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Original article: https://backlinko.com/google-ranking-factors
Written by: Brian Dean
Updated: Jan. 22, 2020
You might already know that Google uses over 200 ranking factors in their algorithm… But what the heck are they? Well, you’re in for a treat because I’ve put together a complete list. Some are proven. Some are controversial. Others are SEO nerd speculation. But they’re all here. And I recently updated this entire list for 2021. Let’s dive right in.
- Domain Factors
- Page-Level Factors
- Site-Level Factors
- Backlink Factors
- User Interaction
- Special Google Algorithm Rules
- Brand Signals
- On-Site Webspam Factors
- Off-Site Webspam Factors
Domain Factors1. Domain Age: In this video, Google’s Matt Cutts states that:
“The difference between a domain that’s six months old versus one year old is really not that big at all.”
“Valuable (legitimate) domains are often paid for several years in advance, while doorway (illegitimate) domains rarely are used for more than a year. Therefore, the date when a domain expires in the future can be used as a factor in predicting the legitimacy of a domain.”
“…When I checked the whois on them, they all had “whois privacy protection service” on them. That’s relatively unusual. …Having whois privacy turned on isn’t automatically bad, but once you get several of these factors all together, you’re often talking about a very different type of webmaster than the fellow who just has a single site or so.”
Page-Level Factors11. Keyword in Title Tag: Although not as important as it once was, your title tag remains an important on-page SEO signal. 12. Title Tag Starts with Keyword: According to Moz , title tags that starts with a keyword tend to perform better than title tags with the keyword towards the end of the tag. 13. Keyword in Description Tag: Google doesn’t use the meta description tag as a direct ranking signal. However, your description tag can impact click-through-rate, which is a key ranking factor. 14. Keyword Appears in H1 Tag: H1 tags are a “second title tag”. Along with your title tag, Google uses your H1 tag as a secondary relevancy signal, according to results from one correlation study: 15. TF-IDF: A fancy way of saying: “How often does a certain word appear in a document?”. The more often that word appears on a page, the more likely it is that the page is about that word. Google likely uses a sophisticated version of TF-IDF. 16. Content Length: Content with more words can cover a wider breadth and are likely preferable in the algorithm compared to shorter, superficial articles. Indeed, one recent ranking factors industry study found that content length correlated with SERP position. 17. Table of Contents: Using a linked table of contents can help Google better understand your page’s content. It can also result in sitelinks: 18. Keyword Density: Although not as important as it once was, Google may use it to determine the topic of a webpage. But going overboard can hurt you. 19. Latent Semantic Indexing Keywords in Content (LSI): LSI keywords help search engines extract meaning from words that have more than one meaning (for example: Apple the computer company vs. Apple the fruit). The presence/absence of LSI probably also acts as a content quality signal. 20. LSI Keywords in Title and Description Tags: As with webpage content, LSI keywords in page meta tags probably help Google discern between words with multiple potential meanings. May also act as a relevancy signal. 21. Page Covers Topic In-Depth: There’s a known correlation between depth of topic coverage and Google rankings. Therefore, pages that cover every angle likely have an edge vs. pages that only cover a topic partially. 22. Page Loading Speed via HTML: Both Google and Bing use page speed as a ranking factor. Search engine spiders can estimate your site speed fairly accurately based on your page’s HTML code. 23. Page Loading Speed via Chrome: Google also uses Chrome user data to get a better handle on a page’s loading time. That way, they can measure how quickly a page actually loads to users. 24. Use of AMP: While not a direct Google ranking factor, AMP may be a requirement to rank in the mobile version of the Google News Carousel. 25. Entity Match: Does a page’s content match the “entity” that a user is searching for? If so, that page may get a rankings boost for that keyword. 26. Google Hummingbird: This “algorithm change” helped Google go beyond keywords. Thanks to Hummingbird, Google can now better understand the topic of a webpage. 27. Duplicate Content: Identical content on the same site (even slightly modified) can negatively influence a site’s search engine visibility. 28. Rel=Canonical: When used properly, use of this tag may prevent Google from penalizing your site for duplicate content. 29. Image Optimization: Images send search engines important relevancy signals through their file name, alt text, title, description and caption. 30. Content Recency: Google Caffeine update favors recently published or updated content, especially for time-sensitive searches. Highlighting this factor’s importance, Google shows the date of a page’s last update for certain pages: 31. Magnitude of Content Updates: The significance of edits and changes also serves as a freshness factor. Adding or removing entire sections is more significant than switching around the order of a few words or fixing a typo. 32. Historical Page Updates: How often has the page been updated over time? Daily, weekly, every 5 years? Frequency of page updates also play a role in freshness. 33. Keyword Prominence: Having a keyword appear in the first 100 words of a page’s content is correlated to first page Google rankings. 34. Keyword in H2, H3 Tags: Having your keyword appear as a subheading in H2 or H3 format may be another weak relevancy signal. In fact, Googler John Mueller states:
“These heading tags in HTML help us to understand the structure of the page.”
“Some pages have way, way too many links, obscuring the page and distracting from the Main Content.”
“We look for sites that many users seem to value for similar queries.”
“The page layout on highest quality pages makes the Main Content immediately visible.”
Site-Level Factors69. Content Provides Value and Unique Insights: Google has stated that they’re happy to penalize sites that don’t bring anything new or useful to the table, especially thin affiliate sites. 70. Contact Us Page: The aforementioned Google Quality Document states that they prefer sites with an “appropriate amount of contact information”. Make sure that your contact information matches your whois info. 71. Domain Trust/TrustRank: Many SEOs believe that “TrustRank” is a massively important ranking factor. And a Google Patent titled “Search result ranking based on trust”, seems to back this up. 72. Site Architecture: A well put-together site architecture (for example, a silo structure) helps Google thematically organize your content. It can also helps Googlebot access and index all of your site’s pages. 73. Site Updates: Many SEOs believe that website updates — and especially when new content is added to the site — works a site-wide freshness factor. Although Google has recently denied that they use “publishing frequency” in their algorithm. 74. Presence of Sitemap: A sitemap helps search engines index your pages easier and more thoroughly, improving visibility. However, Google recently stated that HTML sitemaps aren’t “useful” for SEO. 75. Site Uptime: Lots of downtime from site maintenance or server issues may hurt your rankings (and can even result in deindexing if not corrected). 76. Server Location: Server location influences where your site ranks in different geographical regions (source). Especially important for geo-specific searches. 77. SSL Certificate: Google has confirmed that use HTTPS as a ranking signal. According to Google, however, HTTPS only acts as a “tiebreaker“. 78. Terms of Service and Privacy Pages: These two pages help tell Google that a site is a trustworthy member of the internet. They may also help improve your site’s E-A-T. 79. Duplicate Meta Information On-Site: Duplicate meta information across your site may bring down all of your page’s visibility. 80. Breadcrumb Navigation: This is a style of user-friendly site-architecture that helps users (and search engines) know where they are on a site: Google states that: “Google Search uses breadcrumb markup in the body of a web page to categorize the information from the page in search results.” 81. Mobile Optimized: With more than half of all searches done from mobile devices, Google wants to see that your site is optimized for mobile users. In fact, Google now penalizes websites that aren’t mobile friendly 82. YouTube: There’s no doubt that YouTube videos are given preferential treatment in the SERPs (probably because Google owns it ): In fact, Search Engine Land found that YouTube.com traffic increased significantly after Google Panda. 83. Site Usability: A site that’s difficult to use or to navigate can hurt rankings indirectly by reducing time on site, pages viewed and bounce rate (in other words, RankBrain ranking factors). 84. Use of Google Analytics and Google Search Console: Some think that having these two programs installed on your site can improve your page’s indexing. They may also directly influence rankings by giving Google more data to work with (ie. more accurate bounce rate, whether or not you get referral traffic from your backlinks etc.). That said, Google has denied this as a myth. 85. User reviews/Site reputation: A site’s reputation on sites like Yelp.com likely play an important role in Google’s algorithm. Google even posted a rarely candid outline of how they use online reviews after one site was caught ripping off customers in an effort to get press and links.
Backlink Factors86. Linking Domain Age: Backlinks from aged domains may be more powerful than new domains. 87. # of Linking Root Domains: The number of referring domains is one of the most important ranking factors in Google’s algorithm, as you can see from this industry study of 1 million Google Search results. 88. # of Links from Separate C-Class IPs: Links from separate class-c IP addresses suggest a wider breadth of sites linking to you, which can help with rankings. 89. # of Linking Pages: The total number of linking pages — even from the same domain — has an impact on rankings. 90. Backlink Anchor Text: As noted in this description of Google’s original algorithm:
“First, anchors often provide more accurate descriptions of web pages than the pages themselves.”
“In general, we don’t follow them.”
User Interaction133. RankBrain: RankBrain is Google’s AI algorithm. Many believe that its main purpose is to measure how users interact with the search results (and rank the results accordingly). 134. Organic Click Through Rate for a Keyword: According to Google, pages that get clicked more in CTR may get a SERP boost for that particular keyword. 135. Organic CTR for All Keywords: A site’s organic CTR for all keywords it ranks for may be a human-based, user interaction signal (in other words, a “Quality Score” for the organic results). 136. Bounce Rate: Not everyone in SEO agrees bounce rate matters, but it may be a way of Google to use their users as quality testers (after all, pages with a high bounce rate probably aren’t a great result for that keyword). Also, a recent study by SEMRush found a correlation between bounce rate and Google rankings. 137. Direct Traffic: It’s confirmed that Google uses data from Google Chrome to determine how many people visit site (and how often). Sites with lots of direct traffic are likely higher quality sites vs. sites that get very little direct traffic. In fact, the SEMRush study I just cited found a significant correlation between direct traffic and Google rankings. 138. Repeat Traffic: Sites with repeat visitors may get a Google ranking boost. 139. Pogosticking: “Pogosticking” is a special type of bounce. In this case, the user clicks on other search results in an attempt to find the answer to their query. Results that people Pogostick from may get a significantly rankings drop. 140. Blocked Sites: Google has discontinued this feature in Chrome. However, Panda used this feature as a quality signal. So Google may still use a variation of it. 141. Chrome Bookmarks: We know that Google collects Chrome browser usage data. Pages that get bookmarked in Chrome might get a boost. 142. Number of Comments: Pages with lots of comments may be a signal of user-interaction and quality. In fact, one Googler said comments can help “a lot” with rankings. 143. Dwell Time: Google pays very close attention to “dwell time“: how long people spend on your page when coming from a Google search. This is also sometimes referred to as “long clicks vs short clicks”. In short: Google measures how long Google searchers spend on your page. The longer time spent, the better.
Special Google Algorithm Rules144. Query Deserves Freshness: Google gives newer pages a boost for certain searches. 145. Query Deserves Diversity: Google may add diversity to a SERP for ambiguous keywords, such as “Ted”, “WWF” or “ruby”. 146. User Browsing History: You’ve probably noticed this yourself: websites that you visit frequently get a SERP boost for your searches. 147. User Search History: Search chain influence search results for later searches. For example, if you search for “reviews” then search for “toasters”, Google is more likely to rank toaster review sites higher in the SERPs. 148. Featured Snippets: According to an SEMRush study, Google chooses Featured Snippets content based on a combination of content length, formatting, page authority and HTTPs usage. 149. Geo Targeting: Google gives preference to sites with a local server IP and country-specific domain name extension. 150. Safe Search: Search results with curse words or adult content won’t appear for people with Safe Search turned on. 151. “YMYL” Keywords: Google has higher content quality standards for “Your Money or Your Life” keywords. 152. DMCA Complaints: Google “downranks” pages with legitimate DMCA complaints. 153. Domain Diversity: The so-called “Bigfoot Update” supposedly added more domains to each SERP page. 154. Transactional Searches: Google sometimes displays different results for shopping-related keywords, like flight searches. 155. Local Searches: For local searches, Google often places local results above the “normal” organic SERPs. 156. Top Stories box: Certain keywords trigger a Top Stories box: 157. Big Brand Preference: After the Vince Update, Google began giving big brands a boost for certain keywords. 158. Shopping Results: Google sometimes displays Google Shopping results in organic SERPs: 159. Image Results: Google images sometimes appear in the normal, organic search results. 160. Easter Egg Results: Google has a dozen or so Easter Egg results. For example, when you search for “Atari Breakout” in Google image search, the search results turn into a playable game (!). Shout out to Victor Pan for this one. 161. Single Site Results for Brands: Domain or brand-oriented keywords bring up several results from the same site. 162. Payday Loans Update: This is a special algorithm designed to clean up “very spammy queries“.
Brand Signals163. Brand Name Anchor Text: Branded anchor text is a simple — but strong — brand signal. 164. Branded Searches: People search for brands. If people search for your brand in Google, this shows Google that your site is a real brand. 165. Brand + Keyword Searches: Do people search for a specific keyword along with your brand (for example: “Backlinko Google ranking factors” or “Backlinko SEO”)? If so, Google may give you a rankings boost when people search for the non-branded version of that keyword in Google. 166. Site Has Facebook Page and Likes: Brands tend to have Facebook pages with lots of likes. 167. Site has Twitter Profile with Followers: Twitter profiles with a lot of followers signals a popular brand. 168. Official Linkedin Company Page: Most real businesses have company Linkedin pages. 169. Known Authorship: In February 2013, Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously claimed:
“Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results.”
On-Site Webspam Factors174. Panda Penalty: Sites with low-quality content (particularly content farms) are less visible in search after getting hit by a Panda penalty. 175. Links to Bad Neighborhoods: Linking out to “bad neighborhoods” — like spammy pharmacy or payday loan sites — may hurt your search visibility. 176. Redirects: Sneaky redirects is a big no-no. If caught, it can get a site not just penalized, but de-indexed. 177. Popups or “Distracting Ads”: The official Google Rater Guidelines Document says that popups and distracting ads is a sign of a low-quality site. 178. Interstitial Popups: Google may penalize sites that display full page “interstitial” popups to mobile users. 179. Site Over-Optimization: Yes, Google does penalize people for over-optimizing their site. This includes: keyword stuffing, header tag stuffing, excessive keyword decoration. 180. Gibberish Content: A Google Patent outlines how Google can identify “gibberish” content, which is helpful for filtering out spun or auto-generated content from their index. 181. Doorway Pages: Google wants the page you show to Google to be the page that user ultimately see. If your page redirects people to another page, that’s a “Doorway Page”. Needless to say, Google doesn’t like sites that use Doorway Pages. 182. Ads Above the Fold: The “Page Layout Algorithm” penalizes sites with lots of ads (and not much content) above the fold. 183. Hiding Affiliate Links: Going too far when trying to hide affiliate links (especially with cloaking) can bring on a penalty. 184. Fred: A nickname given to a series of Google updates starting in 2017. According to Search Engine Land, Fred “targets low-value content sites that put revenue above helping their users.” 185. Affiliate Sites: It’s no secret that Google isn’t the biggest fan of affiliates. And many think that sites that monetize with affiliate programs are put under extra scrutiny. 186. Autogenerated Content: Google understandably hates autogenerated content. If they suspect that your site’s pumping out computer-generated content, it could result in a penalty or de-indexing. 187. Excess PageRank Sculpting: Going too far with PageRank sculpting — by nofollowing all outbound links — may be a sign of gaming the system. 188. IP Address Flagged as Spam: If your server’s IP address is flagged for spam, it may affect all sites on that server. 189. Meta Tag Spamming: Keyword stuffing can also happen in meta tags. If Google thinks you’re adding keywords to your title and description tags in an effort to game the algo, they may hit your site with a penalty.
Off-Site Webspam Factors190. Hacked Site: If your site gets hacked it can get dropped from the search results. In fact, Search Engine Land was completed deindexed after Google thought it had been hacked. 191. Unnatural Influx of Links: A sudden (and unnatural) influx of links is a sure-fire sign of phony links. 192. Penguin Penalty: Sites that were hit by Google Penguin are significantly less visible in search. Although, apparently, Penguin now focuses more on filtering out bad links vs. penalizing entire websites. 193. Link Profile with High % of Low Quality Links: Lots of links from sources commonly used by black hat SEOs (like blog comments and forum profiles) may be a sign of gaming the system. 194. Links From Unrelated Websites: A high-percentage of backlinks from topically-unrelated sites can increase the odds of a manual penalty. 195. Unnatural Links Warning: Google has sent out thousands of “Google Search Console notice of detected unnatural links” messages. This usually precedes a ranking drop, although not 100% of the time. 196. Low-Quality Directory Links: According to Google, backlinks from low-quality directories can lead to a penalty. 197. Widget Links: Google frowns on links that are automatically generated when user embeds a “widget” on their site. 198. Links from the Same Class C IP: Getting an unnatural amount of links from sites on the same server IP may help Google determine that your links are coming from a blog network. 199. “Poison” Anchor Text: Having “poison” anchor text (especially pharmacy keywords) pointed to your site may be a sign of spam or a hacked site. Either way, it can hurt your site’s ranking. 200. Unnatural Link Spike: A 2013 Google Patent describes how Google can identify whether or not an influx of links to a page is legitimate. Those unnatural links may become devalued. 201. Links From Articles and Press Releases: Articles directories and press releases has been abused to the point that Google now considers these two link building strategies a “link scheme” in many cases. 202. Manual Actions: There are several types of these, but most are related to black hat link building. 203. Selling Links: Getting caught selling links can hurt your search visibility. 204. Google Sandbox: New sites that get a sudden influx of links are sometimes put in the Google Sandbox, which temporarily limits search visibility. 205. Google Dance: The Google Dance can temporarily shake up rankings. According to a Google Patent, this may be a way for them to determine whether or not a site is trying to game the algorithm. 206. Disavow Tool: Use of the Disavow Tool may remove a manual or algorithmic penalty for sites that were the victims of negative SEO. 207. Reconsideration Request: A successful reconsideration request can lift a penalty. 208. Temporary Link Schemes: Google has caught onto people that create — and quickly remove — spammy links. Also know as a temporary link scheme.
ConclusionThat’s quite a list. To summarize, here are the most important Google ranking factors in 2021:
- Referring domains
- Organic click-through-rate
- Domain authority
- Mobile usability
- Dwell time
- Total number of backlinks
- Content quality
- On-page SEO