Top 10 SEO Ranking Factors [2021 Update]: What Matters To Google
by Mike Khorev
We all know how SEO is an ever-evolving field. Google and the other search engines regularly launch algorithm updates that will translate into changes in SEO ranking factors. So, it can be hard for us digital marketers to keep up with the latest developments.
However, not being in the know of the latest SEO ranking factors won’t only put you at a disadvantage of getting your site ranked higher. In a worst-case scenario, our site might be penalized or even banned if there’s a sudden change in algorithms that can be addressed if only we know better.
Although there are hundreds of SEO ranking factors used by Google in their current ranking algorithm, here are the top 10 most important ones based on our experience in 2021 and 2022:
1. Site Security Certificate
Since around 2014, Google has recommended website owners to migrate from HTTP to HTTPS.
Both HTTP and HTTPS are basic protocols that allow us to send and receive information in the form of a website, and HTTPS (with the ‘S’ stands for ‘Secure’) was designed to provide an extra layer of security by utilizing what we call SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificate to securely transfer data.
While converting to HTTPS won’t directly boost your site’s SERP ranking, staying with HTTP may cause your site to get demoted. In fact, if you are using a Chrome browser, Google will send a “Not Secure” warning if you are attempting a site with HTTP, so it will significantly hurt your bounce rate.
Another important consideration is that Google Analytics is much more useful with HTTPS since Google won’t only display referral sources as direct traffic.
If you haven’t already, migrating your site from HTTP to HTTPS is now very simple:
- Purchase an SSL certificate, most of today’s popular hosting services offer free SSL certificates. If not, it is now very affordable and can be below $5/year.
- Install the SSL certificate on your hosting account if you haven’t already
- After migration, make sure to check all your inbound and outbound links, URLs that are not updated from HTTP to HTTPS might break.
- Set up 301 redirects from your old HTTP URLs to the new HTTPS URLs. This is to ensure anyone who has bookmarked your site to be automatically redirected to the new address and also to help Google with its indexing.
2. Mobile-Friendly Site
It’s no secret that since around 2015, Google now prioritizes mobile-friendly sites on their SERP. So, you have to make sure your site is mobile-friendly or mobile-responsive to improve its SEO success.
Thankfully, creating a mobile-responsive site is now easier than ever. If you are using visual website builder platforms like Wix or Squarespace to build your site, most likely it’s going to be mobile-responsive straight out of the box. If you are using WordPress, you can simply switch to a mobile-responsive Theme, a lot of them are free nowadays.
Also, pay extra attention to your content. If the mobile version of your site is not the same as the desktop version (mobile-friendly instead of mobile-responsive). Make sure to compare the content on the mobile version with the content on the desktop. You’ll want to make sure that both versions have a similar number and quality of content.
3. Page Load Speed
Page speed is the time it takes to fully display all content on a specific page, not to be confused with ‘site speed’ which is a page speed for just a sample of page views on the whole website, and ‘time to first byte’, which is the time required to receive the first byte of data from the server.
According to Google, if your page loads more than 3 seconds, 50% of users will bounce, and bounce rate is also an important ranking factor.
You can monitor your page speed with Google’s PageSpeed Insights, and improve your site based on the suggestions provided.
4. Technical Factors
This is actually a collection of different technical on-site factors, including but not limited to:
- Using a target keyword in page headings/titles. The general rule of thumb is to use your focus keyword as early as possible on your title. This is where Google first indexes to determine the context and relevance of your content.
- META description that is natural and attractive for human readers while naturally including the target keywords. Keep the META description short and effective.
- Using header tags (from H1, H2, H3, etc.) so the content is structured properly, allowing easier indexing by Google and also to improve readability.
- Using target keywords in image alt tags to tell Google that the images used are relevant to the content. Also, this can help with accessibility for visually impaired users.
- Implement structured data (schema.org) markup so Google can properly recognize all the different elements on your site. Schema markup will also let your page be eligible for rich/featured snippets.
5. Content Quality, Length, and Optimization
This one is a very complex subject, but the general principle to remember is that your SEO performance would only be as good as your content. No amount of optimizations can help if your content is low-quality and is not valuable/relevant for your target audience.
This is even more true with the recent Google BERT algorithm that allows Google to be much better in understanding the context of the page. So, how can we say that a piece of content is high-quality? While this is a very broad subject, the general factors are:
- Whether the content includes fresh, up-to-date information
- Whether the content meets the target audience’s search intent
- ‘Voted’ by other high-quality sites in the form of backlinks (more on this later)
- Received a lot of social engagements (shares, likes, etc. ), although social signals are not a direct ranking factor
There’s always the ongoing debate of whether the length of the content matters. Based on various surveys and results, however, longer content tends to perform better in SEO content marketing strategy, and content over 2,000 words get more top ten spots in the SERP.
However, it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. If the topic you cover doesn’t require long content, don’t force it. Maintaining quality over a longer content is obviously also more difficult, so put this into consideration.
6. Domain Age, Authority, and URL Optimization
More than 50% of websites that ranked on the first page of SERP are three years old or older, and very few sites that are less than a year old are ranked on the top ten spots.
However, this shouldn’t discourage you as it’s definitely not impossible to rank even if you are a brand new site. Yet, the fact remains that if you have an older site, you have an advantage.
Exact-match domain names (domain names that include the target keyword in the URL) can help you rank as long as the website is indeed relevant and valuable to the target keyword. Keep in mind that Google has announced that it will penalize exact-match domain names that are not relevant.
Authority of the website also matters, as covered by Google’s E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) principle. That is, a content coming from a well-known site is prioritized to rank compared to that coming from a brand new site.
While there’s nothing much you can do regarding this aspect if you are a brand new content, optimizing your site from the get-go can help in the long run. If your site ‘matured’ as a well-optimized website with the consistent publication of high-quality content, you can stay ahead of your competition.
7. Link Profile
Especially your backlinks, but the internal linking structure and outgoing (external) links are also important.
All three types of links are usually linked to an anchor text, and the context between the linked page and the anchor text would also count.
Backlinks are like the ‘voting system’ of the internet. When a website links to your page, this site is saying that you are a trustworthy source. This is why backlinks have been and still is the most crucial ranking factor in SEO.
However, since the past half-decade or so, Google has changed its algorithm so the quality of the incoming links is now more important than quantity alone. Also, the relevance of the backlink’s source is also important: if you are a digital marketing site but you suddenly get a backlink from a high-quality site covering basketball, it most likely won’t count.
Using outbound/external links naturally to sites that are relevant to your content is also important. This can tell Google that you are doing research for your content.
The internal linking structure can significantly help in indexing. It will tell Google about the overall structure of your site, and also passes on some authority between pages. It will also help your site visitors in finding the information they need which will improve user experience (UX).
8. Social Signals
Social signals are a bit complicated in SEO. On the one hand, they are not a direct ranking factor, according to Google. However, when people share and engage with your content on social media, studies have suggested that they indeed help with your SERP ranking.
Why is this? There are two main reasons for this:
- When your content is shared a lot on social media, a lot of people will visit your site and consume your content. This will tell Google that your content is relevant and will also help in your UX factors (more on this below).
- More people consuming more content will also mean a higher chance of getting backlinks.
So, make sure it’s easy to share your content and leverage these social signals. However, the shareability of your content would be determined by its overall quality. So, ensuring that your content is high-quality and relevant is very important.
9. User Experience (UX) Factors
Thanks to Google Rankbrain, Google’s AI-based algorithm, Google can now monitor user experience factors in real-time and use the information to rank the websites.
Google mainly monitors three UX factors:
- Bounce rate: the percentage of people who click on the SERP result and then exits the page right away. If the number is high, then it will mean your page is not relevant for the search query and might get demoted in the SERP.
- Dwell time: related to bounce rate, dwell time is how long a visitor stays on your site after they click on a SERP result and visit your site. The longer, the better.
- Click-through rate: pretty self-explanatory, the percentage of people who click on a SERP result to visit your site. If it’s low, then you might get demoted.
Since people can only see the snippet of your page when viewing the SERP result, and your snippet comes from the page’s META description. So, make sure to optimize your META description so that it’s as attractive as possible for human readers. Also, make sure it’s relevant for your target keyword.
Dwell time and bounce rate would depend on many different factors discussed above. However, content quality and whether your site is performing well are the two most important factors.
10. Authentic Business Information
This is especially important for local SEO. However, including your business’s information on your website can help with your site’s credibility and authority.
It’s important to include and optimize things like:
- NAP: name, address, and phone number. Make sure to use valid information
- Link to social media accounts
- Your Google My Business listing (if you are a local business)
- Reviews and/or testimonies from clients and customers. You can pull reviews from sites like Yelp and even Google Maps
Again, remember that these ten are not the only SEO ranking factors that would affect your site’s SEO performance in 2021 and onwards. However, they remain the most important at the moment.
Above anything else, the most important is to publish high-quality, relevant content, work with a B2B SEO consultant, develop an SEO strategy and ensure your site performs well both in the eyes of human visitors (user experience, site speed, mobile responsiveness) and Google (indexability, keyword optimization, etc. ).
April 30, 2021