Google’s search algorithm takes into account hundreds of different factors when determining which results to display. It is impossible to know what every one of these factors are; heck, most Google employees themselves don’t know every factor. With that said though, it is important to at least know the most important SEO factors. For years, search marketers could only speculate, but in March of 2016 a Search Quality Senior Strategist from Google Andrey Lipattsev, confirmed what the 3 most important SEO factors are (in no particular order): content, links, and RankBrain. This guide will explain what these 3 factors are and how they should structure your SEO campaigns.
While Google did not outright say that content is the number 1 ranking factor, without any content nobody would link to your site, and therefore it should be your number 1 priority when developing your SEO campaign.
Broadly speaking, ‘content’ just refers to whatever is on your page that provides value for users. For many web pages this simply refers to on-site copy that provides information, advice, etc. For other web pages, the content might be images, videos, or products. Whatever it is, it needs to be of the highest quality possible. Google uses the acronym EAT to help search evaluators judge the main content of a page. EAT stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. If your content has high levels of these 3 elements, the page will rank well. The content should also focus on being helpful for the user, unique, and up-to-date.
On the other hand, Google will deem your content to be low-quality if it does any of the following:
Google is especially critical of ‘Your Money or Your Life Pages’, or YMYL pages. This is because these types of pages can have an impact on, you guessed it, your money or your life. An example of a YM page is any Ecommerce page where you can purchase a product. An example of a YL page is one that contains legal advice. Google demands the highest level of EAT for these types of content.
In order to get your website ranking for your target keywords, you are going to need links pointing back to your website. Search engines see links to your site as votes of confidence. If people are linking to your site, it is probably because they think your site’s content is valuable. Therefore, webpages that have lots of links pointing to them will rank better than pages that don’t have any links pointing to them.
Digital marketers back in the early days of the Internet quickly figured out that they could game this system to improve their keyword rankings. SEOs would set up ‘shell’ websites and link back to their real site. They would also purchase links from other websites, and entire linking networks were set up. Indeed, Private Blog Networks (PBN’s) are still used today to quickly build links back to websites in order to improve keyword rankings.
It’s easy to see the problem with this: if companies can just buy enough links to outrank their competitors for all relevant keywords, they could completely dominate search engines. The biggest companies would be able to dominate and maintain a stranglehold. To combat this, Google began to penalize websites that engaged in this type of behavior. If Google detected spammy and/or unnatural backlinks pointing to your website they could hit your site with a penalty that would cause your keyword rankings to tank and effectively grind the traffic coming to your site to a halt. If you’ve ever heard of Google Penguin, know that it’s an algorithm that specifically looks at a site’s backlink profile and hands out penalties where deemed necessary.
Nowadays the amount of backlinks a website has is less important, but the quality of those backlinks is critical. A link from a trustworthy, high authority site, like a .gov or .edu site is going to improve your rankings more than a link from a directory. Your website also needs to be receiving links from a variety of different domains. A site that has 1000 links from 10 websites looks much more suspicious than a website that has 1000 links from 400 websites. After all, having backlinks from many websites tells search engines that a larger number of people find your content to be valuable.
In short, backlinks are still a hugely important ranking factor for SEO, but you need to be trying to organically acquire links from a variety of highly authoritative websites. Your website will need quality content for this to happen, and in most cases a comprehensive SEO outreach strategy in place to share that content.
RankBrain is the most mysterious of these 3 ranking factors and indeed, some people don’t think RankBrain is really a ranking ‘factor’ at all. However, in a story published by Bloomberg in October 2015, senior research scientist at Google Greg Corrado, stated that RankBrain is “the third-most important signal contributing to the result of a search query.”
But what is RankBrain? RankBrain is Google’s artificial intelligence which uses machine learning to improve search results for users. By processing search queries it is able to learn new words and phrases, add that knowledge to its store of information, and then use it to provide users with better results. This is most relevant for what SEOs call ‘long-tail keywords’, or keywords that consist of 3 or more words. Approximately 15% of search queries entered into Google each day are completely unique, and so RankBrain has to use its learnings to provide satisfactory answers for users.
At least for right now, there’s not too much an SEO can do to improve how RankBrain sees their websites. As always, focus on creating great content for users, drive backlinks to your site, and you will be in good shape.