What do the search engines look for?

A prospective client recently asked me ‘what do the search engines look for?’ A simple question you might say, but it’s deceptively simple and I spent quite some time thinking about how best to answer.

The difficulty was that they just wanted a top-10 list. And whilst choosing ten factors out of the hundred plus that we know about (check out this list of google ranking factors, or this one from Brian Dean at Backlinko) could be potentially misleading, I didn’t want to overload them with too much detail.


So I began by explaining that the job of the search engines is to produce a set of results that’s as relevant as possible to someone’s search query. And since there could be numerous webpages that are all highly relevant, search engines also rank according to ‘Authority’.

Whilst Relevance and Authority are determined according to hundreds of different factors, I’d bunch them up into six big categories, as follows:

  1. content: keyword-focus, uniqueness, content ‘freshness’ (how old is it?) content type (video, text, image, news, etc)
  2. social signals, including Tweets, Likes, Shares, +1s
  3. links: inbound, on-page, outbound. Consider quality, authority and context / relevance rather than quantity
  4. on-page keyword targeting: URL, page title, headings, image alt text
  5. site wide technical considerations: global navigation, sitemaps, robots.txt, site speed and other techy stuff
  6. look-and-feel and ease-of-use of the site. How enjoyable / satisfying is the site to use?

Two other things which aren’t really big categories but should be factored in along the way, are user behaviour (measured by things such as bounce rate), and the size and age of the site.

So it’s a big list and it can be a job to know where and how to start your SEO improvement project. We’d say that the starting point should be to get a baseline understanding of your target audience, their needs and their search intent, and your competitive environment online.

In our SEO process, we begin by gaining an understanding of these things as well as an organisation’s near and medium-term business objectives. We review the technical aspects of the site, and some aspects of the main competitors’ sites and we then put all this together to produce a costed project plan for six to 12 months.

So does this list work for you? Would you add or remove any factors? Comments below, please!

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