The three major SEO factors
Google says there are hundreds of “signals” it uses to rank web pages. Specialists in the field break them out into a few categories:
- Technical SEO
- Also called On-Site SEO, technical SEO is the foundation of making a web page. Is it valid? Do all the links work? Is the content semantically marked up in the HTML? Is it mobile-friendly? Accessible to screen readers? If you want to play the SEO game, this is the ante – if you don’t do these, you can’t even sit at the table.
- Also called Off-site SEO (or occasionally Network SEO), backlinks are one of Google’s top three signals. It was Google’s basic innovation that gave it dominance in search – realizing that people link to good content. Unfortunately, it’s also the hardest to influence. 66% of pages don’t have even a single link, and 27% have only three or less. That’s obviously not great.
- Quality and Page Experience
- Also called On-Page SEO, quality and page experience is making a website useful to someone. The content is relevant, informative, trustworthy, and is written by someone with authority on the subject matter. And the site is mobile-friendly, safe and secure, and fast.
Technical SEO: Cover the basics, avoid snake oil
Most technical SEO factors are just good craft in making a website. Some are really important, others are merely nice to have. The dirty secret of SEO consultants is that Google will still up-rank a page with a mediocre experience but great content. (It’s just that most sites don’t have great content.)
The typical “SEO Health Check” audit tool will flag dozens, if not hundreds, of issues. They’re a great way to panic your stakeholders. However, most of the issues reported are irrelevant. SEO people are in the business of trying to reverse engineer Google, and tend to mistake correlation for causation. Thus, you see warning flags for things like “low HTML to text ratio” (which Google does not care about).
So which ones matter? Look at it through Google’s eyes – these seven elements make a good website:
All the pages can be reached by a crawler
The HTML is valid and semantic
All pages are mobile-friendly
No broken links
Images, scripts, and fonts load quickly
Language is set on every page (Google is global, even if your site isn’t)
Every page has a title tag and content type
Common SEO Myths
There are lots of things that don’t matter. These are 10 common myths:
Every page needs a meta description
Keyword density is key
Video boosts rankings just by being present
Facebook shares count as backlinks
Twitter shares count as backlinks
You must have a sitemap.xml (nope)
Page titles are too long (or too short)
Too many parameters in the URL confuses Google
Underscores in URLs are bad
URLs can’t be longer than 200 characters
Backlinks: Your best friend and worst nemesis
Incoming links from other sites remain one of Google’s top three signals. It’s also the hardest to influence, because you can’t make anyone link to you. You have to either hope, or ask.
There are agencies that specialize in “Link outreach” – they’ll try to get successful blogs and news sites to link back to you. To be honest, we’ve never seen great results from this. What seems to work best in the B2B realm is to use your professional social network – Twitter, LinkedIn, and email – to spread the word about your great new blog post.
The dark side of backlinks is that toxic sites may drag down your SEO. Google uses links as votes for website quality, but it also uses where links come from as an indicator of the subject matter and quality of a website. To a certain degree, Google appears to judge you by the company you keep.
The truth is, this isn’t a conclusively proven relationship. But the signs point to it being true, and fixing it is straightforward: You can disavow bad links to Google by uploading a simple file with a list of websites. This tells Google “They may link to me, but they are not related to me.”
Lastly, remember that trust builds trust. It’s good to link out from your site – Google uses your choice of links to help evaluate whether you are acting in your visitors’ best interests. So don’t feel like you risk “losing” people by linking to other great sites.
Quality content and good "Page Experience"
It’s hard for a machine to evaluate how high-quality content is, or how pleasant a web page is to use. They’re just hard to measure! But Google isn’t completely a black box; they tell us what they want. Quality content, and a good experience for visitors.
Quality content displays E-A-T
Google’s internal documentation for page rankers – the humans that evaluate how good machine’s page choices are – is publicly available. There is a lot to it, but for SEO purposes, it breaks down to E-A-T:
And interestingly… these are all about the content author. Google strongly prefers content with an identified author, so that it can evaluate that author’s quality. So if you want content to rank well, then you should indicate the author. It’s preferable to link to well-established pages such as their LinkedIn profile. That helps establish their E-A-T to Google.
SEO’s have identified lots of other correlations with good rankings, such as content length (“long-form content” is the current fad), latent semantic indexing (disproven), use of video (zero effect, says Google), etc. The thing is, these are not causes of good rankings – they are incidental attributes of great content. Writing a thousand words won’t get you ranked. Writing a thousand useful, informative words may. But often, writing a hundred words is even better – despite all the SEO advice to write two-thousand-word blog posts!
Page Experience and Core Web Vitals
Page experience is hard to measure. But Google, with its drive to quantify everything, has found a way. “Page Experience” is a combination of five attributes, all of which are measurable. As explained in our blog on Google’s May 2021 Update, Page Experience is:
Core Web Vitals
No Intrusive Interstitials
We can assume that if your website is at all modern, it covers #2–5. That leaves Core Web Vitals that you need to be concerned with for SEO.
The Core Web Vitals are:
Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)
First Input Delay (FID)
Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)
To check how your site is doing, go to Google Search Console. Click “Page Experience” in the left hand sidebar to view the report, which will look something like this:
As noted in our blog on Google's 2021 May updates, Page Experience is extremely unforgiving. Only 10% of websites will achieve green across the board. So don’t panic – but definitely do get to work making improvements.
As part of our complete guide to conducting digital marketing audit, in the coming weeks we'll be publishing blog posts that detail how to perform digital marketing audits on these five key marketing channels:
- How to perform an SEM audit
- How to perform an SEO audit (this page)
- How to perform a social media audit
- How to perform an email marketing audit
- How to perform a content audit
Be sure to download our SEO Audit checklist and share it with others!