In the world of search engine optimization, there are many best practices, from how your site is structured, to site speed, content length, and even UX. But what are the top factors that impact SEO and what truly moves the needle? In this article, we’ll talk about the most significant factors that impact SEO.
The top factors that impact SEO
In summary, the top factors that impact SEO (in order of ease of implementation) are
- On page optimization/keyword optimization on your website
- Internal linking
- Backlinks (relevant, quality links from other websites)
On-page optimization (keyword-optimized pages on your site)
This is the most foundational element of search engine optimization and to this day is still one of the top factors that impact SEO. Ensuring each page (that you want to rank on Google) is optimized for its target keyword(s) not only results in ranking improvements in most cases but is also a key foundational element for other SEO efforts, like link building or Google Maps optimization. In other words, proper on-page optimization yields its own results but also maximizes the results of other efforts and other SEO investments.
The golden rule for on-page optimization: Only use one keyword/set of related keywords per page. I.e., don’t try to rank your home page for “women’s purses,” “women’s shoes,” and “women’s clothing.” Each of those gets its own separate page/product category.
As another example, the following terms would all be target keywords for the same page:
- Mt Shasta cabins
- Mt Shasta cabin rentals
- Mt Shasta cabins for rent
Whereas “Mt Shasta campground” would be a separate page.
What does on-page optimization consist of?
This means that on a page-by-page basis, the target keyword is in:
- The URL (with dashes as spaces)
- The meta title tag
- The main heading on the page
- A subheading
- The body copy: 5-10 times
Well-structured navigation and internal linking
Why navigation and internal links are important in SEO: The reason that this is a top factor that impacts SEO is that navigation and internal links are like road signs for search engines, so the easier you make it to crawl the page and links (AKA follow the road signs), the better search engines can follow, understand, and rank your site. For example, if Googlebot sees a link in your navigation that says “Interior Design Services” and it sees another internal link on another page that also says “Interior Design Services” (and both link to the Interior Design page), now Googlebot can understand that destination page is about Interior Design (and therefore rank it for the appropriate keyword, “interior design”).
In fact, in one SEO A/B test conducted by SearchPilot, they found that adding internal links from their level 2 pages to level 3 pages (comparable to the “Interior Design” to “bathroom interior design” in the example below) correlated with an increase in organic traffic to BOTH pages, not just the lower-level page. The increase in organic traffic was around 20% for each page type. You can read more about the SearchPilot internal linking study here.
Main Navigation and Site Architecture
Your main navigation should first and foremost serve the user. What information do they need to be able to access easily? But in terms of SEO, the navigation should also link to your primary ranking pages (or the pages you desire to rank).
For example, if you offer interior design services and real estate staging services (and you want both to rank on Google for those respective keywords), you should aim to link to both of those pages in your navigation. Since the primary focus is supporting the user journey though, you likely won’t be able to link to all of the pages that you also want to rank well on Google.
That is where a well-thought-out overall site structure and site map come in handy. Here is an example site architecture for the interior designer example above:
Other Internal Links
There are two other common ways to get additional internal links:
- Linking between your product or service pages. For example, linking to Bathroom Interior Design from the main Interior Design page (like the proven example in the SearchPilot case study above)
- Linking to relevant product and service pages in blog posts. For example, if you have a blog post/article on your site that talks about current trending colors in bathroom design, you could link to your Bathroom Interior Design page (saying something like “learn more about our Bathroom Interior Design Services”)
Backlinks (links from other websites to your website)
Links from other websites to your website (called backlinks) are like Googlebot’s version of word-of-mouth or Google’s version of referrals. The more referrals (or backlinks) search engines see to your business, the more trust the algorithm places in the quality of what you offer, and therefore will rank it more highly. Backlinks have remained on the top of ranking factors lists for many years, and continue to remain there.
It’s also a comparative metric, so if your competitors don’t have many backlinks (or don’t have strong digital word-of-mouth), it may not take as many backlinks to outweigh them in the algorithm's eyes. If your competitors already have many backlinks (like thousands of links), then you may have to catch up to them more aggressively.
Ideas for getting backlinks:
- Work with a reputable, quality SEO agency or consultant with an experienced link outreach strategy.
- Utilize partners, sponsors, or any other organizations or local groups you support (ask for a link back to your site when they mention you).
- Be a guest speaker or author on another blog or podcast (and have them link back to your site).
The golden rule for link building: The linking content (or in other words the page/article on the other website that links back to you) MUST be relevant to what you offer. And avoid working with websites that promote or link to explicit content, such as sexual content, diet and weight loss pharmaceuticals, gambling, etc.
Tip: Whenever possible, have the other website/publication link to the specific page on your site. For example, if you’re an interior designer and you did a guest article about bathroom interior design, have them link to the bathroom interior design page.
In addition to decades of combined experience in the search industry and data-backed publications confirming it, there is plenty of evidence that mastering these 3 areas will move the needle for your organic rankings.