So you’re Curious How Google Ranks Websites

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Google Website Ranking Factors: Not as Mysterious as you Might Think

Most of us do Google searches every day, and if you are anything like me you do them dozens of times a day.  I don’t consider myself to be more inquisitive than the average bear, but I do find it convenient to have such a large honey pot of information at the touch of my fingertips.  Have you ever wondered how Google decides which websites to rank specific websites and pages for search?  You’re not the only one.  Google did not give me insider information about how they rank websites, but I study search engine optimization (SEO) because I love it and I get paid for it.

What is SEO Marketing for Google Searches?

Google SEO marketing is the practice of improving a website’s ranking for the keywords that the website owner wants it to when they do a search.  In most industries the most important outlet for making money, attracting customers, and selling products is a website. When a business’ website does not rank well for competitive keywords people use to find the goods or services they provide they have a BIG problem. Google has a neat explanation of how search works here, but it is only meant to educate the novice about how a basic search works mechanically. Here’s the lowdown on Google’s biggest ranking factors for websites and the keywords that matter to it,  followed by a brief explanation of each one.

Major Google Ranking Factors

  • Website Quality
  • Popularity
  • Titles, Tags, and Descriptions
  • Freshness
  • Fulfillment of User Needs
  • Quality, Relevance, & Number of Links to Site
  • Social Media Signals

Website Quality

There are many arguments about what makes a website a quality website.  However, the general consensus is that a quality website is user friendly, properly tagged, functional and easy to navigate, easy on the eyes, and owned by a clear and reputable person or establishment.  Quality websites are void of typos, load quickly, and have clean, organized designs and well planned URL structures. Also, they do not have excessive keywords stuffed into their content, nor do they have gluttonous ads pasted all over the page. Put yourself in your buyers or potential clients’ shoes when looking at your website, then make adjustments that satisfy their needs first and foremost. After all, people are searching for answers to questions and needs both known and unanticipated. They pay your bills at the end of the day, so put some effort into the quality of your website’s content; it is the official online face of your business.


A website’s popularity is determined not just by how many times people view it (called page views in Google Analytics), or how many times it shows up in search results (impressions in Google Analytics).  Their popularity is determined by how long people stay on the page when they view it (CTR), and if they engage with the website using a contact form or complete a transaction (conversion).  The number of pages people click through while on your site and how quickly, called click through rate (CTR) is also a factor in determining popularity. The biggest popularity factors of a website are how many times it is clicked on, how many times (quality and relevant) links and mentions of it appear on the Internet, and the diversity and/or authority of individuals and referring sites who engage and interact with the website.

Titles, Tags, and Descriptions

Without getting too technical, I will just say that each page on your website has a title, tags, and a description that shows up in search engines. When people perform a search with keywords that are in these parts of your website, it is likely that they will rank for them (but not guaranteed).  Tags are pretty self explanatory.  Each website and webpage has tags inserted into it that let search engines like Google know what the page is specifically about.  These tags give Google a either a gentle nudge or a detailed description, the latter letting it know that this website should rank when users type in related keywords.

This sounds odd I know, but freshness just means how fresh the content on the website is.  Is it an old blog post from 2005, or is it a website with a new page added and a constantly updated blog.  If a page is updated regularly, it is seen to Google and other search engines as a site that is concerned with giving users what they need.  It shows Google that you care about the content on your website and are constantly striving to make it better and current. It also signals search engines to show your website above others with similar, stale content.

Example of Title Tags Used by Google

Fulfillment of User Needs

User fulfillment has to do with how satisfied customers are when they click on a particular website after finding it in search results.  Does a user find the website useful when they get to it?  For example, if you did a Google search for “Kitchen remodelers in Houston” and the first result you clicked on was a link to a DIY blog written by a novice remodeling guy would it fulfill your request?  No, it wouldn’t.  That’s because 9 times out of ten people who search with those keywords are actually looking for a list of remodeling companies in Houston, or a site with reviews for local remodeling companies.  Websites rank well for keyword terms that fulfill their intentions.  The same could be said for a search of “buy Lady Gaga mp3”.  Although YouTube videos of Lady Gaga performances are somewhat related to the search term, they will not rank as high as sites selling mp3s from this artist.

Links to the Website

The number and quality of links pointing to a website continue to be the strongestAhrefs Link Research ranking signal in several causation case studies conducted by top industry professionals like this one from Moz.  The clickable highlighted text that you find throughout the Internet is called anchor text.  When anchor text such as “Houston home renovation guide” points to a remodeling company website in Houston, it increases the website’s ranking factor for searches using those and other related keywords.   I must issue a caveat with this ranking factor, however; anchor text links need to be from quality websites to help your Google ranking.  Excessive links from low quality sites (spam links) can be detrimental to a website’s ranking.


Exact match anchor text links such as “Houston kitchen remodeling” are a direct and intentional attempt to manipulate search rankings for that very competitive search term in Google’s eyes. So use natural anchor text links,  partial keyword matches are okay but use sparingly and avoid exact matches almost entirely. Links from websites that are completely unrelated the website’s niche or subject matter also offer little to no value.  Beneficial anchor text links are directly related to the popularity of your website and the quality of your website.  Quality websites usually will not link to your page if it does not have quality content that is relevant to their users’ needs. A good back link portfolio should include natural links from articles and contributions on niche-specific websites. The best tools to rack links, competitors, and new or lost links to your website are Raven Tools, Ahrefs, and Google alerts.

Social Media Signals

How do Social Signals Play a Role in SEOSocial media signals are becoming increasingly important to a website’s ranking, especially Google+.  Whether Google+ social signals has a correlational or causal influence on keyword ranking is a hotly debated SEO topic. Search engines do take cues from tweeted links and shared links when determining the popularity of the website, though social media signals are not high on the ranking correlation factor list.  Facebook business pages not only help engage customers, they now help users find out what restaurants, doctors, and stores their friends patronize which can bring your website referral traffic.

When a business’s page is shared, talked about, or liked, the search engines notice and the shared page’s rank and association with the topic is positively affected.  Many people don’t realize that they are even sending social signals to a website when they like a picture of a cute kitten or oblige to share a page for a good cause.  Social signals continue to play a small but significant role in a website’s ranking, especially with the new Hummingbird update. But that’s a subject for another post…

Questions? Comments?

I hope this helped satisfy your curiosity about how Google ranks websites. Please feel free to leave comments and ask questions!
Author: Jennifer Long

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