This time around we’re going to step back and look at the big picture of what it takes to get your website ranking on Google. Don’t worry, we’re not going to replicate the laundry lists of items that are already out there. Instead, we’re going to peel back the layers so you can get a better understanding of this “SEO thing”.
A million years ago in the web world, it was enough to put your keywords in your title, headings, and of course, stuff them into the meta keyword tag. Now, there are over 200 things that Google takes into consideration when ranking a website.
The reason the landscape has shifted is thanks to technology. Google uses AI methods to understand the concepts behind your keywords and content. Google’s RankBrain is a technology that was introduced in 2015 and is a machine learning technology. Because this is a part of Google’s search algorithm, it’s able to teach itself how to perform better. If I type in or speak a search phrase, if Google can better understand what I’m looking for and come closer to giving me perfect results – everyone wins! We’re not going to dive into the AI rabbit hole, but if you’d like to explore RankBrain, here’s a good FAQ article from SearchEngineLand. For now, let’s dive into key factors that we can easily control
The Top 7 SEO Ranking Factors
1. Having a responsive site design
A responsive design means that your website will look and function well on different devices – from desktops and large screens to tablets and smartphones. Technology for this type of design has been around for over 10 years and has only been improving. So, there’s no excuse for a non-mobile-friendly site.
2. Page Speed – i.e. how fast your pages load
This ranking factor is a double-edged sword because you have to find a balance between design and load time. And, once you add a slider to your home page and use a page builder, you’ve just killed your load time. There are a couple of page builders out there that score well on the speed side of things. We’re still looking for a solution for a slider.
3. Links to your site and between your site pages
Backlinks – i.e. links from other sites to yours – have been important for a long time.
And a few thousand years ago in the web world, it was the big thing to create link farms, where every site within the ring (i.e. farm) linked to each other. Also, buying links was super popular. Google wised up to that and put out a few adjustments that did a decent job of squashing the farms. The threat of being banned from Google is a good deterrent to keep all but those that want to live in the “black hat” community, i.e. bad SEO world, in the clear.
The best and safest way to get top quality links to your website is to create awesome content, and then promote that content.
The flip side of links is building a good link structure within your own website. Linking from one page to another within your site helps the search engines understand how content relates to each other.
4. Optimizing your web site
We’ve talked about a number of these elements in different tips. All of them come together under one umbrella. If you focus on making your website as smooth/easy as possible for people to use, the elements will also play into a site that the search engine will love.
- Thinking about and utilizing your keywords
- Optimizing your title tags
- Creating great content
- Making sure your images have ALT tags
5. Making your site easy for search engines to crawl and accessible to everyone
Be accessible to the search engines
It’s not enough to just launch your site. There are 2 files that your site needs in order to be search engine friendly:
- Robots.txt – in short, this file tells the robots that come by where they can and can’t go on your site. And, you can add a snippet of code in this file that links to your sitemap – making it super easy for the robot to find the file that lists all your site pages.
- A sitemap – This file has a list of all the pages of your site, and is updated every time you add a new page or blog post.
We talk about these more in our Degeeking the top 3 SEO technical errors article.
Along with these files, submit your site to Google. This puts your site on the radar faster than if you wait for it to find you.
Making your site accessible to others
Accessibility is a huge topic on its own. The most important basics are:
- Make sure you have your content organized intuitively so people can easily find their way around.
- Within your pages use headings to structure your content.
- Have your links visible (i.e. underlined so it’s clear that it is a link, more about links).
- Have ALT tags for all your images – so a screen reader can describe the image.
6. Where your site is hosted
Hosting is important for 2 reasons: site speed and your neighbors on the server.
The mid and lower-cost hosting packages are almost always overloaded and provide the bare minimum of resources for running your site. This means that your site will run slower as it’s having to wait for resources when loading a page.
When you are on shared hosting, if you end up on a server with a ton of spammy sites, Google may take notice. It knows that you have no control over who your neighbors are, so for the most part this won’t affect you – unless you’ve gone for rock bottom, cheap hosting. In general, if you stay away from cheap hosting “deals”, you’ll be ok.
7. Using SSL on your site
Google announced back in 2014 that using SSL was going to be a factor in ranking, and over time, that has only gotten stronger. Now, if you’re not using SSL, the browser will show people “Not Secure” – which on top of a ranking signal, can deter people from using your site.
There are free SSL certificates available for hosting companies to offer customers that fit the requirements, so if they are not providing it free but charging… that’s not right in my book. The only time you should need to pay for an SSL certificate is if you are doing eCommerce – because you want that higher level of SSL.
Other Resources about Search Engine Ranking
If you do a search for “ranking signals”, or “ranking factors”, you’ll find a lot of articles that give you laundry lists of items. One that has been around for years, and updates information each year is the Google Ranking Factors from Backlinko (as a bonus, for a limited time, they are also offering a free download “Definitive Guide to SEO in 2020”).
One interesting article I found focused on the myths vs facts of SEO and covered a number of the ranking factors in the laundry list articles. It’s an easy but longer read, and they do a great job of cooling the jets on some of the items that may have been super important 10+ years ago, but have been surpassed by new technology.