Friday, October 7, 2016

Google's Top Three Ranking Factors: Links, Content, and RankBrain

In Google's recent Penguin algorithm update announcement, the search engine referred to its ranking factors as "200 unique signals or 'clues' that make it possible to surface what you might be looking for."

These "signals" have long been a rich source of speculation for SEO experts, yet we still have no precise view of the ranking factors. Even the top result for "Google ranking factors," Backlinko's "complete list" of 200 ranking factors admits: "Some are proven. Some are controversial. Others are SEO nerd speculation."

The most important ranking factors are self evident. In the recent announcement, Google stated, for example, "These signals include things like the specific words that appear on websites, the freshness of content, your region and PageRank."

So keywords, updated content, local SEO, and authority: SEO experts have long celebrated these crucially important factors.

It's the 196 or so other factors that lead to "nerd speculation." And really, that's all it is, speculation, of relatively little importance. We might never know the majority of the 200 ranking factors. Thankfully, we know the most important.

In 2015, in fact, Google confirmed that RankBrain was the "third most important factor."

Last year, Google confirmed the top two. As Search Engine Land reported at the time, "In a Q&A with Google, Andrey Lipattsev, a Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google, said the other two factors were links and content."

"I can tell you what they are," Lippattsev said. "It is content. And it’s links pointing to your site."

What of the 197 or so other factors? Who knows, for sure? Any successful optimization campaign, should start (and continue) with special attention to the top three.

Below we discuss each factor in detail.

Google's Top Three Ranking Factors: Links, Content, and RankBrain [Photo Source]
Quality Inbound Links

Google counts incoming links from reputable sites as a primary "clue" to determine the quality of  your content. The more reputable links your content receives, Google believes, the better your site.

In the past, Google's algorithm counted incoming links without focusing on the link's provenance. A website might've attracted an abundance of links, however, from exchanges or from bogus websites.

As we reported last week:

"To Google, a 'good' link is a one-way link: a link that points from one site to another. Before the Penguin algorithm, many sites exchanged links, a practice Google penalized. To avoid penalties, Black Hat webmasters created multiple websites, a hundred or more, all owned by one website, and built to create links to the primary website. Flooded with incoming, one-way links, the primary website leapt in the rankings."

The Penguin algorithm was created, in part, to punish these link schemes. Now that Penguin is "real time," the emphasis on quality links may have more immediate consequences--good or bad--for websites.

So how do you attract quality links? Let Google's advice guide you:

"The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it."

In other words, "Don't Just Build Links--Inspire Links!"

Quality Content

You do not need to an SEO expert to know that content dominates the Internet. From listicles to polls to op-eds, we have a seemingly insatiable appetite for all types of content.

The good news, so to speak, is that our appetite requires endless fresh content. The bad news, though, is that the endless appetite for content inspires an equally endless competition.

To compete, you must create "quality" content--or as Rand Fishkin has said, "10x content."

How do you create quality content? Again, Google's advice is helpful: Create content that is "high quality" and "engaging" as well as "useful and informative," yet also "more valuable and useful than other sites." You must also display a certain level of " using original research, citations, links, reviews and testimonials."

The Organic SEO Blog is devoted, in part, to exploring the nature of quality content. We have written extensively on how to write and share quality content.

Remember, despite the abundance of content on the Internet, your personal content strategy should always focus on Quality above Quantity.


In a way, RankBrain, Google's new "machine learning" system, which uses artificial intelligence to sort queries, is an algorithm itself. However, right now RankBrain does not sort every search, and is merely a part of Google's core algorithm, Hummingbird.

The intent of RankBrain is to take Google's 3.5 billion daily searches and learn from each by noting connections between the search and where the browser finally clicks.

In the past, all of Google's "learning" has been performed by coders, which creates inherent bias: "We end to think about algorithms as neutral," we wrote on algorithm bias before, "but really, although engineers base algorithms on mathematical principles, most of the judgments about those principles are exactly that--judgments, made by biased humans."

Please Read: "On Algorithm Bias and the Important Work of Organic SEO"

Now that Google uses artificial intelligence, the algorithm should, in theory, choose the most precisely optimized sites pages available for each and every query. Of course, as above, optimization here means "quality"--a hopeful sign for new websites trying to compete. In theory, if you follow Google's advice of how to inspire links and write quality content, your page should get a fighting chance against more established sites.

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If you're looking for an SEO company that understands how to effectively create relevant and engaging content, we suggest contacting our sponsor, Stepman's PC: 215-900-9398 Stepman's PC combines traditional marketing methods and organic SEO--with an emphasis on natural website optimization--to design thoughtful, inspiring, and effective marketing campaigns.

And for more information about how you can optimize your content, read our posts about content.