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There’s no instruction manual for SEO, and for good reason. If the rules of the game were known, they could be compromised. In order to keep the playing field as level as possible, Google has realised that it’s better to keep everyone guessing.

But by looking at what Google has said in the past, by consulting patents that they have put on the public record, and by conducting research on what does and doesn’t work, we can begin to get a sense of the sorts of things that the search engine is looking for when it ranks results.

These so-called ‘Google ranking factors’ are key to search engine optimisation (SEO) success. By focusing on including relevant Google search ranking factors on your website, you’re more likely to appear as a top result.

Types of Google ranking factors

Google SEO ranking factors fall into four main groups:

Positive on-page factors: Website elements and actions that push it up the search engine results page (SERP.)
Negative on-page factors: Website elements and actions that push it down the SERP.
Positive off-page factors: External elements and actions that push your website up the SERP.
Negative off-page factors: External elements and actions that push your website down the SERP.

In this guide we’ll focus on positive on-page factors: things that you can manipulate through your own website, and that help you to rank higher (though keep in mind that positive factors can become negative factors if they are overused.)

We’ve worked to find every possible factor, which we’ll list in the following five groups:

Definite: Ranking factors that have been proven without a shadow of a doubt.
Likely: Ranking factors that are probable, but that haven’t been definitively proven.
Maybe: Possible ranking factors, though it’s 50/50 as to whether they actually matter.
Dubious: Factors that have been floated as possible, but that are less likely to matter.
Myth: The oft-cited ranking factors that don’t actually matter at all.

So, without further ado, what impacts SEO? Let’s take a look at all the positive on-page factors and form a Google ranking factors SEO checklist, allowing you to focus your energies on the most important.


Keyword in domain name/URL: Placing the most relevant keywords in your URL is a proven ranking factor, though your URL should remain short and punchy, and never repeat itself.

Keyword in title tag: This is the tag that defines the title of a web page or online document. The most effective title tags are less than 70 characters and feature the keywords at the beginning.

Formatted keywords: Underlined, bolded and italicised words are given more weight by Google as they grab the attention of the reader.

Keyword in alt text: Image descriptions allow search engines to easily manage web page imagery. Inserting keywords improves both accessibility and SEO.

Keyword stemming: Keyword stemming is when you take the ‘stem’ of a keyword, then include other words that use that stem, e.g. ‘stemmed’ and ‘stemming’.

Keyword in anchor text: Accurate anchor text that features keywords is a proven SEO ranking factor – far better than generic examples like ‘CLICK HERE!’.

Page authority: Web pages that are linked across your site tend to be more important and thus command a higher ranking from Google.

Use of HTTPS (TLS): While this has been described by Google as ‘a tiebreaker’, putting question marks over its importance, transport layer security (TLS) has nonetheless been proven to matter.

Content freshness: For search queries that demand current content, like weather or the news, the ‘freshness’ of the content will be a key ranking factor.

Old content: On the flipside, certain queries will be looking for historical content, in which case older is often better, with results potentially ranked in age order.

Quality outbound links: Google rewards outbound links to what it sees as high quality, authoritative sites.

Mobile optimisation: With the world switching from desktop to smartphone, mobile-optimised websites enjoy a significant advantage over those that aren’t phone friendly.


Keywords early in URL: The earlier keywords appear in your URL, the better. After about five words the weight of keywords seems to wane.

Web page keyword density: What used to be the defining ranking factor has since been overtaken by a wealth of more sophisticated methods – see below – but a keyword density of 1-2% remains beneficial.

TF-IDF of Page: Term Frequency-Inverse Document Frequency (TF-IDF) is a smart version of keyword density that compares the words on a web page with what Google sees as ‘normal’.

Keywords in headings: Heading keywords steer the content of the page, so Google takes notice. These are weighted by heading number: H1>H2>H3 etc.

Keyword proximity: The proximity of keywords matters. One paragraph about working as a plumber in Auckland will perform better than a paragraph about working as a plumber followed by a paragraph about working in Auckland.

Exact keyword match: The more exact the match to the query at hand, the higher you can expect to rank.

Partial keyword match: In admitting that an exact match ranks higher, Google incidentally admits that you don’t need an exact keyword match in order to rank.

Keywords earlier on the page: This ranking factor is built on the presumption that the earlier a subject is addressed in a piece of writing, the more important it tends to be.

Keyword matches domain name: This powerful factor is when a keyword exactly matches a domain and Google defines the search query as commercial, ensuring brands rank for their own names.

Age of domain: While a relatively minor factor, established sites will rank better in many cases, though there may be times when brand new sites are temporarily pushed up the rankings.

Hyphen-separated URL Words: Mashing keywords together in a URL can make it difficult for Google to identify them. Consider using a hyphen to separate them.

Keywords earlier in tag: Often called the ‘first third rule’, this factor is guided by the simple fact that important things are usually said first.

Long-term domain registration: Google understands that spammers don’t register domains for long, while legitimate website owners will be happy to commit to a longer registration period. A joint project between Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Yandex, publishes guidelines surrounding the use of structured data mark-up on web pages.

Spelling and grammar: While this is a confirmed ranking factor for Bing, Google has been slightly cagier. Spelling and grammar is key to user experience, so it stands to reason that Google keeps an eye on it.

Rich media: While there hasn’t been an official public announcement from Google, rich media has been shown to positively affect SEO.

Subdirectories: The use of subdirectories, a part of the broader field of categorical information architecture, is thought to help a site rank more pages.

ccTLD in National Ranking: Country code TLDs like ‘.uk’ and ‘.nz’ are likely used by Google to signal relevance for region-specific queries.

Entity salience: Google is getting better and better at natural language processing. Writing in a human way is beginning to be prioritised over keyword-heavy, ‘bot-friendly’ writing.

Phrase-based indexing: Further to the above, thorough and compelling content that allows Google to identify related phrases tends to rank better than generic content with a lot of keywords.

Web server-user proximity: If your site is hosted in the same country or region as searchers, you’ll likely enjoy better rankings for local search queries.

Keywords early in title: Studies have shown that titles that begin with a keyword tend to rank better than titles ending in a keyword. In fact, title word order can change traffic by as much as 30%.

Novel content: Duplicate content is known to be a negative ranking factor, but truly unique content full of what Google calls ‘information nuggets’ can rank higher, because it earns a higher ‘novelty score’.

Average novelty score: The ‘novelty score’ metric isn’t just used on a page by page basis – average novelty scores are applied across entire sites.

Using rel=”hreflang”: Used to tell Google about localised versions of the same content, the HTML tag makes Google’s job easier, and can therefore be beneficial.


Public whois: Google downplays their access to domain registrant information, but with private whois widely acknowledged as a negative ranking factor, ensuring this information is on the public record could be a positive.

Fresh content sitewide: Do you need to regularly update content across your site? This piece of unconfirmed speculation states that Google avoids recommending sites it sees as stale.

Historic content sitewide: While many searches deserve freshness, others are looking for historical records, which may mean that websites that host a lot of old content could rank well in specific situations.

Subdomains: In certain situations subdomains ( may be viewed as separate websites by Google, which would have far-reaching implications in terms of content.

Number of subdomains: The most significant factor in Google treating subdomains as their own sites appears to be quantity, as the existence of thousands of subdomains suggests they don’t all belong to a single thematic site.

Privacy policy: Does having a privacy policy push you up the rankings? It’s hard to say, but many SEO experts believe so, and it does align with Google’s philosophies.

Phone number: A verifiable phone number suggests website legitimacy, which could in turn result in a better search ranking. Phone numbers are also a key part of Google Business Profiles.

Contact details: Another potential mark of legitimacy, Google has previously asked quality control auditors to search for “highly satisfying contact information.”

Early keywords in headings: Word order seems as though it might matter in heading tags. Per the ‘first third rule’, placing keywords earlier seems to have some positive effect.


Reading level: At one point Google offered a search filter for reading level, so we know it’s something the company measures, though its effect on the rankings – if any – is unknown.

Meta-descriptions: There was a time when keywords in meta-descriptions were seen as a direct ranking factor, but in 2009 Google said otherwise. The current state of play is unknown.

The rel=”canonical” tag: If your site has (necessary) duplicate content, this tag points Google to the preferred version, protecting you against potential penalties. It’s worth doing, but according to Google it doesn’t directly improve rankings.

Listed address: While adding a phone number and other contact details might help you rank higher, it’s doubtful whether listing a physical address pushes you up the rankings.

Code-to-content ratio: In 2011 a rumour started: Google likes less code and more content. But any ranking gains are probably incidental – less code means less potential mistakes, for example.

Meta-source tag: This tag was created in 2010 to better attribute sources on Google News. But if you are the source of a piece of information, this tag is overridden by rel=”canonical”.

Meta-geo tag: This tag is used to define the location of your website. While Google does look at it, this information can be gleaned from your IP address and ccTLDs.

Comment quality: Does Google look at comments when ranking sites? While it has the capability, it’s unlikely, as this would make it easy for people to game the system.


Meta-keywords: A specific type of meta tag found in the HTML code of a web page, Google has never rewarded meta keywords (unlike other search engines.)

Using Google Analytics/Search Console/AdSense: While they are valuable tools that can help you rank higher if they are used well, simply being a user of Google products like Analytics, Search Console and AdSense won’t help you rank higher in and of itself.

XML sitemaps: Many believe a sitemap is a must if you are to ensure all web pages are indexed by Google, but that’s not the case.
Rel=”author” and rel=”publisher” tags: In 2011 Google began an experiment in which it encouraged content writers and publishers to use tags to build their reputation. But the experiment remained just that, ending in 2014.

URL starts with “www”: There are regular whispers that URLs that begin with ‘www’ rank better, but these are entirely unfounded.

Dedicated IP address: The simple act of owning a dedicated IP address does not provide any form of ranking advantage.

HTML/CSS/JavaScript comment keywords: Hiding keywords as comments in code might feel like a clever SEO hack, but this has been debunked time and time again.

More on-page content: More content = more meat for Google to bite into, right? Wrong. Google wants quality, not quantity – if your Contact page has 10,000 words, Google will know that something is up.

Positive comments: As Google’s Senior VP Amit Singhal states, “if we demoted web pages that have negative comments against them, you might not be able to find information about many elected officials.”

Positive star ratings: While ratings play a huge part in ranking results on YouTube, eBay, Amazon and Google Maps, they don’t play a role in Google Search.

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