Google’s algorithm has undergone dozens of significant changes since the search engine debuted in 1998. And yet, the main factors that cause a website to rank are largely the same today, on the cusp of 2016, as they were back then: namely, links, original content, and meta page titles. The vast majority of the updates to Google’s algorithm over the years have been in the service of thwarting low-quality SEO tactics in order to bring sites that genuinely have these 3 factors to the top of the results. But these aren’t the only criteria Google uses. In this guide, I dissect the algorithm, listing each factor in order of its importance.
But first, some context.
The thing that truly made Google special, differentiating it from the other search engines that existed in the 1990s such as HotBot, Altavista, Webcrawler, and Lycos, was that its algorithm was based on factors that were outside of a website owner’s control. The other search engines’ algorithms were based on the number of times a given keyword was written on a website. If a lawyer, for instance, wrote “personal injury lawyer san diego” a thousand times on his website, he would quickly rank at the top of the search engines for that keyword. Google’s algorithm, in contrast, was based on the number and quality of references to your website that appeared on other websites. (References which, when clicked, bring you to another website, are called “links”.) And so, no matter how many times you wrote a keyword on your website, you couldn’t rank on Google unless other webmasters deemed your site interesting enough to reference it.
Google’s algorithm was no small innovation in the world of search engines; in fact, it was nothing short of revolutionary. Whereas the algorithm of the other search engines was equivalent to an election where the candidate who makes the most promises wins, Google’s algorithm was equivalent to a democracy, where the candidate who receives the most votes from the populace wins. Getting “elected” to the top of Google’s search results can only occur when your site has earned credibility in other people’s eyes. That’s the genius of Google’s algorithm.
While links remain the most important ranking factor for the Google search engine in 2016, there are many other factors which, when considered in aggregate, make up an important slice of the algorithm. Here is the breakdown of Google’s algorithm based on my analysis of 116 websites, ranging from brand new websites to some of the largest sites on the Internet, over the past year.
- Links: 29%
- Regular production of original “thought leadership” content: 23%
- Keyword-rich meta page title tags: 8%
- Mobile & tablet responsiveness: 8%
- Existence of conversion-optimized landing pages: 8%
- Clean code: 6%
- Site speed: 5%
- Social signals: 4%
- Age of site 4%
- Keywords listed on page: 2%
- Keywords in URLs: 2%
- Keywords in meta description tags: 1%
Because simply looking at the ranking factors in order is not enough to understand how to craft a marketing strategy, I have listed some qualitative observations I’ve made about how to use these factors to your advantage:
Before worrying about the bigger factors, get the easy stuff out of the way.
In the same way that some university courses have prerequisites – classes you need to have taken in order to sign up for the advanced class – before you can outrank your competitors on Google, you need to have some basics taken care of. First, your site has to have clean, orderly code, as opposed to sloppy code that gives Google’s “spiders” more work to do. Second, the pages on your site should load immediately. Third, each page should be clearly labeled with the keywords that will help Google searchers understand what is on that page. (The “labels” that Google looks at to understand what the page is about are the meta title tag, the URL of the page, and the meta description tag.) Fourth, those keywords should actually appear on the page in a natural way. Most of these prerequisites can be accomplished simply by building your website in WordPress or another CMS that is known to be SEO-friendly.
Once your site is SEO-friendly, the best thing you can do is create excellent, original content regularly.
If you can manage to publish 2-3 articles each week on your website, you will watch your traffic rise. Of course, the articles need to have good titles that match what potential customers would be looking for, and they need to be original and genuinely interesting. These are not small things; my entire business exists because we’ve found an efficient way to accomplish original content production every week. But if you can manage to do this work, you’ve gotten the hardest part out of the way.
Link building is far more natural than you’d think.
When your content is truly excellent, people tend to link to it. This does not happen right away; some of the best campaigns we’ve worked on have only seen links start to occur naturally after 9-12 months. But if you keep publishing excellent content consistently, the links always come. You can get the ball rolling by publishing your work on social media, sending it out via a newsletter, or sending a few targeted e-mails to press contacts. After a while, you’ll notice that links are starting to come in while you’re sleeping because you’ve done the hardest job already in creating truly insightful content.
Remember to never cut corners to get links. Buying them, adding them via a directory, distributing articles on low-quality article networks, linking inside press releases, and other artificial link building tactics not only don’t work, but are harmful to your site. Links are the natural consequence of quality; that’s one of the core principles that Google’s algorithm is predicated on.
Social signals are also more natural than you’d think.
Even though social signals are a bit of a mirage – they really don’t matter as much as people think they do on account of Google not having enough social data to truly accomplish social search – they do have some impact on your rankings. Like links, social shares, favorites, votes, and links tend to arise from a genuine desire to share excellent content. While you should help the process along by posting your best content on social media channels like Linkedin and Twitter, people will share what they like, period. You can’t force it. That brings us back to creating excellent content.
Your site needs to be responsive to mobile devices.
In mid-2015, Google made it clear to webmasters that sites that are easier to browse on mobile devices such as cell phones and tablets will rank higher. Google prizes the user experience because their brand depends on it. There’s nothing more to say about making your website “responsive” except “Do it.”
Making your site easy to browse and understand for every type of searcher matters more than it used to.
One of the ways Google has evolved over the years is by “reading” your website more thoroughly to ensure that it will deliver a relevant experience for every searcher. That means that having lots of landing pages is a great idea. Ideally, you should have a separate page for users to land on for every service you offer, industry you specialize in, customer you serve, problem you solve, and question you answer. Sound tough? Well, beating your competition is tough, yes. But you can do it, one day at a time. If you want a model of good landing pages, check out this cloud service provider’s website. Notice that the drop-down menu under “Solutions” lists the 7 industries they specialize in on the right-hand side. Each of those landing pages is tailored to members of a particular industry. They emphasize the pain points those industry members might experience and talk about how they as a company address those pain points. Whereas this kind of catering to every user’s needs used to be the providence of Adwords quality scores, Google recently began including it as a ranking factor.
Google’s algorithm has come a long way since 1998, despite the fact that its ranking factors haven’t changed too dramatically. Mainly, the search engine expects you to earn high rankings by doing a stellar job welcoming new users and serving them organized, useful information. If you ask me, that’s not too tall of an order. Any over-achieving business owner worth his or her salt would do that anyway. And that’s precisely what Google demands.