Our Top 50 SEO Ranking Factors For 2020
This year we have compiled the following list of SEO ranking factors based on our own experience optimising websites during the past 12 months and the opnions of other SEO experts from around the world. We have divided them into the five areas we consider to be the most important to focus on.
Technical SEO Ranking Factors
- Keyword in the meta title
According to results from all the websites we have optimised over the better part of a decade, having your keywords in the meta title is one of the most important ranking factors for a web page on Google and Bing. If you are adding keywords to the page title they should always be relevant and targeted to driving the right type of traffic to your website. This ranking factor is so powerful you should not duplicate keywords in your meta titles otherwise you will run the risk of losing rankings due to having multiple pages competing for the same targets. Also having too many keywords in the meta title can result in dilution of the relevancy of a page so it is best to keep them focused according to what’s on the page such as the product or service you are attempting to sell.
- Keyword position in meta title tag
Thinking carefully about how you structure your title tag is an important part of doing SEO. The position of a keyword in the title has been shown to influence how well a web page will rank for the keyword see more on this here Moz. Avoid mistakes such as having all titles start with the brand name. This only uses up the potential space you have for the main keyword targets.
- Length of title tag
Some keywords may not show at all if title tags are too long. Ensure title tags are set to an optimum length for all devices. Depending on screen size some keywords may not appear which can reduce click through rates. As click through rates are regarded as a ranking factor, low click through rates can result in a slide down the rankings.
- Meta descriptions
Most SEO experts agree that having keywords in the meta description doesn’t have the same impact as having it in the meta title. It can however improve relevancy for those searching and result in a higher click through rate if the result sticks out as the most relevant among the competition. The key thing with a meta description is to write them so people want to click for information.
- H1 Tags
H1 tags don’t carry the same weight as having the keyword in the meta title, but they are still a strong signal to search engines about what a page is about. If the h1 title doesn’t contain the keyword for the page this -more often than not – has a big influence on how well that page can rank even if the meta title is correctly targeted.
- Using h2, h3 tags and so on…
Breaking up content using variations of header tags can help Google better understand what a page is about and make it easier to read for humans.
- Image Alt Tags
Search engines can’t tell what a page is about from its images so it helps to add alt tags describing what the image is. This also helps improve the relevancy of the page and can help improve search engine rankings as a result.
- Website homepage
A website’s homepage is in the vast majority of cases the page with the most authority. It will normally attract the most internal and external links, therefore this page should be optimised for the most important keywords.
- SSL Certificate
Most new websites will now have SSL certificates installed and this will almost certainly be a ranking factor to take notice of for those websites still running on http: rather than the more secure https:
- Contact page
Having a contact page on your website containing an address plus a map if possible that is consistent with all your other businesses listings online is an important ranking factor for local businesses. Google mentions in its quality guidelines that all websites should have a reasonable level of contact information.
- Breadcrumbs in navigation
Breadcrumbs are not the most attractive things to include in a web page but they do help both users and search engines reach content. Google has suggested that it uses breadcrumbs for this purpose and if this makes things easier, then it is likely this will help with SEO.
- Loading time
The importance of page load time is well documented. Pages should load fast on all devices and if they don’t this can have a negative impact on rankings while a faster loading web page may perform much better. Google has a tool to measure mobile load speeds. This can help you identify areas of weakness or provide reassurance that your website is performing well against others in your industry.
- Click through rate
Google measures click through rate to assess the quality of ads and while there is no evidence it uses the same measure for organic results it is highly likely they do. The more people who click on our snippet the better it is likely to be for your search engine ranking.
- Videos and multimedia
Videos and multimedia are not going to result in a better ranking for a web page in the main search listings but video is increasingly being displayed for specific types of search. It can also increase dwell time on a page which can have some impact on its performance.
- Linking out to other sites
It can be helpful to link out to sites that have good authority in your niche. This is a bit like citing sources in a research paper and builds trust that the writer has taken the time to thoroughly research a topic. Linking out to sites with a bad reputation or no relevance to what is displayed can have the opposite effect as can an excessive number of links going out to external sites.
- Mobile responsiveness
Google has stated that mobile friendliness is a ranking factor on mobile searches. Sites that are only optimised for desktop are likely to lose more and more traffic overtime as more people use their mobile devices for search. For now though there is little difference in rankings and in our experience with some sites without mobile optimised pages, the mobile rankings are better than the desktop ones!
Popups might be a way to attract signups but annoying popups are kryptonite to rankings due to their impacts on user experience. We have seen some websites lose rankings after adding popups to home pages.
- Useful tools
Things like mortgage calculators, website auditors and so on have a beneficial effect on rankings because they offer something extra to website visitors and importantly keep them on pages longer. Time on the page while not an official ranking factor can help improve search positions because it is sending a signal that people find the page engaging when they land there.
- Content hidden in tabs
Tabs have been increasingly used to feature more text content on a page without impacting on design. However, there are rumours Google is clamping down on content hidden behind tabs by saying this type of content “may not be indexed”. You have been warned.
- Internal links
The point of internal links within a site is often misunderstood. You find a lot a of site pointing all their internal links to the homepage, shying away from linking to any page within the site or simply linking internally without much thought. Internal links should highlight the important page you would like to rank for particular keywords and topics. The number of pages within a site linking to a page in this way should help the destination page rank better in the search results.
- Linking from high authority pages
Certain pages on your website will carry a lot more authority than others. Home pages will carry the most authority in general along with other static pages that have been ever present on a site from the beginning. Lining to newer content from these pages will help build the authority of the destination pages and in time should help it rank in the search results. Links going out from fresh blog posts internally are unlikely to pass much authority as these pages will not have had sufficient time to gain authority.
- Broken links
Broken links can do two things to a web page, they can make it look outdated and they remove any benefit that page might have passed on. Having too many broken links on multiple pages can send out a signal to Google that a site is poorly maintained and send crawlers to dead ends wasting crawl budget. Broken links can easily be fixed by redirecting or removing them from pages. Finding them manually however on large sites is not so easy. There are various SEO tools available however that will help find them and reveal the pages they appear on including Google’s own search console which is free. Paid tools are best to find all instances of broken links.
- Post tags
WordPress has a tag function to help people find posts on particular topics. These can be displayed on web pages and there is some controversy on how these might affect SEO. Most experts say they shouldn’t be used but there is really no reason not to use them and they help readers find the information they need quickly. This in itself creates a better user experience. Post tags may look a bit ugly, however, which is why you tend not to see them displayed on most sites.
- W3C validation issues
SEO auditing tools often flag up html coding errors and W3C validation issues. While these can appear alarming and indicate that a site is not as well put together as it should be this isn’t necessarily going to impact on rankings.
- url length
The length of a url doesn’t necessarily have a bearing on that page’s ability to rank in search results. Longer urls however will tend to rank lower than shorter urls that are more to the point and don’t contain unnecessary characters. The deeper a page is within the site the harder it is to find.
- Keyword in url
Having the keyword in the url is used by Yoast as an indicator of best practice so better to have it that not. Google also said a few years back that it was a ranking factor. Who are we to argue?
- Clean and messy urls
Why is it that WordPress sites tend to rank better than weebly sites and those other free website builder platforms? It’s often down to how well they are put together and the url structures. Having ‘.html’ on the end as well as question marks and other messy characters is not going to help a website rank in the search results in our experience.
A sitemap should be generated for submission to Google’s search console. This will help Google collect important information about your web pages. While this alone won’t improve your rankings paying attention to these sorts of details helps optimise a website better.
- Find a good website host
Finding a good host should be high on the list of SEO factors. A site that is frequently down or located in a country other than the one you are trying to rank in can hold back your SEO performance.
- Keeping your website secure
Hacking and malware are by far the biggest threats to your search engine rankings. If Google detects that a website has vulnerabilities, it will often penalise. This can decimate rankings or at the very least result in warnings being displayed in the search result that a website has been hacked.
Content Ranking Factors
- Keywords in body content (TF-IDF)
This sounds technical but all it relates to is the number of times a keyword appears on a page as a proportion of the length of copy. If a keyword is used too often or too little this will impact on the TF-IDF score negatively and this could result in a page not ranking as well as it could do in the search results.
- Keyword position in body content
It is widely accepted that the main keyword targets should appear in the first 100 words of page content.
- Duplicate content
All pages on a website should have unique content and if this isn’t possible the primary page should be marked as the canonical version. Scraping content from other sites can result in a ranking penalty for a web page.
- Content age
Even content that ranks well initially for a keyword can start to drop in the search results as time goes on. This is why it is important to keep content fresh and continue to explore new topics in blogs and news sections.
- Length of web (text) content
Length of content is another important ranking factor and a page should have at least 300 words to be considered useful according to WordPress plugin Yoast’s recommended minimum. Studies have also shown a direct correlation between long form content and its ability to rank on the first page of search results. The average for a page one position is 1890 words according to this study.
- Content Quality
Google wants to present the best answers to queries so websites that give in-depth answers are likely to be rewarded with better rankings than those that don’t. Content should be readable, make sense and not appear as if it is written to satisfy a search engine.
- Reading level of content
You may have noticed that the Yoast plugin on WordPress rates how readable your content is using a Flesch–Kincaid readability test. This can be a useful tool to make your content more understandable but is of little use if your content is a technical one. The general rule is to make your content as understandable as possible. This means keeping sentences short and to the point, avoiding excessive unnecessary punctuation and avoiding passive language.
- Lists and bullets
Lists and bullet points are currently fashionable and it is no accident this is the case. For some SEOs creating list posts and pages is their secret weapon. You will often find lists in featured snippets which are the new position 1 in organic search results for many queries. For example if you ask for ‘the best seo company’, it is likely Google will return a list post. If you want your site to appear in featured snippets there is an in-depth article on the subject here.
- Quote your sources with links
Google started out as a library of information and it still is to some extent even if it has become far more sophisticated. Search engines will continue to look for relationships between content to gauge quality so it is advisable to help them do that with references to your sources.
- Outbound links
Having too many outbound links on a page isn’t advisable. Matt Cutts formerly of Google advised against having pages with too many outbound links.
- A-star content
If you are going to use your posts to build search presence the aim should be to make them better than anything else out there. If you can manage to come up with an original post that ticks all the boxes for quality and ranks well in the search results, this can improve the rankings of the site as a whole. Content of this level and quality, however, is hard to achieve on a consistent basis without employing the services of an outstanding content marketer.
- Age of domain
You will often find that an older more established domain will perform better than newer sites. This is certainly so if that domain has built a considerable number of natural backlinks over time.
- Length of registration
As well as age Google looks for how long a domain is registered for. Domains registered for less than a year can send a signal that the website is created for the short rather than long term. To quote a Google patent
“Valuable (legitimate) domains are often paid for several years in advance, while doorway (illegitimate) domains rarely are used for more than a year. Therefore, the date when a domain expires in the future can be used as a factor in predicting the legitimacy of a domain.”
- Domain authority
Authority comes with age and popularity so Google will automatically make it easier for sites with the most authority to rank. The only way to compete with these sites is to tackle long tail search queries first and think hard about content production and building brand awareness. Over time this will build the required authority for a site to outrank the competition.
- Keyword domain
These are becoming increasingly hard to find nowadays. Those worth having are likely to come with a substantial price tag as well putting them out of reach of all but the largest businesses. Also there is little evidence that an exact match domain will outrank a high authority website. Having multiple exact match domains is a strategy for some businesses but this leaves them vulnerable to the costs of maintaining separate websites while not necessarily getting the desired results in terms of traffic and sales. Having a keyword within a domain name can give a website as long as Google still uses it as a relevancy signal.
- Location of domain
Your tld is an important ranking factor. This means you should think carefully about your future plans for the business when choosing a domain. Opting for a .co.uk for example will generally tie you to the UK while a .com has the potential to rank in more than one country. Businesses sometimes get around this by creating multiple domains for each country they operate in.
Web page design
In our experience design is an important part of the SEO mix. It will determine how easy it is for a user to navigate around the site and how long they are likely to stay on it. Both these factors are going to help with SEO but perhaps the biggest consideration is how layout relates to the content on the page. For example, if your homepage is content features everything you are attempting to target in one page then this can have a negative impact. Google may find it difficult to determine what a page is about if the main topic isn’t displayed at the top.
You may have the best looking site in your niche but that ugly looking website is still at the top. This is a common issue for website owners and unfortunately Google doesn’t rack site according to how nice they look. You should however consider keeping up with the latest trends to avoid giving visitors the impression your business doesn’t keep up to date with the latest trends.
Off Page Factors
- Setting up Google Analytics and Google Search Console
While having your website connected up with Google Analytics and search console isn’t going to result in better rankings per se, it will help a lot with diagnostics. If your site isn’t connected properly then you will be missing some valuable data about how users interact with your site. Making improvements based on evidence is a fundamental part of the SEO process and ensures things are moving in the right direction.
The number of links pointing at a website is less important than the quality of those links. If you have lots of good quality links pointing at your website or at least more and better ones than your competitors then you should be ranking above them. Quality links are hard to find, however, and you need to be careful about where your links originate.
Guest post links are now given less weight and too many of them are not going to do your SEO any favours. Getting links from trustworthy sources such as .gov and .edu sites can carry more weight as these sites tend to be more trustworthy than standard .coms but a lot depends on the authority of the site they are coming from.
That said a website is never going to rank without links of some description so you can start the process by getting links to interesting content out on social media, good quality directories (local and national) and where possible joining local business associations which often provide sources of backlinks.
If you want your site to rank in countries other than the one you are based in, then getting good quality local links in those locations is of the utmost importance.
One thing to be avoided is reciprocal linking with either related or unrelated sites. This can look like a link exchange scheme which is now frowned upon and looks like linking for the sake of SEO.
Both follow and no follow links can help with SEO but the former is generally the more powerful of the two. Having the right mix of both will ensure that your site has a natural rather than unnatural link profile.