Your Guide to Google’s Algorithm in 2017: All Ranking Factors, Updates & Changes
UPDATE June 2020: Here is our most up-to-date list of the Google algorithm ranking factors.
Google’s algorithm underwent some changes in the last few years, most of them relatively minor compared to the towering importance of the old mainstays of SEO: links, meta titles, and thought leadership content. Using data & analysis from the huge number of Google Analytics accounts we study daily, First Page Sage brings to you a list of the most important ranking factors in Google’s algorithm in 2017.
Explanation of The Google Algorithm Ranking Factors
Inbound links have been the primary currency Google uses to determine its level of trust for a website since the search engine established itself in 1998. The weight of links in Google’s algorithm hasn’t changed much compared to last year, but since 2010 or so, the naturalness of those links is what really matters. By “naturalness” we mean the degree to which that link occurred without your influence. Links that are paid for, traded for, or added by your company (as in the case of social media or Wikipedia pages) do not count in Google’s algorithm – and of course, there is a penalty for attempting to influence Google’s algorithm with links.
Consistent output of thought leadership content
There is probably no subject we write about as frequently as the importance of publishing excellent quality posts weekly. That’s partially because ghostwriting best-in-class content is what our company does for a living. But it’s also because people don’t seem to fully get it. Many people think content marketing – the regular publication of reasonably good content on a blog – is all you need to rank. In fact, content marketing is useless more times than not. But creating the best piece of content on the Internet about a given subject, and doing so with regularity – a process known as thought leadership – is the most valuable online marketing strategy we know of. Google feels the same way; it eats up excellent content within hours of the time it is published, rewarding the businesses that post it.
Keyword-rich meta titles
If links and thought leadership content tell Google that it ought to trust your site enough to send traffic to it, meta titles take that crucial next step of telling them what kind of traffic to send. Simply put, the words you place in the meta title of each page on your website need to be the same words that people who buy what you sell would search. For example, if you own an Accounting Firm and one of your services is IPO Assistance, you would want the title tag of the page that describes that service to encompass all the things a potential client looking for IPO Assistance might search, e.g. “Experienced IPO Assistance, Consulting & Advisory Services” (Of course, it must stay under 80 characters.) For a more detailed description of meta title tags and how to use them check out our tutorial.
Mobile-friendliness / responsiveness
In 2015, Google elevated the importance of websites being “responsive,” i.e. easily viewed on a mobile phone or tablet. With people using their phones as web browsers more than they use their computers, Google felt that it made sense to reward websites that are easier for mobile users to browse and punish websites that require endless pinching and zooming. All websites should now be on the “responsive grid.” (In our web design department, the idea of a website being responsive is a given at this point, as it should be for every web designer.)
Highly specific landing pages
Google has always rewarded websites that respond to the exact query a searcher inputted. If someone types “red 2017 corvettes” into Google, the search engine would prefer not to return a page about just corvettes, or just 2017 corvettes, or just red corvettes. What it’s looking to return to a searcher is a page about 2017-model Corvettes that are the color red. If you sell red 2017 corvettes but don’t have a page dedicated specifically to this exact search term, you will likely rank lower than a site that does. Of course, it’s impossible to have a page for every combination and permutation of words someone might search; but the closer you get, the better. Specificity is a big deal to Google.
In the same way that Google understandably gives preference to websites that are easier to browse on mobile devices, it also gives preference to websites that load more quickly. That’s why checking your site’s speed is an important part any web design phase, and should also be on the list of things checked every few months for your website. Generally speaking, if pages on your site load in 3.5 seconds or less, you’re fine; every half-second more than that can incur a loss of Google ranking credibility. The importance of site speed in a visitor’s experience has even spurred Google to promote AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages), a way of coding mobile web pages so they load faster.
Clear labeling of information on a page
One of the most sensible, but least talked-about, ranking factors in Google’s algorithm is how clearly information is identified and labeled. Notice how in this article each ranking factor has its own section? That helps Google to understand what subject we’re talking about and gives it the signal to bring users searching for those concepts to this page. Clearly labeling (a) the subjects you’re discussing, (b) the graphics on your page, and (c) descriptive information like names, numbers, and addresses, is something Google really appreciates. Of course, Google’s robots can do the work without your help but they believe that web pages that are organized well serve users better. (And, as a writing company, we tend to agree.)
Clear labeling of the information on a web page is particularly important for Google Local (Google My Business), which relies heavily on finding and verifying local information about businesses. Another reward Google gives websites that contain clear labeling: Snippets – those featured boxes at the top of the Google results pages that highlight the answers to questions.
This slightly-more-obscure element of Google’s algorithm is the “Part 2” of the previous ranking factor, a more official way to label the information on your page. Engineers from the Big 3 search engines – Google, Yahoo, and Bing – invented this tagging system in order to return “smarter” search results. When you see a search result that looks like this
it’s because schema markup was used. Search results like this one are known as “Rich Snippets.” Notice that they are larger and more eye-catching than typical search results. As the red arrow we added indicates, they have more info than the usual title, URL, and description.
If you want to stand out and gain a small boost in search ranking, use Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper to generate schema markup code to add to your site’s pages. Doing so will require you to identify the type of content on each page – Is it an article? A local business review page? An event page? – and then fill out descriptions of each element on the page. For example, in the case of an article, the Structured Data Markup Helper will ask you fill out the article’s name, author, date of publishing, image, publisher, and article rating (if available) on your site.
Keep in mind that Google will usually identify this information on its own if the page is clearly labeled and organized, but using schema markups is like being the good student who makes his teacher’s life easier. If your website is that student, it might find itself with just a teeny bit higher marks.
As best we can tell from our data, in the last 7 years Google has quietly backed away from social media as a ranking factor. While you will still see Twitter results when you search for celebrities’ names, for instance, most social media has no actual impact on search results. Google experimented with the concept of social signals in 2010, even attempting to purchase Facebook to obtain its trove of social data, but when Facebook rebuffed them and their attempt to start their own social network (Google+) failed, Google put the project aside in favor of new and more interesting frontiers like artificial intelligence and natural language search. The exception is YouTube, which is owned by Google – and the reason social signals even make up 3% of the algorithm.
YouTube’s role in Google’s algorithm is confined to searches where Google feels a video result is helpful. For example, if you search “how to tie a tie”, Google knows some people would like a video demonstration, so it includes a video in the search results. The video that appears will undoubtedly have a) a high number of embeds across websites, social media, and e-mail, b) a high number of favorites, and c) a high number of shares. View count and number of likes matter, but far less so than these 3 factors.
Age of Site
Once an important ranking factor because it indicated a business’ legitimacy, site age has decreased in importance substantially since the early 2000s. As Google has gotten more sophisticated in understanding the quality of websites (mainly, by inspecting their number and quality of links and whether they contain thought leadership content), it hasn’t needed to rely on a somewhat random factor like site age as much. But, with 2% share of the algorithm, it’s still a small indicator of a website’s trustworthiness.
Keywords in URLs
Another somewhat antiquated ranking signal is whether the keywords your audience is searching for appear in your URLs. Google cares far more about whether those keywords appear in your meta title tags, but it gives a small credibility boost if the same keywords appear in a page’s URL. For example, an airline price comparison website might have a page with the title tag “Cheap Flights to Orlando, FL.” It would be a good practice to make that page’s URL something like http://example.com/cheap-flights-orlando-fl/.
All other factors
There are many other factors Google includes in its 2017 algorithm, but most of them are negligible unless it is having trouble finding enough search results. You would have to be in an extremely obscure industry for these factors to matter. However, here are a few just for your interest: domain history (whether the site been bought and sold a lot); keywords in h1 tags; user time on site; trustworthiness of outbound links; and truthfulness of claims (for political, health, scientific, and technical sites).
As a final note, this list does not include factors that could get your website demoted or banned from Google’s index. We left those factors out because they’re not positive signals that cause your site to rank higher; rather, they are negative signals that cause your site to rank lower. Also, they are all fairly commonsensical. For example, if your website has poorly written or stolen content; contains a lot of broken links; is affiliated with “bad neighborhood” websites; bombards users with pop-ups; or tricks users into going to pages they didn’t click, it will lose Google’s trust.
If you have any questions about Google’s 2017 algorithm or the data we used to create this list, you can contact us here.