How Ranking Factors Work Together

We’ve now covered the high-level view of a lot of ranking factors, and it’s worth taking a moment to discuss how they work together. Not all ranking factors are equal, by a long shot, and the broad categories of ranking factors — Topicality, Authority, and User Metrics — are not equal either.

Broadly speaking:

  • Topicality is the least important: the weight of topicality as a whole has decreased as User Metrics increased. This makes sense too: topicality is the easiest signal to game (cheat). As discussed in Topicality Ranking Factors, topicality also seems to have a cap: beyond a certain point, additional on-page optimization doesn’t seem to help any further.
  • Authority is the most important: this has always been the case, and is still the case today. However, Google has grown much better at sorting through which authority signals to count, and which to ignore (or devalue). SEOs used to building crappy garbage links sometimes feel like Authority isn’t as strong as it once was, but every good SEO test continues to prove that Authority remains an overwhelmingly strong ranking signal.
  • User Metrics is in the Middle: Once not even a factor at all, User Metrics is now much more important than topicality, but still second behind Authority.

It is important to stress that you cannot ignore any of them. The three categories of ranking factors work together in a multiplicative way. If your site is going great in Topicality and Authority but has shitty User Metrics, then odds are you are not going to rank unless you have a truly overwhelming number of links. A site can be weak in Topicality and still rank through superior Authority and/or User Metrics (Wikipedia stubs are known to do this, for example).

How Google weights each ranking factor isn’t perfectly known, but we do know that those weights change based on the query. For some low-volume queries Google doesn’t have good User Metrics data, and so is ranking almost entirely on Topicality and Authority. For others Google has massive User Metrics info and a site with great User Metrics can dominate another site with hugely more Authority (normally considered the strongest ranking factor). But there are also cases where a demonstrably worst site has so many links that it can outrank vastly more deserving sites.

Basically the more data Google has, and the better the data is, the better Google is going to be at ranking the site that the plurality of internet users agree is the best site. But Google isn’t perfect.

Where to Start?

SEOs need to prioritize what signals to work on for maximum return. Often this means starting with Topicality: even though it’s the weakest signal, it’s so incredibly easy to optimize that it’s usually the fastest way to get returns. But if a site has adequate, if sub-optimal, Topicality but no links, then Authority is going to be a better place to start.

User Metrics signals are often the hardest to work on (and involve the most conflict for SEOs, since that job usually belongs to a combination of Product/Storefront and Marketing teams) but also tends to have out-sized returns, since improvements in conversion rate results in more money from every channel.

Unfortunately the Doctor doesn’t have a single prescription that will work for every site, or even a flowchart to determine how to prioritize your SEO. A lot of determining the size of opportunities is based on experience. I can say, however, that you should rarely be working on only one category of ranking signals for an extended amount of time.


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