Although Google does not share its list of ranking factors, our experience in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) helps us to understand what impacts search engine rankings. As search engines continue to evolve we want to bring you up to date with the most important on-page & off-page ranking factors for 2020. These are primarily based on our experience with Google, but typically the same factors apply to other search engines such Bing, Yahoo, Ecosia etc.
Source: Based on mostly our own research, combined with a few SEO performance studies and experiments conducted by Semrush, ahrefs, backlinko, moz and other sources.
Google’s top on-page SEO ranking factors
Keywords in page title
Since search engines are getting better at reading and understanding content, they no longer rely on keywords in page titles to check the relevance of a web page for a certain search query. As such, a page title is not a major ranking factor anymore. But, as Ahrefs data shows, there is still a slight correlation between the usage of keywords in the page title and rankings. Its impact on user behaviour should also not be neglected – as page titles are what users can see on search results, they should grab the attention of users and show them that this page provides the information they want. Therefore a good page title can help to improve a web page’s CTR.
Keywords H1 tags
Keywords in H1 tags have a diminishing, but still a small, direct impact on SEO rankings, which was proved by a recent study conducted by Semrush. This was not confirmed in an experiment by Moz, where they replaced H1 with H2 and didn’t see much change in rankings. We see nevertheless in our campaigns that keywords in H1 help us rank better. What’s more, the headings also play a big role in improving user experience. H1s are typically the first piece of information that users can see when they access a web page. H1s also help them to navigate the page and demonstrate to them that the page provides the information they want.
Keywords in URLs
Even though it has only little direct impact, keywords in URLs can act as a ranking factor. More important though are the indirect benefits as a result of keywords used in links. Keywords in URLs provide an additional cue to readers, particularly on social media, where links are often unformatted – a readable link with a systematically placed keyword can improve CTR.
Keywords in content
Page content is one of the strongest ranking factors, as keywords in the content provide information about what the page is about. These keywords then form topics (or keyword themes), which have a positive effect on rankings. That’s why it’s worth investing some time in proper keyword research in order to identify the most important themes.
Content length correlates with ranking. This was proven by studies from Ahrefs and Backlinko. As this is not the only factor, it is advisable to not focus on a specific number of words per page, but rather try to cover a full topic and provide the best reference to a specific keyword. In some cases articles with less words can sometimes rank better, e.g. if a query is a question or a topic and the page provides a short and accurate answer. This should be also taken into consideration when deciding on the length of content.
Writing unique content is one of the prerequisites to achieving good organic rankings. That’s why we recommend avoiding duplicate content.
So called “rich results” are search results that go beyond the standard blue link and are an important part of the future of search, as it improves the usability of the search results page. For a search engine to understand specific data on a web page, the content has to be marked up properly. Although structuring data does not have a direct impact on ranking, search results displayed as “rich results” are much more visible to the users and thus have a higher CTR, which could also have a positive impact on rankings.
Page speed is especially important for mobile pages, for example Google has officially said that page speed is a ranking factor for its mobile-first index. Otherwise, page speed is more of an indicator – a page should not be too slow since this affects the crawling ability of a search engine negatively which is bad for the indexation of a web page. However, our own experiences have shown that pages with lower speed can still rank better than pages with higher speed.
Search engines want to provide users with content that offers them a positive experience. There are some common KPIs that give an indication of user experience, such as CTR (i.e. % of users clicking a certain search result), bounce rate or dwell time on the landing page. It’s possible that search engines use this data to influence rankings. In addition, it’s possible that machine learning algorithms are fed with information about features that are required to create good UX. With this information, it seems obvious that user experience is definitely a factor that should be considered to improve rankings.
The importance of the freshness of content depends on the search query. Search engines are able to identify the level of freshness that a unique search query needs. So if freshness is a relevant factor (e.g. big news about a new product feature could outrank the product page itself), it’s important to keep creating new, and updating old, content, as needed. For pages that deliver information that change on a daily basis, it definitely is an important ranking factor.
Users of search engines do not always search for the same form of content. Search engines understand their different needs and offer the users the results they want to see, e.g. questions, transactional, informational or navigational queries. These search intentions can, for example, be to buy something, to learn something or to obtain information about a specific topic. For all of these queries, different results are required. As a study of Ahrefs shows, content correctly adapted to these different demands will improve the ranking of a web page enormously.
For all on-page optimisation tips and how to ensure all on-page factors are taken into account visit our on-page SEO guide.
Google’s top off-page SEO ranking factors
A study from Ahrefs shows that the number of backlinks directly correlates with ranking. It is very important to know that this counts only if the backlinks referring to a web page also are of high quality. Focusing only on the volume of backlinks is dangerous because there is always the possibility to generate links from websites of low authority. Low authority backlinks can actually harm rankings and also only brings low quality traffic to a web page. Also, the creation of nofollow links (backlinks that do not affect the ranking of a web page), have made it impossible to use simple methods to trick search engines with a large number of low-quality backlinks.
Backlink quality (AKA domain rating, domain rank, domain authority)
High-quality backlinks are important because it affects the page authority which in return affects ranking. The domain authority can be for example evaluated by the “Domain Rating” score of Ahrefs. A domain with high authority is trusted by searchers and search engines, which improves the CTR of a backlink and the indexing of a web page. Another criteria that affects the quality of a backlink is the relevance of the linking pages content. This means that links from a site in a similar niche are evaluated with a higher quality.
Keywords in backlinks help search engines to understand what the linked page is about, which will improve the pages ranking for that keyword. It also gives more relevance to the backlink which affects its quality and therefore the ranking of the linked page.
Dispelling common SEO ranking factors myths
A high density of keywords improves ranking
This is not true. Although keywords do have an impact on rankings, it can be harmful to apply keywords in a too high density. Search engines like Google are able to recognise when text does include an unusual rate of a specific keyword and perceives it as a manipulative outlier.
Meta description affects search engine rankings
It is commonly thought that meta description is a direct ranking factor, this is not true. Google said it does not assess it to determine a web pages ranking. Nevertheless, it can help users to gain a better understanding of what a web page is about and therefore can improve its CTR.
Social Media signals improve organic rankings
Although social media can provide a lot of traffic to a website, especially when a post gets shared by people with big influence, social media traffic and following doesn’t impact organic rankings.