traffic. At the end of the day if you care about the SEO of your website you need to decide for yourself what works for you, and that means not necessarily implementing a feature just because it is best practise. One thing that we can say for sure is over the last few years search has evolved and become far more complex.
The first idea that I want to explore is that messages from Google are always accurate. A lot of the best practises we have come directly from Google’s employees. Are they a reliable source?
- Ranking Factors Confirmed by Google
- Looking at the Bigger Picture
- What do we Know About Google’s Ranking Algorithm?
- The Point of this Post
Ranking Factors Confirmed by Google
Google rarely confirm or deny factors outright, and when they do it is usually an employee like Matt Cutts, John Mueller saying “to my knowledge” or “at this time”. This highlights two issues.
Firstly Google’s algorithm is updated very frequently. The new Webmaster tools shows (some?) updates on it, but this is a very recent change – within the last few weeks. Even when Google announces an update they only give us an idea of the theme of the update, like for example the recent ‘mobilegeddon’ (next section).
Secondly Google’s algorithm uses many ranking factors. When Matt Cutts, John Mueller or [insert Google employee’s name here] says “to my knowledge” we don’t know whether they have a complete current knowledge of Google’s algorithm.
Some would say of course they do – they are creating the webmaster resources so many people quote as SEO gospel, but because we can’t say for sure exactly how complex Google’s algorithm is we can’t be sure.
In fact later in this post is a video of Matt Cutts saying that he doesn’t know the answer to a question and has to ask somebody with a better knowledge of Google’s algorithm. It may be a fair guess that somebody in Google fact checks their webmaster resources, but that is just a guess.
This gets a lot more messy when people take Matt Cutts’ blog statements, or statements John Mueller makes live in webmaster chats as facts coming straight from Google. It’s unlikely that Matt’s personal blog, or social media is fact checked by Google’s search developers, and impossible that a live group chat is fact checked.
And then you have a personal agenda to look at. If you ask a man who’s job it is to reduce search engine spam whether doing something which can be spammy will benefit you, can you really expect a straight answer?
Google’s mobile friendly update – nicknamed mobilegeddon- started to be implemented 21.04.2015.
We’re boosting the ranking of mobile-friendly pages on mobile search results.
They confirmed that this won’t effect desktop searches and give a rough overview of what being mobile friendly means.
…text is readable without tapping or zooming, tap targets are spaced appropriately, and the page avoids unplayable content or horizontal scrolling.
They also bought out a mobile friendly testing tool which says whether your site is or isn’t mobile friendly. So we can be fairly sure that if your website isn’t mobile friendly it will be less likely to rank on mobiles for competitive search terms.
This is about as close as Google ever comes to saying “this is how our algorithm works”. What they haven’t said is if there is a gradient of mobile friendliness – do very mobile friendly websites get brownie points, while very unfriendly sites are seen as worse than a just slightly unfriendly one? It would make sense that it would work like this but in the next section you will see that’s not necessarily how things go.
You may have heard that here at Google we’re obsessed with speed, in our products and on the web. As part of that effort, today we’re including a new signal in our search ranking algorithms: site speed. Site speed reflects how quickly a website responds to web requests. – Google 2010
In 2010 Google confirmed that page speed was used as part of their algorithm. At the time they said that 1% of websites were affected by this update. Page speed is now seen as one of the most important on site ranking factors, but what does that actually mean?
- Does page speed now affect more than 1% of websites’ SEO – this would indicate that page speed isn’t a gradient, and only really slow sites are effected by this algorithm?
- Does a slow page take 500ms to load or 5 seconds to load?
- Is is a website with no compression or caching considered to be slow, like Google Pagespeed Insights would suggest, even if it’s sever is lightning fast and code is well optimised?
- Is the page speed algorithm purely based on average page load time?
- Could it even be that both the previous points are true in different circumstances?
Going back to page speed being seen as one of the most important factors on page. Even if the update still only affects 1% of websites, page speed is a hugely important factor for user experience. If a page on my site takes 3 seconds to load I will have a high bounce rate. If all of my pages are regularly slow people won’t want to use my site. They won’t read my content, they won’t share my content and they won’t link to my pages.
The issue here is how much of this is cause related and how much is effect – Google said in their initial statement that they are “speed obsessed”. It is logical that their page speed algorithm is now more advanced and effects more websites but there is no real way of being sure. I have never seen a page speed related SEO case study where the results can’t be attributed to correlation due to positive user experience.
Links have been a part of Google’s algorithm forever. Pagerank is a large part of what made Google the giant it is today, it did a lot to made Google the most relevant and popular search engine. So it’s not surprising that John Mueller raised a few eyebrows at the beginning of 2015 by saying:
In general, I’d try to avoid [linkbuilding]…
We do use links as part of our algorithm but we use lots and lots of other factors as well. So only focusing on links is probably going to cause more problems for your web site that actually helps.
Mr Mueller is suggesting that he wouldn’t use link building as an SEO tactic. His words can be interpreted in several ways.
If you take this statement at face value it sounds like link building is a bad idea as a SEO strategy, but he doesn’t explicitly say that. The really important part of this statement is the last paragraph, most importantly the bolded sentence. Google “use lots and lots of other factors” than link building in their search results.
If I was trying to rank for the keyword “Google ranking factors” but I didn’t use the term “Google ranking factors” at all on page or in the source code it is unlikely that any amount of link building – even with careful anchor text use – will result in me ranking in 2015.
What Mr Mueller is actually saying there is completely true, but also very obvious when you look at it this way – you can build a billion links to a blank page but that doesn’t mean it will rank. However that may not be what he was trying to say. If you look at the wider context of why he says what he says another there’s at least one other possibility.
Google are against unnatural link building so over time linkbuilding has gone from in 2012 being by far the strongest ranking factor, to in 2015 now probably one of the strongest ranking factors. This doesn’t sound like a huge change but what about in 2018, will linkbuilding still be a strong ranking factor? SEO is a very fast moving industry and Google responds to SEO trends that can be seen as spammy.
Similar to link building in 2014 Matt Cutts’ told bloggers to “stick a fork in” (stop) guest blogging. This was very similar to John’s statement on link building. Guest blogging was at times creating spam articles created just for links, or the same article getting rewritten for many different websites which is basically duplicating content.
So to summarise – are John Mueller and Matt Cutts spreading what Google wants us to do rather than what is best for us, or is Google planning something which will replace linkbuilding and maybe even make it a negative? Time will tell but speculations won’t – it is possible Google don’t even know how they will change their search rankings in the future.
I will keep this section short because I did an analysis on how Google use social signals in their search algorithm the other week. The point I want to illustrate in this section is that just because Google say something that doesn’t mean that it will always be true.
- 2009: Twitter signs an agreement giving Google access to data or their Tweets.
- 2011: Google ends this deal and launches Google+.
- 2014: Matt Cutts says that Google treats Twitter and Facebook like any other websites – not in a special way, and uses links from them if they are able to.
- 2015: Google resigns their deal with Twitter.
Now there is a huge social signals debate going on. Are social signals used in Google’s algorithm currently, if so which and how strongly? The important point in the social signal debate is that in the fast world of SEO a statement from Google from a year ago won’t necessarily still be accurate.
Looking at the Bigger Picture
So take messages from Google with a pinch of salt. Look at their wording and who it is actually saying it. John Mueller is John Mueller, not Google. Google may have their own agenda, the information may be dated and sometimes they say one thing while meaning something else. You have to take a statement from Google with a pinch of salt and look at the wider context of why they might be saying it.
There are some really major holes in our knowledge of how search works. For instance do Google use different algorithms for different types of searches – we don’t know if Google treats all search terms in the same way, they might well treat a question different from a brand or product search.
A widely held view is that Google favours websites with video on them. Google owns YouTube and YouTube is the largest video host on the internet. Websites with video on them may perform better in search, but this doesn’t prove that having a video on page will help the page rank.
Lets presume having a video on page by default makes the page rank better. Would any video count or only a video hosted on YouTube? As the owners of YouTube Google could use the description or category a video is given on their website in their algorithm – if I included an irrelivant video in this post for the sake of having a video would that help me rank?
The problem with saying that video is a ranking factor is the fact that videos improve site engagement. Some users really prefer watching a video to reading lots of text. We don’t know how Google measures engagement and what parts of the user experience they might use as a ranking factor and we can’t say for sure that it is video which is helping a website rank, or the fact that users like seeing a video and are more likely to share the content.
What about if a video doesn’t help with your engagement – considering we can’t even say if Google responds to all search terms in the same way it becomes very important to get an idea of what is working for you.
Another unknown I touched on earlier surrounds user experience. A lot of SEOs think that Google Analytics allows Google to collect data on how people engage with your website and they use this in their search algorithm. It would make sense – Google are the largest data mining company in the world, along with being a large search engine which just happens to have a free analytics tool which is used by more than half the websites in existence.
Unfortunately in this video Matt Cutts shuts this idea down and says that no this isn’t the case. This is the video I mentioned earlier where Matt Cutts admits to not having a complete knowledge of how Google’s algorithm works. He seems very genuine in what he is saying, but just because Google don’t use analytic data doesn’t mean they aren’t testing on site engagement in other ways (This video is also very old).
So now we are getting really into the unknown territory. We think that Google uses metrics like how long users stay on your site and what pages they visit, but we don’t know for sure if Google uses the analytic data, or data from chrome, or other websites or nothing at all for their ranking algorithm.
How many ranking factors does Google use?
A quick search on Google for “how many ranking factors does Google use” returns this knowledge graph result:
As it is on the knowledge graph, and has been for 2 years, it is safe to assume that this is accurate. Google has “at least 200 ranking factors”. Unfortunately this is the usual Google line of giving you something that sounds meaningful, but is actually meaningless. Over 200 means anywhere between 200 and infinity, so while I would class this as something that we know practically this information isn’t very useful.
I will shorten this section significantly by using someone else’s resource. Brian Dean compiled a list of what is thought to be 200 ranking factors which Google use – trying to reply to a comment somebody else left on Brian’s blog gave me the idea for this post. Mr Dean’s list of potential ranking factors is a good guideline of what modern SEOs may think they know, it is a well compiled list which cites a lot of external sources but that doesn’t mean it is complete.
What do we know About Google’s Ranking Algorithm?
The point of this article so far has been to get you thinking about the source of the information you use. This is by no means a complete list but hopefully the examples I give will help you decide which ranking factors are important for your website.
Considering it was 3 years ago that Google said that they had over 200 ranking factors, you’d think that number would have significantly grown by now. If you ask an SEO how many ranking factors they are a usual answer would be “Google say more than 200”. That’s probably a good thing – it’s better than trying to estimate from what we know.
The problem with SEO is that what we know works, and what we know are ranking factors are two completely different things. If I lower my bounce rate and increase the time a user spends on my website, then find that I get an increase in my organic traffic it would make sense these signals are linked. Unfortunately we have no real reason to think that these two metrics are direct ranking factors.
What is a lot more important for commercial website’s is that if I decrease my bounce rate and increase the time users spend on site they are more likely to buy products and services. Going beyond that for bloggers, a happy user is likely to spend a longer time on site than an unhappy user. A happy user is more likely to build links. Whether something is a direct ranking factor or an indirect factor really doesn’t matter hugely.
Look at a page description. We know that descriptions aren’t a direct ranking factor – putting a keyword in your description won’t help you to rank. Writing a clear and accurate description which matches your page title and encourages a user to click onto your website however can increase traffic.
Indirectly the last point about descriptions has pointed us towards a potential ranking factor. A well written description is still seen as an important part of search engine optimisation. This is because of click through rate.
Click through rate
Click through rate is the strongest factor in Google’s Quality Score for paid search algorithm. Click through rate was also found by Search Metrics to have the highest correlation to high rankings of any ranking factor they have ever found (67%).
Correlation is far from proof so this gives us a good path to investigate a potential ranking factor. Is click through rate a ranking factor in it’s own right, or just a signal which comes with having a high ranking website?
The higher a website ranks the more people click onto it. That is the whole point in SEO and getting your website to rank highly – to drive more traffic. If position #3 had the same click through rate as position #1 there would be no point in SEO. It is very obvious there would be a correlation, but just as we can’t accept a correlation study as proof we can’t discount click through rate as a ranking factor on these grounds.
Luckily in the case of click through rate there is a fairly clear answer which comes from a very reliable source. Edmund Lau used to be a member of Google’s search quality team – like Matt Cutts. The fact that he no longer works for Google I would say makes his comments on the subject more reliable as he has no reason to be vague about what he knows.
“It’s pretty clear that any reasonable search engine would use click data on their own results to feed back into ranking to improve the quality of search results. Infrequently clicked results should drop toward the bottom because they’re less relevant, and frequently clicked results bubble toward the top. Building a feedback loop is a fairly obvious step forward in quality for both search and recommendations systems, and a smart search engine would incorporate the data. The actual mechanics of how click data is used is often proprietary, but Google makes it obvious that it uses click data with its patents on systems like “Rank-adjusted content items.”
So there you have it – Google have never officially said that they use click through rate as a ranking factor, but unofficially the words of an ex employee, partnered with a reliable source is actually much clearer than a lot of the messages Google have given us in the past.
Length of text
Optimise-u has ~35 pages at the time of writing this post. Most contain between 1000 and 2000 characters of text. Last month I published a full strategy to get a new website ranking in 2015. This strategy guide is 8500 characters long at the moment and generates by far the most organic traffic out of any of my pages.
SEOs have been noticing this trend for a long time. The longer a piece of text the more long tail search terms it will appear for. My strategy guide has been shared around 2x as many times on social media as my second best page but at the time of writing this has no inbound links pointing at it.
So why does it get significantly more organic traffic than the rest of my pages? The length of the text is the obvious ranking factor here, but does length alone have anything to do with Google rankings?
It is known that keyword density is no longer the more the merrier – and hasn’t been for a long time. It seems that Google like keyword densities of around 1-3%. The longer a piece of text the more times a keyword will be mentioned if you keep your keyword density at this level, so is it length of text which is the ranking factor here, or is it overall keyword count while keeping to a fair keyword density?
Length of the coding also could be a ranking factor, also as it is a long guide in theory people would spend longer reading it than the rest of my pages. Finally longer blogs are impressive and more likely to get shared on social media, or referenced by other websites (creating inbound links).
So is the ranking factor down to length of code or text, or is the real ranking factor to do with a mix of keyword count, keyword density, engagement and social signals?
I want to leave this question with you to decide. Throughout this post I have looked at ways you can build your own view of what is and isn’t a ranking factor. There are all kinds of reasons that longer text could rank better, and I am curious to see what your opinion on the subject is (please leave a comment below).
The Point of this Post
This has been quite a lengthy post. I wanted to outline a few things – I said earlier there is a difference between a ranking factor, and an SEO best practise. A lot of SEOs will recommend a practice because it works effectively for them. So what does that mean for you?
If you own a website you know best what your users want. That means being creative, use any tool you can which you think will help your work get shared. This will bring you traffic from different places and having an idea of where your traffic comes from (specially the non search engine traffic) really helps you grow.
The earlier example of video is a good one. I would strongly advise against adding bells and whistles just for the sake of it. You will find some users really respond well to a good video, but if a bad video causes a user to stop reading your text you then lose a chance of having your work shared and reaching a wider audience.
The problem a lot of people have is that they are adding pieces of content to rank rather than creating content for their users. This is taking a means to an end – SEO to get high ranking for increased traffic – and making it an end it it’s own right. You don’t just want to rank, in fact if ranking bought no traffic you wouldn’t invest lots of your time trying.
For SEO to really work you need to stand out from others who are offering what you offer. I have done my best to outline in as many examples as possible how vague Google can be with their ranking factors.
But like what I was saying earlier – does it matter. If you change something on your website and it creates better rankings, or more sales, or achieves any of the goals you might have in place – does it matter if it is directly a ranking factor or if you are actually unknowingly manipulating a factor we have no idea about?
I would class user experience as the most important ranking factor. Earlier I pointed out that we don’t know if Google uses different factors depending on if a user is searching for a brand, or a product, or an answer. You need to test different approaches and see if they work for you.
Most of this post was spent challenging what we think are ranking factors. Certain factors like bounce rate and social signals are contested because while there is a correlation between these factors and how you rank we can’t tell if this is cause or effect.
I have my own opinions but this is a subject where it is best to build an opinion of your own from as many different sources as you can. That is the final point of this post – to give you the tools to build these opinions for yourself following the methods I used. If you are serious about SEO you should find and follow bloggers who you consider to be reliable sources through social media or email lists.
As you are reading this you presumably have a website and want to increase your traffic. Never lose sight of this goal and focus on ranking for a specific term, instead try and find a strategy which results in steady growth of your website.
Find a formula which works for you and follow it. Never be afraid to test different things. This doesn’t mean constantly make drastic changes to your website. Change the little but important things.
Try different call to actions, different anchor texts, different descriptions. These changes may not directly help with your rankings (although they also may make a difference in social shares and inbound links) more importantly they will help you make the most of the traffic you are getting currently (CRO).
Even for the ranking factors we do know are factors for sure, it is hard to say how much of an impact they are having directly and how much of it is indirect – so the changes that you make to your website may have a radically different effect to changes I make to mine.
Gurus are always going to say that they have Google worked out, they may believe it is true or they may just be saying that to get a following. It is down to you to decide if you think they’ll help you achieve whatever it is you are trying to achieve.
More on Google’s ranking factors: