Although search improvements take time and effort, the following SEO search signals have been confirmed by either industry leaders or Google.
This is a post-in-progress. I’ll be adding to this post in the near-future, so you may want to refer to this write-up a later date to see what’s been added. I’m publishing the most frequently discussed signals first. These are the ones that repeatedly come up in conversation with our clients.
Is Your Website Trustworthy?
Bar none, the number one factor Google, Bing and yahoo want to know for ranking purposes is how Trustworthy your website is in general and its Authority on specific topics that are published across the site. Search engines determine trustworthiness through a number of methods.
On-Site Search Signals
Most people on the Internet have some idea of what a domain is. But what is it, exactly? The following graphic points out the varies components of a domain.
Age of domain is a ranking factor. The longer a domain has resided with the same owner, the more SEO manna is given. There is little to no SEO manna provided for domains owned less than a year. Overall, this is a minor rank signal.
Domain “RAP” Sheet
A domain with a checkered history may be penalized by Google. If that domain is sold or transferred to a new owner, that penalty may also transfer over.
Keyword Appearance in the Root Level Domain
Once significant; now, not so much. It does provide some SEO boost; however it’s minor and a fraction of what it once was. Google says building a brand name is a better long-term strategy.
Type of Top Level Domain
The Top Level Domain is the suffix that follows the domain name. Some of the most popular top-level domains include;
Each of these top level domains carry different SEO weight. Organization websites with .edu received the most authority in the eyes of Google.
Keyword First Word in the Root Domain
The position sequence of a keyword in a domain and URL makes a difference in SEO. The closer a keyword is to the absolute left position the more SEO manna a webpage receives.
Domain Registration Length (renewal frequency)
Although it’s difficult to ascertain, most SEO experts believe how long a domain is registered for is a SEO signal (as long as it points to a Live website) because Google filed a patent that stated;
“The date that a domain with which a document is registered may be used as an indication of the inception date of the document.
“Certain signals may be used to distinguish between illegitimate and legitimate domains. … Valuable (legitimate) domains are often paid for several years in advance, while doorway (illegitimate) domains rarely are used for more than a year. Therefore, the date when a domain expires in the future can be used as a factor in predicting the legitimacy of a domain and, thus, the documents associated therewith.”
Although the registration span between renewals may be a signal, most believe the time of registration carries some weight, as long as there’s other factors involved such as an active website, ownership stability, regular content updates, etc.
Exact Match Domains (AKA Keyword-rich Domains)
These are domains containing a keyword that a website wants to compete for. Years ago this was a very cheap way to get organic search traffic. However, this no longer the case and hasn’t been the case for many years. Why? Because they were abused by spammy websites that didn’t offer much to visitors. Now that Google placed a filter on EMDs they are only slightly more helpful than launching a branded domain from scratch. Read more on EMD at Search Engine Land.
MYTH BUSTED: A Dedicated IP Helps SEO
Most websites share their IP with other unrelated websites in a shared hosting environment. With that kernel of truth known to many, a myth persists that if a website shared an IP address with other websites known to be spammers, it could be penalized by Google. This is NOT TRUE. Since spammers open and close shop so frequently across different IPs, this method of hunting spammers requires too many resources for Google to track. Instead, Google chases spammers by domain and associated URLs. In following videos Matt Cutts confirms that website owners shouldn’t worry about shared IPs for SEO purposes.
“All the same IP address — that’s really not a problem for us. It’s really common for sites to be on the same IP address. That’s kind of the way the internet works. A lot of CDNs (content delivery networks) use the same IP address as well for different sites, and that’s also perfectly fine,” John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, from a 2018 Google Webmaster Central live stream.
Web Page Topic via Hummingbird Algorithm
In 2013, Google introduced the ‘Hummingbird‘ algorithm into Search. This software code allows their search engine to place greater emphasis on natural language inquiries and catalog web page topics more accurately. Hummingbird more accurately identifies content and context of topics on a web page, and helps Google Search de-emphasize its reliance on specific keywords when cataloging and referencing web pages when presenting its search results.
Main Content is graded from Low Quality to Highest Quality on a sliding scale. Sites with the highest quality scores are cataloged as the most reputable websites on the Internet. The depth in which a webpage or article covers a subject, the more rank it will receive.
Google will lower rank for sites not presenting new, useful and/or unique content to the web. They state that websites publishing “thin” content, as seen with affiliate networks, are likely to suffer in Google’s Search rankings.
Supplementary Content (SC)
Google has stated that High Quality pages have helpful content that contributes to a good user experience. It is content that does not directly contribute to the webpage’s purpose, however it increases the quality of the page because it enhances the user experience in some way.
Google examples of Supplementary Content include:
- Navigation links, allowing visitors to easily navigate to other parts of the website.
- A ‘related videos’ section on a video webpage.
- A “Related Products” section on an e-commerce site.
Google gives more SEO mojo to recently published or updated web pages. The shelf-life of webpage content varies, however a page will drift downward in rank over time. On competitive subjects or time sensitive topics, a web page tends to show a noticeable drop in rank at year five (when compared to its first 12 months from date of publication).
Scale of Content Updates and Frequency of Updates
Performing periodic updates to existing pages helps with Search rank. The amount and significance of updating creates a new freshness score from Google. The more meaningful the updating, the larger the freshness grade. For example, Google will consider a small typo edit on a webpage less notable than a page that has several sections rewritten.
Web pages that are updated more frequently will receive a larger freshness score from Google. Pages that are updated once every 3 years will receive a lower freshness score than one that’s updated every 6 months.
Age of Web Page
Although Google looks for new content, an older page with regular updates may receive a higher SEO rank score than a younger web page.
Webpage Word Count
The more comprehensive the writing is on a particular topic the more likely it will achieve top rank in the search results. Although Google’s John Mueller has stated word count is not a ranking factor, researchers have found lengthy write-ups (with an average of 1,800 words) are more likely to reach the top 3 positions in the SERPs than shorter webpages.
We recommend a minimum of 250 words for a webpage, and a minimum of 800 words to for 1st page ranking on moderately and very competitive topics.
Image Optimization for Web
Images optimized for SEO can account for up to 30% of all referrals from search engines. Google says,
“By adding more context around images, results can become much more useful, which can lead to higher quality traffic to your site.”
“To boost your content’s visibility in Google Images, focus on the user by providing a great user experience: make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.”
Google suggests focus on image titles and descriptions, including captions, make written copy near image in context with image subject, use images within structured data, optimize for speed, use high quality photos, and make file names and alt text descriptive.
Some methods of hiding content (i.e., making text the same color as the background, placing text outside viewable areas, etc…) has been considered a spam tactic for some time. Performing such tactics is likely to ruin SEO efforts.
On the other hand, Google considers hidden content within presentation areas (such as tabs, sliders, drop-downs, flip cards or accordions) as legitimate. However, Google also says such content will be considered secondary and won’t carry as much weight for rank as content that’s not hidden.
Title Tag with Keywords
Title tags are a major factor in helping search engines learn about a page. Title tags are used in three key places; 1.) search engine results, 2.) web browsers, and 3.) social networks. The title tag determines a webpage’s display title on the Search Engine Results Page. Even if a web page has great content, the title tag can be the determining factor if a searcher will click on the search results link.
Although there is no exact character limit for titles, Google normally displays the first 50-60 characters of a title tag.
Keyword at or near the Beginning of a Title Tag
According to SEO research, the closer the keyword is to the beginning of the title tag the more impact it has on ranking.
H1 Tag with Keywords
The H1 tag is often referred to as the on-page title (or the “Second Title Tag”). The copy for the tag should be viewed close to the top of the webpage, normally just beneath the page header/main menu but above the primary body of the written content. It is best practice to use one H1 per webpage. The H1 and Title HTML tags are two of the most influential factors for SEO rank on individual webpages. Publishing more than one H1 on a webpage is likely to reduce effectiveness. In WordPress’ backend editor, text copy placed in the field titled “Add title” is commonly used as the webpage’s H1 (based on the theme set up). A lack of keywords in a H1 tag limits the SEO strength of webpage.
Organized Posts and Pages with Headings & Subheadings
Readers understand (and in many cases, rely on) written text that’s structured with headings and sub-headings. Many studies have revealed most website visitors skim a webpage (or post), seeking specific content they’re researching for, before actually reading a webpage in its entirety. In acknowledgement of this behavior, the Google algorithm is instructed to provide more SEO mojo to pages with properly incorporated headings and subheadings. For search engines to readily recognize text structure on a webpage, headings should employ the <h1> through <h6> HTML tags. Here are the basics on text headings.
At one time, SEO experts recommended that having a 1.7-2.5% keyword saturation rate (or keyword density) on a webpage was ‘Best Practice’. Things have changed. Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology used by search engines has evolved to a point that focused keyword repetition is truly unnecessary, and could be counter-productive. Although adhering to a prescribed saturation rate is outmoded, the use of keywords within headings, subheadings and paragraphs continues to be important.
Although you may appreciate a well-written article or web page, the engineers behind search engines have mixed feelings about using grammar as a rank factor for their search results. Bing says they include it as a rank factor, while Google says it does not.
Duane Forrester (Product Manager of Bing) on its Grammar signal,
This might all seem a bit “down in the weeds”, but just as you’re judging others’ writing, so the engines judge yours. If you struggle to get past typos, why would an engine show a page of content with errors higher in the rankings when other pages of error free content exist to serve the searcher? Like it or not, we’re judged by the quality of the results we show. So we are constantly watching the quality of the content we see.
Matt Cutts (from Google) has two comments about using grammar as a quality signal for rank.
Matt Cutts on why Google doesn’t use grammar as a ranking factor…
Matt’s advice for webmasters on managing grammar in the comments area of a website…
Bottom line, it is wise to pay attention to grammar in a website. Although Google may not use grammar as a ranking factor, Bing does. Google also noted that well-written prose tends to rise to the top through offsite references by its readers (linkbacks and publication citations).
Continuous SEO linking studies show a positive correlation between outbound off-site links to higher authority sites and improved SEO. In the following video, Cyrus Shepard, founder of Zyppy.com (and former Web Strategist at Moz.com), shares the two primary strategies of outbound linking for SEO purposes.
Internal links are hyperlinks that point to web pages on the same Domain. The number of internal links on a website suggests to Google the importance of specific pages. The more internal links to a page increases that page’s importance; and a higher rank is given for that page.
Associated Entity with Search Query
When searchers look for an entity (business, non-profit, association, etc.,…) Google attempts to serve the correct entity in the search results.
Web Page Load Times
Google has stated that the time for a web page to load — known as Page Speed — does affect Search rank. Google uses their PageSpeed Insights tool to measure and grade page speeds. This tool uses both model based analysis and real world data (if a website has enough traffic) for grading websites and web pages.
Hidden Content on a Webpage may be Ignored by Google
Google has said hidden content on a webpage will be ignored for indexing and ranking in their Search engine. Ignored content would include content in on-page tabs, accordions and sliders. If you want your content to show up in a Google search, the content needs to be visible on a page without the need for a visitor to click on an element.
How the mobile version of your website affects Rank.
In 2015, Google incorporated an algorithm into Search referred to as “Mobilegeddon“. This algorithm is designed to give mobile-friendly websites an extra boost in rank on the SERP.