According to Statista, Google’s search worldwide share reaches 88.47% as of April 2019. So when we talk about how to rank in search, we mean Google. Google regularly updates its extensive list of ranking signals, and while some signals remain critical, some may have become less important.
We never can tell for sure which factors will influence rankings this year or the next. However, we can make some predictions. For many years, Google has been improving user experience to become as user-oriented as possible. So, by looking at the changes and analyzing evolving SEO trends, we can guess which factors to prioritize.
So what ranking factors remain significant as we’re heading into 2020? I’ll try to answer the question in this article.
1. Quality content
You’ve heard a thousand times that content is king. But how would you know your content deserves a crown? I loved a recent explanation given by Martin Splitt, a Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google:
“You have to have really good content. And that means you have to have content that serves a purpose for the user. So, if your content says where you are, what you do, how you help me with what I’m trying to accomplish, that’s fantastic.”
This clears up a bit cloudy explanations about being awesome without defining “awesomeness”. And this brings us to the point. Quality content is relevant to a user’s query, has a certain purpose, and aims at solving a user’s problem (like finding something, learning, buying, etc.).
To ensure your content fits the new conditions, you’ll have to look at how you create it at a different angle.
Focus on search intent
For several years, Google’s been using a different approach to processing search queries. The times of simply matching them to keywords in texts have gone for good. Google defines the intent behind queries and serves the results that cover it best.
So if you want to stay on top, stop being keyword-oriented. Look what people want to get using this or that keyword. For example, by analyzing SERPs. Once you find out which results Google serves for different queries, you’ll become more clear on what search terms to use in your SEO campaign. You will also get a better idea of what content to create and how to optimize it better.
The most natural way for people to get something or learn something is to ask for it. Fortunately, search engines today understand questions. (Thank the great improvement of natural language processing). This means a farewell to good old keyword-based search. And hello to a different approach to content.
Build your content around answering users’ questions: how to do, where to find, how to get to. Help people compare things and make the right decisions. There are several ways to do this.
- Look through “People also ask” boxes and autocompletes. You’ll get the search terms related to what you’re looking for and what other people have already searched for.
- Use services like AnswerThePublic that form all sorts of questions with the search term you are interested in.
- Leverage keyword research tools. Many of them gather a variety of search queries from search engines’ autocomplete, related questions, etc.
Increase relevance with TF-IDF
Relevance literally signals content quality. Given that Google focuses on the whole topic relevance instead of separate keywords, you need to ensure that for your content. In terms of rankings, your content should be more relevant than your competitors’.
One of the methods Google uses to evaluate relevance is TF-IDF (short for “term frequency-inverse document frequency”). It is quite an old method used for information retrieval alongside other metrics. It helps to define the importance of a term to a particular document in a collection of documents.
Incorporate TF-IDF to help you with SEO. Evaluate your content against your competitors’ and find more additional keywords and phrases to power your content relevance.
Though some consider meta tags less important today, they remain to be strong relevance signals. They help search engines to recognize what your content is about faster and easier. There are various tags useful for SEO and some of them make a greater impact on relevance and CTR.
- Title tags condense what your pages are about. When writing title tags, make them unique, precise, and informative.
- Meta description tags give more details on the content of your pages. They’re often used to form a search result snippet. So when creating them, try to explain to users what they will find on your pages, and how it may help solve their problem.
- Image alt attributes are meant to describe your visual content to search engines and make it more accessible. The best way to benefit from alt tags is to fill them with concise, relevant descriptions of the image contents.
Get a featured snippet
Today, rich results occupy the most visible part of SERPs and featured snippets are the most popular of them. There have been talks lately that featured snippets could be less of a win going forward. Still, getting a featured snippet means getting at the top of a SERP. Moreover, about 40% of voice search results are coming from featured snippets.
Structuring your content gives you the best chance to get a featured snippet result for it. You can apply different structuring elements.
- Structure you content using concise and meaningful paragraphs.
- Wisely use different headings, such as H2, H3, etc.
- Wrap your content in tables where applicable.
- Employ numbered and bulleted lists, etc.
2. Mobile performance
Even though it’s closely connected with user experience, I believe this topic deserves a separate paragraph.
Google tends to rank higher the websites that perform better. Moreover, since the introduction of mobile-first indexing, as well as Google’s Mobile Speed Update, mobile websites performance has officially become a significant ranking factor.
Remember, all things mobile became possible due to the increased use of smartphones. To remain the top search engine, Google had to match the changed user behavior. So now Google’s crawling, indexing, and ranking systems are prioritizing mobile site versions over desktop. And this is what you should do to ensure your website meets the new reality.
No doubt, you know it’s important to make your website work well on mobile devices. Design, functionality, content – all these should feel alright on mobile.
The best way to be mobile-friendly is to choose responsive design for your website. It will make creating multiple site versions to serve on different devices unnecessary. Your website will adapt automatically.
If it’s not an option, ensure your website content is compliant across different versions.
There’s an easy-to-use tool by Google that assesses mobile-friendliness. Check it out to make sure you look good in Google’s eyes.
Increase page speed
Mobile page speed is an official ranking factor. As much as 53% of mobile site visitors leave a page that takes longer than three seconds to load. All this once again proves that site speed should be among the top concerns for website owners.
To ensure your site performs well, regularly check your pages’ load time and performance with Google’s PageSpeed Insights or any other third-party tools. They will help detect what slows your site down and recommend how to correct speed issues.
Make sure none of your content elements hamper your pages load. Consider resizing large images, eliminating slowing elements or those that are not supported by mobile browsers (like Flash, for example).
Backlinks are one those oldest ranking factors that remain significant today. Backlinks serve as votes for your website, proving to search engines it is trustworthy. According to this study, links significantly affect ranking positions of a website in Google Search.
Link building is an important part of an SEO strategy, and different link building tactics help form a great backlink profile. Google looks at different factors evaluating the backlinks pointing at a website. Apart from the number of linking pages and domains, link quality and diversity are taken into account. Moreover, Google seems to adore natural backlinks: these are the ones you earn if someone loved your piece of content and linked to it, for example. There are several ways to get quality backlinks:
Create original content
Nothing motivates people to spread the word more than unique, original, and helpful content. Today, you can’t create content for the sole sake of creating content. Not if you want people to link to it. Instead, you need to give them something they haven’t read before. Make people look at things from a different angle. Share some interesting findings. Tell them how to solve their problems, after all. In other words, make your content link-worthy.
You might have surveyed specialists in your business niche or your customers. Or you might have had an interesting case study. Or you might have compared different datasets and found some interesting patterns. All these are potential ideas for linkable content.
Make the most of trust
Some business and society rules work in the same way. People tend to share what they know and trust. And you may leverage it to earn backlinks.
First, go for links to those who already know and trust your brand. Think of your partners, clients, your business connections who publish content relevant to your niche. It’s a great opportunity that may pay off quicker as you won’t need to explain who you are first.
Another opportunity that may work is to search for unlinked mentions of your brand. You can do this using a social media monitoring tool. You may then turn to referrers for a link. Why not, they’ve already mentioned you. And if you offer them something original to link to, something that may help their users, this could be a win-win.
Leverage your most successful competitors
Learning from what already works well is a good rule of thumb. Look at those who outrank you. Google places them on the top of SERPs. So it likely has no objection to their backlinks.
Competitors’ backlinks analysis may provide you with the backlink opportunities you might have overlooked. It also may hint at what are the best link opportunities in your niche.
A little note to add. Analyzing your potential link sources, verify the source’s quality and relevance. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to check whether a potential link source receives traffic. (Because if a page doesn’t have traffic, no one will see a link pointing at your website, so there’ll be no use of such a backlink.)
4. User Experience
Generally, user experience (UX) refers to how users feel about using any product, service, or system. Speaking of a website, UX means users satisfaction with its utility and ease-of-use. User behavior factors, like CTR, bounce rate or dwell time help Google evaluate a website’s user experience (on the condition a user enters a website from a SERP and bounces back to the SERP). So user experience plays a role in SEO and rankings.
There are several areas you need to focus on to make your website user-friendly.
Work on website design and architecture
A good user-oriented website is the one where users easily find what they need. People won’t stay long on an inconvenient website with bewildering navigation. For a website owner, it’s crucial to ensure their most valuable content is easily accessible. And the website itself is easy-to-use. However, an appealing layout is also important, according to this study. There are several elements that help create a well-architectured website:
- Make the navigation as simple and clear as possible.
- Ensure a user can reach your most important pages in 3-4 clicks maximum;
- Don’t neglect the site search. It lets users find the needed information faster and with less effort.
Build a proper site structure with Internal linking
Internal links are links that connect pages under the same domain. They form a website structure and build a hierarchy of pages. There are two types of internal links. Navigational links – menus, categories, tag clouds, etc. – lead users from the homepage to other site pages. Non-navigational links are placed within the site content and lead to other site pages.
Proper internal linking helps search engines crawl more of site pages, define their importance better, and make them accessible to the public through search. There are several things essential for building your site structure with internal linking.
- Ensure your most valuable pages have a significant number of links from other pages.
- Verify that your internal links have keyword-based anchors relevant to the pages’ content.
- Make sure your important pages are not orphaned. (Those that link to other pages, but are not linked back from any).
- Close for indexing or redirect to the right places you pages with thin or outdated content.
- Visualize your website structure to see a real-life picture on the hierarchy of your pages and find ways of improvements.
Internet security and data privacy issues were named among the top global concerns for individuals and businesses. To protect users, Google had introduced HTTPS as a ranking factor back in 2014. Which meant it would prioritize secure websites in search results.
HTTPS stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure. It aims at securing communication over a computer network by encrypting it through SSL/TLS protocols.
HTTPS keeps users’ sensitive data from being stolen by intruders. It also makes sure the communication between a user and your website cannot be corrupted, and no malware is secretly installed on your website.
Private and secure connection drastically improves user experience and increases trust in your website (and brand). The importance of HTTPS is going to grow in length of time, so its impact on rankings will increase. Thus, if you haven’t yet migrated to HTTPS, it’s high time to do it.
Enable HTTPS for your website
To make your website work under secure connection, add valid and properly configured SSL/TLS certificates on your server. As SSL certificates are not given forever, you’ll need to check your SSL status and update your certificate timely.
- HTTPS migration will require a number of necessary steps. And you need to have a good migration plan at hand to prevent any issues that might occur.
- Consider deploying changes in a testing environment, and verify everything works smoothly before making it live.
- When migrated, double-check that none of your HTTPS pages are hidden from indexing.
- Ensure all the canonical, alternate and hreflang tags are pointing to secure URLs.
- Take care of the internal links and mixed content (like images, scripts, videos, etc.). They also should refer to or load through HTTPS.
Well, the ranking factors above are definitely not an exhaustive list. Remember, there are 200+ factors Google confirms to use for evaluating and ranking websites. And there’s no one-for-all optimization recipe. Different industries will have their own peculiarities, and thus different SEO strategies. However, there’s something that unites all things ranking signals. It’s ensuring a great user experience and bringing value for users. This is what Google aims at. And this is what you should aim at if you want to be top-ranked by Google.