Celebrate the Holidays with some of SEJ’s best articles of 2023.
Our Festive Flashback series runs from December 21 – January 5, featuring daily reads on significant events, fundamentals, actionable strategies, and thought leader opinions.
2023 has been quite eventful in the SEO industry, and our contributors produced some outstanding articles to keep pace and reflect these changes.
Catch up on the best reads of 2023 to give you plenty to reflect on as you move into 2024.
If only every niche and location were ranked in the same way.
Long gone are the days when search engines operated on a basic level, where keyword stuffing and a volume of links were obviously direct factors that impacted ranking. Oh, and there was only one algorithm to worry about.
Over the last 25 years, SEO has become an increasingly complex and nuanced discipline.
Ranking factors differ by the vertical and the keyword. YMYL rankings are handled differently from how ecommerce transactional queries are ranked, and local search is different again.
There is only one certainty with SEO: the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.
But, we do know that there are some factors or signals that Google considers important for ranking pages.
Download our Ranking Factors for 2023 ebook here.
The “Google 200 Ranking Factors” Myth
Before we list important factors and signals for ranking, we need to talk about the mythical list of 200 ranking factors that Google allegedly uses.
Most likely, the number 200 originated as a PR attempt by Google to portray its algorithm as complex and having multiple factors. And then it stuck. The only known citation of “200” is from a speech by Matt Cutts at PubCon in 2009.
As we said above, Google and ranking have evolved exponentially over the last 25 years to a point where there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of factors and machine learning overlays.
What Yandex Revealed About Ranking Factors
The Yandex ranking factors leak of January 2023 revealed Yandex uses around 690 ranking factors, give or take.
At the time, this was an insight into how a major search engine applied factors and signals for ranking.
In a direct conversation, Dan Taylor, an expert on Russian search engines, said both Yandex and Google share a number of similarities in how they try to index and rank websites: “They both have the same data points to work with; on-page content, links, meta-data, mobile-friendliness, and user interactions such as SERP clicks and user behaviour.”
He went on to say: “Both search engines also make use of AI for parts of their ranking systems (such as Vega), but have differences in how they weight certain signals, such as backlinks and users clicking on results in the SERPs, and some of these are more easily manipulated than others in comparison to Google.”
Taylor thinks, in theory, that pages can be optimized for both search engines in the same way without compromising performance. That would mean the Yandex leak could offer insights into ranking on Google.
Factors, Systems, And Signals
This is an issue for Google and the SEO industry at large, because SEO pros often look too deeply at the wrong thing and lose focus on what really matters. Nothing seems to be held to more scrutiny than ranking factors.
SEO professionals are becoming fixated on the semantic differences between factors, systems, and signals.
When documentation was updated to remove page experience from the Systems page, Google was forced to put out this statement on X (Twitter): “Ranking *systems* are different than ranking *signals* (systems typically make use of signals). We had some things listed on that page relating to page experience as “systems” that were actually signals. They shouldn’t have been on the page about systems. Taking them off didn’t mean we no longer consider aspects of page experience. It just meant these weren’t ranking *systems* but instead signals used by other systems.”
As it turns out, page experience is still a ranking factor (see below).
Digging into the semantics, Google has two official pages that relate to ranking factors:
“Google uses automated ranking systems that look at many factors and signals about hundreds of billions of web pages and other content in our Search index to present the most relevant, useful results, all in a fraction of a second.”
“To give you the most useful information, Search algorithms look at many factors and signals, including the words of your query, relevance and usability of pages, expertise of sources, and your location and settings. The weight applied to each factor varies depending on the nature of your query.”
Gary Illyes covered the differences between factors, signals, and systems during an Ask Me Anything session at PubCon (September 2023), where he said, “The main difference is just language.”
The easiest way to differentiate between system and signal is to say: Google’s ranking systems can be thought of as the machine learning layers that are applied to refine search results. Ranking signals influence the systems and ranking.
SEO expert Ammon Johns clarified this in a direct message: “Not all things that are classed as signals will be used in any one system. Many things that Google classifies as signals may not be applicable to a particular query, or may be weighted differently to that of another query. For example, even Google’s most famous of all signals, PageRank, isn’t used in Local Search at all.”
The Google “How Search Works” page talks about “key factors that help determine which results are returned for your query.”
On this page, the main factors are summarized as:
If you can understand the fundamental approach that Google takes, then distracting yourself with semantics is not important. Following a common sense approach to the end goal for the end user is a much more effective and long-term strategy.
Basically, Google is driven by wanting to provide the best search results it can so that it has a market-leading product. It’s a business. Once you understand this, you understand the fundamental concept of SEO.
That said, here are the fundamental ranking factors that should all be considered for SERP visibility.
The 3 Ranking Factors That Every SEO Pro Should Focus On
1. High-Quality Content
The first stage of ranking is to understand the user’s query.
The second stage is to match the query to the content on a page.
From How Search Works: “Our systems analyze the content to assess whether it contains information that might be relevant to what you are looking for.”
As long as your site is technically sound enough to be crawled and rendered, quality content continues to be the number one ranking factor.
Content is key not just for ranking, but also for user experience and conversion.
Gary Illyes from Google summarizes this by saying: “Without content it literally is not possible to rank. If you don’t have words on page you’re not going to rank for it. Every site will have something different as the top 2 or 3 ranking factors.”
The internet is literally built from pages of content.
But what is high-quality content? In short, it can best be defined as content that follows E-E-A-T signals, and it demonstrates:
Read more about E-E-A-T below.
Integral parts of content are the keywords and words on the page. There are theories circulating that keywords are now obsolete and not needed anymore to rank. But, on a fundamental level, keywords do still matter.
As Google says, “The most basic signal that information is relevant is when content contains the same keywords as your search query. For example, with web pages, if those keywords appear on the page, or if they appear in the headings or body of the text, the information might be more relevant.”
A page must clearly identify what it is about to avoid any ambiguity and to be ranked.
Pedro Dias, a former Googler, explained in a direct conversation: “It’s not that original ranking factors like keywords are obsolete, they are the cornerstone on which we build. It’s just as important as always that these fundamentals are applied and done well.”
Pedro went on to say: “Google has introduced machine learning that is applied on top of the foundations so that they can provide results that take into account far more nuanced intents for queries.”
Google is striving to always surface the best results, so machine learning systems have been developed as part of the move towards parsing natural language queries. Google can understand the difference between “cheat” as a disingenuous person and “cheat” as a way to game a system (as in cheat code). An example Pedro highlighted that Gary Illyes once used.
As explained by Ammon Johns: “Search engines have placed more emphasis on semantic search and entities. For the simplest kind of example, search for ‘History of Munchen’ and not only will Google understand the misspelling of MÜNCHEN, but it will almost certainly mostly show results with the more popular ‘Munich’ keyword in the titles and snippets.”
The systems that have the most impact on ranking content are as follows:
Helpful Content System
The system is being updated constantly, and in 2023, we have been through several iterations of updates.
Google states: “The helpful content system aims to better reward content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience, while content that doesn’t meet a visitor’s expectations won’t perform as well.”
A few of the guidelines for helpful content, which all underline E-E-A-T, include:
- Don’t stray from your main topic.
- Demonstrate first-hand experience.
- Don’t combine multiple topics on one site.
Before RankBrain, Google didn’t understand synonyms and would return literal interpretations of a word. From Google: “…before we had advanced AI, our systems simply looked for matching words. For example, if you searched for “pziza” – unless there was a page with that particular misspelling, you’d likely have to redo the search with the correct spelling to find a slice near you…Now, with advanced machine learning, our systems can more intuitively recognize if a word doesn’t look right and suggest a possible correction.”
The system understands how combinations of words can have different meanings, especially stop words. This makes even so-called stop words relevant in search when they contribute to the meaning of a query.
From Google: “BERT was a huge step change in natural language understanding, helping us understand how combinations of words express different meanings and intents.”
Multitask Unified Model (MUM)
In 2021, at Google IO, MUM was announced as a system to take things a step further by being multimodal, which allows it to take information from text, images, and possibly video.
MUM is not applied as a ranking system across all verticals, as Google said: “While we’re still in the early days of tapping into MUM’s potential, we’ve already used it to improve searches for COVID-19 vaccine information.”
It would appear that the main application is going to be for search that can contain text and images in Google Lens.
Google states: “As we introduce more MUM-powered experiences to Search, we’ll begin to shift from advanced language understanding to a more nuanced understanding of information about the world… MUM is capable of both understanding and generating language.”
Caffeine was introduced in 2010 and was a move away from refreshing the entire index every few weeks. Google’s stated purpose for Caffein was to “analyze the web in small portions and update our search index on a continuous basis, globally.”
As the internet was rapidly expanding, in 2011, Google built on top of Caffeine and introduced “Freshness” by announcing: “…today we’re making a significant improvement to our ranking algorithm that impacts roughly 35 percent of searches and better determines when to give you more up-to-date relevant results for these varying degrees of freshness.”
Content freshness is not applied across all searches. It’s query-dependent and more critical for some niches and queries. For example, breaking news results, weather, or stock prices.
Most content will see some level of decay over time in search results if it isn’t updated. Ideas, concepts, products, and information are all constantly evolving, and users’ changing expectations are aligned with that.
Personalization & Locality
Although not concerned with quality of content, it’s worth mentioning here that on top of all the other rank refining is a layer of personalization, which takes into consideration user search history and user location.
For example, queries such as “best coffee shop” are considered location-dependent and will deliver a map of results based on your location. Some product queries are served by location to surface local suppliers.
Results for the same query can differ on each device, and knowing the motivation a user might have at a certain stage in their journey makes a difference in what results should be served in the SERPs.
As an example, the query “London Zoo” serves desktop results with an emphasis on research with video and image carousels, while the mobile SERP has a focus on tickets, directions, and location.
As John Mueller said: “If you’re searching on your phone then maybe you want more local information because you’re on the go. Whereas if you’re searching on a desktop maybe you want more images or more videos shown in the search results.”
When you do keyword research and create content, it is important to understand how personalization and locality will impact ranking and take this into consideration in your strategy.
E-E-A-T Is Not A Ranking Factor, But Is Important
Again, not a direct system for ranking, but Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness – E-E-A-T – is a critically important SEO concept that all content creators must take into account.
Google’s Search Quality Raters Guidelines used to be a closely guarded document at Google that was eventually leaked online. Google now openly publishes the document as an example of what its Quality Raters are looking for when they manually review websites.
E-E-A-T is part of the Google Quality Search Raters Guidelines and not so much a ranking factor, but it is a guideline.
The concept is important for all niches, but especially for anyone in YMYL niches, such as finance or health, where the results can impact the user’s life significantly.
As mentioned above, quality content is a critical ranking factor, and there is no better blueprint to tell you how to achieve that than the E-E-A-T guidelines. Building a credible reputation as an expert within a field supports Google’s aim and provides a good user experience.
2. Page Experience
Page experience caused ripples in the community when it was removed from Google’s ranking systems page, which forced the Search Liaison team to say: “…As our guidance on page experience says in the first sentence: ‘Google’s core ranking systems look to reward content that provides a good page experience.’”
Page experience rolled out in 2021. Previously to this, Core Web Vitals (CWVs) had been emphasized as an important ranking factor.
CWVs then became part of something bigger in a collective group of ‘signals’ that make up page experience – essentially still a ranking factor, but part of a group of factors now known as ‘Page Experience.’
To understand why this matters is to understand everything that Google wants to achieve.
Google wants to deliver a good user experience. It does not reflect well on its product if it serves pages that take too long to load, don’t load well on certain devices, or are obscured by large ads that obstruct users from getting to the page.
Page Experience is focused on four main signals:
- Page Speed.
- Mobile Friendliness.
- Core Web Vitals.
Page experience is important, but not the most critical factor. In some circumstances, it’s not applied to ranking but is more critical when there are two pages vying for a position.
As John Mueller explains: “If all of the content is very similar in the search results page, then probably using Page Experience helps a little bit to understand which of these are fast pages or reasonable pages with regards to the user experience and which of these are kind of the less reasonable pages to show in the search results.”
Google wants to deliver the best product on the market, and this is a critical part of SEO that has been overlooked. Focusing on Google’s motivation and working with this will get you better results for ranking than anything else.
Ranking factors and links go hand in hand.
Many SEO professionals think that links are being deprecated as a ranking factor. In a 2022 poll by Marie Haynes, 44% of SEOs pros who responded thought that link building was less effective now compared to a few years ago.
If we start by looking at why links have been important historically, in Google Founders Sergey Brin’s and Lawrence Page’s famous Stanford paper, links were given prominence as one of the main factors of ranking in a system that echoed the citations given to academic papers.
In the early days of Google, links quickly became the most leveraged spam technique for ranking. It took Google until 2012 and the legendary Penguin update to wipe out low-quality links, and it has been trying to downgrade the importance of links since this time.
Yet, the first time a Google representative said online that links were a ranking factor was in 2016. In a Q&A with Ammon Johns and others, Google Search Quality Senior Strategist Andrey Lipattsev said the top 3 ranking signals are “Content, Links, RankBrain.”
Skip forward to 2023; in an AMA at PubCon, Gary Illyes then gave a contradicting opinion to say that links are not a “top 3” ranking signal and haven’t been “for some time…there really isn’t a universal top 3.” Illyes went on to say, “It’s absolutely possible to rank without links.”
It’s worth considering that there are many reasons why Google would downplay the importance of links, such as to reduce link spam. Google is not going to outright claim that links are a surefire ranking factor if they can be so easily manipulated. Yes, it might be technically possible to rank without links, but more often, links do improve ranking.
In a direct message conversation, Ammon said in response to his 2016 video: “When Andrey Lipattsev responded with ‘Content, Links and RankBrain’, he was saying what matters is on-page, off-page, and how Google processes a query – which is something anyone should have already known. On that basis, no matter what Gary Illyes has said since, those are indeed the three essential factors still today.”
Apart from the flow of PageRank, one of the reasons that links are important is that Google typically finds pages by crawling, and it traverses pages via links.
This is why a page with no inbound or internal links can be difficult to rank, as it’s not found by Google via links in order to be crawled and indexed. The potential for the absence of links highlights the importance of submitting a sitemap, which tells Google what pages you want indexed.
What is important is that not all links are equal, and Google focuses on the quality of an individual link, not the volume of links.
John Mueller said: “The number of links may have been an important factor during the early days of PageRank, but Google prioritizes more helpful metrics to evaluate links today.”
Links do not have the same impact as they did in the early days when it was possible to rank with a high-volume of low-quality inbound links. Today, relevance and quality of link matter.
Good quality links do still have an influence on ranking, and a lot of SEO professionals would say they do still count.
At this point, we can confidently say that internal links and inbound links are still considered a ranking factor.
Google Ranking Factors Takeaway
The main thing to take away from this article is that ranking and SERP visibility are not straightforward applications of, “here is a list of ranking factors that we can work with.”
It’s one of the reasons why this industry is such an exciting and challenging space to work in.
All that said above, although there is not a clear set of Google ranking factors that you can follow, there are a number of factors and signals that are important to get right to achieve the best ranking you can.
If you want to read more about ranking factors with a focus to prioritize facts and not speculation, then download a copy of Ranking Factors 2023 ebook.
In researching this article, the author spoke directly to Pedro Dias (former Google employee), Ammon Johns (SEO Pioneer), and Dan Taylor (Russian search engine and technical SEO expert). Many thanks to them for their input and expertise.
Featured Image: Jeramey Lende/Shutterstock
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