Understanding the Core Search Engine Ranking Factors

By Josh Koop •  Updated: 12/26/20 •  22 min read

When you are starting to begin your blogging life you will maybe know a little bit about writing posts and that they will “hopefully” show up in the SERPs like Google, Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo.

Learning and understanding the primary ranking factors for a website can help you have the best experience possible by helping create content which also ranks fast and effectively moving up onto page one due to your knowledge and ability to utilize that knowledge.

What Is “Ranking” in SEO?

Ranking is the process of your content being placed into an index and having its quality of content measured against the current competition. Usually with the goal being to have produced the best content on the internet as your volume of clicks from Organic searches increases dramatically the higher your content is placed on the SERP.

How to Monitor Search Engine Rankings

When you want to track your website progress in the rankings you can choose multiple methods to look at the current ranking manually or you can sign up for services which can help you track rankings based off your primary keyword of choice.

Below are some solid options which can allow you to track your keyword performance on your website.

Please note the links are affiliate links and I can make a commission from the purchase of any service below at no additional cost to you!

Software or PlatformPrice / Month# KeywordsAdditional
Keyword Tools?
Google Search ConsoleFreeInfiniteNoLink
Authority Labs$49250NoLink
SEMrush$99 .95500YesLink
Keyword Tracking Software

As you can see there is a wide range of options available to you to track your keywords and to have an automated system tell you the position. Some tools though can provide additional benefits like searching for keywords or evaluating your competitors websites in addition.

What Does Google Look for in SEO?

Google has hundreds of ranking factors which are evaluated in the placement of content online and they don’t publicly state any of the factors. Factors which are covered by the SEO companies online are more educated guesses based on testing done against the ranking engines.

Google is always looking to manage and fulfill search intent while attempting to keep people on their platform as long as possible to give the chance to serve ads and to generate income from providing their “free” service to the world.

Showing Google search rankings for the term analytics. Search Engine Ranking Factors
The SERP Factors are KEY to Ranking

How Do Google Search Rankings Work?

When you post your content Google will start the ranking process based off the signals it knows from your website. If you are a new site this can be beneficial or cause you to lag (the sandbox effect) which Google didn’t admit to but said it does “estimate” initial signals.

This then starts the “Google Dance” period which can last months to a year+ of the possibility of your post being high ranked one day then on page 10 the next while they test and evaluate the content with the searchers.

This can make watching new posts irritating and I would suggest not to spend too much time and effort in any of these “initial” ranks and instead continue to focus on generating the best content you are able to.

What is On-Page SEO and Off-Page SEO?

On-page SEO is the skill and practice of optimizing your individual web posts and pages in order to facilitate ranking higher to earn more relevant and beneficial traffic from search engines. The On-page refers to both the content and HTML source code of a page that can be optimized, as opposed to off-page SEO which refers to links and other external signals.

Your Off-Page SEO refers to the ranking factors that happen off of your website, things like backlinks from other sites. Off-Page will also include your site promotional methods, taking into account the amount of exposure something gets on social media and similar.

Top 10 Current Ranking Factors for Google

To me the following 10 ranking factors are something we can control as a blogger as to helping our sites rank more reliably. Each of these are a controllable factor from your side and will help you to learn and rank your content with much more regularity and reliability.

Each of these is something you can work out and manage on your side without some magical assistance from an outside party.

Though much of the speed can definitely be dictated by your hosting and their performance, you can help it by limiting poor plugins and themes.

Secure and Accessible Website

The first thing you should do is lock in the SSL certificate for your site, ensure that your robots.txt file isn’t blocking any important robots from the search engines and then provide those search crawlers a good sitemap to allow them to fast and efficiently scan your website.

Enable and Force SSL

While a secure website isn’t a “requirement” for Google and other search engines it does signal very loudly to your user that your site may not be very trustworthy.

That anything they click on may be trackable by other people and this can worry and send people back off your site.

I highly suggest that you ensure and force your host to help properly make sure your site is properly setup with an SSL certificate to stop you from running additional useless plugins like Really Simple SSL which adds in some additional load time due to forcing SSL at the site level.

See our quality hosting options below

Managing Your Robots.txt

You want to ensure you understand all rules being applied within your robots.txt file as these control the ability of spiders to crawl your content and if mis-configured you may have issues with indexing or may never even be seen by specific crawlers.

This can be used to your benefit though to add on crawlers from known spammers which would then help block them from being able to crawl your content.

I see this mostly done with people blocking ahrefs specifically from scanning their site due to people utilizing the tool to backwards engineer your website.

Building a Clean and Simple Sitemap

Your sitemap is a document read in by the crawlers telling it your site layout and breakdown, you want to ensure it is clean and easy to read and for the crawler to process as each site is given a “crawl budget” and if you surpass this number you won’t have everything read.

Now this budget isn’t something any 100 or even 400 post site will probably reach but with the intention of building authority based sites you want to ensure you lay the groundwork now to ensure at the bigger levels you don’t have to fix issues you bypassed early on.

Page Speed

Google and the world in general is much more focused on the load speed of your website which can dictate whether your site is liked or whether a user bounces.

A pogo stick from a user signals Google that your page wasn’t right for the search query and is ranked incorrectly for the search phrase.

This loading speed is fully within your control and it is shown that you want the load time to be under 3 seconds.

Many people in the industry will say that load times over 1 second can be detrimental as you see a fast drop in users who stay on site for each second of load required.

Mobile Search Optimization

Since Google has implemented a “Mobile First” approach to scanning and crawling websites you will want to ensure you are fully optimized for a mobile based crawl.

This means less JQuery and other JavaScript which is actually scanned at a later time and not in real time while the bot is crawling your site.

Quality Hosting Options

There are many hosts available online and there will be people who tell you that each is the best, the honest truth is between the 30k hosts below there is very little difference between them.

I personally host sites on Bluehost and once they reach 20-30k pageviews I migrate them to WPX Hosting but that is due to WPX managing the entire migration for me.

Please note the links are affiliate links and I can make a commission from the purchase of any service below at no additional cost to you!

Hosting PlatformMax Site
WPX HostingUnlimitedYesLink
Hosting Options Based on Cost and Ease

All good hosting should provide the ability to get an SSL certificate immediately without you paying for anything to setup or configure this.

Mobile Friendliness

Long gone are the days of your website looking fantastic and performing well on a desktop, slowly over the last decade mobile has become more and more prevalent in the overall scheme of website search results.

More now than ever you want your site to be amazingly able to perform on the many mobile platforms and browsers, this can make or break you as Google uses a mobile first site crawler so if you perform poorly it can directly impact you and your site.

Managing Website Look and Feel on Mobile

You want to ensure your website loads fast and is fully functional to your mobile audience, this means that buttons and features load in a way that a mobile browser can present them and allow users to properly interact with them.

The more your site can operate similarly to an app on the users phone the longer your retention and the better CTR rate and less bounce rate you will see on your page and posts.

Domain Age, URL, and Authority

The longer your website has existed the more trust Google has in the content and the sources as there is billions of websites created each year and almost all will shut down within a short period of time.

This aging factor plays into the sandbox period in my eyes as Google doesn’t want to give a new website much credit with no track record of it being helpful to the users they serve.

Longer Aged Domains and Web Site Age Improve Rankings

The longer your website has existed the more benefits you will see, when a website with a ten year history posts it may go right to page one without bouncing around as much due to domain age and website age.

This has led to the formation of groups and individuals who purchase domains and sites which are aged but without much content as they can shoot content out fast which will help them jump rankings quicker and start making profits.

What About Domain Authority?

Lets get it right, most people don’t understand that Domain Authority doesn’t exist in Google. It is a construct of trying to recreate the Google ranking algorithm in reverse, to provide some kind of yardstick as to how you would expect a website to rank.

Obviously this isn’t a bad thing but many seem to be confused that the DA of a website comes from Google themselves and I wanted it to be very clear that this is not the case.

Understanding how DA works though can help you as a site with a high DA score means they have many backlinks in most cases which helps them rank their content above yours even while you may have better or longer content.

Optimized Content

The biggest thing you can learn as a blogger or affiliate marketer is how to best optimize your site content to perform within the search engines.

This can take some times, along with many bumps and bruises to get right but I promise you will learn it if you stick with it and don’t quit.

Understanding LSI Keywords and SEO Ranking

Google and other search engines have been increasing their ability to understand semantic words and phrases, closely tied words related to the primary keyword.

You can use this to your benefit as the old method of slamming in keywords most definitely will NOT help you rank, but if you were to include a couple of semantic phrases alongside it may help you rank better plus help you hit on additional search queries also!

Understanding Search Intent for Content Optimization

This is making sure when you see the search results in the SERPs that you can gather what the intent of the searcher is.

For example, if they are looking to make a purchase and you only make a post related to learning they will not click and definitely will not be making a purchase through you.

You need to stop thinking like a blogger here and instead really think as though you are the person making the search query, really dive into the search and ask yourself what would get you there and what would I be wanting from this search.

Is Content Length an SEO Ranking Factor?

No. Well not really, what you are instead getting when you create more high quality content in length is the ability for the search engines to rank you for far more search terms than the one you specifically target.

Just adding words to make the content longer, or “fluffing” the content up, tends to actually do worse in Google as your readers can see it and understand that you have ran through the real info.

This can lead to bouncing and obviously this signal tells Google that you are ranked too high and your ranks then start to falter.

Keep your content highly on point to the topic at hand, while it may seem useful to drop into why your grandma said “SEO will never help you” isn’t something your users in almost all cases are looking for, help them and help yourself.

For many this may be a duh statement but your goal is to take the first place in the SERP as the drop off in clicks per position is quite drastic. This means that first place area is immensely valuable to you to make clicks and to increase conversions.

The awesome part about the featured snippet is that you can capture it without even being listed on the first page, what it requires is having the best answer possible for the given question.

This would result in you leap frogging the people ahead and giving you Position 1, this gives you a punchers chance against ALL competition to take this place and gain the traffic possible in that first place.

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Engaging Video to Improve SEO Ranking

When at all possible add video into your posts, if you haven’t made a video yourself on the topic for any reason then find a YouTube video from someone who covers the topic well in a video format.

This helps you to get that additional click to start the video playing along with the time on page but equally helps the YouTuber gain more viewers and possible subscribers.

Technical SEO

Many mistake technical SEO for the On-Page SEO and in many cases they do overlap greatly a both do crisscross back and forth.

Technical SEO though is in making sure that the fundamentals of your website are built in a way to ensure quality results from crawlers and that the proper configuration is done to yield results.

Keyword Phrases Within Page Titles

Making sure to place the intended keyword or phrase within the page or post title. This appears to be largely ignored with many bloggers in general and is one thing that is frequently in need of repair when someone hires a SEO consultancy to work over their website to help get results.

Strong Heading Hierarchy

Making sure the website has a quality structure of H1 to H4 heading tags and that they flow below each other as expected.

Many sites may switch these around due to poorly coded themes making them all different sizes and the choose a heading based on the size on screen rather than by the correct heading level.

Example Heading Layout From This Post - Vital Search Engine Ranking Factors
Example Heading Layout From This Post

CTR Focused Meta Title and Description

Many bloggers and affiliate marketers will just post with a generic or worse, no title or meta description which leaves Google to make the decision on the best text to place in these fields.

Technical SEO means crafting a title and meta description with a goal of getting clicks from the searcher and to make income for the client.

Keyword Phrases Within Image Alt Tags

When most bloggers add images to their posts they tend to leave the alt tags empty which is a big no no when you want properly done SEO.

Not only that but the Alt tag is read to any visually impaired users who visit your website, so it needs to be clear and portray the image while also helping you to get ranking with proper keywords.

Utilize Proper Schema Markup

There are many schema options available for a post to help convey to Google what the post contains and how it can use the data within the SERPs.

The most frequently occurring schema implementations are recipes where it shows an image, the instructions, and the ingredients.

Schema markup has greatly increased within SEO plugins like RankMath, Yoast, and a host of others.

Additionally there are tools like SchemaPro which are independent plugins if you don’t use SEO plugins you could add something like this tool to help you build high quality schema for your website.

User Experience (RankBrain)

RankBrain is a core component of Google’s core algorithm that helps to drive the machine learning (the ability of machines to teach themselves from data inputs) to figure out and determine the most relevant search results versus a search engine query. 

Click Through Rate

This is a game changer for most bloggers and affiliate marketers, learning how to get that click from the search engine.

Google can only provide the option to the searcher, they need to feel your content answers their question to get the click from them.

Learning to optimize your Titles and Meta Descriptions can help you to garner more attention from the searcher and pull them in by describing the issue they want the answer for in details that hit them in the heart.

There are a few good videos on building good quality headlines I will link one from Miles Beckler below as it is in a good and easy to digest form without being too long in the tooth.

Bounce Rate

Your bounce rate is the rate of people who come in and read a single post or page and then leave your site, the average for most affiliate and niche bloggers will be between 80-95% as you would be expecting a bounce when they click your link to go make a purchase.

If you grow an audience instead you should start to see this bounce rate diminish as they want to read your content and learn about you, this should lead to more pageviews and a drop in the bounce rate.

Time on Page

Obviously what you want is that users come to your site and spend hours delving through finding posts and reading everything that interests them. This time on page sends Google and other search engines details about the site and how users like or dislike the content.

What happens most the time is people will worry about the time on page in the stats showing 50 seconds and thinking it is too low, but Google can only time user interactions on the website.

If your visitors click to your website and read for 45 minutes down your pillar or skyscraper post you will still get a 0 for time in the Analytics.

Worry less.

The bastard child of website building and definitely hotly argued back and forth as to the need to “build” links. No one will argue the power links still currently have in all search engines to denote “authority” of the content contained within.

The counter argument is that you have no need to build links through paying for them, guest posting, or other means and that they can come quite naturally to your content if you spend the time to build high quality content that is unique and shareable.

These are the cream of the crop that most are working to build, they want to get links to their website from high authority sites which helps to build up your authority in the eyes of the search engines.

The unfortunate side effect is that sometimes people will spend far more time trying to build links to a single page or post than creating the quality content that would get them their without the side work.

These are links you create to other sites for many different needs. It can be to lend credence to your claims or to show that the other site is an authority that you want to share with your audience, or it could be a link outbound that leads to an affiliate program for you to sell a good or service.

These links have evolved over time and there are many tags that Google likes to have applied to them to help them understand whether the link is “sponsored” or paid for, or many other similar tags that just better describe to the crawling bot what the links purpose is on your website.

These are the links you want to spend your time on as they are uniquely fully in your control, you get to choose where and when a link exists and what the linking text contains.

I personally use LinkWhisper which is a plugin and tool to help you find links between your content where relevant and can help as you add posts and pages to not lose track of older content.

Social Signals

These are often overlooked as there is no direct causation proven even with lots of hard work, though the counter is that it is unavoidably true that posts which get popular on social media channels appear to do better in search results.

Maybe this is just due to an increase in the link existing on channels which Google and others may see as a sign of “value”.

Social Networks Provide Site Exposure

The one thing that social media and social signals can give you is a large exposure if you can get someone with many followers to repost or retweet your content you could get hundreds to millions of viewers in a day.

This is why social networks have power and can be used well if you can find the right followers or shared interests.

BERT Update

While many may not list BERT as a ranking factor I have as it turned a lot of keyword search results on their head and it means you can’t just focus on misspellings and other bad language searches for free 1st place rankings.

The BERT algorithm (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) is a deep learning algorithm related to natural language processing (NLP) specifically to help a computer understand human language and context.

BERTs purpose is to help ensure Google can see the phrases the way they should be seen based on the wording used.

Before Google was far more literal and now it is much better at understanding semantics and similar words (I, me, you) and other similar things which previously may have ranked separately and distinctly.

These improvements are oriented around improving language understanding, particularly for more natural language/conversational queries, as BERT is able to help Search better understand the nuance and context of words in Searches and better match those queries with helpful results.

Particularly for longer, more conversational queries, or searches where prepositions like “for” and “to” matter a lot to the meaning, Search will be able to understand the context of the words in your query. You can search in a way that feels natural for you.


To me this signals more of an end to methods like the KGR, or Keyword Golden Ratio, as you no longer can rank for exact wording.

I feel many people who took a big hit when this came out had content targeting many of these phrases where they were put back up against more proper competition and it dropped their ranking appropriately.

Final Thoughts on Search Engine Ranking Factors

If you take the time to build out your posts and pages with a fully thought out process you will be able to manage almost all these primary factors without much issue.

What you need to do the most to be successful is to learn how to find the best keywords and phrases through good search analysis to get your content ranking.

The process seems uniquely simple but is quite complex and people who have been doing this for a decade can still pick poorly.

Just keep going and don’t quit, most people who blog quit just before their site would start to take off and this is just incredibly saddening as you are missing out on the freedom it can give you!

Josh Koop