What Goes Into Organic Search Rankings?


Every new SEO’s first question is, “So, what goes into Google rankings?” I am going to attempt to answer that today. There are over 200 factors that get taken into account by Google in deciding how your pages rank against your competitor’s. Any SEO you talk to will have suggestions about how to improve your rankings. We often hear advice like

  • Put keywords in your title tags;
  • Use image alt tags;
  • Get quality backlinks;
  • Etc…

These are good suggestions, but it is also great to know how much these individual elements matter in the grand Google scheme.

The Different Areas of SEO

We know there are different areas to SEO. I preach the three categories:

  1. On-site keyword factors
  2. On-site indexing and architecture factors
  3. Off-site linking factors

You could spend years studying any one of these areas, but have a look at where SEOmoz’s team puts their bets on which areas weigh in the heaviest:

SEOmoz - what goes into organic search rankings

As you can see, off-site linking factors are the most important area, with a combined 44.59% influence on ranking. Technically, many of the trust/authority factors are influenced by linking factors as well, so if you add that in, linking has over a 67% influence in rank!

Take a look at the on-page factors at 15.04%. I love on-site optimizations because they carry such a strong synergistic effect with linking when both are done correctly, but on-site factors alone won’t get you ranked for competitive keywords, no matter how perfectly you do it.

But How Important Are the Individual Elements in Each of these factors?

It’s easy to give too much attention to a certain SEO task. You figure if you read a blog post last week that someone wrote about keyword usage in your page content, then it must be one of the most important factors in ranking, right? The truth is that it’s nice every once in a while to get the whole view and a snap back to reality. After all, I’m a blogger, and I don’t write about the most important elements all the time. I will devote time to any aspect that I think our readers would like guidance on.

SEOmoz releases an updated list of search engine ranking factors once or twice per year. Definitely check these out if you haven’t already, and study them. They go through each individual factor (e.g., Keyword usage in title tag, keyword distance from beginning in title tag, etc…) and give you the experts’ opinions on the degree of importance of each of the factors.

On-site/Off-site Synergy

When search spiders come upon a page for the first time, they go through a categorization process, and then try to decide which keyword(s) this page is relevant for. Then, for a keyword, they match you up with your competition and try to decide which order your page should come up in the SERPs with the other pages relevant to the keyword.

I’m sure you understand that if the Google search spider is unable to categorize your page properly, or can’t figure out which keywords your page is relevant for, that you aren’t going to show up in any search results. Enter: off-site cues.

When Google comes upon a link, they see the target of that link, but they also use the anchor text as a clue for what keyword the page that is being linked to could be relevant for (20.26% worth of a clue). If your page is all about ‘Newark skydiving’, and links pointing to that page have the anchor text of ‘Newark skydiving’, it creates a synergy of relevance that you wouldn’t be able to have with just onsite or just offsite optimization.

So, take the high-level view of SEO and keep it in mind for when you are allocating resources towards a site optimization. Obviously, the best plan is to entirely optimize all aspects of your site, but we live in a world of limited resources, and that’s not always possible.


Jillian Koeneman

Great article and charts! I am going to share this with my clients who has about which factors of SEO are most important. Thanks for being a resource!

Kevin Phelps

Wonderful post!

Great choice of graph to put in with the post. It really gives somebody something to look at and to compare to what they are spending their amount of time on.

I wrote a similar post about this that points out why you may not even deserve to be number one. Check it out, it hits on some other points as well.


AJ Wilcox

Thanks, you guys. Readers are what make these posts useful. 🙂 I always appreciate your comments too.

Preston Smith

Nice post. Thanks for sharing… really appreciate the SEOmoz suggestion.

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