Most Important Ranking Factors For Google
How does google rank one site against another? Which factors play into your search engine rankings?
SEMrush has a downloadable copy of a study they performed to identify the most important SEO ranking factors. Please find it on SEMRUSH.com if needed!
They have put this directly on the SEMRUSH website. Google and other search engines favor content that keeps people on the page. That looks like it is #1 in comparison to any other areas. At the end of the article, I will add information regarding the importance of each area.
- What’s new?
- Research methodology
- The results of SEMRush’s research at a glance
- Backlink profile factors
- Total referring domains, total backlinks, total referring IPs,
- total follow-backlinks, total number of anchors, keywords in anchors
- Website security
- Content length
- On-page SEO elements
- Keywords in title, meta description, body, keyword density
- Website visits
- All visits, direct visits
- User behavior signals
- Bounce rate
- time on site
- pages per session
SEMrush is a SaaS product used by over 1,500,000 marketers worldwide.
Over the past nine years, SEMrush has grown into an all-in-one marketing suite consisting of more than 30 tools and reports that help companies’ market better online. On top of being one of the best keyword research tools worldwide, SEMrush now helps users to fix technical website issues, improve the health of their backlink profile, and track local rankings on both mobile and desktop. Marketers can easily spot opportunities they are missing compared to their top ten search competitors and get ideas for their SEO, PPC, content marketing and social media campaigns. Their vision is to create the only tool a digital marketing team will ever need to improve their online marketing results, ensure a smooth workflow between team members and save time on routine tasks.
About This Research
SEMrush is working hard to create the best SEO tool in the world. Their main goal is to help thier customers organize their SEO priorities and learn how to do first things first. Having large volumes of data at their disposal, they decided to use it to help the marketing community answer one of the most important questions of today’s digital world: what makes your website rank high? There are many valuable resources on the Internet that explain which ranking factors are the most important, including the official information from Google.
What the community thinks
Advice and reports on SEO can be dubious at times, but I have to hand it to SEMrush for putting together an interesting and well-researched report.
Jason DeMers, Forbes
The results are not only interesting, they’ll make you re-think your SEO strategies.
The folks at SEMrush just did a BIG ranking factors study (with some interesting results).
Brian Dean- Backlinko
The core of SEMrush’s success is agile philosophy. SEMrush believes that providing results in small iterations is more efficient than managing projects for years. Not only does it help us focus on the most urgent issues, it also allows us to gather more feedback and promptly act on it. SEMrush applied this approach to everything they do, including the research work, so they listened to your feedback and decided rather than wait for another year to publish the new findings, they would update the study right away!
Lastly, SEMrush updated the study with new data and provided more insights on the most controversial points.
5 Additional Factors from a websites backlink profile
- Total number of referring IPs
- Total number of follow-backlinks
- Total number of various backlink anchor texts
- Presence of keyword in the backlink anchor text
They started by taking a set of big data consisting of 600,000 keywords from their worldwide base (US, Spain, France, Italy, Germany and others) and the first 100 SERP positions for each of them. They also had a list of alleged ranking factors that might influence the page positions.
To reveal the importance of these factors, they applied a machine learning algorithm called Random Forest. As a result, they received a list of 17 factors that influence page position in order of significance, from most to least influential.
During the study, they tried classifying the results by keyword difficulty, but the results remained the same, so they took keyword volume classification as a standard for the report.
They also segmented the results within each volume class by keyword length. Whenever the difference between short-head and long-tail keyword results was substantial, they included this information in the report and presented it in an additional graph. By long-tail keywords they mean phrases of four and more words.
Why SEMrush didn’t use correlation analysis
Their colleagues tend to calculate the correlation between a factor value (for instance, the number of referring domains) and a page’s position and then sort the factors by correlation size. However, correlation analysis is not a good match for this type of research because:
- It doesn’t work when one variable depends on several other variables (such as ranking factors).
- Correlation analysis is sensitive to outliers, and the data for various keywords suggests there are a lot of them.
- Initially they applied the correlation analysis, and the results were disappointing: the correlation between the alleged ranking factors and the page positions was less than 0.3, with a high standard deviation value, which didn’t allow us to come to a solid conclusion about which factors were important and which were not. So SEM RUSH decided to use more complex methods for data analysis.
- The results didn’t allow SEMrush to state explicitly that if you improve the factor X, you will rank higher for Y. However, they have come up with a list of observations regarding the nature of these alleged ranking factors and their influence on the SERP that they wanted to share with the SEO community.
- After they published the results for the first time, SEMrush was asked a lot of questions about the algorithm applied: How did it work?
The Results of The SEO Research at A Glance
- After adding 5 new factors- SEM RUSH determined that direct website traffic is the most influential ranking factor. That is, when many users go to a website directly it is a good sign to Google that the domain has high authority and value.
- User behavior signals such as time on site, pages per session and bounce rate also influence website rankings, since they indicate website quality and relevance for users.
- Backlink factors are extremely important for rankings. Except for the factors related to anchor texts, all the
- backlink factors share 5th place in the importance chart — NEW!
- All backlink factors impact one another. So, your positions are unlikely to change if you boost the values for one factor but ignore others — NEW!
- Branded keywords will always return more relevant but less popular websites on the first position — NEW!
- Many domains in the high-volume group have an HTTPS version. But in the low-volume keyword groups the adoption rate is not so high, so implementing HTTPS would be a strong advantage against your competition.
- The on-page SEO factors such as the presence of keywords in title, meta description and body of the text proved to be significantly less influential than other factors, however the adoption rate is impressive — keyword usage is one of the most popular SEO techniques.
Backlink Profile Factors:
SEMrush took a closer look at other backlink profile factors to define how they influence the page rankings. They investigated the following factors:
- Number of referring domains
- Number of backlinks
- Number of “Do-Follow” backlinks
- Number of referring IP’s
- Number of anchors
- Keyword Presence in the anchor
What was done:
- To discover the influence of the backlink portfolio parameters on the website’s position on the SERP, the study analyzed 600,000 search queries and calculated the value of these parameters for each top-100 page.
- To see if there was a significant difference between volume classes, the study segmented the results by four search volume groups.
- SEMrush included the first 20 positions in the graph since the trend line for the rest of the positions does not demonstrate any variation.
Total Number of Referring Domains Segmented By Search volume
- The higher the domain’s position on the SERP, the more referring domains it has. This tendency is consistent for all search volume groups.
- The more popular the keyword for which the domain ranks, the more referring domains it has.
- Every domain that ranks for a high-volume keyword has on average four times more referring domains than the domain from the low-volume group on the same position.
- The lower the keyword volume, the less impact several referring domains has on the position of the domain.
Total Number of Backlinks Segmented by Search Volume
- The more backlinks a domain has, the higher is its position on the SERP. This tendency is consistent for all search volume groups.
- The more popular the keyword for which the domain ranks, the more backlinks lead to this domain.
- Every domain that ranks for a high-volume keyword has on average three times more backlinks than the domains from the three lower-volume groups on the same position.
- The lower the keyword volume, the less influence the number of backlinks has on the position of the domain.
Total Number of Referring IPs
Segmented by search volume
- The number of referring IPs addresses is not equal, but is connected to the number of referring domains, so it influences the rankings of the particular domain in the same manner.
- Top pages have more referring IPs, and this statement is accurate for every search volume group.
- Starting from the fifth position, the trend curves become flat in the lower keyword volume groups, indicating that the factor loses its influence on the SERP positions.
- The lower the keyword volume group, the less impact the number of referring IPs has on the position of the domain.
Total Number of Do-Follow Backlinks
Segmented by search volume
- The number of follow-backlinks is connected to the total number of backlinks that the domain has, so it influences the domain rankings in the same way.
- Starting from the fifth position, there is no significant difference in the number of follow-backlinks between the positions in the lower keyword volume groups, indicating that the influence of the factor has dropped.
- The lower the keyword volume group, the less important is the number of follow-backlinks for the domain rankings.
Total Number of Anchors
Segmented by Search Volume
- The trend lines for short-head and long-tail keywords are similar: the higher the posi- tion of the domain, the more anchors it has
- However, the domains ranking for short- head keywords (less than 3 words in a keyword) have on average more unique anchors on every position.
Keywords in Anchor
Segmented by search volume
- Keywords rarely show in anchor
- This seems to have the least influence out of the factors compared
In past years, Google promoted the idea of a more secure web. By applying new policies and imposing new rules, Google sent a clear message — make the Internet safer for users. By migrating to HTTPS, you are being proactive in protecting your users’ security, which strengthens the authority of your website. While it is a costly undertaking, it can significantly impact your business.
In the research, the study tracked down how the HTTPS migration affects domain/page rankings.
What was done:
- Analysis of 600,000 search queries and calculated the percentage of domains that have an HTTPS version for every top-100 SERP position. The Study segmented the analyzed keywords according to four volume intervals to see if trends for different keyword groups vary.
- The study also segmented the results in the high-volume keyword group by keyword length (from 1 up to and including 3 words in a keyword phrase = short-head keyword; 4 and more words in a keyword = long-tail keyword) to see the opportunities in both segments.
Website Security (HTTPS) Segmented by keyword length
- There are significantly fewer domains with an HTTPS version that rank for the long tail than for the short heads. This means that if you plan to rank for a long-tail keyword, creating an HTTPS version of your site would be a good opportunity for promotion in the search results.
- Starting from the tenth position, the trend curves for both short heads and long tails are flatter than for the first ten positions.
Website Security (HTTPS) Segmented by Search Volume
- The higher the SERP position, the more domains with an HTTPS version reside on it.
- This trend is similar for all keyword volume intervals.
- The higher the keyword volume, the more HTTPS domains can be found on every SERP position.
An article’s length, or the article’s word count, is one of the first ways a user will develop an opinion about a page. The exact numbers for ideal content length are debatable, as the main advantages of a text are its quality and relevance. However; long-form content creates the impression of in-depth analysis and therefore looks more trustworthy. Thier main intention was to see if there is a correlation between content length and a page’s position in the search results.
What was done:
- To track down the correlation between those numbers, the study calculated the median value content length for the top 10 pages for 600,000 keywords from their worldwide base. The results were broken down into four keyword volume intervals. The study presented the data for the first 20 positions on a graph, as the trend remains the same for all the following positions, with no extreme values.
- The Study also took keywords from the middle volume interval (101 – 1,000) and segmented them by keyword length to see if trends for the short-head and long-tail keywords are similar.
Content Length Segmented by Search Volume
- Generally, pages with more content rank higher in all search volume intervals
- Long content tends to rank higher for keywords with higher volume
- For high-volume keywords the median curve is more abrupt than for low-volume keywords, indicating that the factor has more influence in the high-volume segment.
- Pages with High volume keywords have on average 1.5 times more content than the pages in the low-volume segment.
Content Length Segmented by keyword length
- In the middle-volume interval (101–1,000), the trends are similar for short-head key- words and long-tail keywords.
- There is more content on the pages with long-tail keywords than on those with short-head keywords. This proves a popular opinion: when users search for short keywords they expect to see a concise summary of the topic and searching for long-tail keywords they expect a comprehensive deep-dive long read.
What it means for marketing:
As mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, the quality and relevance of your content play a crucial role in the page rankings. Solely creating content of a certain length is not a panacea, and if the content is irrelevant to the user’s query it doesn’t matter how long it is — it will still be irrelevant. However, the results of the research indicate that pages that rank higher have longer content on average. So, content length is important for your page’s success if it is valuable, well-written, and optimized, especially if you target high-volume keywords.
The Study also revealed that long-tail search queries return pages with more content on average than short heads — almost 20% more. For instance, an average top-100 article on ‘graphic design’ will be shorter than an average top-100 article on ‘graphic design trends in 2017’. That is, if you are writing on a broader topic, your users do not expect a long read. If your article’s topic is narrowed down to a precise statement, then it should provide a more in-depth view.
The research also shows that high-volume search queries return better SEO-optimized content, (which is show later on).
On-Page SEO Elements:
These days, content specialists know better than to stuff their texts with keywords. And though keyword stuffing is not anymore, it is a commonly accepted rule to include keywords in your articles’ main on-page elements such as their title, meta description and body. So, the study checked if the presence of keywords in the on-page elements influences the page rankings.
A video is also a valuable contribution to almost any piece of content these days. Sometimes it is essential to include a video in an article or post, and in other cases it is not necessary, though websites often do it anyway because it will, allegedly, make the post rank higher. They checked if the presence of a video on a page has any impact on its SERP position.
What SEM RUSH DID:
- They analyzed 600,000 search queries and calculated the percentage of pages that had a keyword in different page elements. Apart from the exact match keywords, they also applied keyword stemming to include all keyword variations. They also checked how many of those pages had a video.
- They segmented the results into four key- word volume intervals to track the difference between group trends. They also decided to take the mid-volume interval and compare the trends for short-head and long-tail keywords.
Use of Keywords in Titles, Meta Description and on page:
Use of Keywords in Title:
- The trend curves for keyword occurrence in the title are flat for each keyword volume group, that is, the number of pages that have a keyword in the title remains on the same level within a volume interval.
- The higher a keyword’s volume, the higher the percentage of pages that include the keyword in their title.
- In the high-volume keyword group, most pages add a keyword to their title.
Use of Keyword in Meta Description:
- The trend curves are flat across all volume groups, which means that the occurrence of the keyword in the meta description does not influence the page rankings.
- The higher the keyword volume is, the more pages include keywords into their meta description.
- Less than 50% of the pages that rank for a high-volume keyword have a keyword in their meta description.
- Of the pages that rank for a low-volume keyword, only 15% have a keyword in their meta description.
Use of Keyword in the body
- The trend curves for each keyword volume group are almost flat, showing no drastic difference between position values.
- Over 75% of the pages that rank for a high- volume keyword have a keyword in the body of their text.
- The higher a keyword’s volume is, the more pages include the keyword in their body copy.
Use of keyword on page:
- The trend curves for the page rankings are flat for both short-head and long-tail groups; that is, there is no drastic difference between the positions.
- Pages that rank for long-tail keywords re- peat those keywords less often than pages that rank for short-heads.
- The pages on the first positions (for both long-tails and short-heads) have noticeably more keywords than all other pages.
What it means for marketing:
Over 75% of the top-20 pages have keywords in their body and over 60% have them in their title. While it seems to be a common practice, the data proves that it doesn’t have a strong impact on rankings.
One time-proven approach in SEO is using longer keywords for promotion, as they usually bring more relevant traffic to a website. If this is your case and you plan to rank for long-tails, having an exact-match keyword in your on-page SEO elements is not necessary. In fact, it is more important to diversify the semantic core of your text and make it relevant to the target keyword rather than copying it.
The presence of a video didn’t show a significant influence on page rankings, so they concluded that video itself is not a silver bullet. However, in certain niches clients expect video content, so it makes sense to provide it. Consider your audience’s demands, and if they include visual support, include a video.
User Behavior Signals
They analyzed 600,000 search queries and for every top-100 SERP position they calculated the median-value bounce rate, the amount of time that the user spends on the domain in general, and the number of pages that the user visits during a single session. They also segmented the results according to two keyword volume groups — high and low.
While the study was taking place, they analyzed several user behavior signals such as bounce rate, the time that the user spends on the website in general and how many pages per session the user opens. These signals help identify user behavior patterns and can provide information on whether your content is engaging, whether the navigation on your website is convenient and how users generally react to your website.
This is the number of website visitors who leave the site after viewing only one page. It does not necessarily mean that the page wasn’t useful, but it could be a red flag for your content specialist.
- The bounce rate of the top position for the low-volume keywords is approximately 49%; for the high-volume keywords – around 51%.
- The higher a page’s position, the lower is its bounce rate.
Time on site
This figure is the total amount of time that the user spends on your website navigating from page to page. This figure characterizes your website, so it makes sense to check if it also influences the page
Comments based on analysis:
- The more time users spend on site in general, the higher a page rank is.
- The time-on-site metric is similar for the first four positions in the high-volume key-word interval.
- The average amount of time spent on the site is 40 seconds less for the low-volume keywords than for the high-volume keywords.
Pages per session
This metric shows how many of the website’s pages the user navigates through during one session. Along with other user behavior signals, this could indicate how engaging your content is, how clear the navigation is and how obvious the user path is.
Comments based on analysis:
- The user navigates through three to three and a half pages per website, per visit.
- As they move towards the top of the SERP, there are more pages per session for every domain. The number of pages per session is similar, on average, for the first four SERP positions.
What it means to marketing:
High-ranking pages have lower bounce rates. This could be the result of the level of trust that users have for top-ranking pages, or it could mean that the lower-ranking pages are less relevant. And though Google reps declare that all user behavior signals are too noisy to be considered during the page qualification, a high bounce rate could indicate that the page content is irrelevant, which is bad for both users and search engine bots.
These results indicate that users tend to spend more time on websites that rank higher in SERPs. This could be explained by the same fact: users trust top-ranking pages more than lower-ranking ones. Just like the bounce rate and time on site trends, these results confirm that users tend to visit more pages on websites that are in the top of organic search results.
In my analysis of the study, there were a few things that weren’t inspected:
The use of keywords and LSI keywords in the URL structure of the website. Also, a website has a broad structure of data, segregated by types, where keywords are embedded into the categories, make it easier to find by any search engine crawler. All of that is provided as a service to our SEO and website clients.