Before the Search Engine Guide you probably know the word SEO stands for search engine optimization, but what do you need to optimize? SEO is all the actions you do to make search engines i.e Google, Bing Or Yahoo, etc.. consider your website a quality source and rank it higher for your desired search queries.
Is it the design? Or is it the writing? Or maybe it’s the links.
Yes, yes, and yes — it’s all of that and more.
But let’s start this search engine land guide at the beginning.
Our guide has created as a companion to our Periodic Table of SEO Success, this guide will walk you through the various elements that go into search engine optimization. These include both on- and off-page factors: content; architecture; Html; trust, links; personal and social factors.
This Search Engine Guide was originally created in 2011 and was thoroughly updated by the editors of Search Engine in 2021. This guide, along with the Periodic Table, will provide you with the basics of SEO as well as expert advice on how to achieve search ranking success.
We wish you the best of success in SEO!
In the following chapters, we’ll take a look at all of these aspects from the practical point of view.
Table of Contents
Types of Search Engine Success Factors
Content & Search Engine Success Factors
Site Architecture & Search Engine Success Factors
HTML Code & Search Engine Success Factors
Trust, Authority, Identity & Search Rankings
Link Building & Ranking In Search Engines
Personalization & Search Engine Rankings
Social Media & Ranking In Search Results
Violations & Search Engine Spam Penalties
Types of Search Engine Success Factors
There are three major groups covered by Search Engine Land’s Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors
- On-the-page SEO
- Off-the-page SEO
|Those two-letter acronyms you see on the chart above? That’s our play on the periodic table of elements and the letter representations, or symbol, of each element. You may have had to remember that the symbol for gold was Au or that iron’s was Fe.||In the Periodic Table of SEO, we’ve tried to make it slightly more intuitive. The first letter of each “SEO element” comes from the subgroup that it’s in, and the second letter stands for the individual factor.|
|SEO factors work in combination|
No single SEO factor will guarantee search engine rankings. Having a great HTML title won’t help if a page has low-quality content. Having many links won’t help if they are all low in quality. Having several positive factors can increase the odds of success, while the presence of negative factors can worsen those odds.
On-the-page success factors
On-the-page search ranking factors are those that are almost entirely within the publisher’s own control. What type of content do you publish? Are you providing important HTML clues that help search engines (and users) determine relevancy? How does your site architecture help or hinder search engines?
Off-the-page success factors
Off-the-page ranking factors are those that publishers do not directly control. Search engines use these because they learned early on that relying on publisher-controlled signals alone didn’t always yield the best results. For instance, some publishers may try to make themselves seem more relevant than they are in reality.
With billions of web pages to sort through, looking only at “on-the-page” clues isn’t enough. More signals are needed to return the best pages for any particular search.
SEO violations & ranking penalties
Make no mistake — search engines want people to perform SEO because it can help improve their search results. Search engines provide help in the form of guidelines, blog posts, and videos to encourage specific SEO techniques.
However, there are some techniques that search engines deem “spam” or “black hat,” which could
|result in your pages receiving a ranking penalty, or worse, being banned from the search engines entirely.|
Violations are generally tactics meant to deceive or manipulate a search engine’s understanding of a site’s true relevancy and authority
The weighting of search ranking factors
All the factors we show are weighted on a scale of 1 to 3, as shown in the top right corner of each factor, as well as reflected in the hue of that factor. A weighting of 3 is most important and is something you should pay special attention to because it has a bigger impact than other factors.
That doesn’t mean that factors weighted 2 or 1 aren’t important; they are. It’s just that they are of less importance, relatively speaking, in terms of the other factors on the chart. Violations are also weighted, but in negative numbers, with -3 being the worst and potentially most harmful to your SEO success.
The weighting is based on a combination of what search engines have said, surveys of the SEO community, and our own expertise and experience in watching the space over time. We don’t expect them to be perfect. Not everyone will agree. Your mileage may vary. But we’re confident it is a useful general guide.
“Missing” SEO factors & the Guide’s philosophy
Experienced SEOs may be wondering why some factors aren’t shown. How come ALT text and bolding words aren’t included as HTML factors, for example?
The answer? We don’t think those things are as important, relatively speaking. We’re not trying to encompass every possible signal (Google has more we’re trying to help you understand that having social accounts that are reputable in general, which attract a good following and generate social shares, may ultimately help you achieve search success.
Want more specifics about success factors?
Want more specifics about success factors?
We know some of you may want to drill down into specifics. Check out our What Is SEO/Search Engine Optimization? page, which lists some useful guides to the fundamentals (including one from Google itself) along with many more SEO resources. We do hope you’ll keep any specific ranking factors in the context of the fundamentals covered by our table.
In addition, many of the success factors aren’t true algorithmic factors at all. Content Research (element Cr) is a highly weighted “on-the-page” factor that describes the process of researching the words people use to find your content. Understanding your user is important to your SEO success, even if it’s not a “ranking” factor.
Within each group are subgroups, as each chapter of this SEO guide will explain. These subgroups contain one or more individual SEO factors with a specific weight or importance.
Violations, while a group unto themselves, are displayed under the group and subgroup to which they’re associated.
Content & Search Engine Success Factors
Content is king. You’ll hear that phrase over and over again when it comes to SEO success. Indeed, that’s why the Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors begins with the content “elements,” with the very first element being about content quality.
Get your content right, and you’ve created a solid foundation to support all of your other SEO efforts.
Cq: Content quality
More than anything else, are you producing quality content? If you’re selling something, does your website go beyond being a simple brochure with the same information that can be found on hundreds of other sites?
Do you provide a reason for people to spend more than a few seconds reading your pages?
Do you offer real value, something of substance to visitors that is unique, different, and useful that they won’t find elsewhere?
These are just some of the questions to ask yourself in assessing whether you’re providing quality content. This is not the place to skimp, since it is the cornerstone on which nearly all other factors depend.
You can find more information in Search Engine Land’s SEO: Content and Writing category.
Cr: Content research/ keyword research
Perhaps the most important SEO factor after creating good content is good keyword research. You want to create content using those keywords, the actual search terms people are using, so you can produce content that effectively “answers” that query.
For example, a page about “Avoiding Melanoma” might use technical jargon to describe ways to prevent skin cancer. But a search engine might skip or not rank that page highly if people are instead searching for “skin cancer prevention tips.” Your content needs to be written in the right language — the language your customer or user is using when searching.
Just use common sense. Think about the words you want a page to be found for, the words you feel are relevant from your keyword research. Then use them naturally on the page. If you commonly shift to pronouns on second and further references, maybe use the actual noun again here and there, rather than a pronoun.
Cw: Content words/use of keywords
Having done your keyword research (you did that, right?), have you actually used those words in your content? Or if you’ve already created some quality content before doing research, perhaps it’s time to revisit that material and do some editing.
Bottom line, if you want your pages to be found for particular words, it’s a good idea to actually use those words in your copy.
How often? Repeat each word you want to be found for at least five times or seek out a keyword density of 2.45 percent, for best results.
No no no, that was a joke! There’s no precise number of times. Even if “keyword density” sounds scientific, even if you hit some vaunted “ideal” percentage, that would guarantee absolutely nothing.
Cf: Content freshness
Search engines love new content. That’s usually what we mean when we say “fresh.”
You can’t update your pages (or the publish date) every day thinking that will make them “fresh” and more likely to rank. Nor can you just add new pages constantly, just for the sake of having new pages, and think that gives you a freshness boost.
However, Google does have something it calls “Query Deserved Freshness (QDF).” If there’s a search that is suddenly very popular versus its normal activity, Google will apply QDF to that term and look to see if there’s any fresh content on that topic. If there is, that new or fresh content gives a boost in search results.
The best way to think about this is in regard to a term like “hurricane.” If there’s no active hurricane, then the search results will likely contain listings to government and reference sites. But if there’s an active hurricane, results will change and may reflect stories, news, and information about the active hurricane.
If you’ve got the right content, on the right topic when QDF hits, you may enjoy being in the top results for days or weeks. Just be aware that after that, your page might be shuffled back in search results. It’s not that you’ve done anything wrong. It’s just that the freshness boost has worn off.
Sites can take advantage of this freshness boost by producing relevant content that matches the real-time pulse of their industry.
Cv: Vertical search
The other factors on this table cover success for the web page content in search engines. But alongside these web page listings are also often “vertical” results. These come from “vertical” search engines devoted to things like images, news, local, and video. If you have content in these areas, it might be more likely to show up within special sections of the search results page.
Not familiar with “vertical search” versus “horizontal search?” Let’s take Google as an example. Its regular search engine gathers content from across the web, in hopes of matching many general queries across a broad range of subjects. This is a horizontal search because the focus is across a wide range of topics.
Google also runs specialized search engines that focus on images or news or local content. These are called vertical search engines because rather than covering a broad range of interests, they’re focused on one segment, a vertical slice of the overall interest spectrum.
When you search on Google, you’ll get web listings. But you’ll also often get special sections in the results that may show vertical results as deemed relevant.
Having content that performs well in vertical search can help you succeed when your web page content doesn’t. It can also help you succeed in addition to having a web page make the top results. So, make sure you’re producing content in key vertical areas relevant to you. For more information, see some of our related categories:
Ca: Direct answers
Search engines are increasingly trying to show direct answers (also called “featured snippets” or “answer boxes” or “position 0”) within their search results. Questions like “why are the sky blue” or “how old is the president” might give you the answer without your needing to click on a web page.
Where do search engines get these answers? Sometimes they license them, such as with menus or music lyrics. Other times, they draw them directly off web pages, providing a link back in the form of credit.
There’s some debate over whether having your content being used as a direct answer is a success or not. After all, if someone gets the answer they need, they might not click, and what’s the success in that?
We currently consider sites being used as direct answer sources to be a success for two main reasons. First, it’s a sign of trust, which can help a site for other types of queries. Second, while there’s a concern, there’s also some evidence that being a direct answer can indeed send traffic. Third, there is anecdotal evidence demonstrating direct answers/ query results in “position 0” are also surfaced for same/similar voice search results.
Site Architecture & Search Engine Success Factors
The next major On-The-Page group in the Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors is site architecture. The right site structure can help your SEO efforts flourish while the wrong one can cripple them.
Ac: Site crawlability
Search engines “crawl” websites, going from one page to another incredibly quickly, acting like hyperactive speed-readers. They make copies of your pages that get stored in what’s called an “index,” which is like a massive book of the web.
When someone searches, the search engine flips through this big book, finds all the relevant pages, and then picks out what it thinks are the very best ones to show first. To be found, you have to be in the book. To be in the book, you have to be crawled.
Each site is given a crawl budget, an approximate amount of time or pages a search engine will crawl each day, based on the relative trust and authority of a site. Larger sites may seek to improve their crawl efficiency to ensure that the “right” pages are being crawled more often.
The use of robots.txt, internal link structures and specifically telling search engines not to crawl pages with certain URL parameters can all improve crawl efficiency.
However, for most, crawl problems can be easily avoided. In addition, it’s good practice to use sitemaps, both HTML and XML, to make it easy for search engines to crawl your site. You’ll find more about sitemaps and dealing with potential crawling issues in the Search Engine Land categories below:
• Crawling and Robots
•Redirects & Moving Sites
Remember, “search engine-friendly design” is also a “human-friendly design”!
More Google searches happen on mobile devices than on desktop. Given this, it’s no wonder that Google is rewarding sites that are mobile-friendly with a chance of better rankings on mobile searches while those that aren’t might have a harder time appearing. Bing is
doing the same.
Google has also announced it will move to mobile-first indexing over the next year (and has already begun with a small group of sites). What this means is that that the mobile version of your site’s content will be used for indexing and ranking.
So get your site mobile-friendly. You’ll increase your chance of success with search rankings as well as making your mobile visitors happy. In addition, if you have an app, consider making use of app indexing and linking, which both search engines offer.
To learn more about being mobile-friendly and app indexing, see our categories below:
- Accelerated Mobile Pages / AMP Mobile
- App Indexing
- Bing: Mobile
- Bing: App Linking
• Mobile Marketing: App Indexing & Search
• SEO: Mobile Search
Ad: Duplication/ canonicalization
Sometimes that big book, the search index, gets messy. Flipping through it, a search engine might find page after page after page of what looks like virtually the same content, making it more difficult for it to figure out which of those many pages it should return for a given search. This is not good.
It gets even worse if people are actively linking to different versions of the same page. Those links, an indicator of trust and authority, are suddenly split between those versions. The result is a distorted (and lower) perception of the true value users have assigned that page. That’s why canonicalization is so important.
You only want one version of a page to be available to search engines.
There are many ways duplicate versions of a page can creep into existence. A site may have www and non-www versions instead of redirecting one to the other. An e-commerce site may allow search engines to index their paginated pages. But no one is going to search for “page 9 red dresses.” Or filtering parameters might be appended to a URL, making it look (to a search engine) as a different page.
For as many ways as there are to create URL bloat inadvertently, there are ways to address it. Proper implementation of 301 redirects, the use of rel=canonical tags, managing URL parameters, and effective pagination strategies can all help ensure you’re running a tight ship.
For more, see our category that discusses duplication and canonicalization issues, SEO: Duplicate Content.
As: Site speed
Google wants to make the web a faster place and has declared that speedy sites get a small ranking advantage over slower sites.
However, making your site blisteringly fast isn’t a guaranteed express ride to the top of search results. Speed is a minor factor that impacts just one in 100 queries, according to Google.
But speed can reinforce other factors and may actually improve others. We’re an impatient bunch of folks these days, especially when we’re on our mobile devices! So engagement (and conversion) on a site may improve based on a speedy load time.
Speed up your site! Search engines and humans will appreciate it. Below is some of our past coverage of the importance of site speed:
• SEO: Site Speed
Au: Are your URLs descriptive?
Yes. Having the words you want to be found for within your domain name or page URLs can help your ranking prospects. It’s not a major factor, but if it makes sense to have descriptive words in your URLs, do so. The articles in the category below explore the power of the URL in more depth:
• SEO: Domain Names and URLs
Ah: HTTPS/secure site
Google would like to see the entire web running HTTPS servers, in order to provide better security to web surfers. To help make this happen, it rewards sites that use HTTPS with a small ranking boost.
As with the site speed boost, this is just one of many factors Google uses when deciding if a web page should rank well. It alone doesn’t guarantee getting into the top results. But if you’re thinking about running a secure site anyway, then this might help contribute to your overall search success. To learn more, see our category below:
• Google: HTTPS & Secure Search
HTML is the underlying code used to create web pages. Search engines can pick up ranking signals from specific HTML elements. Below are some of the most important HTML elements to achieve SEO success.