Google SEO Ranking Factors
What are Google’s top three organic search ranking factors?
Google has one universal mission as it relates to their search engine: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
For years, SEOs and digital marketers pondered and debated what the most important ranking factors in Google’s algorithm were…and then in 2016, they came right out and told everyone: links, content, and RankBrain are the primary factors for how web pages are ranked in Google search results pages.
#1 – Links
Links have always been a part of Google’s algorithm from the very beginning and both the quality and quantity of them still matters today.
In the eyes of Google, each link pointing at a page is like a vote for that piece of content.
The more unique votes from reputable websites that a page has, the more authoritative it appears to Google, and hence the higher it ranks in search results (all else being equal).
We like to use the following analogy: If you’re trying to win an election, you want to get as many votes as possible. If you’re trying to “win” the first page of Google, you want as many high-quality links as possible.
What makes a high-quality link?
Here’s a great explanation by May Soon of Ahrefs:
“There are some common indicators of a backlink being high quality. Please note that no one can tell you for sure how search engines measure the quality of backlinks. The further information is our experience-based recommendation.
- The most valuable backlinks are those editorially placed somewhere within the content (i.e. not in the footer or sidebar). Basically, if website owners refer to your page voluntarily, they give you a valuable vote of confidence.
- Authority of the linking page/site. You can determine how much of “link juice” you’re getting from a given backlink by the authority of a particular page that links to you — its URL Rating (UR). (You can find more information about Ahrefs UR metric here.) As a general rule, a link from a high authority site will be more powerful than a link from a low authority one. We at Ahrefs use the Domain Rating (DR) metric to measure an overall website authority.
- Besides DR and UR metrics, what also matters is a number of outgoing links a website has. A backlink from a website (domain) or from a web page that links to hundreds of other URLs will be less valuable than the one from a website with just a few outgoing links.
- “Do-follow” links are preferable. At the same time, the search engine optimization community hasn’t come to an agreement if no-follow links help you rank or not. Basically, if you have a chance to get a no-follow link from a high-quality website, then go for it.
- Our research has shown that an anchor text might have an influence on the quality and relevancy of a backlink. (You can find the full research here.) It’s essential for search engines to be able to choose the right keywords to rank your content for, that’s why the anchor text, as well as the text that surrounds it, should be topic-relevant.”
Most links do provide a bit of additional context through their anchor text. At least they should, right‽
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) November 23, 2017
#2 – Content
In order to get on the first page of search results, attorneys need to build content that is more than just topically relevant. Data shows that content which is longer and covers a topic more in-depth tends to rank higher overall in Google search results, so it needs to be more authoritative and in-depth than competing pieces of content in the same niche.
What makes good SEO content?
The structure and substance of content are key to making it rank well in Google search.
- Topically relevant: A web page or blog post needs to be appropriate for its audience (that is, it should matter to them).
- Target keyword placement: The target keyword phrase the page is meant to rank for needs to be placed in the title, the headings, the body, anchor text of internal and inbound links, and image alt tags of the page. This is an SEO tactic that will give your content the opportunity to be found.
- Authoritative resource: The content should be an authoritative resource that provides value to the reader and answers their intent.
- Supporting sources: The content should link out to other supporting resources (e.g., authoritative articles, supporting documents) that users may find valuable.
- Usability: Long-form content should be formatted in a way that makes it easy to consume (i.e., bulleted lists, headings and images that break up content, navigation, etc.)
- Shareability: The content needs to be useful and practical. It should be something that readers want to share with people they know.
#3 – RankBrain
What is RankBrain?
RankBrain is a machine learning algorithm used by Google. Based on information gleaned from analyzing search results, it helps weight certain ranking factors in an effort to deliver the most relevant results to searchers. Through RankBrain, Google is attempting to more accurately predict or interpret searcher intent, rather than organize web pages using signals like the core algorithm does.
How do I optimize for RankBrain?
- Parent topic: Look for parent keyword phrases and then include similar terms throughout the content on the same page, rather than creating a single page for each keyword phrase.
- Click-through rates: Write compelling titles and meta descriptions to capture a click-through.
- Contact info: Avoid using your contact info (phone number, email) in titles and meta descriptions: this can discourage a click-through, as the searcher already has the information that they need without ever visiting your site. If Google sees that searchers don’t click through to a given result, Google may serve it less frequently.
- Dwell time: Don’t neglect dwell time (i.e., the amount of time that a visitor spends on a given page). You can improve dwell time through long-form content, audio and video features, and user-friendly formatting.
What are Google’s top three local search ranking factors?
Google uses a relatively narrow set of categories to determine local rankings for law firms which consists of relevance, distance, and prominence.
#1 – Relevance
Google is looking for how well GMB listings match user search queries. There are many tactics attorneys can use to make sure their Google My Business listing is as relevant as possible.
- Accurate category: Choose the category most appropriate to your practice area. That is, don’t choose “attorney” for your primary category if there is a more specific option, like “personal injury attorney.”
- Thorough descriptions: If done carefully, you can incorporate keyword phrases in your law firm description and max out the character limit (750, including spaces) on the profile. Make sure the description is relevant to your law firm by following the guidelines in the Business Description Guidelines here.
- Liberal use of imagery/video: Add as many images as possible (and definitely more than competitors). In our experience, profiles with 50+ images tend to get a boost over profiles lacking images. In addition, add any videos you have of your firm to your GMB profile.
- Detailed service sections: Google provides sections in GMB profiles to describe your practice area. Use all 1,000 characters allowed, if possible, and remember to include your target keyword phrases.
- Comprehensive service areas: Include all areas that your offices serve. For example, if you serve cities surrounding where your home office is located, include those in your profile.
- Consistent information: Ensure that your name, address, and phone number information is consistent with other listings on the internet and what appears on your website. Fill in accurate operating hours, website and appointment URLs, and make sure all other fields have information in them.
#2 – Distance
Google uses proximity (the relationship between their location and that reported by a business’s IP address or other methods) to determine which local GMB directory results to show to searchers. Unlike organic search (where links are the #1 ranking factor), proximity is local search’s #1 factor.
Consider this: when you’re on vacation and you search for restaurants, what do you expect to see? Places nearby your resort, not establishments two states away. No matter how great the restaurant is, if it’s not in your immediate vicinity, it’s unlikely to appear in local Maps results.
#3 – Prominence
From the Cambridge Dictionary: prominence
noun – the state of being easily seen or well known:
One of the most challenging aspects of local search engine optimization is improving a firm’s overall prominence. This is because the competition dictates the amount of prominence needed to appear in the three-pack. That is, there are a number of factors that need to be considered:
- Links: Having more authoritative backlinks than the competition is, like we analogized earlier, akin to having more “votes” for your placement in the three-pack.
- Articles: Publishing articles on external sites typically incorporates a link of some kind, so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
- Images: As we mentioned previously in organic search, having substantially more images than competitors has been shown to influence rankings in a positive manner. Unsurprisingly, the same is also true for local search.
- Directories: Similar to the Yellow Pages of the analog era, these are used to find a business, but they also help Google better understand how to categorize your business. They frequently include NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number) citations and help dictate the specific coordinates (latitude and longitude) for your location.
- Reviews: Not only is the number of reviews important, but also the rating. By having a high rating, you have the opportunity to rank for superlative-based searches (e.g., “best car accident lawyer,” “top attorney,” etc.).
Ultimately, Google wants to provide the best result for consumers’ intent. This means that your content has a better opportunity to fulfill that intent if it’s well-organized and well-written. As a result, you should always keep your ideal customer in mind when writing content. By doing so, you give it the best chance to rank in search engines and be found by that prospective client.