Web marketers often talk about ‘ranking factors’, and these are the various characteristics of your page or website that help to decide its position in the search results – SEO, or search engine optimisation, is about putting the right combination of those factors in place to achieve the best possible search ranking.

Google SEO is the main priority in most search engine marketing, because Google is the most commonly used search engine, but how do we know which factors have the biggest impact on your ranking?

One way is to look at websites from real Google results pages, and see which characteristics the best-ranked pages have in common – something Backlinko have just done on a million web pages. Here’s what they found…

1. Inbound links matter most

Across the million pages they analysed, Backlinko found that incoming links from other domains correlated more closely than any other factor with high placement in the search results. Remember you should not simply pay other people to link to your site though – you need good-quality content that naturally compels others to link to you.

2. Link authority

Using third-party SEO tools, Backlinko also looked at ‘link authority’ – a measure of the quality of backlinks across the website as a whole, rather than any one individual page – and found that this also correlates strongly with high search rankings. In essence, good-quality links to any part of your site have the potential to improve the ranking of all your pages in the search results.

3. In-depth content

Content with a clear topic focus performs better than more ‘shallow’ content. This naturally lends itself to longer pages, but it’s also about making sure you cover a single topic per page, and try not to get distracted along the way.

4. 2,000 words

Longer content typically ranks better. On Google’s first page, the average result has 1,890 words, according to Backlinko – so pages of 2,000 words and more should be well set to rank highly (just remember to keep your topic in firm focus).

5. Security-conscious

This one’s slightly more technical – websites with a secure ‘https’ prefix rank more highly than websites with a standard ‘http’ prefix, confirming one of the few ranking factors Google have ever publicly acknowledged.

6. Microdata – micro-effect

Schema is a way of flagging up ‘structured data’ to the search engines, such as address, telephone number, opening hours and so on. While this may help your business’s key information to appear in a more structured way in the search results, it generally will not have a big impact on your pages’ rankings.

7. Just one picture

Adding an image to your page has a significant ranking boost – but adding a second and subsequent images does not have much of an additional effect, making it a false economy to use multiple images purely for SEO.

8. Trivial title tags

Your page title tag offers an SEO opportunity – but Backlinko found this has a smaller influence than expected (and, it’s fair to say, smaller than in years gone by) as Google focuses increasingly on other factors instead.

9. Faster is better

There’s not a lot to say here – Google have been flagging up slow-loading websites for several years, so it should come as no surprise to find that the faster your site loads, the better your ranking is likely to be.

10. A match made in hell?

Here’s a dilemma. The research found links that point to your website using a specific anchor phrase have a significant impact on your ranking for that phrase – but Google are also penalising webmasters who get ‘caught out’ artificially building backlinks in this way. Backlinko advised steering clear of this tactic for safety, even though it has a big influence.

11. Like a rubber ball…

Engaging content matters. The study found a high ‘bounce rate’ – people who leave your site after reading just one page – is linked with lower rankings. This suggests that Google are actively demoting a page if visitors go straight back to Google, on the assumption that it did not answer their query.

So what matters most?

Putting everything together, we have a snapshot of what matters most in Google SEO:

2000(ish) words on a single focused topic, with one image, on a https secure server that loads quickly, and engages strongly with the visitor so they don’t go straight back to Google.

And despite many years of web marketer wisdom, certain factors are less significant:

A keyworded title tag, multiple images, and ‘structured data’ have little direct impact on SEO (but might be preferable for reasons not directly related to your organic SEO rankings).

Finally, remember that backlinks have a broad positive effect on your whole website, not just the page they link to; however, they should be built naturally, and artificially building backlinks with exact-match anchor text is a risky (and generally unadvised) strategy.

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