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Google ranking signals: All confirmed, rumoured and false factors

This is curated content from the best of the best blogs around IMHO, indispersed with a few of my own.

Summary. Improving clients’ website ranking performance is essential to driving traffic and achieving online success, and online marketing consultants have the opportunity to make a significant impact in this area.

Fortunately, there are several confirmed Google ranking signals that we can leverage to improve our clients’ website rankings.

These signals include Core Web Vitals, headings, E-A-T, backlinks, mobile-friendliness, content, and more. By prioritizing these factors, we can enhance the user experience, establish credibility, and increase visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs).

It’s crucial to note that there are also practices we should avoid. Keyword stuffing and known paid links can result in penalties from search engines and hurt our clients’ rankings. Instead, we should prioritize factors like HTTPS, page speed, and keyword prominence.

By following these best practices and staying up-to-date on the latest ranking signals and algorithm updates, we can help our clients achieve their online goals and stand out in a crowded digital landscape.

 

The link to this great article from searchengineland.com can be found at the bottom of the page.

 

An easy-to-read, highly condensed analysis of all the known, confirmed, rumored, and absolute myth-level Google ranking factors.

Every article you can find online about Google ranking factors will tell you there are at least ~200 or so odd variables that contribute to how a site will perform in the SERPs.

That being said, there’s an enormous difference between what might impact SEO, what’s actually confirmed as a ranking factor, and what is simply a good principle to rank well.

It might sound like semantics, but “best practices” don’t just automatically translate into confirmed ranking factors in and of themselves.

So let’s separate these confirmed facts from fiction and all the other stuff you simply should be doing as a good marketer on a daily basis.

In this article, we’ll analyze all of the known, confirmed, rumored, and absolute myth-level Google ranking factors in an easy-to-read, highly condensed way.

 

Confirmed ranking factors

These are all the ranking factors that have been confirmed as true. We know they definitely impact your results in Google’s search engine to varying degrees.

 

Core Web Vitals

Your Core Web Vitals assess page experience signals to evaluate how engaging the user experience is. They confirmed in 2021 that they are a ranking signal, so make sure your site has a “good” ranking standing.

Source: Timing for Bringing Page Experience to Google Search

 

Anchor text

Google has confirmed that they use concise anchor text (read: “SEO strategies” as the anchor text and not “click here”) to better understand what’s on your pages, which can directly lead to them placing your page higher in the SERPs.

This isn’t the strongest ranking factor on the list (especially after the Penguin update), but it can still help.

Source: Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide

 

Domain history

You may be running an up-and-up, fully legitimate business now, but what if a sketchy business was using the domain before to scam customers?

Domain history does matter, and it’s a confirmed ranking signal, though Google’s John Mueller has gone on to say that the issue will resolve itself over time. Still, we recommend playing it safe on this one.

Source: English Google Webmaster Central office-hours hangout (Nov. 13, 2018)

 

E-A-T

Google’s E-A-T framework assesses expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness – and while it isn’t a ranking factor in and of itself, many of the factors that go into its calculation are ranking factors. So we’re putting this one in the confirmed column, but with a little “but only kind of” note.

Source: How Google Fights Disinformation

 

Headings

Headings – including H1s and H2s – can absolutely be a ranking factor, as they help Google understand the content on the page. They aren’t the only ranking factor, but they matter, so have them clearly written and keyword-friendly.

Source: English Google Webmaster Central office-hours (Aug. 7, 2020)

 

HTTPS

Secure search, or HTTPS – compared to HTTP – is a known and confirmed ranking factor. It also is an important part of a safe user experience, so make sure you get on this one fast if you haven’t already.

Source: HTTPS as a Ranking Signal

 

Content

It’s abundantly clear that content is used as a search ranking signal, and the quality of the content, including how directly it answers a question, can be vital to performance in the SERPs. The content on its own (and not just headings) is assessed by Google.

Source: English Google Webmaster Central office-hours (Aug. 7, 2020)

 

Backlinks

Links coming to your site from other sites have long been a general SEO best practice. That’s because PageRank established backlinks as “votes” from the very beginning, offering a new way to analyze quality that was originally modeled after citations to academic papers.

Source: Ranking Results – How Google Search Works

 

Keyword prominence

Keyword density isn’t a ranking factor (we’ll get to that later), but keyword prominence is. This is the location of the keyword, and the closer to the title or beginning of the text, the more prominent it is.

Source: English Google SEO office-hours (June 18, 2021)

 

Keyword stuffing

Keyword stuffing – which involves over-stuffing your content with keywords in an attempt to get it to rank well – is a negative ranking factor, as confirmed by Google. Doing this will hurt you, so avoid it.

Source: Spam Policies for Google’s Web Search

 

Known paid links

If you’ve paid for backlinks and you get caught (which is admittedly very difficult) it is a negative ranking factor. It’s best to stay away from this.

Source: Spam Policies for Google Web Search

Mobile-friendliness

Mobile-friendliness is confirmed as a ranking factor, and it’s been strengthening as a ranking signal for years. It’s particularly important for mobile search results, which have eclipsed desktop searches for at least seven years now. So here’s where mobile responsive best practices and confirmed ranking signals overlap nicely.

Source: Continuing to Make the Web More Mobile Friendly

Page speed

We know that page loading speed is a confirmed factor for Google’s SERPs (and has been since 2010) – and it’s an important one. It also directly impacts the user experience, so make sure that your site loading times are as quick as possible.

Source: Speed is Now a Landing Page Factor for Google Search and Ads

Physical proximity to the searcher

Google absolutely takes the physical closeness of the searcher into account when determining what results to show them, especially in local search. While you can’t change the location of your business, make sure that all of your business information (including location citations) are up-to-date and accurate.

Source: How to Improve Your Local Ranking on Google

RankBrain

RankBrain is an AI system released in 2015 (and significantly updated in 2016) to integrate AI into search queries for improved results, which is particularly helpful for ambiguous queries or long-tail keywords. It’s a confirmed ranking factor, but there’s no clear or distinct way to intentionally optimize for it.

Source: Google Q&A

Relevance, distance and prominence

Confirmed by Google as ranking factors, these three signals determine the popularity and geographical closeness of a business along with how relevant it is to the specific search. They are each vital for local search results, so take that into account when optimizing your local business page and remember to generate reviews.

Source: How to Improve Your Local Ranking on Google

Title tags

There’s plenty of evidence that optimizing title tags can have a correlative increase with ranking, though we know they’re not nearly as critical of a ranking factor as the rest of the content itself. It’s a small detail in a bigger picture, but they also say that Google looks for keyword stuffing here as a negative factor.

Source: English Google Webmaster Central office-hours hangout (Jan. 15, 2016)

URLs

URLs are a minimal search ranking factor, which means that keywords in a URL are assessed when Google is crawling your site. Mueller has repeatedly stressed that this is not a ranking factor worth spending a lot of time on.

Source: @JohnMu on Twitter

Unconfirmed but suspected ranking factors

Google hasn’t confirmed every single ranking factor out there, but that doesn’t mean that these elements below don’t have some sort of impact on the ranking algorithms. This is the unconfirmed but suspected-by-expert ranking factors that could impact your SEO.

Alt text

Having alt text for your images is definitely considered an SEO best practice, having alt text in and of itself is not a confirmed ranking factor. That being said, using it correctly and with keywords can help your SEO strategy by giving Google more context about what you have on the page.

Source: Google Image SEO Best Practices

Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs help Google to assess the hierarchy of how your pages are arranged. Right now, we know it can help Google categorize pages, and that Google treats breadcrumbs as normal links in PageRank. We think they can have an impact on ranking, even if they aren’t confirmed as a direct ranking factor.

Source: @methode on Twitter

Click depth

Click depth, or the number of clicks it takes to get from your home page to the destination page, is very likely to be a ranking factor based on remarks from Mueller. But not a significant one. Think about how easy it is for users to get to the end page.

Source: English Google Webmaster Central office-hours hangout (June 1, 2018)

Local citations

Location citations that mention your key business information like name, address, and phone number, and while having these appear online aren’t officially confirmed as a ranking factor, it’s close. Google has noted that local results favor the most relevant results and that businesses with complete information will be prioritized.

Source: Improve your local ranking on Google

Co-citation

Co-citation and co-occurrence help Google assess how closely two unrelated sites or pages may be related and may give them clues as to how the pages are related and in what context. A few high-quality, trusted links to your site can help Google put together some of the puzzle pieces, but still, this is unlikely to be a significant ranking factor.

Source: Google patent on related entities and what it means for SEO

Language

It only makes sense that someone searching for shoes in Mandarin is less than likely to come across a site written in Spanish. To reach users in different locations, you’ll want to create content in the languages they speak.

Source: Ranking Results – How Google Search Works

Internal links

These are links to your own content on your site, but they need strong use of anchor text. At the very least, they definitely don’t hurt. That being said, they’re unlikely to be a strong ranking factor compared to others like site loading speeds.

Source: Learn About What Sitelinks Are

Schema

Schema markup is highly valuable when it comes to driving clicks, and it also provides microdata that Google is able to understand easily.

It isn’t confirmed as a known ranking factor but we know it can help you rank for queries you may not have otherwise. So it may help as a ranking signal, but the worst-case scenario is it just helps your overall SEO.

Source: Understanding How Structured Markup Data Works

The user’s own search history

Each user is different, and Google knows that. The algorithm do take the past search history into account when delivering search results as best as possible.

This, however, is not something that you can influence at all, and the impact is rarely significant (other than prominent locally personalized SERPs or frequently visited pages).

Source: @searchliaison on Twitter

 

 

Online marketing consultants should be aware of confirmed and unconfirmed ranking factors in Google search. Confirmed factors include Core Web Vitals, content, backlinks, and mobile-friendliness, among others. Unconfirmed factors include alt text, breadcrumbs, and click depth, while rumoured factors include outbound links and canonical links. Disproven factors include bounce rate, 404 pages and many more. Read one to learn more.

 

 

Rumored but unlikely ranking factors

These are ranking factors that have long been speculated about, and while they have not been outrightly denied so far, we have a good reason for thinking they’re unlikely to be official signals.

301 redirects

While former Googler Matt Cutts said in 2012 that Google would follow an unlimited number of redirects from one page to another, there may be a slight PageRank lost in the process.

However, not much has been officially said, and, likely, they’re not a page ranking factor. In any case, you still want to manage redirects and linking closely to avoid issues in potential redirect chains. This is often more of a best practice for site performance.

Source: When migrating from HTTP to HTTPS Google says to use 301 redirects

Canonical links

Canonical links do have a connection with search rankings, but we know that even when they’re used correctly, Google might ignore it and pick their own canonical URL to show in the search results instead. Think Captain Barbosa’s famous quote from Pirates of the Caribbean here, “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”

Source: Google selects canonical URLs based on your site and user preference

Outbound links

Outbound links are way too easy for people to game to be a ranking factor, but it is important to note that the anchor text and the links you choose can help Google better understand your content so it can bring in value indirectly.

Source: English Google Webmaster Central office-hours hangout (Jan. 26, 2016)

Disproven ranking factors

While some rumored ranking factors are hanging in limbo, some have been disproven. Let’s look at what you don’t have to worry about, at least as far as SEO is concerned.

Worth pointing out – there’s a lot that isn’t on this list, but we wanted to cover the big ones.

Bounce rate

We’re listing this one first because it’s a common misconception that bounce rate impacts ranking. Google has repeatedly confirmed that bounce rates are not a ranking signal.

Source: @methode on Twitter

404 and soft 404 pages

Google itself has confirmed 404 pages do not impact how your other URLs rank, easily dispelling that ranking factor myth. Broken links and pages, however, can provide a poor user experience (so they should be found and updated when possible).

Source: 404 (Page Not Found) errors

Google Display Ads

This one has a bit of an asterisk.

Having ads from Display Ads on your page can lower site loading speeds, especially if you have a large number of them. So the concern was that these ads could hurt your ranking. And they don’t directly hurt your ranking just by appearing on your page.

They won’t directly impact your SEO ranking, though you will want to make sure that you aren’t overloading your pages with so many ads that performance (including site loading speed) isn’t impacted, because you don’t get a pass if they do.

And for that matter, using Google Ads, Google Search Console, and Google Analytics won’t automatically impact your ranking, either.

Source: The Top Heavy Update: Pages with too many ads above the fold now penalized by Google’s “Page Layout” algorithm

AMP

This one is simple: AMP is not a ranking factor, and we know that because Google has confirmed it multiple times, since 2016 at least.

Source: This Week in Google Podcast 341

BBB

While Better Business Bureau (BBB) reviews can impact consumer buying decisions, there is no evidence at this point in time that it can impact your SEO rankings, and one of Google’s team members confirmed it.

Source: English Google Webmaster Central office-hours hangout (Nov. 13, 2018)

Click-through rate

Your click-through rate (CTR) has long been rumored to be a ranking factor, but it’s confirmed this isn’t the case – especially since Google knew that people were trying to game this years ago. So sure, it’s great for your site to have a higher CTR, but don’t expect it to help your rankings.

Source: CTR in the Google Algo: Google’s Gary Illyes and Stone Temple’s Eric Enge Discuss

Code to text signal

This one is not a direct ranking factor, but it can still impact the performance of the page, including ranking factors like loading speeds, along with user experience. So not important for ranking, but still good to keep in check.

Source: English Google Webmaster Central office-hours hangout (Mar. 27, 2018)

Meta descriptions

We know that having a strong meta description is a great SEO best practice to drive a higher CTR to your site, but Google hasn’t used it as a ranking signal since sometime between 1999 and the early 2000s.

Source: @JohnMu on Twitter

Manual action

Manual actions are those that manually adjust a website’s visibility in search results by demoting or removing a site or specific pages from Google Search. These are conducted by Google – and they’re a penalty, not a ranking factor.

Source: Manual Actions Report

Content length

SEO writers will swear up and down that you need at least 1,000 words or 2,000 words or whatever that magic number is in order to be ranked by Google. That’s not true.

Google doesn’t look at content length as a ranking factor, but you should have enough quality content to be competitive on any given keyword to rank well.

Source: johnmu on /r/bigseo

Domain age

The age of your domain can help with site authority overall (see below), but Google has confirmed that it is not currently a ranking factor.

Source: @JohnMu on Twitter

Domain authority

Google has repeatedly confirmed that domain authority is not a ranking factor, as any “site authority” score is created by a third-party tool.

Sites with higher domain authorities may correlate with improved SEO because some of the calculations may be close, but they’re correlative and nothing more. Really, this one is common sense.

Source: johnmu on r/SEO/

Domain name

Your domain name is important (“www.coolshoes.com” can absolutely drive clicks), but it is not a ranking factor and hasn’t been for a while.

Source: English Google Webmaster Central office-hours (Sept. 11, 2020)

First link priority

Google doesn’t care which link comes first. This isn’t the magic hack some people insist that it is. They care about the quality of the links. And remember, anchor text matters more than where the link is placed.

Source: English Google Webmaster Central office-hours hangout (Feb. 20, 2018)

Recency of content

Is Google automatically prioritizing a brand-new article over one written last year? No.

That being said, the thoroughness and quality of the article matter. If you need to refresh to stay competitive, that can help your ranking.

Source: @JohnMu on Twitter

Types of links

Think that having a .gov or .edu at the end of your domain will make a difference? Maybe to users, but unfortunately not to Google. Not a ranking factor.

Source: @JohnMu on Twitter

Keyword density

This may have influenced ranking at one time, and though it’s a general best practice, it is not a ranking factor. And remember: keyword stuffing doesn’t do you any favor.

Source: What is The Ideal Keyword Density of a Page?

‘We have no idea’ if these are legitimate ranking factors (or not)

Looking for a potential ranking factor that we haven’t discussed so far? There are a few that are still currently up in the air, with evidence that they may be a ranking factor but nothing to confirm that they actually are.

Authorship of your content

Does a specific author’s byline impact how Google will rank your page? Honestly, we’re not sure, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to use reliable authors who your audience will trust.

Google has recommended adding author information into article schema and we suspect that authorship expertise does play a part in E-A-T. But again, it’s inconclusive at this time. (Note that we’re speaking about “authorship” more broadly here than referring specifically to Google’s old Authorship.)

Source: 14 ways Google may evaluate E-A-T

HTML lists

Orders or unordered HTML lists could be a ranking factor, but we really don’t know. If it is, it’s not a particularly strong signal, but it can help with SEO, especially if it can help you snag a featured snippet spot.

Source: How to get Google featured snippets: 9 optimization guidelines

MUM

The Multitask Unified Model (MUM) was rolled out in 2021 to help the algorithms better understand language so Google can more effectively answer complex search queries. It’s not a known ranking factor right now, but it could be in the future, especially since Google has discussed how it’s improved some search results in early tests.

Source: Using AI to Keep Google Search Safe

Text formatting

Using HTML elements to format text can help both readers and Google’s crawling tools quickly find important parts of your content. There’s evidence that bolded or italicized wording, for example, may receive extra weight in importance. Since it can help you tell Google what you want it to notice on the page, it may impact ranking, but the jury is still out here.

Source: @JohnMu on Twitter

Conclusion

There you have it – an expansive list of all the known, confirmed and refuted Google ranking signals and factors, along with everything in between to keep us guessing.

And that’s just the point. This list will change in the future. That’s probably the only thing we can guarantee at the end of the day.

Because while the SEO rumor mill has speculated on what exactly Google’s “200 ranking factors” for nearly two decades, the truth is probably a lot murkier than that.

As Google continues to employ AI, machine learning, and other advanced technologies to slice and dice data, the true “ranking factors” that will move the needle for marketers tomorrow aren’t likely to be the same old static ones we used to rely on yesterday.

 

Citation: If you would like to find out more about the source of this article – Google ranking signals: A complete breakdown of all confirmed, rumored and false factors, see here.

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