Maximizing Benefits from Google’s Revealed Ranking Factors

  • June 10, 2024
  • SEO
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Over the past week, I have encountered numerous arguments against delving deeply into the 2,596 pages of new documentation.

However, the pertinent question we should be asking ourselves is, “How can I test and extract as much insight as possible from these documents?”

SEO represents an applied science where theoretical knowledge serves as the foundation for experimentation, rather than an end goal.

Image Credit: Lyna ™

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14,000 Test Ideas

This document provides an extensive source of test ideas, but it’s important to recognize that different factors require different testing approaches. Each factor may be of a specific type (e.g., number/integer, Boolean, string) and have varying reaction times, impacting the change in organic rank at different speeds.

Consequently, we need to employ A/B testing for quick and active factors while using before/after testing for slower and passive factors.

A 2x2 grid with axes labeled 'Fast' to 'Slow' on the y-axis and 'Passive' to 'Active' on the x-axis, reflecting Google's Ranking Factors.
Prioritize tests by speed. (Image Credit: Kevin Indig)

To systematically test ranking factors, you should:

  1. Select a specific ranking factor.
  2. Identify the impacted success metric.
  3. Define the testing environment.
  4. Determine the type of test to be conducted.
Flowchart detailing four steps of testing ranking factors systematically.
Image Credit: Kevin Indig

Ranking Factors

Many of the ranking factors revealed in the leak are integers, which function on a spectrum, while others are Boolean and relatively easy to test, such as:

  • Image compression: Yes/No?
  • Intrusive interstitials: Yes/No?
  • Core Web Vitals: Yes/No?

Factors you can directly control:

  • UX (navigation, font size, line spacing, image quality).
  • Content (keeping it fresh, optimized titles, avoiding duplications, ensuring relevance to user intent, accrediting original sources, and more).
  • User engagement (high completion rate of tasks).

Demoting (negative) ranking factors:

  • Links from low-quality pages and domains.
  • Aggressive anchor text (unless backed by a robust link profile).
  • Poor navigation.
  • Poor user signals.

Factors you can only influence passively:

  • Title match and relevance between source and linked document.
  • Link clicks.
  • Links from new and trusted pages.
  • Domain authority.
  • Brand mentions.
  • Homepage PageRank.

Start by evaluating your performance in the area you intend to test. For instance, Core Web Vitals offers a straightforward use case.

Metrics

Select appropriate metrics for each factor based on the leaked documentation or your understanding of how a factor might impact a given metric, such as:

  • Crawl rate.
  • Indexing (Yes/No).
  • Rank (for main keyword).
  • Click-through rate (CTR).
  • Engagement.
  • Number of keywords a page ranks for.
  • Organic clicks.
  • Impressions.
  • Rich snippets.

Where To Test

Carefully choose the location for your test executions:

  • If you’re skeptical, employ a country-specific domain or a low-risk test site. For multilingual sites, implement changes in one country and compare relative performance against your primary market.
  • Isolate impact by restricting tests to a specific page type or subdirectory.
  • Limit tests to pages targeting a particular keyword type (e.g., “Best X”) or user intent (e.g., “Read reviews”).

Remember, some ranking factors act as site-wide signals, like site authority, whereas others are page-specific, such as click-through rates.

Considerations

Ranking factors can complement or counteract each other, as they collectively form a complex equation.

It’s a common human tendency to underestimate the multifaceted nature of ranking algorithms. This often means we undervalue the multitude of factors contributing to high rank scores, as well as how a few key variables can shift outcomes significantly.

Despite the complexity, it is essential to continue experimenting with these factors.

Aggregators can conduct tests more efficiently than Integrators, as they deal with a higher volume of comparable pages, leading to more substantial results. In contrast, Integrators, who create their own content, face variations across pages that can dilute test outcomes.

My favorite test: One effective method for enhancing your understanding of SEO is to score ranking factors based on your perception, then systematically challenge and test these assumptions. Create a spreadsheet, assign a score from zero to one for each ranking factor based on perceived importance, and multiply all factors for analysis.

Monitoring Systems

Testing gives initial insights into the importance of ranking factors. Monitoring, however, allows for the measurement of relationships over time, facilitating more robust conclusions.

The concept involves tracking metrics that correspond to ranking factors—such as using CTR to reflect title optimization—and charting them over time to assess the effectiveness of optimizations. This approach mirrors regular monitoring, albeit with a focus on new metrics.

You can develop monitoring systems using tools like:

  • Looker
  • Amplitude
  • Mixpanel
  • Tableau
  • Domo
  • Geckoboard
  • GoodData
  • Power BI

The specific tool is less critical than identifying the right metrics and URL paths.

Example Metrics

By measuring metrics over time by page type or specific sets of URLs, you can determine the impact of optimizations.

Note: The thresholds provided are based on my personal experience and should be critically evaluated.

User Engagement:

  • Average number of clicks on navigation.
  • Average scroll depth.
  • CTR (from SERP to site).

Backlink Quality:

  • % of links with high topic-fit/title-fit between source and target.
  • % of links from pages younger than one year.
  • % of links from pages ranking in the top 10 for at least one keyword.

Page Quality:

  • Average dwell time (compared across pages of a similar type).
  • % of users spending over 30 seconds on the site.
  • % of pages ranking in the top 3 for their target keyword.

Site Quality:

  • % of pages driving organic traffic.
  • % of zero-click URLs in the past 90 days.
  • Ratio between indexed and non-indexed pages.

Interestingly, the leak coincided with Google’s introduction of AI-driven results (AI Overviews) which can be leveraged to find SEO gaps highlighted by the leak.

For example, you can measure title matching between source and target for backlinks using common SEO tools to pull titles, anchor text, and surrounding content from referring and target pages. By employing AI tools or Google Sheets/Excel integrations, you can rate the topical proximity on a scale of 1 to 10 based on specific criteria.

A spreadsheet displaying SEO page titles, anchors, AI ratings, and explanations.
Using AI to rate title-match between link sources and targets. (Image Credit: Kevin Indig)

A Leak Of Their Own

Google’s ranking factor leak is not the first instance of a major platform’s algorithm becoming public:

1. In January 2023, a Yandex leak revealed numerous ranking factors similar to those found in the recent Google leak. The subdued reaction back then, and even today, is surprising.

2. In March 2023, Twitter disclosed significant parts of its algorithm. Like the Google leak, it lacks detailed “context” between factors, but it remains insightful.

Twitter’s algorithm in a system chart.
Twitter’s algorithm in a system chart. (Image Credit: Kevin Indig)

3. Also in March 2023, Instagram’s chief Adam Mosseri provided an in-depth explanation on how the platform ranks content in different sections.

Despite these leaks, there are no known cases where users or brands have exploited these leaks ethically and effectively.

The challenge lies in the fact that platforms heavily weighing user engagement in their algorithms are incredibly difficult to manipulate. Nevertheless, the Google algorithm leak remains exceptionally intriguing because it reveals an intent-driven platform where user interest is signaled via searches rather than behavior patterns.

Understanding the “ingredients” necessary for high rankings represents a significant step forward, even if the exact “recipe” remains unknown.

I find it puzzling why Google has kept ranking factors so secretive. While I’m not advocating for a disclosure as extensive as the leak, a more transparent approach could have fostered a better web ecosystem, characterized by fast, easy-to-navigate, and high-quality

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