Topicality Ranking Factors

Topicality ranking factors are elements that improve Google’s understanding of what your page is about, and whether it’s topically relevant to a given search query. For example:

Google search query for "volcano sledding"

If you’re searching for “volcano sledding”* Google will look at the index and try to find pages that are about volcano sledding. Topicality factors are what help Google determine if the page is about volcano sledding, and how deeply about it: does the page just reference volcano sledding in passing, or is the entire page dedicated to the topic?

Topicality factors exist almost entirely on-page, and it’s very easy to maximize topicality (what I usually refer to as SEO kindergarten).

  • URL: do the keywords appear in the URL
  • Title Tag: do the keywords appear in the title tag
  • Keywords in the content, as well as synonyms and related terms (co-occurance)
  • Word count of unique content — higher word count of quality and unique content is better
  • Anchor text of links pointing to the page; anchor text from external sites carries much more weight than anchor text from other pages within the same site
  • Relevance of linked sites: the topic of web pages linking to the page can provide minor topicality signals — as can the sites that you link out to
  • Minor factors: there is some debate about very minor factors, like H1 or H2 tags, text, etc. There is virtually no correlation between these factors and rankings, and you can safely ignore them.

It’s worth noting that there appears to be a kind of cap on topicality. I once did a series of tests across a dozen websites, where I removed relevant keywords entirely from title tags or built pages without keywords in the title tags.

Most pages did not lose a single rank — even after months — from removing what is generally considered one of the most important ranking factors. But for some pages their rank plummeted.

The correlation I discovered was that for pages that were well optimized, the title tag didn’t matter at all, and for pages that were not well optimized for a given keyword, the title tag was hugely influential. I then extended the test to other on-page factors and found the same thing in every one.

It appears that there is a cap to how topically relevant a page can be. And this makes perfect sense when you think about it: at some point Google looks at a page and says, “Hey, this page is completely dedicated to volcanoes; that’s all it’s talking about, volcanoes all day.” Once you hit that point when you’re page is considered 100% about the topic, adding more topicality signals isn’t going to make the page more about that topic; it can’t be more than 100% after all.

It’s also worth noting that the only factor that does not appear to have a topicality cap is the unique word count. Even when you reach the point that title tags and URLs no longer improve your topicality, adding another few good paragraphs can still help — though there are diminishing returns.

* I just made this phrase up as a funny example. But when I entered it into Google I discovered that volcano sledding is a real thing. Here’s a photo from this page on the topic.

Volcano sledding. Yes, really.

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