The Google algorithm is a mysterious beast.
While Google understandably does not want people to ‘figure out’ their ranking system, a core part of SEO is understanding the various ranking factors that influence how the search platform sees websites.
Like many elements of SEO, there is a lot of misinformation regarding Google ranking factors, especially since the search platform’s algorithm is constantly changing.
Something that worked well for search engine optimization in 2010 might be far less effective in the 2020s.
But what are the Google ranking factors that you need to pay attention to, and how are you supposed to use ranking factor details as a way to guide your future SEO efforts?
Here is an in-depth look at all of the Google ranking factors that make a difference – as far as we know. Remember, Google’s algorithm is always changing, and your SEO needs to change with it.
Table of Contents
What is a Google Ranking Factor?
In simple terms, ranking factors are anything that influences your Google rankings (the position of your website in relevant search results).
There are literally hundreds of Google ranking factors that can influence the way that your site appears in Google search results, but some carry a lot more weight than others.
When users input search queries that are relevant to your website, these ranking factors are what determine when and where you appear.
In general, Google ranking factors are focused on three things: quality content, whether the content is relevant, and whether the content provides value to the user (such as answering a question in their search queries).
But what kind of Google ranking factors make a difference, and which are the most important ranking factors that Google uses for most sites?
Critical Google Ranking Factors
Some ranking factors are far more important than others.
These are the ones that have the biggest impact on when, where, and how your site appears on search engine results pages.
Most of these are important because they directly judge the quality, relevancy, or value of the site itself.
These factors can also apply on a page-by-page basis, so a bad page on a good site is not necessarily going to perform well.
Relevant content is the king of search engine results.
If your site does not have anything to do with the search that a user is making, then you simply are not going to appear, no matter how hard you try to force it with underhanded SEO tactics.
While this might sound obvious, it is important to remember that relevancy can be a spectrum.
If your page is in the right niche but does not match the user’s search intent, then Google is less likely to show it because it is not actually answering their question or meeting their needs.
Relevancy is not always considered a “true” ranking factor because it is simply part of how search engines work, but it forms the basis of all search results.
Your site generally will not appear for a user unless they are searching for you, your products, or a query that your site is able to answer.
Quality content makes a massive difference, too.
While it can take a while to understand what high-quality content actually is at first, it generally just refers to any page that is well-constructed and offers some actual value.
You basically want to create content that is original, helpful, and has proper value behind it (see below for more details on that).
Your content needs to be a good part of the user experience, so it should also be properly readable and actually provide the reader with the information that they need.
Take tutorial articles as an example.
The best high-quality tutorials guide the user through what they need to know while being helpful, well-structured, and written with either professional experience or proper research behind them.
Value is essentially a mix of the above two factors.
If your site can provide something of actual value to the user, such as an answer to their questions or a set of products that fit their needs, then you are far more likely to rank higher.
However, this also applies to the content itself. High-value content is not just relevant but actually helpful, providing something important.
This might mean information that is not available elsewhere online or infographics and tutorials that explain something to a less-informed user.
In other words, high-value content is anything that is useful, interesting, or a combination of both – specifically in the context of your target audience.
For SEO, all that really matters is that your intended audience finds the content incredibly valuable.
Having more value behind your content than the competition also helps.
If you make sure that you are offering a more complete user experience or answer than your competitors, then you will often find that page slowly bumping higher up the search results.
The user experience is another vital part of your Google ranking factors.
Google has ways of telling when web pages are poorly designed or if they do not retain users for longer than a single short visit, and sites that fail to actually function properly are often penalized.
However, this does not always mean that your site is fine just because it loads properly. You want to create a site (and page) that offers a good on-page experience to anybody who is using it.
If your overall user experience is bad, then users are going to stop engaging with the site – and Google will notice.
Whether it is streamlining the design of the page or updating the content to a more modern format, you want to create a site that is comfortable to use.
More importantly, you want to make sure that users can actually find what they are looking for, especially if you are using SEO to attract potential customers.
A badly designed website (whether it is on the technical side, the visual side, or both) can massively harm your SEO. Google’s ranking algorithm prefers websites that are usable, functional, and offer plenty of value to users.
Keywords are a massive part of SEO, and doing proper keyword research is essential to knowing which terms you should even be trying to rank for in the first place.
Keywords also help you better understand the audiences you are meant to be targeting.
Relevance is a massive part of how Google operates, and most relevance is judged with keywords. If a user makes a search query, Google is looking for terms similar to the ones that they have searched for.
This means that your page is more likely to appear if it uses similar or identical terms, focuses on a highly related topic, and is just generally related to what they were searching for.
Doing basic keyword research presents you with keywords relevant to your site and audience, letting you see what kind of words and phrases are most likely to be used by your potential customers.
These are the terms you want to rank for in most cases.
Good keyword research can provide you with a long list of potential keywords to target, as well as their search volume.
Of course, keyword research also shows you the most competitive keywords out there, the ones that are dominated by larger companies that are very difficult to overtake.
Keywords are basically an entirely separate topic that can get incredibly complex and in-depth.
In general, you want to rank for keywords that are relevant to your site and your audience, not so competitive that they are impossible to achieve, and varied enough to capture your entire audience where possible.
Domain authority is basically the amount of trust that search engines have in a site.
Higher domain authority means higher positions in search results, but it also means that any outbound links those sites place to another website are also far more valuable.
Ranked on a score from 1 to 100, DA basically tells you how likely you are to rank on Google for topics related to your own brand, services, products, or expertise.
This also has a particularly strong effect on links (see the backlinks section further below), changing how much SEO potential links from a site will have on others.
While DA is not a measurement that Google itself uses, it is still important for getting a quick measurement of your performance and the chances of being a top-ranking site in that specific niche.
Core Web Vitals
The Core Web Vitals are one of the more recent Google ranking factors and are based on your site’s overall “health” in terms of its general user experience.
This covers three different sub-factors: the Largest Contentful Paint, the First Input Delay, and the Cumulative Layout Shift.
Largest Contentful Paint means that Google wants your site to load within 2.5 seconds. A slower page speed than this usually leads to users clicking away, especially if the page still takes a while to actually load all of its assets once it becomes usable.
First Input Delay refers to the interaction delay that users get when they click on something. Users expect an interaction of 100ms or less per click – and longer delays, often caused by bloated code or poorly designed layouts, can mean a much worse user experience.
Cumulative Layout Shift is about how your site loads. Google wants sites that remain consistent when they load – that means no inconsistent loading, no situations where users are suddenly shunted down the page, and no instances of the layout changing as they try to click a link or read the content.
Content Google Ranking Factors
While high-quality and high-value content was mentioned above, it is important to better understand what actually has the biggest impact on your rankings when content is involved.
Content is a major part of how websites are ranked and often the most important ranking factor on a page.
When users make a search, Google wants to serve them the best possible content for their search intent.
This does not just mean relevancy and quality but also things like how original the content is and how well its titles are structured.
High-quality content is not just about the words themselves but also the overall quality of the content as a readable piece of media.
Google will prioritize a piece of content that is well-formatted and easy to read over a mess of information with no clear titles or subheadings.
A proper structure can be one of the more often overlooked ranking factors.
For example, using headings and subheadings (the H2, H3, H4, etc. tags) and adding in bulleted or numbered lists can boost your SEO ranking potential.
Additions like a table of contents can also help, both because they make the user’s experience easier and keep everything streamlined.
If you have no real structure to your content, then not only will Google often lower its ranking potential, but readers will find it harder to engage with the solid wall of text you are giving them.
Original content is better from both a ranking standpoint and a link building standpoint.
If you are simply re-writing information that already exists on the internet, you are not contributing anything new – Google will not penalize you, but it also will not give you any special boosts.
It is best to create original content whenever possible.
Create webpages that respond to certain questions or articles that explain specific things, such as how-to tutorials for a very niche product.
Information like this is often less widespread, so you are going to get more of a presence on search engines.
Beyond that, duplicate content is a no-go. Never copy something wholesale from another site or even from your own if you can help it.
Google will penalize duplicate content, and that means reductions in your Google rankings or other potential problems going forward.
Freshness and Up-To-Date Information
When users are making a Google search, they usually want the most recent information that they can get.
Google and other search engines know this, and they will give priority to fresh and relevant on-site content whenever possible.
Whether it is breaking news and serious medical articles or how-to guides on DIY techniques, you want to present users with something that is as up-to-date as possible.
Updating older articles is also important for the exact same reason.
Not only does this appease Google’s ranking algorithm, but it also means that users are getting something they actually need.
Out-of-date info is likely to make users leave the page almost immediately, and that can impact Google’s understanding of your website’s quality.
Keep in mind that some topics may only be popular for a specific amount of time.
For example, if a celebrity releases a new album, search engine results will be flooded with searches for it – until the initial rush of activity dies down.
Whether or not your site aims to capture short-lived “hype” like that, it is important to remember that some topics will eventually become a lot more niche and less searched.
Links are the beating heart of SEO. Sites with no backlink profile – which is roughly 90% of the internet – get basically no visitors and disappear under a sea of pages ranking even slightly higher than them.
On the other hand, sites with terrible internal links become practically unusable.
Google’s crawlers move through sites using links, and most SEO is based around links transferring domain authority from one site to another.
This makes your site’s links an incredibly important part of ranking the way you want to rank.
A site with no backlinks gets no visitors.
Google takes backlinks into account for any rankings, and they are one of the top Google ranking factors for a reason.
In general, backlinks are any links that point back at your site from another one, transferring some domain authority (also known as “link juice”) with them.
Backlinks are an entirely distinct SEO element that could take multiple articles to explain in depth.
In simple terms, if a high-quality and trusted website links back to your own, you gain a little boost to your rankings due to the trust that is being transferred from that site to yours.
This means that having a lot of high-quality links directed at your site makes you rank much higher in search results for relevant topics.
Sites (and individual web pages) that have a good link profile behind them are incredibly valuable and usually rank very high compared to other pages.
However, relevance also applies here. Links from spam sites, or links from sites and content that are completely unrelated to your business, can have the opposite effect.
Google may even penalize sites that are clearly buying low-quality links or using other black-hat link building methods.
Internal links (pointing from one page on your site to another page on your site) are how users navigate around.
They also provide context to search engine crawlers and make sure that both users and crawler bots can actually get to the pages that you want them to reach.
Internal link anchor text (the text a link is attached to) is just as important as it is for backlinks.
You want internal site links to make sense and be relevant – if a user clicks on a link that says “About,” they do not want to go to the Contact page.
While they are less of a major Google ranking factor than backlinks, these internal links are still a huge part of your site’s technical SEO.
No matter which link types you are dealing with, keywords are vital.
Just like in other forms of marketing and search optimization, keywords dictate the terms that you are actually trying to rank for, which is the core of how relevance works.
A lot of ranking factors only apply if a user searches for relevant terms.
These are your keywords. Your site can only properly rank for terms that are related to it, whether that is a business or product name to something more vague like “Furniture” or “DIY tutorial”.
In the context of links, search engines only really give value to outbound links from relevant websites, and that includes their content.
You ideally want every link pointing to your site to come from a piece of very relevant online content and be attached to a very relevant keyword.
For example, if your furniture site is linked to by a furniture blog, that is relevant and boosts your rankings in search results.
However, if the link is placed on the words “shop now,” but your target keyword would be something like “antique furniture,” you are not getting the best results.
This is another part of link building that is best explained separately, but the basics are usually quite easy to understand: links become more powerful if the origin site/page and the target site/page have similar keywords and niches.
A landing page is the first page that users will see when they arrive, which obviously depends on which links they follow or search results they click.
All pages on a website are technically landing pages since users can find most pages through a simple search engine, but many sites have very clearly defined pages that users are expected to find first. For example, the main page.
With links, landing pages become even more important. The page that a link is targeting needs to be relevant to the link, as well as both sites overall, for the best possible results.
For example, if a link mentions a specific product and the keyword is the name of that product, it should ideally go to the product page rather than the main page.
On-Page and Technical SEO Ranking Factors
Among the important Google ranking factors is the overall on-page quality, which the user experience is part of.
This does not just mean page speed but also things like the code itself and the metadata that sits beneath each title tag or image.
While not all on-page elements will be visible to users, they are all visible to search engines and can have an impact on how and where your site ranks.
Neglecting them entirely also means that you are basically ignoring a major part of your site architecture.
Mobile-First Compatibility and Optimization
Google’s mobile audience is massive, making up more than half of all searches.
This means that you need to think about mobile-first optimization and create mobile-friendly pages that can actually support mobile users properly.
Google’s mobile audience is so huge that sites are actively penalized if they do not support mobile devices properly, either through an alternative version of the site that is optimized for mobile or a responsive design that adapts to any device.
The algorithm that Google uses focuses on mobile-first indexing, which means that mobile functionality has a direct impact on your ranking performance.
Even if your site is great, not supporting mobile devices tanks your rankings, not to mention preventing more than half of users from visiting.
Mobile-first optimization requires a few core things: a responsive or mobile-friendly design, careful checks to ensure that no design elements make the mobile site unusable, and proper loading optimization.
Image Alt Text
On their own, images are not part of Google ranking factors – but on a good site, they would be.
This is because Google can’t actually tell what images are from the file alone and has no context for the image aside from the page it is actually on.
Adding alt text is important because this gives Google an idea of what the image actually is.
Most alt text is a description of the image itself, which gives search engines more context and allows them to interpret the image properly.
This is also important for screen-readers, which have a similar problem of not being able to understand images.
This means that no alt text can be actively harmful to the user experience, especially if the page uses them heavily.
Beyond that, no alt text means that images have absolutely zero context when used as links.
For example, having a graphic of a “buy now!” button means nothing to Google because Google itself cannot read that graphic without alt text explaining what it is.
By adding alt text, you are able to help Google understand the images – which means that it can treat them as part of your ranking factors.
This also makes sure that people using screen readers or other similar tools are not being served content that they literally cannot engage with.
As mentioned above, a good content structure is important for search engine optimization. However, many people initially overlook the tags related to headings, which are vitally important for actually defining where headings are.
A title tag does not just mark a header but gives Google an understanding of what is actually on your page.
This is important for appearing for the right Google search results, especially if your page is only relevant to specific topics within a larger niche.
Title tags also appear as the title of your page in organic search results, even if it is different from the actual page header, meaning that they have a direct impact on what your potential audience is seeing. This means that an optimized title tag can be incredibly useful for a range of SEO elements.
The title tag code needs to be placed in the correct spot on the page and carefully chosen.
Ideally, titles should be brief and unique with a single primary keyword, kept to between 50 and 60 characters long.
What matters most is that you are providing enough details about the page in a way that targets both Google and your audience. The title tag gives context to both, but you want to create something that is appealing to humans and useful to search crawlers if possible.
Other Ranking Factors
The full list of Google ranking factors is obviously not entirely known since Google does not want people to game their system by abusing its own algorithm.
However, people with a lot of experience using Google search tools have managed to uncover other ranking factors worth targeting.
Some of these are only minor ranking factors that provide slight benefits, while others are surprisingly vital ranking factors that get overlooked due to being common sense or not entirely obvious at first.
Keep in mind that algorithms always change. The Google search algorithm has never fully settled, and something that boosts your search engine rankings one year might have no impact in the next.
This means that it is important to stay on top of things and react to any changes, whether that means tweaking your high-quality content or overhauling your site architecture.
Web Site Security
Google search engine spiders notice if a website is not very well-protected. For example, it is a requirement that your site is using HTTPS instead of HTTP due to the level of extra protection that this provides.
Not following basic site security steps means lower SEO rankings across the board.
Many browsers will also warn organic traffic not to visit the site due to the missing HTTPS protocol, meaning that users may actively turn away before they even land on a web page properly.
Site security is a simple search engine ranking factor since it is mostly just a binary check of whether or not your site uses HTTPS. However, it is something that needs to be acted upon as soon as possible, especially with older sites that never made the switch.
XML Sitemap and Robots.txt
While arguably not search engine ranking factors themselves, the XML sitemap and Robots.txt still influence other ranking factors by proxy.
The XML sitemap tells search engine crawlers the layout of your site and which pages connect to which others.
This provides the bots with useful navigation aids that help them properly crawl your site, meaning that more pages can appear on search engines.
Robots.txt tells bots how to crawl sites and which pages to avoid. This means that you can keep them focused on quality content so they are not crawling irrelevant pages (like technical pages that are just part of the site architecture).
Together, these help you control what Google sees, which can be invaluable for getting the most out of many other SEO ranking factor types.
Note that crawlers have a “budget” for each site, which they “spend” on crawling site architecture. If you do not tell them where to look, crawlers may exhaust their budget before they even reach your high-quality content, which is a disaster for any site owner.
Other Useful Options
While not everything you can do to your site involves a ranking factor, there are some techniques that are ranking-factor-adjacent that still provide benefits.
These are often things that make your site more “clickable” as an organic search result, which means that you are more likely to be the site users visit to answer their search query.
Schema Markup and Structured Data
Like alt text, schema markup is meant to help search engines understand what a page is and what it contains. This provides context to the search engines and structured data, which allows extra information to appear in search results when your site appears.
For example, say you host a recipe for baking a specific kind of pie on your site. If that search result appears normally with no structured data, then it will simply appear as the title and meta description with no added details.
However, having structured data means that a snippet of the recipe may appear or that users will be able to see the amount of time the recipe would take without having to open the page themselves.
While schema markup is not technically a ranking factor since it does not directly increase the position of your search results, it does allow your site to take up more space and provide more information.
Social Media Presence
Social platforms are also not one of Google’s ranking factors, but sites with strong social media presences tend to get more traffic and higher rankings anyway.
This could just be because sites with solid social channels often have the experience to make sure that they are ranking well, but the added buzz from social media can also make a big difference.
Having a social account will not directly push you higher in search engine results, but it will mean that more users are exposed to you. This can indirectly lead to you achieving higher search engine results in the long term.
Since social platforms can boost brand awareness, it is also possible that your account may drive more users into looking for your site themselves. Posting quality content on social media channels is a good way to acquire some more organic traffic, even if it is not always via search engines.
How to Improve Your Search Engines Ranking Factors
Whether you are trying to handle local search optimization or streamlining your page speed, all of these ranking factors have an impact.
While they can be dramatically different, approaching them in the right way is important. From your core web vitals to old broken links, you want to optimize as much as possible.
Every Google ranking factor listed here has some kind of benefit to your SEO, and even the smallest tweaks can matter. However, if you want to get the best results possible, you need to get into the right mindset for improving your site’s rankings overall.
Use Common Sense
Not all of the SEO ranking factors here are equally important. Optimizing image alt text for Google image search users may be important, but it is nowhere near as important as boosting your horrendously slow page speed.
Prioritize each particular search ranking factor based on how much damage it would do. It is usually quite easy to tell how much of a problem SEO ranking factors are based on common sense alone, so deal with the biggest problems first.
That being said, do not be afraid to tackle the smaller issues if you get time. Low-quality directory links in your link profile might be less urgent than improving your core web vitals, but it never hurts to cull spammy inbound links if you get a chance.
Focus on High-Quality Content
Content is the core of anything you do with SEO. Most of these SEO ranking factors are pointless to pursue without some good content actually backing them up.
Make sure that you always produce good content before you begin to focus on the smaller SEO ranking factors. Having a solid piece of base content is the best way to kickstart your ranking optimization and push it in the right direction.
Creating this content usually means that you have also established search intent and maybe even used specialized tools to browse user search history or the keywords that led them to your site. This information is invaluable for so many different tasks that there is no reason not to gather it.
Resolve Issues Quickly
Whether you have been accidentally keyword-stuffing your blog posts or have too many broken links amongst your inbound links, resolving these issues quickly is the best way to ensure that your site is back to how it should be.
Ranking factors are what determine whether you are on the first page of the results or the four-hundredth. If you notice any issues, make sure you start working on fixing them before they can tank your current rankings.
In most cases, rankings will not update until Google does another crawl of your site. However, not even tools like Google Search Console can tell you when that will happen.
You do not want to fix major issues with your site right after a new crawl has pushed the updated search rankings out, so try to resolve problems as soon as you can.
While SEO professionals know quite a lot about Google’s ranking algorithms, there is not a one-size-fits-all way to tackle them.
In some cases, one site might have a very specific search intent to target. In others, local ranking factors may matter more than country-wide rankings and search results.
A huge part of SEO is finding a niche and claiming it as your own, so do not be afraid to try things that are not necessarily being done by other businesses in your industry.
While you never want to do anything that could risk destroying your entire SEO campaign, taking a few risks here and there can sometimes pay off in unexpected ways.
There are a lot of ranking factors out there, far too many to include in this list.
Many of them have only minor benefits when used on their own, but they can still be a powerful tool to use if you are squeezing as much potential out of your site as possible.
Remember that there is no sure-fire way to guarantee success and that you will need to approach each ranking factor in a way that makes sense for your website and business.
Searcharoo is a Link Building & Content Marketing company run by SEO’s based in the UK.
Our goal from the start has been to provide premium links and content services, at fair and affordable prices.