The 8 SEO Ranking Factors That Actually Matter

SEO advice can often be like nutrition advice: Everyone is opinionated, but few people actually point to hard data to back up their assertions. What you can find in both is that a “do or die” tenet actually turns out to not be that big of a deal. Or, something a self-proclaimed expert glosses over turns out to be far more important than anything else they chose to focus on.

So it comes down to sorting the bullmess from the facts, with acknowledgement given to where the edge cases lie. 

We’re here to shovel aside a mountain’s worth of baloney to help you focus on the ranking signals that matter most to your SEO ranking. You can safely make any of these eight ranking factors — and preferably all — a priority when trying to figure out how to improve your website ranking on Google and other search engines.

1. Crawlable Code

We don’t want spider crawling all over our business under normal circumstances, but Google’s metaphorical spiders are the exception. More formally called “search engine index programs,” these AI-controlled bots need to scan your site’s code in order for it to be indexed and capable of appearing on Google.

Making your website more “crawlable” (now there’s a creepy word!) involves a few dozen HTML programming best practices. The most important are:

  • Have a working robots.txt file

  • Create a sitemap (preferably .xml)

  • Ensure you don’t have specific tags or markup preventing indexing (most commonly noindex tags)

  • Fix broken links and server errors

You can use Google Search Console to scan your website and ensure that it has everything you need to get it indexed and help it rank.

2. Site Hierarchy

If your website has more than a handful of pages, you’ll want to pay very close attention to how they’re organized. Proper site structure not only makes your site easier to navigate, it also informs search engine crawlers of what’s most important and what’s most relevant to certain keywords.

For instance, if you’re a beauty products business that wants to rank for “bath bombs,” then you don’t want to stick your list of bath bombs under an “other” or “gifts” category. You’d ideally give them their own page and place them logically under a parent page for bath or hygiene products. This structure lets Google and your audience find the page more easily while communicating that the product is important enough to your business that it deserves its own page.

Don’t take this advice to mean that you need a million pages or a super-rigid site structure, though. Prioritize what you want to rank, and focus on making navigation intuitive for human beings to make life easier on the search engine robots at the same time.

3. Keyword Emphasis in Domain URL and Title Tags

Don’t forget your title tags! These show up on the tab in your browser to let you know which page is which when you have multiple tabs open. More importantly, at least to search engines, is that these tags also act as the header search users will see when deciding what to click upon.

A well-written title tag not only encourages click-through (more on that in a bit), it also helps Google’s AI decide which site to rank first when there’s a roughly even match.

Having a keyword right there in your domain can help, too, but don’t make a gimmick out of it. If you’re a law firm in Florida, then “” can make sense from an audience perspective, but “” makes less sense unless you happen to be a lead generation site rather than a law firm.

Of course, you may also want to consider using your company name in your URL. But if your brand isn’t well-known or your company name is hard to spell (guilty!), using a URL with a keyword is a great alternative.

4. Site Speed, Security and Mobile Friendliness

Nope! We’re still not onto content, yet. While well-written content is critical for your website, you can’t even hope to rank unless you meet the bare-minimum expectations for site usability.

In brief:

5. Competent Content

You definitely want your content to be above-average quality, but the first priority is to make it free from common spelling errors, grammar mistakes, or other issues that dramatically hurt readability. 

Organize your content logically using headers, and break up large blocks of text into smaller paragraphs, preferably punctuated with lists, images, or other forms of graphics to prevent monotony. 

Even if they’re just silly gifs

Go beyond these minimums by using high-quality content that abides by Google’s EAT standards, which stand for:

  • Expertise: Write content that’s within your wheelhouse as a business, professional, or engaged hobbyist. Google wants to rank content that is relevant to the domain’s overall specialization or its community interests.

  • Authority: Build your audience with credible content that doesn’t attempt to deceive or use “clickbait” tactics. Appeal to studies, statistics, and quotes from subject matter experts to back up that your assertions are accurate, when possible.

  • Trust: Trust comes from technical elements like having SSL certificates as well as trust signals, such as shares, positive reviews, and regular content updates. Trust goes down when you keyword stuff, make unwanted redirects, or trigger high bounce rates.

6. Audience Signals (Keep Them Reading and Sharing)

Finally, we’re onto metrics you can actively measure! If you can meet the low bar set by all of the above requirements, Google will then attempt to rank you against your peers according to a number of metrics. These metrics tend to indicate that audiences like the content they read and would recommend it to others.

The first measure of audience engagement is your click-through rate (CTR). It measures the ratio of people who see your domain listed on the SERP (search engine results page) compared to how many people clicked on it.

Your bounce rate complements your CTR by telling Google how many people clicked and actually read the content in full. A high bounce rate sends negative signals, while a low bounce rate coupled with a high CTR encourages up-ranking. Generally, a good bounce rate is around 50%, but that really depends on the type of website you run.

Monitor your CTR and bounce rate to get an indication of whether your title tag and meta entice clicks from the SERP and whether your audience enjoyed what they got once they clicked. 

Shares via Facebook and Twitter act as backlinks and positive EAT indicators, so make sure to implement widgets that make sharing super easy, and monitor your share rates to optimize your content strategy over time.

7. Backlinks

Your backlink profile determines who is linking to your site, both in terms of quality and quantity. Earning links from established domains with high EAT scores and high traffic offers the biggest boost in terms of SEO rankability.

In fact, improving your backlink profile might be the single most-effective way to help your website climb the ranks while boosting the visibility of each new piece of content you produce. 

So why didn’t we mention it first? Mind your business, that’s why!

Really, though, it’s because we want to emphasize again that you have to meet the minimum level of competence before you can benefit from strategies like earning backlinks. If you somehow get shares from sites with huge traffic and authority, but your pages are a mess, your content’s weak, and your audience sends strong dislike signals, then you won’t benefit from the link boost.

8. Keyword Optimization

We consider keyword usage dead last in the “most important ranking signals” heap. Having a sensible keyword strategy is, of course, critically important for improving rank, but Google and other search engines won’t excuse quality issues no matter how well you implement keywords in your content.

Explaining the best strategy for keyword optimization would best be served by its own post — which we’ll do soon! — but to summarize:

  • Research keywords by looking to your own Search Console reports for referring domains from search engine queries

  • Aim for natural use of keywords in your text that make sense grammatically

  • Use your target keyword with the highest frequency, but complement it with semantically related keywords to reach out to long tail search queries

  • Vary your internal link anchor text so it’s not always a verbatim keyword match, again to appease long tail queries

  • Don’t sacrifice anything recommended in the above sections for the sake of jamming in a few extra keywords; Google will notice, and your audience will be unhappy

Get Some Help Monitoring Ranking Signals and Optimizing from a Professional SEO Company in Atlanta

Managing all of the above ranking factors while producing a steady stream of fresh content can be tough, even for the most well-staffed business. 

Sometimes it can pay off to enlist the help of seasoned experts who know how to tweak your site to make it easier to crawl while helping you earn shares, backlinks, and other positive signals that help your website rank higher, faster.

Find out what you could be achieving when you contact us today to learn about our professional SEO and content writing services in Atlanta. Heck, we’ll even throw in a free blog!

If you have any questions, comments, or cantankerous complaints about any of the above recommendations or anything on the site, really, reach out to us in the comments. Good luck!