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Most SEO professionals overcomplicate the process of ranking well on Google. They obsess over every single Google ranking factor. (Note: There are around 200 total!).
Unless you have a large team dedicated solely to SEO, it is nearly impossible to do a great job optimizing for every single ranking factor.
We’d argue that it isn’t even necessary.
You get 80% or more of the benefits by focusing on the top 10 or so metrics that make the biggest impact.
In this guide, apart from sharing the top Google ranking factors that you should be paying attention to in 2021, we will also talk about monitoring and evaluating your organic search performance in Databox.
Let’s dive in.
So which ranking factors should you focus on in 2021? Start with these 11.
One of the best signals to rank better on Google is to get links back to your site from other credible sources.
“Backlinks are an incredibly important ranking factor that you should be paying attention to in 2021,” says Courtney Zaharia of Online Optimism. “Not only do backlinks allow your site to get exposure through the link itself, they also help boost your site’s domain authority, helping to validate it as a credible source of information.”
Gregory Golinski of Livestorm agrees, “Your competitor websites are all being optimized for SEO nowadays. They try to write great content and to fix technical SEO issues, just like you. The one thing that can make a big difference and give you the edge is to build more quality backlinks towards your website than they do.
If possible, you should hire someone on a full-time basis to launch a link building campaign for your website, as link building is very time-consuming.”
If you only focus on two things, prioritize backlinks and search intent.
Alex Birkett of Conversion.AI explains, “Look, it all comes down to content and links. Obviously, there’s a ton of nuance in these categories, but that’s the simple truth and SEOs try to complicate things (which they should, at the margins).
If your content is good (and it should be – just write good stuff for your customers and use Clearscope to optimize it), then you should focus on links. Why? Because it’s harder to do, and therefore, has a higher relative value (what is scarce is important). If you can find a way to drive consistent, high-value links every month, then you can beat your competitors. Never underrate the power of targeted link-building campaigns.”
“There’s a lot going on about increasing page speed and making your site more mobile-friendly, which is definitely needed and are table stakes at this point,” says Katrina Dalao of Referral Rock. “But if you create content people need or want to read – something that answers what they’re looking for – then you’re creating a high-value piece they won’t mind waiting for.”
Dan Rawley of TwinklHive SEO Service says, “It may not be considered a traditional ranking factor, but the reality is user intent is the most important area SEOs should be considering when trying to rank content in 2021.
Every algorithm update Google has introduced in recent years has been with the aim of making search results as genuinely useful as possible for users – so trying to ‘game’ rankings won’t get you as far anymore.
To get to the top of search results, your content needs to serve the needs of users making that search. By looking at the SERP and putting yourself in the user’s shoes, you can get a good understanding of what the true intent behind that search is: are people looking for advice, to buy a product or an answer to a question? Understanding this allows you to move on to creating a piece of content that meets the need while also improving on the current search results.”
Sam Gooch of Kinsta adds, “Every time a user carries out a search in Google, they are contributing to test data that helps Google understand what users actually want from the search results, based on the search query. Getting your content into a top position isn’t the end game anymore, it’s about keeping it there.
When you’re writing a piece of content with some target keywords in mind, always search for the keywords first, to get a good understanding of what content Google thinks is relevant for each one.
If the search results for a keyword you’re trying to target with a blog post are full of product pages, you might struggle to get your post ranking. But turn your post into a top 10 product comparison that links to the product pages, and you might stand a better chance of serving the user intent.”
For example, Jake Peterson of Atiba Software LLC says, “I am constantly looking at user intent behind search queries. You can come up with a list of great search queries but if they’re all tied to a brand or something else entirely, then you probably should avoid such a topic.
I always imagined search intent like reporting the weather. You can have all the latest technology, reporting, and radars but if you don’t actually go outside and look at the weather, your forecast could be wrong.
The same goes with search queries. You can have all the tracking, tools, and analytics but if you’re not looking at the SERP, then you’re doing yourself a disservice.”
Editor’s note: Use marketing reporting software like Databox to track both your most valuable on-page metrics and any SERP changes that may occur.
While search intent is key, you also need to make sure that what you produce demonstrates your authority and expertise on the topic.
Jonathan Aufray of Growth Hackers Services says, “The top-ranking factor is the content you have on your website. You need to produce long-form high-quality, engaging and compelling content on your website to bring visitors and keep your visitors on your site. A lot of marketers will tell you that backlinks are more important. I disagree because no quality website will actually link to you if you don’t have quality content on your site. Therefore, backlinks are a secondary metric.”
Aaron Agius of Louder.Online agrees, “My professional belief is that incredible content still rules the search rankings, and I follow that philosophy. High-quality content that’s hard to replicate is always going to perform best. If you can produce truly unique content of value, you will have no problems ranking high with SEO.”
Tom Pallot of TopLine Comms ads, “A blog nowadays can and should be so much more than a few hundred words optimized for a primary keyword. Create comprehensive content that targets multiple long-tail keywords and answers common questions that users have. For example, writing a blog about the best way to transfer money abroad? Cover the different methods, prices, providers, and scenarios that users might be facing. Using FAQ and Article structured data too, is key to your content being shown in as many areas of the SERP as possible. Great quality content will always be a core element of SEO.”
To optimize your website for organic search, you probably use Google Search Console to learn which pages receive the most impressions and clicks, and which queries are driving them. Now you can quickly assess your SEO performance in a single dashboard that monitors fundamental metrics, including:
Now you can benefit from the experience of our Google Search Console experts, who have put together a great Databox template showing the most important KPIs for monitoring organic search performance. It’s simple to implement and start using as a standalone dashboard or in marketing reports, and best of all, it’s free!
You can easily set it up in just a few clicks – no coding required.
To set up this Google Search Console Dashboard, follow these 3 simple steps:
Step 1: Get the template
Step 2: Connect your Google Search Console account with Databox.
Step 3: Watch your dashboard populate in seconds.
In 2020, Google announced a big algorithm updated focused on Core Web Vitals.
“Today, site speed is the most critical aspect of usability and user-friendliness,” says Sandeepan Jindal of Bidfortune. “With websites increasingly becoming heavier with time and consumer attention spans decreasing, it is critical that websites be incredibly responsive. We’ve seen it first hand with our product also, where our bounce rates decreased by 11% on reducing the page loading time from 7 seconds to 4.5 seconds. Also, our avg SERP Ranking improved.”
Anatolii Ulitovskyi of SEO Tools adds, “Among more than 100+ different google ranking factors, another factor you should focus on its website page speed. That is because starting from May 2021, Google already make site loading speed a part of its Core Web Vitals and started to get ranked based on it.
These Core Web Vitals are a bunch of different variables that Google considers are important for user experience on any website such as the speed, responsiveness, and how rapidly various elements like fonts and images load.
Many marketers or people think that this is one of the factors to beat your competitors but instead, it is the step to give more attention to how fast a page loading speed for your users. Google also recommending loading your website quickly and provide a great user experience to the targeted users.”
One of the key components along with site speed of Core Web Vitals is page experience.
“The most important factor that we should pay attention to in 2021 is the user experience on the website,” says Michal Hajtas of AutoPi. “People hate annoying pop-ups, screaming ads, shifting layout, and slow loading time. Therefore, we need to make sure to provide the best user experience possible.”
Connor Hewson of Assured Marketing says, “For me, the most important ranking factor for SEO professionals to pay attention to this year is most certainly User Experience (UX). Despite Google’s page experience update being pushed back from May to June 2021, it will be increasingly important for UX to be monitored and enhanced at every opportunity. UX was always a key ranking factor for Google and although we don’t yet know to what extent this will change with the update, early indications are that sites with less responsive pages, poorly coordinated imagery, and so on will be heavily negatively impacted going forward. Using Google Analytics as well as methods such as A/B testing and collecting qualitative data from users are probably the best 3 ways for businesses and SEO professionals to adapt to the changes surrounding UX in 2021.”
Mitchel Harad of Expert Opportunities adds, “User Experience. The list starts and ends there.
I know that there is a range of other factors so I’m not saying you forget to renew your SSL Certificate or toss backlinks into the bin, but truly great user experience leads to the remaining ranking factors that move the needle.
Creating content that is truly valuable (and not a subtle sales pitch) and posting it on a website that’s easy to use is the foundation for a great user experience.
I’m not talking about 400-odd words on the topic, but a truly valuable piece of content that’s been created first by understanding user intent, then by crawling the internet to understand how your audience views their problems and the language they use to talk about it, before creating content that approaches the topic from every conceivable angle and provides answers to questions the reader hadn’t even thought of yet.
That type of content – the type that places a user’s experience above everything else including sales and SEO – ends up leading to sales and SEO.
Your website receives more clicks, your bounce rate decreases, your pages are explored at length.
With more eyeballs on your content, backlinks naturally grow, you become a topical authority, and with links being built your content is easy to crawl and index.
It’s not rocket science, but it is an approach too many businesses and marketers get wrong.
Put your customer’s needs at the top of the pyramid and forget everything else.
When you nail that all-important step, you’ll naturally tick the remainder of your ranking factor boxes too.”
Rick Hoskins of Filter King agrees, “Most of the other ranking factors are a proxy for UX. I mean this on a philosophical level, as well as a practical one. UX, to me, encompasses the whole user experience, not just the layout and design features.
For example, link building is a proxy for assessing how valuable your content is. Keywords are a proxy for assessing how relevant your content is. Metadata performs a similar function, helping the Google bots evaluate your content’s relevance to users.
I haven’t read into exactly how UX will be assessed by the algorithm, as I no longer manage that part of the business directly myself. But one thing I believe, and have always believed, is that the only way to future-proof an online business is to focus on the human end-user.
Everything else is a proxy for UX. You might be able to game the system for a few years, but eventually, the technology will catch up.”
Most of Google’s recent algorithm updates are around mobile site experience. With 95% of U.S. adults under the age of 50 now owning a smartphone, it is easy to see why. Having a site that isn’t optimized for mobile is doing your business a massive disservice.
“In the ever-evolving digital world, we live in one if not the most important ranking factor is how mobile-friendly your website is,” says Eric Bergman of Serendipit Consulting. “More and more people are skipping the desktop computer and doing their internet searches on mobile devices. Because of this, Google uses mobile-first indexing when crawling a website. This means for SEO is that Google crawls the mobile version of the website when it is doing its indexing. So if your website is not mobile-friendly, Google will give it a lower rank which will hurt your overall SEO and ranking plus, people will not stay on your page if it isn’t mobile-friendly when researching their mobile devices.”
While there are some notable exceptions (especially for eCommerce brands), the more time someone spends on your site, the more engaged they are.
“While hundreds of ranking factors make up Google’s core algorithm, the factor that should matter most to you is visitor dwell time and understanding what drives dwell time on your site,” says Nate Nead of SEO.co. “If someone visits your site from Google and does not immediately bounce, but stays for several minutes, Google can safely say that the user’s query was answered with the content you had produced. Focus on what makes users click and stay on a page. We have found that to be one of the biggest indicators for long term ranking success.”
You can have the best content on the web about a specific topic, but if it is hard to navigate and read, then you are doing yourself a disservice.
Lewis Amin of Net Influencer explains, “Content Structure and organization is the most important thing that people should be looking out for. Content within the range of 1800-2000 words performs better on Google ranking and is more likely to rank on Google’s first page.
The content should always be organized with proper headings, subheadings, and bullet points. HTML tags can be used for bullets or number lists. Lists are the most useful since Google picks these lists which are then shown as featured snippets depending on a search query.”
As we alluded to earlier in this post, search intent, depth, and accuracy are all fundamental. However, you also need to make sure your content is updated regularly.
Amber Reed-Johnson of Giraffe Social Media explains, “You should be paying attention to the relevance and freshness of your content. Outdated articles from several years ago can be updated and optimized for modern-day, leading to more traffic, shareable content, and a higher chance of ranking for the keywords of that article (as Google favors recent posts).”
Domain Authority is another ranking signal for how credible your site is compared to others.
“One of the things you need to look at is your website’s domain authority (DA),” says Rachel Klaver of Identify Marketing. “It’s a ranking metric that shows your site’s expertise about a particular topic and its ability to rank on search engines. You may now increase the authority of your website in a variety of methods.
Obtaining high-quality backlinks is an excellent place to start. You can also produce excellent material that is specific to your field. As a result, Google will begin to perceive your site as an authority on the subject, increasing your domain authority and ranking your pages in the top ten search results.”
If you have a new or larger site, make sure that all of your key pages are getting crawled by Google regularly.
Nate Tower of Perrill explains, “I’m going with crawlability. Most people would probably respond to this question by saying either content or backlinks, but if search engines have issues crawling your site, then you can have the best piece of content with the greatest backlinks in the world.
Crawlability is huge for your SEO efforts. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen high-quality content not rank well because of crawlability issues. If you believe in a “build it and they will come” SEO theory, then you are going to be waiting for your rankings and traffic for a very long time. Get your technical house in order before you worry about having the right content. If you already have quality content, then fixing crawlability issues will cause that content to skyrocket!”
Looking for an easy way to track your organic search performance, and learn which keywords and landing pages are ranking best? Watch this video to learn how to decide which topics and keywords to focus on when planning your content marketing campaigns.
In this video, our product experts show you how to:
In sum, these are the 11 key ranking factors that you shouldn’t ignore if you want to rank well on Google.
These factors all work together.
“Here’s the thing most people don’t understand about the collection of ranking signals and algorithms Google uses to determine a web page’s rank in its index: There is no “one ranking factor” that is more important than another,” says Jeff Ferguson of Amplitude Digital. “Most people starting off in Search Engine Optimization think that Google assigns a score to things like topicality, content quality, PageRank, page speed, mobile-friendliness, and so on, then adds them all up for a total score. In reality, while Google does assign scores for its various ranking algorithms, those scores are a value of one or less, then it actually MULTIPLIES those scores together. This means that a low score in one or more areas can drag the overall score down.
So, you could have written a great piece of content and obtained tons of relevant inbound links, but then failed to optimize for speed or mobile, and suddenly you’re much lower in the rankings for pages with lesser content.
It’s because of this, you need to do ALL THE THINGS in SEO, not just “the most important.”
As Jeff alluded to, while you should nail all of these key ranking factors, you don’t necessarily have to focus on all of them at once—especially if you are a small team. To mitigate the feeling of overwhelm, focus on one or two key factors for a month or quarter and build out repeatable systems and processes. Once you’ve done that, move on to the next thing.
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