The benefits are obvious: free, passive traffic to your website, month after month.
But how do you optimize your content for SEO, and what “ranking factors” actually matter?
To answer that, we first need to understand how search engines work.
Search engines are like libraries for the digital age.
Instead of storing copies of books, they store copies of web pages.
When you type a query into a search engine, it looks through all the pages in its index and tries to return the most relevant results.
To do this, it uses a computer program called an algorithm.
Nobody knows exactly how these algorithms work, but we do have clues, at least from Google.
Here’s what they say on their “How search works” page:
To give you the most useful information, Search algorithms look at many factors, including the words of your query, relevance and usability of pages, expertise of sources and your location and settings. The weight applied to each factor varies depending on the nature of your query – for example, the freshness of the content plays a bigger role in answering queries about current news topics than it does about dictionary definitions.
Speaking of Google, this is the search engine most of us use—at least for web searches. That’s because it has the most reliable algorithm by far.
That said, there are tons of other search engines you can optimize for.
Learn more about this in our guide to how search engines work.
In simple terms, SEO works by demonstrating to search engines that your content is the best result for the topic at hand.
This is because all search engines have the same goal: To show the best, most relevant results to their users.
Precisely how you do this depends on the search engine you’re optimizing for.
If you want more organic traffic to your web pages, then you need to understand and cater to Google’s algorithm. If you want more video views, then it’s all about YouTube’s algorithm.
Since each search engine has a different ranking algorithm, it’d be impossible to cover them all in this guide.
So, going forward, we’ll focus on how to rank in the biggest search engine of them all: Google.
Google has a market share of ~92%. That’s why it pays to optimize your website for Google instead of Bing, DuckDuckGo, or any other web search engine.
Google famously uses more than 200 ranking factors.
There was even talk way back in 2010 that there could be up to 10,000.
Nobody knows what all of these ranking factors are, but we do know some of them.
How? Because Google told us, and many people—including us—have studied the correlations between various factors and Google rankings.
We’ll discuss some of those shortly. But first, an important point:
Google ranks web pages, not web sites.
Just because your business makes stained glass windows doesn’t mean that every page on your site should rank for the query, “stained glass windows.”
You can rank for different keywords and topics with different pages.
Now let’s talk about some of the things that affect rankings and search engine visibility.
Before Google can even consider ranking your content, it first needs to know that it exists.
Google uses several ways to discover new content on the web, but the primary method is crawling. To put it simply, crawling is where Google follows links on the pages they already know about to those they haven’t seen before.
To do this, they use a computer program called a spider.
Let’s say that your homepage has a backlink from a website that’s already in Google’s index.
Next time they crawl that site, they’ll follow that link to discover your website’s homepage and likely add it to their index.
From there, they’ll crawl the links on your homepage to find other pages on your site.
That said, some things can block Google’s crawlers:
- Poor internal linking: Google relies on internal links to crawl all the pages on your site. Pages without internal links often won’t get crawled.
- Nofollowed internal links: Internal links with nofollow tags won’t get crawled by Google.
- Noindexed pages: You can exclude pages from Google’s index using a noindex meta tag or HTTP header. If other pages on your site only have internal links from noindexed pages, there’s a chance that Google won’t find them.
- Blocks in robots.txt: Robots.txt is a text file that tells Google where it can and can’t go on your website. If pages are blocked here, it won’t crawl them.
If you’re concerned about any of these issues on your site, consider running an SEO audit with a tool like Ahrefs Site Audit.
63% of Google searches come from mobile devices, and that number is growing every year.
Given that statistic, it probably comes as no surprise that in 2016, Google announced a ranking boost for mobile-friendly websites in its mobile search results.
Google also shifted to mobile-first indexing in 2018, meaning that they now use the mobile version of your page for indexing and ranking.
But here’s an even more critical statistic from Adobe:
Nearly 8 in 10 of consumers would stop engaging with content that doesn’t display well on their device
In other words, most people will likely hit the back button when a desktop version of a site loads on mobile.
That’s important because Google wants to keep its users satisfied. Pages that aren’t optimized for mobile lead to dissatisfaction. And even if you do rank and win the click, most people won’t stick around to consume your content.
You can check if your web pages are mobile-friendly with Google’s mobile-friendly testing tool.
If they aren’t, hire a developer to fix them.
Pagespeed is how fast your page loads. It’s a ranking factor on desktop and mobile.
Why? Once again, Google wants to keep its users satisfied. If their users are clicking on search results that take too long to load, that leads to dissatisfaction.
To check the speed of your web pages, use Google’s Pagespeed Insights tool.
Alternatively, use Ahrefs Site Audit to check for slow-loading pages across your site.
Just head to the “Performance” report and look for the “Slow page” warning.
Finding a keyword or keywords that you want to rank for is easy. Just paste a topic into a keyword research tool like Ahrefs Keywords Explorer, then look for relevant keyword ideas with search volume.