What REALLY Matters for SEO

Ah, ranking factors. The ancient art of ranking in search engines is a lesson in balance and patience.

Yet some people read an article like the example below that talks about the most important ranking factors and think, “Yep, I’ll follow that advice.”

Example article about ranking factors.Screenshot from Backlinko.com, September 2021

You’ll read some bizarre stuff — like that Easter Eggs are ranking factors.

Easter egg results as a ranking factor.Screenshot from Backlinko.com, September 2021

Now, you could spend all your time prepping for Easter Egg results and optimizing Google Doodles in the SERPs, or… you could just not do that.


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After reading these types of articles, I’m begging for a shower and a bar of soap.

So what ranking factors should you focus on to improve your SEO?

According to Google’s John Mueller, you should focus on “awesomeness.”

John Mueller reply about ranking factors.Screenshot from Twitter.com, September 2021

But with over 1.8 billion websites online today, how do you create awesomeness?

And with the oversaturated amount of articles claiming to be ranking factors, what is fact or fiction?


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With Google evaluating sites based on hundreds of ranking factors, knowing where to aim your SEO strategy for the biggest bang might seem impossible.

What we do know is that Google will continue adjusting ranking signals to best meet the needs of searchers.

This means that even new SEO trends have roots in the current algorithm – and with a little creativity and SEO savvy, it’s entirely possible for you to rank well.

While ranking signals are far from limited to just this list, the ones highlighted here are among the most impactful from Google Ranking Factors: Fact or Fiction — Search Engine Journal’s evaluation of 88+ ranking factors.

What are the Top Ranking Factors for Google?

In no particular order, the top factors for ranking on Google are:

  1. High-quality content.
  2. Mobile-first.
  3. Page Experience.
  4. Page speed
  5. On-page optimization.
  6. Internal links
  7. External links

Plus, you’ll learn the top local ranking factors below, too. Let’s go to it!

1. Publish High-Quality Content

“I don’t need quality content on my website to rank,” said no one ever.

The quality of your website and blog content is still crucial. Content still reigns as king.

Your content needs to provide valuable information. Creating pages with no real value can come back to haunt you, thanks to Google’s Panda and Fred algorithm updates.

Pages like this portal site.

Or, this.

Even big names like eBay and Apple aren’t worthy of the content crown. Thin content has hurt both brands in the past.

High-quality content is about creating pages that increase time on page, lower bounce rate, and provide helpful content for the user.

Blog pages like this and guides like this are the type of high-quality content search engines, and users want.

High-quality content pages must do more for today’s SEO than just be well-written and long-form. They must also take the following into account to enjoy an increased presence in SERPs.


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Knowing users’ search intent is essential to creating pages that drive organic traffic. That’s where RankBrain is applied.

RankBrain is a machine learning system that helps Google understand the intent of a search query.

How much does this matter? Well, CoSchedule saw a 594{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} increase in traffic by reshaping their SEO content strategy to be more aligned with searcher intent.

This alignment with searcher intent is especially important because, as Mueller has pointed out, intent can change over time.

Google has even updated the search results with a new featured snippet that is designed for “multi-intent” queries.

To understand what your target searcher’s intent is, you need to dive into your Google Analytics to see what users are looking for.

Luckily, you have a number of techniques at your disposal.

Reports like Site Search and User Flow can give you an idea of what your customers are searching for.

User flow to find out what people are searching for.Screenshot from User Flow, September 2021

You can also view the Performance report in Google Search Console. This will give you insights into what people are clicking on the SERPs to get to your site.


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Keyword Usage

Despite the word on the street that keyword research is not needed to rank, it still supports quality content creation. But unlike traditional keyword research, today keywords serve as a content creation roadmap.

Through competitor research and data mining, you can uncover keyword gems that have average search volume but a high click-through rate for your audience.

Check out how Chris Hornack, founder of Blog Hands, saw an 80{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} increase in traffic after performing keyword research.

So, as the industry continues to whisper about the negative impact of keyword research, you need to identify your primary keywords and bucket them into topics suited for your searcher.

For instance, a Google study found that mobile search queries such as [brands like] and [stores like] have increased by 60{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} over the past two years. This study explains the need to adapt your keyword strategy for the mobile consumer.

Andrea Lehr, Brand Relationship Strategist at Fractl, shares insights on how she buckets her keywords here.


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Gone are the days of doing keyword research on individual keywords.

Today, it’s best to bucket keyword topics into themes. Think about synonyms, long-tail keywords, and keywords related to the topic or similar topics. This is how you target keyword usage.


Content freshness is nothing new. When Google first made the announcement in 2011, it sparked confusion around what was deemed as “fresh content.”

So what is it? And how does freshness work with evergreen content?

For evergreen content, don’t simply update the date every year. You must dive into the meat of the content to see what needs to be refreshed.

For example, if you created a listicle of tools, you could update the screenshots, pricing, and information attached to each tool.

This is why it’s ideal to perform quarterly content audits to understand what pieces deserve a refresh and others that could be redirected into similar pages. Before you make any changes to your content, look at your data to help you make smarter decisions.


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2. Make Your Site Mobile-First

Mobile-first indexing was officially finalized in March 2021. It’s been a long, slow process since it kicked off in 2017.

In short, mobile-first indexing is the way Google indexes your site. If you have a separate mobile website, the URL of your mobile site will be indexed and used for ranking instead of the desktop version.

To be clear, there is no separate mobile-first index. Google indexes and ranks your content that comes directly from the mobile version of your site.

Also, the mobile-first index should not be confused with mobile usability. Let’s dive into the difference in mobile usability.

Mobile Usability

Remember when a mobile version of your website hosted at m.URL.com was the recommended thing to do?

While it won’t always harm you, more websites are moving away from this mobile website method and toward building responsive websites instead.

Even though Google has said they don’t publicly favor any one set way of doing mobile websites (whether it’s responsive, dynamic, or separate URLs) when it comes to rankings, a responsive website is their recommended format.


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Google has stated that responsive design helps their “algorithms accurately assign indexing properties to the page rather than needing to signal the existence of corresponding desktop/mobile pages.”

In the age of the mobile-first index, your mobile website is the lifeblood of your existence in the SERPs. To stay alive, follow Google’s guidelines and make sure your content matches identically on your desktop and mobile.

While mobile responsive layouts are not required for mobile-first indexing, you still want to optimize it for better page experience, and in turn, rankings.

Whenever you can make it easier for a search engine to improve its results, do it!

3. Enhance Page Experience

Improve Your User Experience

User experience (UX) has an impact on SEO, as we have seen with the recent updates to Page Experience.

If you don’t think about UX, your website will end up in the metaphorical trash.

In fact, 38{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} of people will stop engaging with a website if the content and layout are unattractive.


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Getting this right can bring big benefits. Main Street Host, a digital marketing agency, saw a 66{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} increase in page views to their attorney profile pages by updating the content and optimizing call-to-action buttons.

And, Ezoic saw a 186{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} increase in earnings per 1,000 visitors after creating a better UX.

Rover is a good example of a solid user experience:

Good example of solid user experience.Screenshot of Rover.com, September 2021

Designing a user experience that pairs nicely with your SEO is vital if you want to succeed in the SERPs. It’s like choosing which Backstreet Boys song you want to sing karaoke to. Even if the performance is good, if the song is off, no one will sing along with you.


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Site Architecture

Site architecture is a related component of user experience and has a significant impact on SEO.

John Doherty of Credo claims, “One of the biggest changes I can make is fixing their site architecture.”

He goes on to discuss a website where he switched the URLs from a tag page to a subcategory page to link higher in the site architecture. He was able to increase organic sessions by 74{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} and pages per session by 41{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca}.

Here is an example of proper site architecture:

An example of proper site architecture.Screenshot of Kanopy.com, September 2021

Not only does site architecture help users find what they are looking for with better website navigation, but it can also help search engine crawlers find more pages on a website.


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In a nutshell, your websites should be dead easy to use.

All pages and navigation should be laid out as simply as possible.

It should take a user only three to four clicks to find any page on a website. While this isn’t always possible on large sites, there are ways to help users search and find pages internally to ensure they find what they need.

With the release of the Page Experience update, site architecture will have a bigger impact on your SEO.

Core Web Vitals

As Google’s John Mueller noted, Core Web Vitals is more than a tie-breaker. This metric impacts many other factors related to SEO.

For instance, Core Web Vitals impacts your usability. If a searcher goes to a page and converts, your UX, page speed, and content all affect the conversion rate.

Essentially, Core Web Vitals were created to help you deliver a better experience for the user.

Create a Secure Website (HTTPS)

Dr. Pete J. Meyers wrote that 30{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} of page one Google results were using HTTPS.


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While not switching to HTTPS won’t necessarily harm your website, there have been several changes since Google first announced HTTPS as a ranking signal back in 2014.

In 2017, Google announced that its Chrome browser (which 45{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} of us use) would begin to flag sites as “not secure” in the URL bar when they aren’t HTTPS.

And, after their final warning announcement, you could start to see a rise in bounce rates if you don’t make the transition.

Here is what Chrome will look like when you implement HTTPS:

What Chrome will look like when you implement HTTPS.Screenshot from Google Chrome, September 2021

All of this shows that Google thinks HTTPS is essential.


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However, switching to HTTPS (and SSL, as they work together) can also bring a lot of canonicalizing issues to your site if not done correctly.

To learn more, check out HTTP to HTTPS Migration: The Ultimate Stress-Free Guide by Aleh Barysevich.

Even though it hasn’t been shown to make a significant impact on SEO by itself, the Chrome update may mean that switching your site over (by experienced people) is worth it.

Ad Experience

Ad Experience was rolled out in 2017 and targeted Chrome users.

Chrome could remove all the advertisements from your website if you are in violation of Better Ads Standards. Chrome could now impact website owners for running aggressive ads.

Glenn Gabe gave a breakdown of examples of Chrome ad filtering in action.

Ad Experience is tied to page experience and Core Web Vitals because it is impacted by the user experience and how the user interacts with your website.

4. Optimize Your Page Speed

After being a desktop-only ranking factor, page speed became a Google mobile ranking factor in 2018.


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The slower your site loads, the more visitors and revenue you’ll lose out on.

For Amazon, just one second could cost it $1.6 billion in sales each year.

The Telegraph, a British publication, found that a four-second delay reduced page views by 11.02{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca}.

Why take that risk?

There are tools available to test a website’s average page speed.

Lighthouse is your friend.

Many fixes are relatively easy if they are done by someone who knows what they are doing (not everyone knows how to minify JavaScript, for example).

Faster loading pages lead to a better overall website experience, hence Google’s move toward making it a mobile ranking factor.

5. Master Your On-Page Optimization

Closely related to Page Experience is on-page optimization, which deals with the “behind the scenes” components of your content and SEO.

These facets have been around for years and still make a significant impact on your website’s visibility and SERP position for your target keyword topics.


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Mockingbird saw a 62{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} increase in organic traffic by merely updating H1 tags, for example.

And, Brand New Copy increased organic traffic by 48{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} by cleaning up metadata and internal linking structure.

Worth it? I think so.

Optimizing your website can help your existing high-quality content get found faster by search engines and users.

These are just a few of the ways that on-page optimization will still make a major impact for years to come:


This information includes your title tag and page descriptions – the information about your sites that users see in the SERPs.

Google sometimes pulls content from the page and dynamically inserts it as the description in SERPs when it better matches the user’s query.

Here is how that might look:

Content pulled from the page, dynamically inserted as the description in SERPs.Screenshot from search for [cloud data storage], Google, September 2021

As it stands, write the best titles and descriptions for your pages that you can, but keep in mind that they won’t always be used.

There are plenty more meta tags to know in SEO. And think about this: The simple addition of one particular meta tag could result in a 300{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} increase in Clicks from Google Discover.


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Schema markup is another “hidden” component of a website that tells search engines more about your content.

Created in 2011, there are now almost 600 different types of information you can include.

Schemas make it easier for search engines to identify the essential information on a website.

For instance, your  schemas for a local business might look like this:

<!-- FOOTER -->
    <div class="footer left">
        <div class="footer-top left"></div><!--/footer-top-->
        <div class="wrapper">
            <div class="footer-widgets-content left">

                <div class="footer_box left">
                    <div class="footer-widget-holder"><h2>Get to Know Us!</h2> <div class="textwidget"><div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/LocalBusiness">
<a itemprop="url" href="http://www.toybraryaustin.com"><div itemprop="name"><strong>Toybrary
Austin, TX</strong></div>
<div itemprop="description">The Toybrary is a toy lending library and kids' birthday party venue that
also offers drop-in
childcare in Austin, TX</div>
<div itemprop="address" itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/PostalAddress">
<span itemprop="streetAddress">2001 Justin Lane</span><br>
<span itemprop="addressLocality">Austin, </span>
<span itemprop="addressRegion">TX </span>
<span itemprop="postalCode">78757</span>
<span itemprop="addressCountry"> USA</span><br>
<span itemprop="telephone">5127654174</

In a session, “How to Stand Out in Search With Structured Data” at Google I/O, Andrew Valente of Google shared a sample of the case studies that show how Schema markup and rich results help increase engagement and clicks online.

Rotten Tomatoes saw a 25{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} higher click-through rate on pages with markup. And, the Food Network saw a 35{4224f0a76978c4d6828175c7edfc499fc862aa95a2f708cd5006c57745b2aaca} increase in visits for recipes with markup.

Schema markup is what helps Google display rich snippets in search results, making it an important part of SEO.

You can now add schema to a page’s header using JSON-LD, too. Use a generator like this one from Hall Analysis for basic markup needs.


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Featured Snippets

Featured snippets, sometimes referred to as the coveted Position 0, are a snippet of content extracted from the page’s copy and served directly in the search results.

If you’re looking to snag a featured snippet, you need to understand RankBrain and the search intent behind the query you want to rank for the featured snippet.

Twitter thread about search intent behind the query.Screenshot from Twitter.com, September 2021

If your content provides more value to the intent behind the search query, search engines will serve your content in the featured snippet.


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Himani Kankaria shares her advice and tactics on how to optimize for featured snippets.

Google Discover

Google Discover is one of the newer content-related SEO factors that’s popped up.

Google Discover is like opening a Taco Bell combo box full of burritos, in that it has the potential for more organic traffic than the standard search results.

To see if you’re currently ranking in Google Discover, check out the report in Google Search Console.

How to check ranking in Google Discover.Screenshot from Google Search Console, September 2021

Read Lily Ray’s article on the characteristics of top-performing content in Google Discover to learn how to optimize for it.


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6. Internal Link Structure

Internal link structure helps users and search engines better find pages.

Corey Morris, Vice President of Marketing for Voltage, talks about prioritizing your internal linking structure in five different areas:

  • Helping users.
  • Managing link flow (e.g., where the traffic goes once it gets to your site).
  • Building a roadmap around specific content topics.
  • Canonicals.
  • Prioritizing indexing of particular pages.

What this means is that your strategy for linking to different pages on your site should be user-centered first. Then you can focus on how to drive traffic to a fundamental set of pages.

Think about how internal link structure can help guide users toward completing a conversion from signing up for your newsletter to completing a request for a live demo.

7. Earn Relevant & Authoritative Links

Links will continue to be one of the leading SEO components if you want to rank well.

Ignore those who say you can achieve success without inbound links (a.k.a., backlinks).


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While some sites absolutely can and have, it would be silly not to pursue any powerful link building strategies that work.

As each industry is unique, there are various link building opportunities for each one.

Looking for ideas? Check out Search Engine Journal’s Link Building Guide.

While links may lose their value over the next few decades, they are still an active ranking signal.

8. Local

Google states local is broken down into three ranking factors.

How Google determines local ranking.Screenshot from Support.google.com, September 2021


Relevance is connected to how close the business is to the searcher’s query. You could see search queries like “best burritos” when speaking about local search relevance. Relevance is the lifeblood of Google’s local algorithm.


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Your business listings like Google My Business, Bing Places listings, etc. are tied to your NAP (Name, Address, Phone number) and other key attributes related to your business. It’s key to fully complete all the detailed business information in these directories to help search engines better understand your business and relevance to the searcher.


Distance refers to the physical distance between your business and the searcher. The closer your business is to the searcher, the more likely that location will appear in the local map results.

This is where search queries with “near me” come into focus.

Local map results in SERPs.Screenshot from search for [burritos near me], Google, September 2021


Prominence is tied to the popularity of your business offline.  Google tells us exactly what they’re looking for in measuring prominence:


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“Prominence is also based on information that Google has about a business, from across the web, like links, articles, and directories. Google review count and review score factor into local search ranking. More reviews and positive ratings can improve your business’ local ranking. Your position in web results is also a factor, so search engine optimization (SEO) best practices apply.”

Key Takeaway: E-A-T Impacts All Ranking Factors

E-A-T refers to Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness, and features prominently in Google’s Search Rater Guidelines.

While E-A-T may not be a ranking factor, it indirectly affects your rankings. This helps us understand where Google is focused on improving the quality of search results.

E-A-T is used to evaluate the truth of your content, in turn, impacting your rankings. Use it wisely.

Use These Ranking Factors to Create SEO “Awesomeness”

Ranking signals all flow together to help SEO marketers create “awesomeness.” Ranking factors don’t boil down to these nine. Ranking in the SERPs is not about the latest and greatest tips and tricks.


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Ranking factors should be used as a guide on the work you need to put into being awesome.

Being awesome means a more comprehensive, sophisticated SEO strategy for better performance now and going forward.

Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

Top 8 Google Ranking Factors: What REALLY Matters for SEO

Marcy Willis

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