SEO ranking factors that really matter.

Posted by  Gavin Davidson  |  June 13, 2019

These are the essential SEO ranking factors that you need to focus on.

SEO practitioners estimate there are approximately 200 ranking factors, or signals that Google uses in their secret sauce to determine where your website will be ranked in their search results.

I’m not going to cover all of them here, it’s not the focus of this article, and; most companies just don’t have the resources to tackle all of them. Rather, I’m going to highlight the ones I think are most vital for you, so you can organise your SEO priorities to achieve better rankings in Google!

User signals or user experience.

Some studies will split user signals and traffic metrics into two separate studies. But I always see it as one group, because traffic to your site is essentially people visiting your domain and user signals look at how people are interacting with your content. So both measure what people are doing around your ecosystem.

You can “game the system”. But that I mean you can analyse all the ranking factors that Google uses to determine your ranking in their index and then figure out how to manipulate the algorithm to achieve visibility. But in the long term, you are going to get hammered by competing sites who are creating value.

In a nutshell, what Google is looking for are brands and content creators who are providing value to people by creating useful and meaningful content that people can actually use. That’s really what SEO is all about. That’s not to say that other factors such as social media likes, shares and backlinks and all of the other ingredients are not important, they are. But how people are interacting with your brand has become a major focus for Google over the last few years.

Let’s have a look at some of these metrics.

Click through rates

Click through rates from the search results pages (SERPS) is a huge for signal for search engines. That’s why it’s still important to write punchy metadescriptions so that people click through to your site. When people stop clicking on them, we know that their position decreases.

For some of those who may not know what metadescriptions are, they are those short snippets that appear after we type a query into Google.

This is an example of an effective metadescription that will increase click through rates.

Why your brand is more important than ever!

Website traffic can come from a few places, and the number of visits a website gets is an indicator to Google how popular it is.

This chart shows the connection between website traffic and where the page is ranked on Google.

Where the search volume is very high for a keyword, the link between a high ranking and a lot of website visits is very high. The lower the keyword volume, the less influence website visits has on rankings.

All website traffic and Google rankings segmented by search volume.

This graph show the relationship between website visits and Google rankings, segmented by volume.

Source: SEMrush

The relationship between direct website traffic and Google rankings segmented by search volume.

This chart shows the connection between direct traffic to your website and rankings in Google

Source: SEMrush

The second chart; direct website visits segmented by search volume is very interesting and is worth further explanation. Firstly, a quick explanation on direct visits…

Direct visits are people who visit your website by either typing in your URL (website address) into the address bar, by clicking on a link in an email or newsletter, or via a bookmark they have saved in their browser.

This means that direct visits are driven by brand awareness, loyalty and affinity, all positive aspects that make people like you. This makes sense. If I like what you’re saying as a brand, I’ll subscribe to your newsletter, or, if I find your content valuable I’ll bookmark your page or enter your website into the browser directly. Driving people to your website via your brand, is also going to increase your website’s authority. And Google gives preference to websites with a high domain authority.

So, it’s not only organic search that is important for your rankings, but building a strong brand is as important as SEO.

Website engagement and SEO

I’m going to focus on 3 SEO ranking factors that determine whether your website is providing people with useful content or not.

Bounce rate

This is the number of people who visit your website and only visit one page, then leave your website from that page without any further interaction. Now, bounce rates can be deceptive because I can visit your page, get the information I need and then leave your website without ever visiting any other page, i.e. a good experience. But it could also be a red flag that your content is not good.

I suggest looking at this metric in conjunction with time on site. Let’s say your page has 2000 words, and people are only spending a few seconds on it, and your bounce rate is also high, then you can be certain that it is not providing any value for people.

If this is the case, then the likely scenario is pogo sticking. What? Ok, so somebody lands on your website, doesn’t like what they see, exits your website and goes back to Google and does one of two things: they either click on another search result or; they refine their original query to get a different set of results.

If this is the case, Google would see this as a bad user experience, and your position in the search result would be negatively affected.

Never look at bounce rates in isolation, rather, view them in context to determine whether or not your pages are providing any value.

The relationship between bounce rate and Google rankings.

This chart shows how bounce rate can affect your position in Google.

Source: SEMrush

Time on site

The results below show that people spend more time on websites that are in the top rankings. This would indicate that people trust these websites more compared with websites that are further down in the search results.

It may also mean that the content is more relevant to people, so that’s why they spend more time reading these pages.

The relationship between time on site and Google rankings

This chart explains demonstrates the relationship between the amount of time people spend on your site and your ranking in Google.

Source: SEMrush

Pages per session

This metric measures the amount of pages someone will navigate through during one session. This is indicates how engaging your content is and how clear your site’s navigation is.

Just like bounce rate and time on site, we see that people will browse more pages on a website that is in the top organic results.

This is chart shows the relationship between the amount of pages people browse in a session compared and rankings in Google.

Source: SEMrush

While these signals can be a bit complex when Google is qualifying your page, it can indicate that people are not engaging with your content as they should be. Use these signals as insight into whether your content is useful or not.


I firmly believe that content is at the heart of SEO. Sure, your “house” needs to be in order. I.e, your website needs to load really quickly, it must be easy to navigate, it must look super-duper sharp on mobile etc. These aspects are really important and you need to take care of them. But it's your amazing content that will get you noticed. 

Content length

Content length is really important. It goes hand-in-hand with time on site. If you write a good article of value, people will spend a few minutes reading it. The length of the article also influences a reader’s opinion about a page. A lengthy article creates the impression that information has been well researched and therefore looks more trustworthy.

The ideal length is debatable, but it’s generally acceptable that the ideal word count of an article should be between 1500-2000 words. If we look at this content length guideline in relation to time spent on site, we can see that this makes sense. The longer the article, the more time people spend reading it. And we know that sites rank better in the search results for high volume keywords when they have a high performing time on site metric.

Of course, the caveat is the content needs to be relevant to the user’s query. It’s better to write 500 words and answer the query than writing 2000 words just to fill the space.

You can see below that high ranking pages enjoy a better position in the search results when they have a large word count.

The relationship between content length and Google rankings

This chart shows that content with more length receives more traffic than content with 500 words or less

Source: SEMrush

As mentioned earlier, content must be valuable and relevant. If it’s only lengthy, it’ll still be worthless. But we can see that pages with longer content rank higher.

So, if you want to rank for popular keywords, write longer articles that are of value to people.

Are keywords still important?

Even though keywords have less impact on rankings compared with a few years ago, it’s still important to maintain some structure to your articles using keywords in your on-page tags.

These meta tags are the only tags that have a direct influence on search rankings. They also assist search engines and people to determine what your website and blog posts are all about.

How you should really be using keywords.

I never spend too much time researching keywords. I do this for a few reasons: Most of the time keywords are already taken and dominated by high ranking websites. It can also take ages finding keywords that have a high search volume and low competition, and you could be using your time more effectively creating content, rather than spending hours on research. I would even go so far as to say that the majority of these keyword tools do not accurately reflect Google’s database anyway.

To save time, I find one keyword using a keyword research tool. The keyword must have a medium to high monthly search volume with low competition. Then I type that keyword into Google and I have a look at the related topics and suggestions that Google suggests to develop an outline for my article.

Use keywords to gain insight into an audience. What type of challenges are they facing? What problems are they trying to solve? Then go and create and diversify your content around these keywords. Remember, the algorithm has evolved to look look beyond keywords to being able to read the nuances and semantics of your article.

Technical SEO

There are a number of technical SEO aspects that can do some harm to your rankings if they are underperforming. There are too many to cover for the scope of this article. So, we’ll focus on the really important ones that you can implement yourself to improve your website’s performance.

They are: site speed; mobile SEO and website security. I’ve also included links to some resources that you can use to test and improve your website’s performance right away.

Site speed

2 is the magic number here. Most people expect a page to download in 2 seconds. And, a 2 second increase in your page speed can increase sales by 100%!

There is nothing more annoying than clicking on a link to get to a page and it takes ages to download. Most people, including myself will just hit the back button of the browser and move onto the next site. If your site is slow, you will get penalised.

Here are some FREE tools that you can use to test the performance of your site.

For both simple and advanced testing visit

PageSpeed Insights by Google.

GTmetrix for testing your site’s performance on Google and Yahoo.

Mobile SEO

It’s a no brainer that people are spending more time on their mobile phones browsing the Internet. As Google wants to show people the best websites and results, websites that follow mobile best practices will be given preference.

Your business should have a focused mobile strategy in place. Enter your URL to see how see how mobile-friendly your website is.

Website security

Google has placed a lot more emphasis on websites that use HTTPS over an HTTP protocol. Browsers will often warn people if they are about to visit an unsecure connection. This results in a bad user experience in most instances which will hurt your rankings.

The relationship between website security and Google rankings  - segmented by search volume.



There is some debate out there that backlinks are not as important as the used to be. But I believe they are still in the top 5 SEO ranking factors.

In a 2014 Searchmetrics study, backlinks were the 4th biggest SEO ranking factor in the algorithm.

A strong backlink profile is crucial for rankings. And, people also discover websites by clicking on the links in articles.

The relationship between backlinks and Google rankings.

Backlinks are still an important SEO ranking factor as this graph demonstrates. Here you can see that websites with more backlinks rank higher than websites with fewer backlinks.

Source: SEMrush

There are many other backlink factors other than quantity that will boost your backlink profile such as: the quality of the website linking to you; the anchor text (clickable text on the link) used and total number of follow-backlinks amongst others.

As you can see, a strong backlink profile is crucial for your rankings. The high volume search niche is extremely competitive with the top rankings occupied by websites with incredibly strong backlink profiles.


Make sure that your descriptions in the search results are compelling enough to make people want to click on them. Create content that people actually find useful so they spend time reading it. Write with intent. Valuable content created over sustained periods of time will convert visitors to your website into loyal subscribers to your ecosystem. This means you get more direct website traffic. Use keywords to gain insight into your audience. Don’t spend too much time trying to find keywords nobody else is targeting. Have a secure website that takes 2-3 seconds to download. Build an organic backlink profile by trying various techniques and strategies. If you focus on these SEO ranking factors, you will be well on your way to achieving some amazing results - good luck!

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