Monday 29 September 2014

Ranking factors: How does Google decide the order of its search results?

This is an easy question to ask - but a hard one to answer! It’s the £500 million question behind the Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) industry.

Whilst the algorithm that Google uses is a closely guarded secret, we can go a long way to answering this question by studying search results in-depth. That’s exactly what searchmetrics have done.

They've recently released their annual ranking factors report comparing the top 30 results for the 10,000 most searched for terms on

In today’s blog post we’ll summarise the findings of their report including the factors which show the strongest correlation for search engine success. If you have a website for your own business, please read on as there’ll be some tips that you can implement to help your SEO.

First of all, what is a ranking factor? 

A ranking factor is an aspect of a website which affects where it will be positioned in search engine results. These factors are combined and weighted by Google’s very complex algorithm to determine the ranking of that website in its search results.  Some examples of ranking factors are: relevant keywords, back links, site load speed.

Types of ranking factors

In their report, searchmetrics divided the ranking factors into four groups:

Onpage technical: These factors describe the technical build of the website. For example how long the website takes to load or how the website is structured.

Onpage content: These factors look at the content of the website. For example word count, or the number of relevant keywords.

Back links: These factors measure different aspects of a websites back link profile, for example, the percentage of nofollow links and how well those websites giving a link back rank in Google.

Social: These factors measure how much the URL has been talked about on social media. For example how many times a website has been shared and liked on Facebook.

User signals: These are factors that describe the users behaviour, such as how many searchers click through to the website from the search results page or how long they spent on the website. These factors tell Google how useful or relevant users found a particular website for a particular keyword.

The results

Now on to the actual results from the study in chart form. How to read the chart:
  • The numbers next to the circle show the average value across the top 10 results for that ranking factor.
  • The longer the bar, the higher the correlation between the factor and a high Google ranking.
  • A negative bar is best interpreted by reversing the statement.

What we can learn from these results?

Onpage technical tips

  • Make sure your website loads quickly, average load time for a website on page 1 of Google was 0.99 seconds.
  • 98% of the URLs studied had a meta description. Make sure your website has expertly written meta descriptions and titles.
  • Internal linking structure is important, it should be easy to navigate.
  • Make sure you keep your website up to date.
  • These factors are a basic starting point if you want your website to be ranked high up on Google because if they are absent they will have a negative effect on your rankings.

Onpage content tips

  • Write your content for the user. All copy should be easy to understand and well written.
  • Top results had longer content, the average word count for a page 1 result was 975 words.
  • Images and video content are important whereas ads aren’t helpful.
  • Include a range of relevant related keyword terms in your copy instead of repeating an exact keyword.

Back link tips

  • Back links are still one of the most important ranking factors.
  • Quality is more important than quantity. Back links from websites that are themselves positioned well on Google are more valuable than those that aren't.
  • Anchor text, the clickable text of a link, should be brand or domain name based and not keyword based.
  • Build a balanced back link profile with some links pointing to the homepage but with a larger number pointing to specific pages within your website.

Social tips

  • Promote your content on social media. Social signals such as likes and shares tell Google that your website content is good. On average, a Google page 1 listed URL had 143 Google+ Plus ones, 1,690 Facebook signals, 162 Tweets, and 36 Pins. We've written a blog post especially on this topic.

User signal tips

  • Making your website engaging to keep users on your website for longer is also important. The average time spent on a Google page 1 URL was 101 seconds.
  • Encouage users to visit more than one page of your website. If a user only visits one page of your website this counts as a ‘bounce’. Websites with a lower bounce rate are on average ranked higher. The average bounce rate for a page 1 URL was 37% of users.

In summary, high quality content along with a balanced, quality back link profile are essential for websites wishing to be ranked prominently in Google. Technical factors such as page load speed are crucial but will not get your website positioned if you don’t have great content.

SEO takes time and consistent effort. So keep adding useful quality user focused content to your website whilst you apply these tips.

You can find the original report by searchmetrics here.

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