What does the 200 ranking factors list tell us about the direction of SEO in 2020?
SEO is ever-changing and new developments are never far away. Seeing how far the world of search has come in just a few years, it’s easy to understand why varied perspectives and opinions are never far away. Unfortunately, comparatively little comprehensive information is available, so for those of us looking for a wide-aspect view of the world of search, an authoritative take on the bigger picture was always going to be fascinating.
Late last month the excellent Brian Dean of Backlinko re-released his mega-list of 200 ranking factors, outlining the top points to follow to increase your organic ranking. This is well worth reading to refresh your knowledge, and many SEOs may even learn a thing or two. It’s a strong list and offers a lot of insight into the mindset Google has around ranking factors and sites in general, and deserves analysing. In this article I’m going to try and unpack some of this data, drilling into the detail and also taking the wider view to understand a bit more about how search engines regard sites.
Brian does make it very clear throughout his article that a lot of the points raised in this list are conjecture, speculation, sometimes even denied by Google themselves. However, all of them are judged by some SEOs as having value, if not directly in the SERPs, then at least in the way they probably allow Google to work better at doing the things that do matter. There are lots of shades of grey in there, as Brian quite rightly makes clear, and it’s worth repeating: SEO always comes with a degree of educated guesswork, and of course what’s gospel in 2020 may be ancient history five years later. Because SEO is a broad church with a lot of voices and opinions, there may be factors that we don’t all agree with. Yet as a set of data, we can view this as a great overview of the things we need to be thinking about when working on clients’ sites. My aim here is to give an insight into SEO in 2020, and highlight some of the interesting perspectives that such a comprehensive list reveals.
Now, of course, this isn’t Google’s list (although it takes a lot from their announcements, as well as Matt Cutts) and is definitely not definitive. We’ll probably never get to know everything that’s on their master list of ranking factors, but if you can find 10, 20 or more things to improve on your site from this, you could be improving SEO by 5%, 10% or more based on one of the most comprehensive checklists out there—and that’s a big step forward.
One thing that became apparent very quickly in examining this data is that a lot of these points overlap, or sit very closely together. Sometimes they’re two sides of the same coin, sometimes they’re even closer than that. A different SEO could probably examine the same list and produce a totally different table of information, simply by judging the categories very slightly differently. There are lots of voices in the SEO world, and Brian’s list definitely deserves further analysis beyond this article.
So, what is an SEO ranking factor?
This question might sound slightly philosophical. We all have a clear idea in our minds of what “ranking factors” mean for us. Often it’s an SEO-by-numbers checklist of key areas to square away, and move on. But this list is more revealing. By taking the wider view, we see what ranking factors mean to Google, not to us. By putting ourselves in Google’s shoes and examining this data, we see what a well-optimised site means to them, not to us as SEOs. By adopting this view we get a better perspective on SEO in 2020 and can understand better how we can best serve our clients.
So what does this list tell us counts as a factor? A ranking factor is anything Google pays attention to, polices, encourages, discourages, likes, dislikes, benefits from or sees as relevant to its strategic vision for the future of search. It’s more than a set of guidelines; it’s about having a site that fulfils the best practices of honest, straightforward site management. Remember that Google is a business whose product is high-quality answers to questions. By providing the best answer to a question, we achieve the product Google is seeking to provide. By trying to overtly game the system, we tell Google we’re seeking to manipulate its algorithm to provide an answer that may not be their users’ best result, therefore undermining their service. Losing sight of this “honest, truthful, straightforward and best” goal is a recipe for long term failure in search. Be the best answer to Google users’ queries, and by making sure that Google can see that you are, you will be their first choice. Their business model demands it.
Links: good and bad factors
Links as a ranking factor in 2020
By far the largest number of the 200 factors relate to links. 56 different factors, to be exact, which is more than a quarter of the total list. Of these, 21% relate to negative keyword factors, meaning there are 44 areas the SEO world has identified as relevant and valid link building strategies. Most of these are reflections on link building best practices that we’re probably all aware of: only build high quality links from authoritative sources, spread evenly, built in stages, naturally and using the correct anchor text. In short, link profiles should look as natural and organic as possible. This poses a problem for SEOs as we inevitably don’t do this. That Google dedicates so much effort toward policing our link profiles is an indication of how seriously they take sites’ link profiles. People have been talking about the decline of links for years, but this list gives the lie to this view. The truth is that the clampdown is on bad links, inauthentic link profiles and dodgy link building tactics. This doesn’t just mean building links from quality domains. It means links should appear naturally—positioning consistent with genuine trust, not just a single link in the text. A steady growth in links over time, a respectable number of no-follow links, the quality of linking content and the positioning of links in a text all give Google a “bigger picture” that helps it to see through most link building strategies. The key takeaway from the list of link building factors is that links are alive and kicking as a key determining factor in your SERPs position, but the methods of obtaining them are becoming more and more closely policed by Google’s algorithm. This should rattle more a few SEOs. Too rarely do we take account of the authenticity of our link building profile, and how natural it seems. In part, this is an industry problem. Links are quantifiable in a field where there are few guarantees. Agreed link targets, link building budgets and targets help sell contracts. Based on this list, it could be argued that this practice could actually be harming your visibility. Unless you’re actively factoring in healthy link profile appearance to your strategy (not just disavowing low-authority links), you’re treading a fine line. If you doubt this, look through the list—if all your links, and linking content, line up with this, you’re doing well.
- The landscape of your links is as important as the quality of your link sources.
- Linking is the most closely policed area of SEO
- This is likely because Google sees link building practice as suspect, and is actively seeking sites that do better.
- In my personal view—and I feel this is backed up by the data here—this is not the last we’ve heard from Google on links, it will continue to turn the screw and keep pushing sites with genuine link profiles over bulk link acquisition that reads as inauthentic.
How Google decides the quality of your links
Brief summary of linking factors (positive)
- Link domain age
- Number of linking domains
- Number of links from separate c-class IPs
- Number of pages linking (even if from the same domain)
- Backlink anchor text
- Alt tags for image links
- Links from .gov or .edu sites
- Authority of a linking page
- Authority of a linking domain
- Links from competitors for the same SERP
- Links from ‘expected websites
- Sitewide links
- Guest posts
- Links from ads
- Homepage authority
- Nofollow links
- Diversity of link types
- rel=Sponsored ugc tags
- Natural context links
- Internal link anchor text
- Link title attribution
- Country of referring domain
- Link location within content
- Location of link on page
- Linking domain relevance
- Keyword in title
- Positive link velocity (ie speed of link profile growth)
- Negative link velocity
- Links from’hub’ pages
- Links from high authority sites
- Links from wikipedia
- Co-occurence/consistent linking
- Age of backlinks
- Links from ‘real sites’ rather than fake blogs
- Natural link profile
- Minimum link exchanging
- User generated content rather than site owner links
- Trust rank of linking site
- Number of external links on linking page
- Word count of linking content
- Quality of linking content
Linking factors (negative)
- Bad links
- Links from forums
- Links from redirects
- Links to spammy sites
- Unnatural influx of links
- Penguin penalty- bad links
- Link profile with high % of low quality links
- Links from unrelated sites
- Unnatural links warning
- Low quality directory links
- Widget-generated links
- Links from the same class c ip
- Excessive 301 redirects
Content for SEO in 2020
The second-biggest area on this list is content, and unlike links, this reads more as a set of guidelines for quality than a crackdown on bad practice. Probably since content is a more honest reflection on the purpose of the site, without so much bad practice at play (although there is plenty, and it’s reflected here), we can see encouragement of quality writing, less worried about black hat techniques. Providing fresh, unique insight, quality content, a table of contents, lists, multimedia and a decent keyword density gives users the highest value for their click—Google’s ultimate goal—but also allows Google to clearly understand that this is the case. An important consideration here is that content is the area most easily editable for online marketers. Just over 10% of all these ranking factors can be ticked off with quality content. Clearly Google sees content as the best way of determining value, yet far too many SEOs smirk at the claim that “content is king.” Yet why this deceptively simple-sounding strategy lacks some of the sparkle of more technical areas, we can surmise from the data that Google sees it as a great indicator of value.
- Build quality content
- Say something new & interesting
- Develop your site to say what you need, but look for ways to enhance your content outside just more words
Content: positive vs negative factors
Content factors (positive)
- Table of contents
- Content length
- Number of times a keyword appears
- How recent is content
- Latent semantic indexing of keywords
- LSI in title and description
- Depth of topic coverage in content
- Page content freshness
- Keyword prominence- first 100 words
- Entity keywords
- Hummingbird update- allowing Google to look beyond keywords
- Grammar and spelling
- Original content
- Supplementary interactive content like tools
- Reading level
- WordPress tags
- Bullets and numbers
- Useful content (as opposed to ‘quality’ content)
- Site-level factors- unique insight
Content factors (negative)
- Hidden content
- Duplicate content
- Gibberish content
- Low value content that puts revenue above users (Fred update)
- Low quality content & content farms (panda)
Social & external factors in SEO
This isn’t something that reaches many SEO’s radars, yet 4% of ranking factors on this list relate to interaction that doesn’t touch the site or qualify as a link. It’s no surprise that Google places focus on the size of social media followings and attention to your brand, both as an indicator of relevancy steering its focus and also as a symbol of trust. All too often we narrow our focus to steering “juice” to sites, but the importance of genuine offsite interest in brands often falls between the cracks. Being talked about on social media may not directly affect your DA, but this should remind SEOs that users’ attention shouldn’t be taken for granted.
- Don’t disregard the importance of genuine engagement
- Have a message that people want to engage with
Social external ranking factors in 2020:
- Reviews on review platforms
- Google + (for now)
- High number of Facebook likes
- High number of twitter followers
- Legitimacy of social media accounts
- Brand news mentions
- Brand signals without a link
On-page SEO optimisation
Surprisingly, considering how much time SEOs spend sweating over on page optimisation, it seems Google has fewer guidelines for on-page, non-content details than for links and content. However, it’s the only area on Brian’s list where there are more negatives (points to avoid) than positives. The plus points are all straightforward, old-school header tag and meta optimisation that most of us will be very familiar with. However, the negatives are far more concerned with hidden details, automated steps and sneaky advertising. There’s also a key point here: over optimising. By stuffing keywords into content, we risk giving Google the impression that we’re trying to game their system. This takes us back to what’s becoming a running theme here: authenticity is key. Google doesn’t want optimised sites; it wants sites that work well, pay attention to the user and do their job effectively. By keeping one eye open for deceptive practices that put users off or treats their precious click in a dishonest or dismissive way, we undermine Google’s mission to give users the best possible result. Clearly, they’re keen to stamp this out.
On-page factors affecting SEO: positive vs negative
- Get the simple stuff right
- Don’t mislead the user
- Keep the focus on your content
On-page positive ranking factors
- Keyword in title tag
- Title tag starts with a keyword
- Keyword in description
- Keyword in H1
- Keyword in H2/H3
- Is it mobile optimised
- Use of schema
On-page negative ranking factors
- Sneaky redirects
- Popups or distracting ads
- Insterstitial advertising
- Over optimising/keyword stuffing
- Duplicate meta
- Doorway pages
- Ads above the fold
- Hiding links/cloaked links to affiliates
- Affiliate programmes
- Auto Generated content
URL structure for SEO
How does your URL affect your SEO? This is likely more of a priority during big restructuring projects like site migrations. However, it’s a reminder that we need to get the basics right before going after the details. These are the first insight Google gets into your site, but the importance of carefully-designed URLs is often overlooked. As in other areas of this list, the secret is to keep it simple and clear. While URL structure only makes up 2% of the items on the list, it’s worth remembering that URLs are the pathways for Googlebot, and can make a real difference to your search performance.
- Keep URLs concise, clear, keyword-optimised and straightforward for users (and Google!)
URL Ranking factors
- URL length
- URL path clarity
- Keywords in URL
- URL string
I get it, optimising everything about a domain is not really on the table most of the time. Sometimes we have to work with what we’re given. But there are things you can do to boost your domain’s value. Domain authority and trust can be grown and, of course, age and time registered will increase by themselves. But the fact that 10 of the factors on the list relate to domain or subdomain-level issues could inform whether or not you recommend a change to a client.
- Look for the bigger picture
Domain level ranking factors:
- Domain age
- Keyword in domain
- Keyword as first word in domain
- Time domain has been registered
- Keywords in subdomain
- Domain’s history of penalisation
- Exact match domain
- Domain authority
- Active domain (not parked)
- Domain trust /trustrank
Site-level technical optimisation
As SEOs, we place a lot of emphasis on technical optimisation, as do our clients. There seems to be an over-emphasis on this side of the industry. Whether this is right or wrong, it is perhaps telling that there are 10 technical factors listed, including Pagespeed Insights score, against 32 for content and on-page keyword optimisation. Whether this is because Google counts on SEOs getting these areas right, or because the areas themselves carry more weight, or because there are simply more opportunities to succeed at content, the key is finding the balance. Interestingly, some of these areas, like AMP, mobile optimisation, and SSL, are the areas Google has been most outspoken about implementing, suggesting technical optimisation is a big part of Google’s vision for the future.
- Follow Google’s recommendations
Site technical factors:
- Use of AMP
- Image optimisation
- Optimised for mobile?
- HTML errors
- Site architecture
- Site updates/freshness factor
- Does is have SSL
- Site is rarely down
- Pagespeed insights score
Location & user-led factors driving custom results
User behaviour is carefully monitored by Google. It’s interesting to note how much the SERPs are informed by searchers “voting with their feet.” Equally, the search results are affected by searchers in other ways. Tailored results for query, location or based on the users’ history mean you might see custom SERPs more and more often in future. It’s no secret that Google collects huge amounts of data from Chrome users, and we’ve seen how search history affects related searches. But it is interesting to think that this Google is potentially seeking to use a lot more of this data to influence future SERPs as well.
So what does this mean for SEO? Even if you’re optimised well for keywords, links and technical SEO, if you target the wrong people, have an user-unfriendly site, bad content or a poor offering, your rankings could be affected. If users respond well to your site, your content and your offering, and for instance bookmark you, this may lead to you reaching more people in future, as Google notices your receptive audience.
All of this leads into the other big customising factor in SERPs: location.
Location informs more Google results than probably any other factor. Google now accounts for location automatically, identifying nearby results where applicable even if no local keywords are included. The importance of establishing a local area is vital, as cutting back on local optimisation while you might strive for traffic in other parts of the country, may mean competitors take customers from those areas while you struggle in your own backyard.
Reasons Google might massage the SERPs
- Google has final say on SERPs: Good SEO gets you far but don’t forget the search engine has a vote too.
- Good user responses yield better rankings
- Don’t take it for granted that finding your site will be enough, the conversion funnel is essential
- In the age of Google geo targeting, we’re all local shops for local people!
Reasons Google might create a ‘custom’ search result
- CTR for keywords
- Bounce rate
- Direct traffic
- Repeat traffic
- Pogosticking – repeated bouncing down the SERPs
- Chrome bookmarking
- Number of comments
- Dwell time on each page
- User browsing history
- Brand specific results
- Spammy queries- downgraded
- Brand signals
- Brand only keyword searches
- Safe search
- Country tld
- Server location- is it local
- Geo targeting
- ‘Query deserves freshness’- Google gives a boost to certain fresher results on some topics
- Query deserves diversity
- ‘Your money or your life’ keywords
- Top stories
- Shopping specific results
- Image specific results
- Easter egg results- fun searches
- Transaction searches= different result
We all know navigation is a massive factor for SEO. If your site can’t be navigated, users—and Googlebot—won’t be able to find what they need. Fortunately, of the list of 200 factors affecting your rankings, only one relates to bad practice on-site navigability—broken internal links—while there are five areas for making sure your internal links are working well. For SEOs, though, these five are pretty vital for making sure your site is reaching its potential. Navigation, though, is only helping Google view your site. As with these other factors, it’s about the bigger picture, ensuring what Google is crawling is top quality.
- Keep your site easy for Googlebot to navigate
- Make sure your site is worth navigating
Navigability – positive
- Table of contents to Google sitelinks
- Internal links pointing to a page
- Category system for topics
- Prioritisation of page in xml sitemap
- Presence of a sitemap
- Broken internal links
Outbound links for SEO
Outbound links are a fine line—too many and you look like your site is relying on external sources for value, too many no-follows or too much overt optimisation and you look like you’re trying to game the system. Linking to too many affiliate sites can also land you a penalty. As with everything else, it’s all about seeming natural and not as if you’re trying to steer value elsewhere—or ambush the user with affiliate sites.
- Keep your link profile natural, authentic and useful.
Outbound link ranking factors
- Outbound link quality
- Not too many dofollow outbound links
- Affiliate links- have some, but not too many
- Not too many outbound links
- Excess pagerank/excessive nofollows to outbound links
Context of the site
One of the surprising revelations that came with analysing this list is how far Google goes to examine the context of the site, beyond on-page optimisation—and beyond the scope of SEOs and webmasters. There are a broad range of factors Google examines to establish the context of the site and the bigger picture. It will look for signs that the site may be untrustworthy, or not fully secure, and presumably will continue to penalise sites for this—both as a way to encourage webmasters to take security seriously, and to avoid steering users to a site that might be risky. Another area Google may check is current keyword rankings. Whether or not this makes it tougher for newer sites to start ranking is unclear, but this drives home the importance of keeping your message clear, focusing on a range of keywords and spending time developing a strong keyword strategy.
- Take care to keep your site secure, the consequences could be extreme and Google doesn’t highlight it for nothing.
- Keep your keyword strategy up to date, broad and well-researched
- Similar keywords the page already ranks for
- Site has been hacked
- Whois – are you set to public or private
- Has the site owner previously been penalised
- Number of legitimate DMCA complaints
If you’ve made it this far: well done! The final area we’ve selected from the list of ranking factors is user experience, and if the rest of the list has a theme, this is a big part of it: keep putting users first. Good user experience is essential to achieving conversions, but as time goes by and Google pays more and more attention to users’ behaviour, it’s also increasingly becoming a ranking factor. Most modern CMS platforms make the points here relatively easy to implement, yet many sites don’t. Ensuring people can get the most out of your site doesn’t just give them the best possible reason to convert, it has a direct impact on your rankings too. When we take a step back, the user (as Google’s customer) is at the heart of SEO, as it’s ultimately that person that needs to be satisfied with our site for SEO to succeed. Letting Google see that this is the case is important too, but if it’s not there to begin with, it’s not going to be worth Googlebot’s time—or the users’.
- Be considerate to the user
- Make use of multimedia and Google’s other products
- Look at the site from the perspective of someone visiting for the first time
User experience ranking factors
- User friendly layout
- Ensure plenty of contact information
- Does it use breadcrumbs
- Does it feature Youtube
- Site usability
So what can we take away from all this data and analysis? This list has shown the top 200 things that should be on the minds of SEOs, yet most of us won’t consider a lot of these points. It’s easy to fall into the rhythm of a regular pattern, but a key point to take away seems to be that there’s a broad and ever-growing scope through which Google determines the search rankings. As SEOs, we need to keep our eyes open to both the breadth and depth that Google takes into account when determining the SERPs.
Another point that I have found myself going back to it again and again in this article is the need to put the user first. I don’t think it’s by accident that so many of the points here reflect the need for an honest, simple, easy-to-use experience that centres around quality to the users. Google needs to deliver the best possible result for a query, and increasingly it’s seeing the “fake it ‘till you make it” approach as contrary to that.
Finally, the data clearly shows us that links—love them or hate them—remain both essential to SEO and are under ever-increasing scrutiny by Google. The number of factors affecting search results that are based on link profile suggests that while this side of SEO isn’t going anywhere, the “quick wins” of inauthentic, dodgy links that are designed to fool Google probably have their days numbered.
We all need to be prepared for a Google that penalises us for taking shortcuts, and rewards authentic sites that genuinely engage users. It will continue to find ways to find out the bigger picture for all sites, and as its algorithm improves, SEOs will increasingly find themselves seen less as “dark artists” or technical IT service providers, and more as conventional marketers, but through the medium of web—taking a wide view, writing content, managing PR, building buzz and promoting great customer service. Shortcuts will become less and less useful, and sites that don’t align with Google’s vision of search will be penalised.