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Knowledge Bank: SEO Ranking Factors [2020 Guide]

If you’ve tried SEO (Search Engine Optimization) before with mixed or poor results, or you’re skeptical about whether you need to care about it or not, it’s probably because of outdated information or the wrong advice from someone who didn’t understand SEO ranking factors.

Whether you think SEO is just about keywords, doesn’t work, or even if you think you understand how Google and other search engines index and webpages and display search results, this article is for you.

Keep reading to learn the answers to the following five common SEO ranking questions:

1. What is a Search Engine Ranking Factor?

A search engine ranking factor is any element a particular search engine uses to determine where a specific webpage or other pieces of online content will appear in the search results for a given query.

What is a Search Engine?

A search engine is an online tool that makes it easier for users to find information on the web. The most commonly used ones are, as most readers are well aware, Google, Bing, and Yahoo. But don’t forget that less traditional search engines are used everyday on various other platforms, such as Facebook, Amazon, and even Craigslist. When a visitor enters a word, phrase, question, or similar query, the tool displays a list of results that are most relevant to the keywords.

How Do Search Engines Find Information?

First of all, they don’t search the entire internet whenever you type a keyword into the search bar. Instead, most search-based websites use software called bots, aka spiders or crawlers, to build an index consisting of as much information on as many websites and their pages the bots previously accessed. Next, when someone types in a query, a search engine’s algorithms use specific factors to display a list of relevant links to information related to the question. That’s where ranking factors come in.

Every search tool will have slightly different ranking factors because they all have their own algorithms.

How Many Search Engines Are There?

There are many different search engines out there. Some of them are more active in other countries, but the top five in the United States are:

  1. Google
  2. Bing
  3. Yahoo
  4. Ask
  5. DuckDuckGo

All of these use their own proprietary methods for displaying results. Therefore, the same keywords will never return the same results in a Google, Bing, or Yahoo search.

Which Search Engine Should I Focus On?

Remember, each search platform will have its own algorithms and ranking factors, so how are you supposed to create content that gets found – driving more traffic to your landing pages and, ultimately, more customers to your business?

The answer is to focus on the one your customers use the most, and that’s probably going to be Google. Google’s worldwide search engine market share is close to 93 percent. In other words, more than nine out of 10 searches that take place happen on Google.

How Many Ranking Factors are there?

There are many different SEO ranking factors, and they can be divided into two primary types: on-page and off-page factors.

What Are On-Page SEO Factors?

On-page SEO involves everything that you can control on a webpage to help it rank better in search results. These factors are essential for making your content search engine friendly.

You’re probably familiar with some on-page ranking factors, like how proper keyword usage and creating unique content is beneficial. But there are others as well. They include the following:

Content Quality

In the early days, SEOs used to be able to rely solely on keywords with little worry about the quality of the content. Search engines like Google were less sophisticated. As a result, you often could repeat the same keywords over and over to have a webpage appear at the top of the search results.

Now, while keywords are still important, the quality and usefulness of your content are critical. The information on your website and landing pages must be useful and relevant to the searcher. Keywords themselves have evolved to include phrases, questions, and even taking into consideration how LSI (latent-semantic indexing) plays a role. Google also ranks content based on, what many in the industry are referring to as, EAT – expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. In other words, if your content lacks trustworthiness, you won’t get a lot of Google love.

PRO TIP: Create content around your customers’ needs, with a heavy focus on user-experience, and Google will follow suit.

Keyword Density

Over the years, the keyword density on your page has changed. And while a good rule of thumb is to keep your keyword density at somewhere between one and three percent, the easiest way to keep it an optimum level is to use primary keywords naturally within the content and to incorporate other keyword strategies like semantic or LSI keywords, long-tail keywords, and topic research to avoid stuffing your webpages with the same word over and over.

PRO TIP: Don’t focus on keyword density. Instead make your content exhibit keyword variation. How many different ways does your customer typically refer to the same thing you content is about? Answer this, then plug the phrases into your copy.

Title Tags

Every webpage on your site from your home page to your blog posts must have specific HTML code that indicates it’s a unique title. These meta titles are seen in SERPs as the blue title accompanying each result. The page title is considered to be a major ranking factor as it should accurately describe what each webpage is about.

PRO TIP: Write title tags differently based on the type of content they represent. For local service pages, include the service offered and the location. For blog content, use a slight variation of the article’s title (to help expand the amount of keywords – hence impressions and clicks). For product pages, consider using verbs – for sale, buy online, etc. Finally, use keyword variations; trying not to use the same word twice.

Heading Tags

Heading tags in HTML refer to the size of the font for headers. They’re numbered in descending order from one to six, with one being the largest size and six being the smallest (depending on each website’s CSS).

  • H1
  • H2
  • H3
  • H4
  • H5
  • H6

In general, you want to keep your heading sizes logical, so usually, your title will be an H1, and your main headings will be H2s. H2 sub-headings should be H3s, H3 sub-headings should be H4s, and so on. You also don’t want to have your main copy formatted as a heading, such as wrapping the body text of your webpage in H6 HTML. This could affect user-experience and wouldn’t be considered an SEO-friendly tactic.

Proper usage of HTML headings isn’t an SEO ranking factor on its own. But when considering how they can improve user-experience and on-page metrics, they can indirectly affect one’s overall “SEO” value of a page.

PRO TIP: User headers with the intent of improving user-experience – breaking up the copy with whitespace and accurately describing what each section is about to allow readers to quickly scan through the content.

Meta Descriptions

When a user performs a search online, besides a headline that links to an article, a summary or snippet of copy also displays. This is intended to help users to determine if the content has, or potentially has, the answer to their question or solution to their problem. This short paragraph, usually only about a sentence or two, is commonly referred to as a webpage’s meta description.

Google claims that meta descriptions are not a ranking factor. However, there is evidence that well structured meta descriptions can improve click-through rates. In a study by Backlinko, pages with meta descriptions receive 5.8 percent more clicks. So take the time to craft them!

PRO TIP: Write meta descriptions for your ideal audience. If you have unique selling points (USPs), you may want to include that. For example, if your customers receive free shipping or a discount for buying X-amount of goods, let Google’s users know!

Alt Image Tags

Alt image text helps your webpages to be more accessible to people who use text readers to help them read online content. They also help the web crawlers that search engines use so they can index images. That’s because search bots cannot “see” images in the same way a person does.

You want your image tags to be descriptive, but not spammy and stuffed with keywords.

PRO TIP: Describe what the image is of. But don’t do this just for the Alt tag. Ensure that you do it for your image file names too.

Domain Security

According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, roughly 65 percent of Americans are concerned about online security and privacy. And 85 percent of people will bounce off your website if it’s not secure.

Plus, in 2014, Google confirmed that a specific type of web encryption, HTTPS, was being used as a ranking signal and recommended that webmasters make the switch from HTTP to HTTPS.

Although improving domain security provides only a slight bump to search rankings, factors like SSL certificates are trust signals to search sites and customers. And keep in mind that the trustworthiness of your website can also influence where you rank in the SERPs.

PRO TIP: While secured connections are vital for many websites, namely ones that ask for personal information – credit card, financing, medical, etc., to demonstrate trustworthiness, most small reference-based websites will not see any change in search ranking by upgrading to HTTPS. In these cases, focus on what will move the needle – better content, authority building, and addressing technical issues.

Site Structure

Besides being more user-friendly, having a logical website hierarchy helps search engine spiders and bots crawl your webpages. To achieve this, start at the website design and development stage by organizing the navigation so a visitor can get to any page on it in just three or four clicks. Furthermore, unless you’re a large company like eBay or Amazon, avoid too many categories and sub-categories.

Next, use the navigation to guide your URL structure. The URLs should contain keywords and follow the website navigation you setup.

PRO TIP: Structure your website URLs the way you would a filing cabinet (for those who’ve ever used one). In other words, divide it into main sections and subsections – keeping slugs concise. For example: www.legalwebsite.com/services/family-law/divorce

Sitemaps

Why do you need an XML sitemap? Because it communicates to search engines what content is on your website and how to find it. It’s a guide to your site’s navigation.

Google can still find and index your content without one, but an XML sitemap helps them index your webpages faster.

PRO TIP: For CMSs that have the capability, exclude duplicate content (or assign canonical URLs), taxonomy pages, and image attachment pages. By doing this you will improve the chances of Google sending visitors to the page you want them to land on as opposed to a similar page that, for example, may not have the same conversion points in place.

Internal Links

Internal links are simply links within a website’s content that click-through to other pages on the website, as opposed to sending the user to a third-party website. They are part of just about every website’s architecture and help with both user-experience and passing page authority.

Having an internal linking strategy doesn’t just make your site easier for users to navigate. It also helps Google to index new content and determine the importance of that particular webpage.

PRO TIP: Don’t force internal links; rather, use common sense. If you’re publishing a blog post that references a product that you offer, link to it. If you’re covering a topic in length and you have previously published supporting articles, link to them. There is no right or wrong number of internal links a given webpage should have. Just do what makes sense for the piece you’re working on.

Errorless HTML & CSS

When there are errors in the code on your site, it can cause glitches, errors, and impact how quickly an individual page loads. All of these factors can negatively impact your user-experience; which could potentially affect search rankings. It’s important to validate both the HTML and the CSS on your website to prevent that from happening.

PRO TIP: Regularly check core pages for errors or anything that may influence a user’s interactions. For most businesses, it’s recommended that you don’t clutter a core page or use styling that distracts the user from what you want him/her to do – call, buy, fill out a form, etc.

Site Speed

We just mentioned that code error could impact site speed, but why is site speed important? Site speed and how fast individual webpages load are part of the overall user-experience. Furthermore, Google confirms that the rate at which your website loads is a ranking factor.

PRO TIP: As with secured websites, yes site speed is important; however, it is far more important for highly trafficked websites more so than for a mom-and-pop, five-pager, for a rural business. Do what you can to improve site speed, but focus on content, authority, and users first.

Mobile Friendly

From 2018, Google started mobile-first indexing. Before that, the search giant used the desktop version of web content first to index and evaluate where it would rank in results. Now they crawl the mobile version of your site first. So, if there are issues with user experience like appearance and site speed, then your search rankings will take a hit.

PRO TIP: Sometimes a responsive website doesn’t always provide the same user-experience on mobile as it does on desktop. Consider creating design elements specifically for mobile users to improve conversions if they lack on mobile (or vice versa for desktop).

What are Off-Page Ranking Factors?

Off-page or off-site factors involve strategies and tactics you can employ that don’t occur on your own website to help improve your organic search ranking. They include influencing the perception of your online content’s authority, relevance, and trustworthiness for people and search engines. You do this by convincing reputable websites, organizations, and people to link to your site or promote your content online.

Therefore, when you think about off-page SEO, there are two main categories:

  1. External Links – Known as Backlinks or Authority Building
  2. Things that Aren’t Links

External Links

Most SEO experts, including those at Moz, categorize backlinks into three main types.

1. Natural links

These are the links to your blog posts or a webpage from other sites from producing better content on a topic than anybody else and from improving brand awareness. You don’t do any outreach to earn the link.

For example, we linked to content from Moz, and many others throughout this piece, because we liked their explanation of the specifics we’re discussing. They didn’t ask us to link to their post. As a result, they “earned” a natural external link from BizIQ.

2. Manual Outreach Links

This type of link is what many people think of first when they think of backlinks. It involves link building strategies that include outreach to reputable companies in the hopes that they will link to your relevant content. It also includes things like monitoring the internet for brand mentions, so you can content publishers and ask them to add a link back to your site anywhere they refer to your business. Other examples of manual links include asking customers to link to your website and getting influencers and bloggers to share links to your landing pages via social media; however, most links from social platforms don’t pass authority.

3. Self-Created Links

This type of link is tricky. That’s because many practices associated with it are now considered “Black Hat” SEO and can get your site penalized or even de-indexed by Google.

It’s better to focus on natural links and link building than self-created links, and on links that provide your site with the most equity – also known as “link juice.” Think of quality links from high authority organizations as proof to search engines that your website is also an authority.

Not Links

Besides external links, there are other marketing strategies that you might not realize are off-site SEO. However, because for all of them, your goal is to get people to refer to your website or a piece of content, the end result is still often a link. Therefore, technically, you can think of it as a form of “link influencing” that might involve link building later on, or as a way to indirectly influence earning a natural link.

2. How Does Google Deliver Search Results

Now that you know a bit about how search engines and SEO ranking factors, let’s get back to how Google search ranks your content.

Like any search engine, Google uses bots to crawl the web and index pages so they can display them whenever one of its users types a word or phrase into the search bar. But how does Google deliver those results?

When you enter your search terms into Google’s search engine, its many algorithms sift through the thousands of pages of content in its index and sorts it in order by what is the most relevant, useful, and best information on the topic you entered.

The results Google shows you might include ads, featured snippets, articles, images, videos, podcast episodes, and other content. For example, when I conduct a simple search for the popular Netflix show, The Witcher, my search results include a featured snippet box with the Netflix logo and a link to subscribe, links with descriptions of blog posts and articles, top news stories about The Witcher, videos featuring clips of The Witcher, and images of actor, Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher.

But back to Google algorithms. These are updated continuously. Some updates are minor, and any shifts in a webpage’s rank are barely noticeable. Other updates, like core updates, often have names and can result in significant upheaval in search. The most recent updates are BERT in the last quarter of 2019 and the January 2020 core update.

Whenever Google rolls out any updates to its search engine algorithms, you will notice a lot of speculation in the online marketing community, especially among SEO’s but it can take weeks or months sometimes for any most lasting impact to be noticed as a result of any given adjustment to the search results.

3. Which Ranking Factors Should I Focus On?

As a company, Google is not transparent about its algorithms or how they determine the order of search results. But although Google is notoriously tight-lipped about their search algorithms and ranking factors they use, there’s some consensus among search professionals that there are over 200 Google ranking factors.

In rare cases, like a couple we already mentioned, Google confirms they are indeed, important factors. Others are controversial, and no two SEO’s will agree. So, which ones should you focus on when it comes to getting to the top of Google search?

Authority Building & Other Off-Site Ranking Factors

According to Moz’s bi-annual ranking factors study, off-page factors account for as much as 50 percent of Google’s ranking factors. That’s why focusing on link building and creating high quality, relevant content that attracts links naturally is probably the most crucial step you can take towards improving where your webpages appear in any given search.

Other off-page factors, like social media signals while more indirect, are still somewhat important and also can contribute to earning better quality links from more established brand websites.

User Experience

Elements of UX like page speed, site speed, site responsiveness, and mobile responsiveness are also essential when it comes to appearing on page one of search results. Google uses machine learning, known as RankBrain. It looks at other user experience signals like:

Click-Through Rate (CTR)

The percentage of people who click on a link and visit your website from a SERP.

Time on site or Dwell Time

How long a visitor stays on your website.

Bounce Rate

The percentage of people who quickly leave a webpage after clicking on a link to it.

These signals are used to determine how relevant content is to a given search query topic or keywords.

Other important UX signals include clear website navigation paths, cornerstone pages, and logical internal linking based on your primary keywords/topics.

Relevant Topics & Keywords

While off-page factors account for half of search ranking factors, topic and/or keyword research and content based on topics and keywords that are relevant to your business and your target customers are still crucial when it comes to Google ranking.

If your content isn’t related to what customers search for, and it doesn’t relate to what your company does, it will be tough for you to earn the off-page signals that tell Google you are an authority who publishes relevant and trustworthy content that they should display at the top of their results pages.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO refers to all the server-side, tracking, reporting, website structure, software side of things, and everything in-between that makes a campaign function.

A common examples of technical activities include setting up and testing Schema markup, cross-domain tracking in Analytics, or tracking contact form submissions.

Website Security & Accessibility

A website that’s secure and accessible with clear navigation will be easier for Google’s spiders to crawl and index. It will have error-free code, use robot.txt to tell Google which pages to crawl and which to ignore and should include an XML sitemap.

Website Authority, URL & Domain Age

According to Ahrefs, the average age of the top 10 search result’s URL is three years old. And while the age of a website isn’t the only factor, and shouldn’t discourage you from getting newer content to rank on page one, it should also encourage you not to give up on SEO after only a week or even a month.

Remember that improving website authority has more to do with improving content quality and earning links than in how long your website has existed.

Local Search Factors

If you’re a local business or a multi-location business that depends on local customers, there are a couple of additional Google ranking factors to consider. They include:

Accurate Business Information

Information in citations, online directories, and online business listings like Google My Business must be consistent, accurate, and complete across the entire Web. In particular, the following must be correct:

  • Company Name
  • Company Address
  • Company Phone Number
  • Website URL

If you have a GMB account, make sure your listing is up to date and that you fill out every section. Post consistently, respond to customer reviews and answer customer questions promptly.

Proximity to Searcher

It makes sense that if you’re a company relies on customers nearby, that it doesn’t need to rank on page one of Google search results all over a particular state or country. How close customers are to a local organization will affect where it appears in their search results.

That’s why when you search for “restaurants near me,” Google won’t return results too far away, and the top results will often start with eateries within a mile or two of your location.

4. How Can I Track Search Rankings?

Google does not make it easy for SEO’s, content marketers, and business owners to track search rankings and optimize content for search results. Not only are they not forthcoming about updates to how their search engine delivers results, Google routinely makes it more difficult for keyword tracking tools. Some of that is due to moving away from keywords as the most important indicator of relevance, and some of it might have to do with the fact that SEO tools don’t click on advertisements and therefore aren’t a revenue stream for the search giant.

But none of this means you shouldn’t use both Google’s free tools and paid third-party tools. We’ll go into some of BizIQ’s favorite tools in the next section, but here’s how you can work around some of the ways Google can interfere with SEO trackers and how to work around it.

Bypass Personalization

Google likes to personalize search results to particular users. When using free tools like plain old Google search to track results. Do the following:

  1. Add &pws=0 to your search as a URL parameter. It tells Google to turn off all personalized results.
  2. Log out of your Google account and search in incognito mode.

Choose Tracking Tools With Location Parameters

Because proximity to searcher is a ranking factor, make sure to use third-party tools that allow you to track results based on different locations. This is especially important if you or your clients are a local business.

Focus on Ranking Trends

Instead of focusing on keyword rankings as a key performance indicator (KPI), use keyword ranking trends over time instead. You and/or your clients will gain a more accurate picture of how well your SEO efforts are going and whether any adjustments need to be made.

Use SEO Tools To Monitor Links

These days many popular rank tracking tools like SEMrush and Ahrefs have tools that help you monitor your internal and external links. Their link tools can also help you find any bad external links, identify topics with high link building potential, and even monitor brand mentions on social media.

5. What are the Most Popular Tools for Tracking Results?

Now that you have an idea of how to track ranking factors, you need to consider which tools you want to invest your time and money into. You can decide on just one, but most SEOs and content marketers use multiple tools.

Know Your SEO Tracking Tool Types

There are three main types of SEO trackers.

1. Browser Plugins

These are add-on extensions to browsers like Chrome and Firefox that display ranking information within the search results. They are often free, but Google will detect and block them sooner or later, and they won’t be as effective at tracking longer lists of keywords.

2. Software & Apps

Stand-alone software is installed directly onto a device, usually a desktop or laptop computer. They don’t depend on your browser, and therefore, aren’t detected by Google. Plus, they allow you to track more keywords than a browser extension. However, if you need to track multiple websites or clients, then they aren’t the best choice.

3. SaaS tools

SaaS solutions are web-based and require a subscription. They allow you to track the most keywords and most domains. Some of them even have multiple features, including topic research, link building, social media, and Google Ads.

Top SEO Tools

There’s a wide variety of SEO tracking solutions out there from free to expensive, and from basic to powerful with lots of bells and whistles. Below are some of the most popular with a breakdown of their main features.

SEMrush

SEMrush is a vast tool that has multiple features and will provide you with an overwhelming amount of data if you’re not sure how to use it or what to track. But once you learn it, or know what to focus on, and what you don’t need, there’s a lot you can track.

For SEO ranking factors alone, this SaaS solution has the following features and more:

  • Organic Research
  • Keyword Research
  • Topic Research
  • Backlinks tracking
  • Traffic Analytics
  • Competitor Analysis
  • SEO Writing Assistant
  • Position Tracker
  • Brand Mention Tracker
  • Social Media Tracker
  • Content Analyzer
  • Site Audits
  • SEO and Content Dashboards
Moz

Moz is another SaaS solution. Founded by Rand Fishkin, it’s been around for a long time. It’s star fell slightly behind SEMrush and Ahrefs as an SEO, but it’s recently been revamped and updated to compete. Its tracking sticks to more traditional SEO like keywords, ranking, and links, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great tracking tool.

Moz SEO tracking features include:

  • Keyword Explorer
  • Website Visitor Insights
  • Ranking Tracking
  • Site Audits
  • Content Analysis
  • Link Explorer
  • Customizable Reports
Ahrefs

Don’t let Ahrefs simplicity on the surface fool you. It’s a powerhouse tool for tracking keywords, links and improving content. It has SasS based tools and a free browser plugin that you can use with or without a paid subscription.

Ahrefs key features are:

  • Site Explorer
  • Keyword Explorer
  • Site Audit
  • Competitor Analysis
  • Rank Tracker
  • Content Explorer
  • SEO Toolbar
Authority Labs

Authority Labs helps you automate your SEO monitoring. Their paid features include:

  • Rank Tracker
  • API Capability
  • Clickstream Data

Plus, they have free features, including:

  • Backlink Checker
  • Keyword Grouper
  • Data Services Tester
  • Website Crawler
  • Keyword Rank Checker
RankWatch

RankWatch is an excellent SEO tracking SaaS solution with a combination of paid and free rank tracking data tools. Their free features include:

  • Mobile-Friendly Checker
  • Website Analyzer
  • Backlinks Analyzer

Paid features depend on subscription level and include:

  • Rank Tracking
  • Backlinks Tracking
  • Reporting
  • Competitor Analysis
SERPs

It sounds like a product name, but it’s not. SERPs stands for Search Engine Results Pages, and it’s 100 percent free. However, although you can do everything a paid tool does using just free SERP tools, it will take you a lot longer, unless you know how to develop your own tracking tools.

But don’t ignore it either. Google search suggestions and the Google SERPs themselves are invaluable for tracking rankings and for topic/keyword research.

Small SEO Tools

This website gives you access to a massive amount of highly useful keyword research tools, topic research tools, and content improvement tools. Some favorite features of Small SEO Tools are:

  • Grammar Checker
  • Plagiarism Checker
  • Keyword Density Checker
  • Longtail Keyword Suggestion Tool
  • Competitive Analysis
  • Keyword Difficulty Checker
  • Keyword Analyzer
BrightLocal

BrightLocal focuses on local SEO and SEO tracking solutions for local businesses. They’re one of the top local rank tracking tools with many powerful features including:

  • Ranking Tracker
  • SEO Site Auditor
  • Multi-location Reporting
  • Citation Monitoring
  • GMB insights
  • Reviews Monitoring
SERPBook

SERPBook is a daily SEO monitoring and tracking SaaS Solution with three subscription levels. Their features include:

  • Daily Updates
  • Keyword Tracker
  • GMB Tracker
  • Mobile Tracking
  • YouTube Tracking
Alexa

Yes, that Alexa, but not exactly. Besides being the name of Amazon’s voice answer AI, Alexa is also the name of the SEO tool it owns. Like most of the popular SEO trackers, it has features that include:

  • Competitive Analysis
  • Site Audits
  • Backlink Checker
  • On-page SEO Checker
  • Keyword Research
  • Target Audience Analysis

Final Thoughts

As you can see, talking about ranking factors and SEO strategies opens up a plethora of opportunities for improving how high your organization appears in the SERPs. SEO has evolved since the days of simple keywords and link exchanges.

But by understanding how Google and other search tools work, knowing which ranking factors to focus on, and which SEO tools are right for you, you can get to the top of the search results and drive more customers to your business.

SEO ranking factors and SEO itself are huge topics. We covered a lot in this article alone. Be sure to check out all the SEO knowledge bank content, and if you have questions, contact us or post them in the comments below.

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