Ranking Signals: The What, Why, and How

Ranking signals (also called ranking factors) are part of Google’s deep, dark secret. Gasp! It’s more like a mystery: Google’s algorithm. This constantly evolving mechanism is so specialized that it’s even teaching itself. But like Skynet, Google’s algorithm has goals, reasons, and indications. Through the science of ranking signals (and documentation, presentations, and best practices straight from Google), we are certain about some of these ranking signals.

Why Are Ranking Signals Relevant?

Identifying and understanding ranking signals is crucial if you aspire to dominate your competition in the SERPs (search engine results pages). Hitting the ranking signals positively can net you a big high five (or hug, if you prefer) from Skynet—er, Google’s algorithm. Let’s just call her…Sky.

Texture of bright evening sky during sunset

Google, is that you?

How Many Ranking Factors Are There?

We can’t know for sure, since the algorithm is super secret. We do know that there are hundreds of established ranking signals. According to SEO expert Brian Dean, ranking signals fall under different categories:

  • Domain Signals: Age of domain (of minor importance), keyword presence in URL/TLD (top level domain), keyword is the initial word in the URL/TLD, length of domain registration (register your domain years in advance, please), history of domain ownership, WhoIs domain listing information, country of origin (if it’s a .ca, it’ll rank higher in Canada, but maybe not in the US), and more.
  • Page and Site-Level Signals: Title tag with keyword in front, TF-IDF (keyword frequency), appearance of keyword in H1 tag, presence of TOC (table of contents), length of content (long-form seems to rank better), focus of topic (Google Hummingbird update), optimized images, recency of published content, frequency of updates, refreshment rate of existing content, link quality, correct outbound link amounts, presence of affiliate links (too many is bad), post formatting (H2s, subheads, numbered and bulleted lists, short paragraphs), usefulness of content, and more.
  • Backlink Signals: Age of linking domain, amount of referring domains, anchor text of backlinks, backlinks from a variety of IP addresses, links from internal pages, image links, .gov and .edu links (are valuable), linking page’s authority, guest posts (some are good, too many are bad), links with context, location of the link within the linking content, increasing popularity of linking site/page, words surrounding the anchor text on linking page, link profile, whether the linking page uses schema.org (it should!), links from forums (could be bad or considered spammy), quality of content on the linking page, and more.
  • Brand Signals: Name of your brand in linked anchor text (on or off-site), number of searches for branded keyword, connection to prominent or verified authors, connection to social media accounts (especially verified ones), brand mentions in the news, in-person location, and more.
  • User Interface and Interaction: RankBrain (which still remains a mystery within an algorithmic mystery), bounce rate, click through rate (CTR) of keywords, return traffic, direct traffic (typing in URL in search bar), time on page, site navigability and more.
  • “Special” Google Signals: search history of user, ‘rating’ of site (Safe Search), YMYL (your money your life) keyword status, whether it’s transactional or shopping-related, local results, trending stories, size of brand, payday loans (spammy keyword dismissal), and more.
  • Webspam (on and off-site): Avoid this stuff—content that’s autogenerated, too many links, too many affiliate links, IP address listed as spam, keyword stuffing, nofollowing all outbound links, low-quality content, and more. You’ll also want to disavow links from websites that exhibit these unsavory qualities. It helps you stay out of a ‘bad link neighborhood,’ and honestly, Google’s kinda judgy about that stuff.

In our SEO journey, we focus on those technical factors, such as metadata optimization and mobile-friendliness. These are essential signals, and you can’t ignore them if you want Skynet senpai—that is, the Google algorithm—to notice you.

Quality as a Ranking Factor

Hand pointing at ranking stands

*points*

One of the most important and more recent ranking signals is quality of content. This might seem subjective, but technical features and social signals (as well as other data about the content, such as word count and readability) really affect your site’s ability for Google to rank it. In other words:

  • Don’t write crappy stuff: give your readers some substance. Consider covering hot topics, your niche specialities, and other areas that will result in high engagement from your audience.
  • Cite your sources (with backlinks and data): Use original data, or site others’ data. You can even contact them for permission to use their images appropriately.
  • Don’t plagiarize: Google certainly knows, and it likes original content more. Make your own stuff; use others’ content as notes and reword it with citations.
  • Include photos and videos in the body of your work. Not a videographer or photographer? That’s fine. While professional, bespoke content rocks, you can use some royalty-free images and embed YouTube videos as needed. It’ll also increase time on page (another ranking factor).
  • Get an editor—yes, really. Quality of language is important. Google knows your grammatical sins, and it remembers.
  • Using keyword research and your own knowledge of your niche and industry, write things that people actually want to read. Put your own spin on a long-tail keyword for maximum engagement and rankability.
  • Answer questions helpfully. You know all those annoying questions people ask? Answer them. Then, next time they ask them, politely point them to your blog post.

Ranking Signals: The Most Current Changes

young woman sitting on workplace and thinking

Food for thought, that’s for sure. Right, Sky?

What are the most recent changes when it comes to ranking signals? The last few years have seen major algorithm updates in the following areas:

  • Mobile-friendliness: Is your site friendly for mobile phones? More people search Google using phones than computers and tablets, so it wants to deliver relevant and usable results to them. Your site has to be mobile friendly or it could get blacklisted.
  • Page Speed: How fast does your site load? What about on a tablet or mobile phone? Test your page here and follow its recommendations lest you get kicked out of the top SERP.
  • Secure Site/HTTPS: At the beginning of your URL, does it say http:// or https://? The latter is the mark of a secure website, and that’s what Google wants to protect the security of its users. Plus, Chrome is all in on this game, since Google owns it too, and it’ll tell you when a site you’re browsing is not secure. It’s like someone running up to your door and saying, “OMG, your door isn’t locked! Freak out!” If that happened, more people would lock their doors.
  • Search Intent: Search intent is all about what users want to find and how. Google’s pretty good at this. If you rank for “Chinese food St. Paul,” a location-enabled user in St. Paul might search for “Chinese food near me.” Google will connect those dots. Despite its Skynet-ness, Google’s algorithm still doesn’t know anything, so some more legwork is required, especially when it comes to your niche. If you know your niche better than anyone, you can figure out what users will search for better than any keyword research tool. That’s gold—and double gold if you can predict what users will search for in the near future.
  • Voice Search: More users hit that ‘voice search’ feature on Google, now that it doesn’t actually garble everything you say (unlike other robot beings—we’re throwing shade at you, Alexa).

In short, you need to provide all of the information your prospects need. You must do it in a usable format and it needs to be better than your competition’s, from both a content perspective and a technical SEO standpoint.

Don’t Forget to Show You’re a Legit Business

It’s a major trend: Google wants to help users avoid spammy businesses (or fake businesses), and point them to businesses delivering quality service. Quality evergreen content goes hand in hand with that, but there are other things you can do to your brand’s website to prove your business’ legitimacy:

  • List your business name consistently
  • Include your physical location, phone number, and email address
  • Provide detail about the services you offer
  • Include at least five pages, with a fully developed brand story (“about” page) and a “contact us” page
  • Ensure links to your brand on social media sites, and link your site out to those

Ready to Ace Ranking Signals?

At Dominate With SEO, we understand ranking signals. We can evaluate your website and identify areas of strength—as well as spots for improvement. By providing you with high-quality content, tweaking your on-page SEO, and improving your webcopy, we can increase your chance of ranking higher in the SERPs. Let us handle the heavy SEO lifting so you can focus on what you do best. Ready to get started? Fill out our Discovery Form now.

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