This is going to be a huge post, but the crux of all my SEO Information and how the Google Search Ranking Algorithm works as far as I can understand it. So bear with me and I hope you will get lots of overview and insights about Seo.
I am not a Google employee or an insider which has any privy to the Google Algorithm, but I am a testing and experimenting SEO Consultant, who experiments with lots of SEO methods on its own sites and see what and how any of it is working and based on that I have my own humble opinion on how google evaluates a website for ranking in its algorithm.
All the knowledge I am going to share below is based on my own experimentation with Google but it may still be all wrong just like the story of the Elephant and Five Blind men. In Seo we are all blind men trying to understand what Google Algorithm is and all would have its own version, so below is my version.
I hate history lessons, but this is important to understand the whole process from where Google started to where its today in terms of its ranking algorithm. In the start when Google started, it started with the concept of mainly two factors affecting the rankings of any website i.e. onsite content and backlinks.
Those were the days of keyword stuffing and exact match anchor text link exchange backlinks. There has always been a game of cat and mouse between Google & SEOs and as always the initial SEOs started to game google by increasing their Keyword Density and Link Exchange links.
Now I am not going to give a big history lesson on when and why Google started to change their algorigthm and all the major updates and what kind of SEO methods were they targeting. But on a whole Google has tweaked its algorithm to take care of these so called blackhat tactics so right now keyword density does not work, link exchanges are obsolete and lots of other stuff is obsolete.
Also, while doing such changes Google has also started to incorporate other factors in their algorithm along the way and their initial two factors i.e. Content and Backlinks are no longer the only major factors which are considered by Google for ranking websites at the time of writing this post. There may be other factors which Google may introduce later but current what Google is using for ranking websites is given in next section.
How Google Ranks Websites Now
Ok, so you went through the boring history lesson and are on the next and major section of our discussion. In this I will be explaining what factors Google right now considers for ranking and explain them in detail one by one and why I think Google is using this factor as a ranking factor.
Right now Google is using the following 4 factors for ranking any site on Google
- Content (or Onsite)
- Authority (including Age)
- Backlinks (Major factor but kept last for discussion purposes)
Now, many people will list lots of other factors which Google is using for ranking purpose, but I would suggest to them just hold your horses and let me explain every factor in detail and you may find most of the factors considered in those factors.
Further, many of the factors overlap each other too i.e. one thing may be considered a part of the other factor for eg. backlinks will affect the backlinks factor as well as the authority factor of the website. Plus the anchor text may be considered while evaluating the content factor. So in many cases these factors will overlap each other and effect each other also. I will now give a overview of each of the factors.
Ranking Factor 1: Content or Onsite Factors
This is the least understood of the factors and have many myths surrounding this factor. I considered that there are further two parts to this ranking factor i.e.
- On-Site Optimisatin
Let me explain on-site optimisation first as it has lots of myths of the Seo world.
Myth No1: Quality Content
You may have heard many SEOs and even Matt Cutts say that quality content is the key to ranking. They are right to some extent but what we understand as quality content is very different from what the Google Algorithm understands. We think that quality content means 1000 or more word watershed articles written by a Professor on the subject is the holy grail of quality content. That for a human would be a quality content no doubt but for Google Algorithm, its a computer, when it starts understanding quality contents, that day artificial intelligence would be born. Google cannot understand quality from the content itself PERIOD.
Then why so many SEOs & Matt Cutts harp about quality content?
There is a reason for that. Even though Google Algo cannot understand content itself, it can judge the quality of content from how the users are interacting with the content i.e. external factors like click thru rate, backlinks, citation, co-citation, re-referral (when a user visits a website multiple times), social sharing, bounce rate, domain authority etc. So a 1000 word article and a simple video or a contact form all have the chance of ranking for the main target keyword if the external factors are same for that piece of content.
There is caveat though, in case of article, it has chances of ranking widely (with wide I mean for no of keywords) because, it has lots of long tail and combination of keywords which will appear in the text naturally. So that is the reason many SEO Gurus advocate writing long content articles, but for Google they are the same.
But, if you are writing a big article just for the purpose of writing itself and which does not add any user value, then it can be detrimental for the ranking also as it will increase bounce rate. Like if you are getting bored right now reading this article you will bounce back to search engine, if you like the article you may read more. So instead of optimising the article, no of words in the article etc. the focus should be to increase user interaction with the website as that is what Google Algo understands as quality content.
PS: Many people will say I wrote this big post myself but am saying that 1000 word content does not matter. My answer would be, that I wrote this big post because it would be beneficial for me and my readers. I will also create a video on this (many people hate reading), but I hate videos on big topics because, I cannot reference them back, few days down the line I would think of that person said something about xxx in his 1 hour video what was it and then I have to view the video again, so that is the reason I am writing it down. I also don’t like writing above video creation.
Myth No 2: Keyword Density
There are many SEO Gurus out there that will swear by a set %age of keyword density for the best ranking for any keyword. That is again a myth. There is no set parameter of keyword density and Google ranks pages with diverse Keyword Density setting. Infact, I never check for keyword density on any of our websites.
Google, has got very good at understanding one thing from the content on the page i.e. the topic for which the page is created. So it does not require keyword density to understand about the topic of a page. If you research Google searches you would find many pages ranking with various degrees of keyword density for the same terms, so its another myth.
There is one caveat in this case again, you should never do keyword stuffing, as that is bad and Google has also got good in recognizing patters of keyword stuffing and your website would get a negative penalty, other than that you should not worry about keyword density.
According to me, the only requirement according to me right now is that the keyword should atleast appear once on the page and if natural then within a special tags like bold, italics or heading tag, other than that Keyword Density is a Myth.
Myth No 3: Bold, Italics, Heading Tags
Many SEOs and Tools will suggest that you should bold, italics, underline and add keywords to heading tags. This technique would have worked 5 years before, but is now obsolete, especially after hummingbird. I am not saying that you should abandon doing this but you should not have set target or mindset before writing an article that I have to do this for atleast once for my target keywords. If its natural and require do it otherwise the content would still rank. But if you do it excessively, Google may treat it as a sign of overoptimisation.
So overall with regard to on-site optimisation I would say follow KISS method, not the one you are thinking but Keep It Simple Stupid and Google will understand what your page is about and rank it.
Content is becoming one of the major ranking factors, but its a difficult factor to understand. Many people believe (especially in case of small businesses) that if they have created a site with a predefined number of pages (say for eg 10 or 20) then that is all the content the site will need to rank, especially if all the pages target one keyword. This is a big limiting factor for ranking, Google right now is looking for authorities and is rewarding authorities with huge traffic and exposure. So content should be an ongoing process and not a predefined limiting number.
I am not saying that you should create content for the purpose of creating content or that the content should be atleast 300 words minimum. Content means anything that is useful for the readers. Infact, in my portfolio of sites, I have seen some cases where the highest visited content on a site contains less than 50 words. So, all in all there are two things to take from here:
- Content Creation should be Ongoing Process
- Content should be created keeping users in mind
Many people will say we are a small mom and pop site what content should we create, or that there is not much content creation avenues in our niche. You are mistaken. There is always room for content which helps your users.
Many people will also say what is the benefit of creating content which does not target any keyword. Very valid question, but content which is useful for users but will not bring any search traffic, is still required and is a must. Why? It will affect many things like Domain Authority, Time on Site, User Conversions (remember we don’t have to just get traffic we have to convert them), Natural Links (user friendly content gets shared), Niche Authority (Google sees you as authority in the niche) etc. I think these are reasons enough to keep adding user friendly content on the website.
But once again reemphasizing. QUALITY CONTENT IS NOT DEPENDENT ON WORD SIZE
Content affect many ranking factors which are listed below for fast reference
- Domain Authority
- Niche Authority
- Social Sharing
- User Interaction
- Time on Site
- Bounce Rate
- Conversions etc.
This concludes our discussion about Content as a Ranking Factor
Ranking Factor 2: Authority
Now I am going to explain what is Authority and how it affects Google Ranking a website. Authority as a factor has become very important for Google recently, and right now Google is rewarding Authority in a huge way. You can read my earlier post about how Google has started rewarding authoritative sites after Hummigbird Update. So the days of small sites are over and Authority Sites are in.
Authority can be sub-divided into some other categories, which are given below
- Domain Authority (not what SEO Moz means)
- Niche Authority
According to me Domain Authority means the chance of any new content ranking just because it belongs to an authoritative domain for e.g. if you post same article to Wikipedia and and new website, which has higher chance of ranking? Ofcourse wikipedia because it has such high Domain Authority or Trust that any new content would rank faster and would require less backlinks to rank.
Domain Authority is cumulative i.e. as the site becomes bigger and bigger (not only in terms on content), Domain Authority increases, the main factors affecting domain authority are:
- Domain Content
- Social Media
- Frequency of Updation
I love to create authoritative sites, because once you have established Domain Authority, it becomes easier and easier to rank new content.
Niche Authority is similar to Domain Authority in a particular niche. I define it as the chance of a Niche Related Content ranking as compared to Unrelated content. For e.g. What is the chance a health related article on WebMD will rank for its target keywords as compared to a Finance Article on WebMD. Since, WebMD is a health related website, the chance of a health related article ranking higher for its keywords is more as compared to a Finance related article. The Finance related article would also have some ranking ability due to Domain Authority but the extra jump a niche related article will get its called Niche Authority.
Niche Authority is easier to attain as compared to domain authority if you have content related to the niche on your website. Niche Authority is primarily affected by the quality and quantity of niche related content on the website. Remember the quality aspect is as determined by Google Algo not by a reader as explained in content above. The second most important factor affecting Niche Authority is Relevant Backlinks i.e. links to a Niche Website like WebMD would be mostly coming from Health Related Domains, content with related anchor text.
Factors Affecting Niche Authority
- Niche Content
- Niche Backlinks
- Niche Co-citation
- Niche Social Media
If your website is ranking for some terms but all the content is not ranking or if the ranking is stuck at Page 2 inspite of increasing links, then you need to improve your Niche Authority.
Age or History of the website starts from the day Google indexes your website to the current date. Age is also a factor but no longer a major factor and I consider it as a part of Domain Authority. How Age affects Rankings? For eg. you have a content that is ranking for 5 years now and people still find it relevant and come to the content from Search Engines, then Google gives you age benefit i.e. it treats the content as very relevant and its difficult to dislodge it from rankings. This also helps increase Domain Authority & Niche Authority, that is the reason once a site is sitting on the top for some time, it cements its position and its difficult to dislodge it.
Age however, plays a significant part in rankings for a new website and Google algorithm has delays built in which may depress the rankings for new websites if Seo is done too aggressively.
Along with domain authority Google is also giving huge traffic to branded websites. Branding is not just keeping a unique name to your site, it is much more and Google looks much more about a brand. One of the major factor affecting Branding is branded searches i.e. for how many times your brand name was searched on Google. If a website is being searched for its name only then Google understands that people are really connecting to the website. Other factors affecting branding is mention of the brand on the internet and social media, co-citation of the brand with other niche related sites and ofcourse, branded links from niche related sites. Branded backlinks is also a major factor in how Google perceives a brand.
Factors affecting Branding
- Brand term search
- Branded Backlinks
- Social Media
Google is right now very reliant on Brand signals and is giving good traffic to branded websites.
This, concludes our discussion on Authority ranking factors and how they are affecting the website rankings. Authority as a whole has increased in weight in Google ranking algorithm and has become one of the major factors for ranking a website. If this factor is taken care of then ranking any new content on the website becomes a breeze.
Ranking Factor 3: Activity
- Click Thru Rates
- Bounce Rates
- Time on Site
- No of pages visited
- Social Media
- Forums & Blogs
I have not elaborated activity section as yet as its a huge post and I am getting tired writing so much. I will expand this when I get the next chance.
Ranking Factor 4: Backlinks
Backlinks is the Primary Google Ranking Factor i.e. it was the factor on which the whole google algorithm was based initially and is still a major ranking factor but the way Google evaluates backlinks have changed a lot since its early days. This is the only factor right now which has Penalty provisions (except maybe Keyword Stuffing and Spammy Content) and if you overoptimise the website then the rankings are going down. But this is still the Primary Ranking Factor i.e. it still has a major role to play even if you optimise the first 3 factors. The first 3 factors act as a booster for backlinks. For e.g. if a website has Good Content, Good Authority & Good Activity then it will need less backlinks to rank as compared to a fresh website.
Also, all backlinks are not equal and the power of backlinks depend on the quality and relevance of the website from which it is getting link from. How a backlink will affect ranking for a content is dependent on the quality of the backlink and the quality of the site getting the backlinks. I call these two factors are backlink power and ranking power, for simplification purposes I explain these two concepts with the help of an equation.
Backlink Power = (D A + N A) X Relevance
DA = Domain Authority of the linking website
NA = Niche Authority of the linking website
Relevance = Niche Relevance of content form which link is given
Ranking Power = Backlink Power X (DA+NA)
DA = Domain Authority of the site receiving link
NA = Niche Authority of the site receiving link
Now the above is an oversimplified equation as there are various other factors affecting backlink power and ranking power including the 3 ranking factors of Content, Authority & Activity. Currently the way Google Algorithm is working a website does not need thousands of backlinks to rank infact, it just needs a few handful of relevant and powerful links and the more optimised the website is for the first 3 ranking factors the less links it need.
So overall, backlinks is still primarily responsible for ranking a website but the ranking itself depend on the quality of the website and the quality of the links its getting.
So at last I have come to the end of this long post and I hope this was not just an exercise for my fingers typing on the keyboard and has been useful to you. I have not proof read this post as its too long and if you find any errors please let me know in comment below.