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The 3 SEO Ranking Factors That Matter the Most

Aug 4, 2017
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Google determines which site will rank for a specific search query based on a number of criteria. Ever since Brian Dean posted his famous report on the 200 ranking factors that impact the visibility of a website, SEOs have been trying their best to optimize each page in hopes of increased rank. Obsessing over every aspect of the algorithm will surely end in you going insane. So instead of sweating the small stuff, in this post, we will uncover the top 3 factors that impact rank and what you can do to improve your search visibility.

If you’ve read any of my posts before you know that I don’t obsess over rank. But that doesn't mean I don’t value rank. I track trends and look for keyword opportunities just like any other SEO. The main difference in my approach is that I go after topic authority, rather than focusing solely on keywords. This concept was affirmed largely by a recent Ahrefs study that looked at more than 3 million searches and found that “The average #1 ranking page will also rank in the top 10 for nearly 1,000 other relevant keywords (while the median value is more than two times smaller - around 400 keywords).”

In short, ranking #1 for a high-quality keyword can lead to a ton of other, very relevant traffic to your site.

So what ranking factors should you be putting more time and energy into? In 2016 Google's Andrey Lipattsev shocked the search world by revealing links, content, and RankBrain are the top three ranking signals in Google's search algorithm.

While this was amazing news, it still left a lot up in the air, as most Google statements do. Content and Links we can control to some point, but RankBrain… well, we are out of luck on that one.

Just a quick refresher for those of you wondering what the heck RankBrain is. RankBrain is a machine-learning artificial intelligence system that helps Google process some of its search results, in particular, rare or one-of-a-kind queries. It was launched in early 2015 and is used globally by Google. Learn more at Search Engine Land.

So with that knowledge, we are left with just two big ranking factors we as marketers and SEOs should focus on, or are we? Recent studies by SearchMetrics, Backlinko, and SEO PowerSuite uncovered that Mobile UX has also risen as a dominant factor when it comes to rank. As you may already know, Google is in the process of shifting to a mobile-first index. This has huge implications on search, and those who aren’t optimized will lose visibility.  These studies also confirmed the importance of technical SEO when it comes to on-page optimization and linking practices. So let’s dig a little deeper into the top 3 ranking factors; content, backlinks and now Mobile-First UX.


Content is King; Context is God -  Gary Vaynerchuk

We’ve all heard the saying, “Content is King.” It’s true, without quality content, you are not going to succeed in search. Over the years we’ve gotten a lot better at content. As Google has continued to raise the bar, quality has gone up.

Quality is hard to define because it is so subjective. What works for one person may not for another. So, how can you create quality content?  Well, it starts with context.

Knowing who you are writing for and why they are looking for answers is key. You can have the best piece of content ever written, but if the context is not right, it will fail. Context is the key differentiator between good and great. It takes time and research to truly know and understand your audience, which is why so few do so. But the payoff is huge. Knowing who you are writing for will help lay the context for your content.

After “who,” the next question content must answer is “what?”  

Users (and Google) are looking for comprehensive content. Content that tells them everything they need to know.  This is why long-form content, that focuses on a comprehensive understanding of a specific problem typically ranks so well.

Based on studies that show our average attention span is dropping we assume people don’t have the time, nor the want, to read long-form content. The facts disagree. I believe we are starting with the wrong assumption. Attention span is “decreasing” because we have to make decisions on what to pay attention to at a faster pace. But once engaged with something that adds values, people tend to stay engaged.

Creating long-form comprehensive content is not about writing more, it’s about adding more value. So when crafting content, take the time to look at all of the options and angles you can take.

Here are a few tips for writing more comprehensive content:

  1. Focus on one core topic.
  2. Do your homework: research the topic thoroughly.
  3. Ask a lot of questions and then craft answers.
  4. Focus on adding value to the reader

Comprehensive, relevant content takes a little more time to create, but in the long run, it pays off. Too often we are looking for quick wins, but end up trading short term gains for long-term success. Slow down, do it right the first time and then move towards getting links.


Google was the first search engine to use backlinks as an indication that a website was trustworthy. In the early days of the internet, a link was simply a connection or relationship from one site to another. But as Google gave the backlink more power, the more it got abused. Thankfully the web spam team over at the Big G has made some great updates over the years to punish black-hat SEO, but links still remain a major factor.

Backlinks still represent relationship. They show the connection between one site and another. They are like digital “thumbs up” of approval from one site owner to another. At their core, they imply trust. This is why links matter so much.

Not all links are created equal. Once again context plays a large role, so does diversity and authority. You want your site to garner links from sites that are contextually relevant to your core topic or a related topic.

For example, if you are a hotel near a port, having links from local restaurants and maybe a cruise line are great. They are contextually appropriate, in the hospitality space. They are diverse, and hopefully, the sites are also authoritative.

When your site or page earns more high quality, contextually relevant and diverse links, you have a larger probability of ranking for core terms.  I say probability because nothing in the game of search is 100%. But doing the work will give you a much better chance than your competition.

Another thing to consider is anchor text. Exact-match anchor text still has a strong influence on rankings, but you risk a Penguin penalty if your links appear unnatural or spammy. So make sure that you spread it out and make it as natural as possible .

Here are a few ways you can improve your site's backlinks:

  1. Know where you stand: Use a tool like Ahrefs or Moz to monitor your backlinks.
  2. Make connections within you niche: Don’t just go asking for links. Build relationships first. Then as you grow, ask for a share or mention.
  3. Remove the junk: Did you buy a bunch of bad links? Remove these if you can, and vow to use them only in extreme cases.

Mobile UX

We live in a mobile world. Today more than 60% of searches are done on mobile devices. Because of this trend, Google has also moved to mobile. A project like AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) and the move towards a mobile-first index should have all SEOs and digital marketers paying attention.

In 2015 Mobilegeddon was all the rage as site owners scrambled to meet the April deadline for Google’s first mobile-friendly update. But it seems after that many site owners just coasted.  Even with the 2016 announcement that Google will be moving towards a mobile-first index, many still aren’t taking it seriously.

In a Search Engine Journal piece, columnist Aleh Barysevich states  “Mobile optimization is an extremely important ranking factor. All of the top 100 most visible domains have mobile-friendly solutions, according to SearchMetrics.”

While mobile friendliness is now the “norm,” 85% of all websites now meet Google’s criteria for being mobile-friendly, Google is looking for more than just a responsive theme. User experience is continuing to play a larger and larger role in search. If a user lands on your site and bounces, Google knows they didn’t like what they saw, and your ranking could suffer.

Taking the time to ensure that your mobile experience meets the demands of your users is not for the faint of heart. But like other SEO tactics, you reap what you sow. Here are a few recommendations for optimizing your site for a better mobile experience.

  1. Scan your site with both the Mobile Friendly Tool and PageSpeeds Insights.
  2. Test your site on multiple mobile devices: Online emulators are good, but nothing beats the real thing.
  3. Use GTM (Google Tag Manager) or a Heat mapping tool to how your users are really interacting.


While rank isn’t everything, it is extremely important. After all, you can’t convert the traffic you don’t have. In this post, we talked about the 3 main factors that impact site rank today. As the internet and Google continue to change, we will have to as well. But until then we still need to do the work that matters. Taking the time to invest in comprehensive, relevant content is foundational. Knowing what sites are linking to you and what links you want will lead to more connections and visibility.  Creating a user-centred mobile experience will lead to happy users and possibly better mobile search visibility.


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Ryan Shelley, CPBI

By Ryan Shelley, CPBI

Ryan is passionate about helping companies make a more personal connection online with their customers and prospects. He is a regular contributor to Search Engine Land, the largest and most popular SEO news site on the web. His works have also been featured on the HubSpot Blog, Business2Community and by LinkedIn Marketing Solutions.

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