Many people wonder how Google rankings work. So before we get into the actual search engine ranking factors, let’s get started by answering some of the basic questions most people have about SEO.

What Is “Ranking” in SEO?

As you may know, SEO stands for search engine optimization, which simply means making the web pages more likely to get ranked on a search engine. But let’s be honest: at this point, that really just means Google.

And how exactly does that work? Let’s break it down.

In SEO, ranking refers to your content’s position on the search engine results pages (SERPs). A #1 ranking means that when people search for a particular term, your web page is the first result (apart from promoted results, featured snippets, and answer boxes, which we’ll talk about later in this guide).

Appearing on the first page at all, within the top 10 results, is also useful. That’s because 95% of people never make it past the first page.

Hence the famous joke in the Google SEO world: where’s the best place to hide a dead body?

On page 2 of Google.

What Does Google Look for in SEO?

Google’s stated purpose is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Delivering relevant search results is a huge part of that.

Here’s how they work:

First, Google’s search bots (pieces of automated software called “spiders”) crawl the web. Sounds creepy, we know. But all that means is they visit web pages.

Second, they add correctly optimized and crawlable pages to Google’s index and catalog them.

Third, when people search Google, it shows what it thinks are the most relevant results based on the search terms they enter (out of the trillions of pages in Google’s index).

Google has various and deeply complex algorithms to decide which content gets displayed and in which order. But we’ll get into all that fun stuff later.

Once your page lands on the SERP, though, you have to rely on your page titles and meta descriptions to get searchers to click your link and visit your site.

How Do Google Search Rankings Work?

When people want to find information, they type or say words related to what they’re looking for. Those are called keywords, and we’ll look at those in the content optimization section of this guide.

But keeping your website ranking on Google isn’t just about making the most out of competitive keywords. It’s also about the quality of information.

According to Google’s own search quality ratings, when it indexes the main content of each page, it checks factors like:

  • Purpose of the page
  • Content quality and amount
  • Website info and info about the content creator
  • Website reputation and content creator reputation
  • User interaction with the page (time on page, bounce rates, and so on)
  • Expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (E-A-T)

In just a moment, we’re going to explore that last one (E-A-T) in more detail because it’s become very important.

For now, it’s enough to know that all the factors listed above go into Google’s algorithm and help to determine SEO ranking.

Based on the rating guidelines above, Google shows searchers the most relevant, high-quality results related to what they’re looking for. The most relevant are shown first, with the rest shown over successive pages.

One of the goals of addressing SEO ranking factors is to let Google know when your pages on your site are relevant to particular search queries, so people will click the links and visit your site.

Before getting into two different types of SEO, let’s explore the concept of expertise, authority, and trustworthiness in greater detail.

What Is E-A-T and Why Does It Matter?

Back in August 2018, Google rolled out the “medic update,” which emphasized expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (E-A-T) as major ranking factors. They even changed some instances of “high-quality content” to “high EAT.”

The goal of this change was to ensure that users weren’t just getting the highest quality content but also getting the right information from that content. And this is super important to understand.

Google realized that most searchers come to their platform for just about everything. That means their users’ lives could be seriously impacted for the worse if the wrong results appear.

Websites that could lead to potentially life-altering results fall under the umbrella “your money or your life” (YMYL). Think about medical sites, financial planning sites, or anything that could change the status of someone’s happiness, health, and wealth.

When someone goes to Google for information that could have real-world consequences, Google wants to be sure it’s giving its users the most accurate information possible.

Part of this means evaluating not only a page’s content, but the creator’s reputation as well.

So instead of focusing solely on what a site’s page says, Google now tries to understand who is saying it. This is particularly true for the YMYL sites.

That means looking at each category individually:

  • Expertise: Does the author of a piece of content have the requisite skills and knowledge in their field?
  • Authority: Is this the best source to answer the searcher’s question, or is there another “go-to” person who would be a better source?
  • Trustworthiness: Does the author provide an honest, unbiased presentation of the topic in their content?

But what is Google’s exact formula for measuring E-A-T? Well, that’s the tricky part.

No one outside of Google really knows.

We do, however, know that they have a large team of human searchers to make sure E-A-T is being measured as accurately as possible. As Ahrefs explains, Google measures E-A-T in three steps:

  • Engineers create an algorithm to improve search results
  • Quality Raters (the human searchers) see search results with and without the changes made by the engineers
  • Google takes feedback from the Quality Raters to decide whether or not to use the algorithm change permanently

It’s not a perfect system yet. But it is surprisingly accurate at measuring a site’s expertise, authority, and trustworthiness.

Now, some SEO-ers downplay the importance of E-A-T as a ranking factor. And it’s hard to concretely argue with them because, again, no one truly understands Google’s complex ranking algorithm.

That said, some very reputable people have documented strong correlations to E-A-T and ranking.

SEO expert Marie Haynes, CEO of Marie Haynes Consulting (MHC), sheds some light on how E-A-T affects rankings:

“The team at MHC has seen quite a few websites that we believe have been negatively affected by Google Quality updates because they have a lack of E-A-T. We have also had the joy of helping businesses to improve their Google E-A-T with resulting traffic increases.”

Ok, but what does any of this mean for you, and how can you increase your E-A-T? Here are a few helpful tips:

  • Create a detailed “About Us” page on your site
  • Optimize your page for searcher intent (which we’ll cover later)
  • Display any awards, certificates, or credentials proudly on your site
  • Build your authority across the web with guest posts
  • Respond to both positive and negative reviews
  • Keep all the information on your page as unbiased and as accurate as possible
  • Provide an easily accessible contact page with various ways your users can reach you or your team

These are all ways that people can increase their E-A-T for higher rankings. And, honestly, a lot of it boils down to using best practices for managing your online reputation.

Let’s be clear, though: there’s never a guarantee of a page one or #1 rank, and with SEO guidelines changing all the time, search engine rankings change with them.

But now, let’s get a better understanding of a couple of SEO terms you’ll hear a lot in the marketing world.

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

Two terms you’ll hear mentioned a lot when talking about SEO ranking factors are on-page SEO and off-page SEO.

On-page SEO refers to factors on your own website that you can optimize, such as the underlying code and the content.

Off-page SEO refers to actions taken outside of your site to affect your site’s trustworthiness and authority by building the right inbound links and social signals.

Both types are included in the top SEO ranking factors. Before we hit our top 10 ranking factors, though, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about monitoring and tracking ranking.

How to Monitor Search Engine Rankings

Before you can improve your SEO ranking, you’ll need to know your starting point.

There are a couple of ways to find this. First, you could search Google using the terms you think your customers will be using. Use an incognito or private window in your browser, so the results aren’t skewed by Google’s personalization. See where your content appears.

However, this is a little impractical for larger sites with hundreds of pages, so you’ll likely want a tool to help you out.

For example, with SEMrush, you can type your domain into the search box, wait for the report to run, and see the top organic keywords you’re ranking for. Or, use their keyword position tracking tool to track the exact keywords you’re trying to rank for.