What is not a Google search ranking factor

What is not a Google search ranking factor
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Within the vast world of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), deciphering Google’s algorithms is the coveted, elusive goal. To best align content with them and enhance visibility, digital marketers strive to understand these algorithms as deeply as possible. However, Google itself isn’t fully transparent about their exact nature – and perhaps understandably so. That inevitably means that SEO often relies on experimentation, strong but inconclusive evidence, or, sometimes, plain conjecture and hearsay. Thus, what is and what is not a Google search ranking factor will often be lost to the inattentive.

A brief introduction to SEO

To properly discuss this subject, let us first briefly delve into SEO itself – as that is where this distinction manifests.

SEO is a series of content and page optimization practices, which seek to align them with Google’s ranking criteria. To do so, it splits among 3 main subsets, each with its own titular focus:

  • On-page SEO
  • Off-page SEO
  • Technical SEO

Over time, other hyper-focused SEO subsets have emerged, such as local SEO, which relies on Google My Business.

Of course, this understandable pursuit of Google’s top-ranking spots has led to curious developments over the years. From spammy tactics to plain black hat SEO, Google has had to defend its users from various malpractices of websites and marketers, with such notable milestones as the Penguin, Panda, and Mockingbird algorithm updates.

Ineffective SEO tactics

Of course, not all such tactics hinge on what is and what is not a Google ranking factor. Underhanded tactics aside, many white hat tactics yield little to no actual benefits to this day for two primary reasons. Typically, they’re either spammy, incurring penalties, or they’re simply invalid because their fundamental premise is.

#1 Spammy tactics

The first type includes tactics that are not simply ineffective and flawed, but actively risky and dubious. Those are spammy tactics, which Google perceives to be either actively harmful to searchers’ experience or geared toward personal benefit. Understandably, these are practices you should keep away from. Among others, these practices include:

  • Keyword stuffing
  • Backlink farming
  • Buying reviews
  • Duplicating location page content
  • Claiming invalid Google My Business locations

Evidently, some such practices are deliberate, while others may be accidental. Regardless, such practices will often incur penalties and should thus be avoided.

#2 Outdated and invalid tactics

The second type is far less clear-cut and thus warrants more discussion. Typically, outdated and invalid SEO tactics largely fall into one of two groups:

  1. They used to apply but have since been neutralized by Google algorithm updates
  2. They rely on incorrect assumptions about Google’s ranking algorithms

The former simply relies on marketers remaining up-to-date with such developments. It is far from uncommon to see marketers cite withdrawn, debunked, or amended research to support their claims – which, regardless of their intention, remain in the SEO sphere as unquestioned truisms.

The latter is much more elusive, however. What is and what is not a Google search ranking factor is, understandably, never fully clear. Still, typical errors that lead to adopting such tactics include:

  • Correlation and causation. Perhaps the most common error in SEO lies in correlation not equaling causation. It’s very understandable to assume that if X and Y frequently appear in tandem, then one may be causing the other. However, as we’ll find out below, this is often not the case; rather, X and Y both produce Z, an actual ranking factor.
  • Concrete evidence. Another common error lies in low evidence thresholds. Again, it is only natural that SEO will rely on experimentation and assumptions about how Google’s algorithms function. However, it is far from uncommon that marketers embrace tactics backed by flimsy or inadequate evidence.
  • Official confirmation. Finally, a less common marketing flaw lies in either not asking for official confirmation or overlooking it, should it exist. Naturally, most such tactics don’t ever receive official confirmation – some do, however, but remain unheard.

What is not a Google search ranking factor

Thus, to touch on the final factor among those above, let us delve into our main subject.

Of course, determining if each and every suspected Google search ranking factor is true or not is nigh impossible. Backlinko identifies 200+ ranking factors, and other marketers find even more. Not all of these have received official confirmation or have been officially debunked, and covering them all would require extreme length.

What we can do, however, is focus on some of the most prominent among them and confidently assert they are definitely not Google search ranking factors. Our confidence in asserting these 5 persisting myths that follow are, in fact, myths, will stem from Google officials’ accounts and statements.

#1 Domain age (and E-A-T)

Starting with an unwavering SEO truism, a domain’s age does not affect rankings. For many marketers, a domain’s age is a logical ranking factor that adds to E-A-T – which too is not a ranking factor, according to Danny Sullivan. However, as John Wu explains, it is “a practical thing”.

While an understandable thought process, this is an excellent example of correlation not equaling causation. A domain’s age typically signifies more content, more engagement, and other ranking signals that actually affect rankings. Thus, it is not that the age itself is a ranking factor, but that it typically entails valid ranking factors.

#2 Domain authority

Adjacent to the above, domain authority (DA) is not a search ranking factor either. This Moz metric can indeed be very useful but is not an actual ranking factor in itself.

This assertion does carry some weight, so let us explore both sides of it – Google and Moz. Starting with the former, when confronted with PageRank use, John Wu responded with the following:

“Yes, we do use PageRank internally, among many, many other signals […] that can be much stronger”.

Moz also uses “other signals” when gauging DA, which leads to a safe enough conclusion; these signals “can be much stronger”, to the point where DA in itself cannot functionally be a ranking factor.

In fact, Moz itself says so, clarifying that:

“Domain Authority (DA) is a search engine ranking score developed by Moz that predicts how likely a website is to rank in search engine result pages (SERPs). […]Domain Authority is not a Google ranking factor and has no effect on the SERPs.”

Thus, both parties agree; DA can be a useful metric, but it is not a ranking factor.

#3 Social signals

Another prevalent SEO myth comes in the form of social signals. Despite popular belief, social signals are not a Google search ranking factor either – but they are a useful metric.

On episode 366 of the EDGE on the Web podcast, Google’s John Mueller asserted the following:

“Social media shares of a page and other social “applause” metrics simply don’t play into ranking. First, Google doesn’t have the social signals people think they have, and all those social media platforms have “no follow/no link” built into them. So it’s just not happening. Google’s not collecting it or using it.”

However, that’s not to say it’s useless as a metric. John Mueller continues:

“Being active on the social media platforms is a great way to test and refine your website content to see if it’s connecting with users, but it’s not a ranking factor.”

This perception, too, seems to broadly fall into the correlation/causation fallacy. That is, strong social signals will often entail strong content and a robust social media presence. This overall quality, which incites engagement and satisfies the users’ search intent, affects rankings. It is not that social signals affect search rankings; if anything, they themselves are a result of qualities that do.

#4 Accessibility

Another SEO mainstay that marketers view as a Google search ranking factor is accessibility. Accessibility is indeed a very crucial metric, as it directly enhances the User Experience (UX). It is a moral imperative to allow all users, despite any impairment, to navigate one’s website – and in many jurisdictions, a legal one as well. Finally, it is a smart business decision to expand one’s potential audience. However, despite its massive usefulness, accessibility is not a Google search ranking factor.

John Wu explains as follows:

“[W]hen sites are hard to use, people steer away from them anyway, so over time, things like recommendations & other signals tend to drop away, resulting in the site being less visible in search too.”

Thus, this, too, is a great example of correlation and causation. Accessibility does offer notable benefits, and it does affect ranking factors – but is not one itself.

#5 Content output frequency

Finally, the one SEO truism that seems to most closely follow Google’s own principles is content output frequency. Time and time again, senior Google officials have advocated for valuable content, and marketers have logically applied this principle to both individual content value and output frequency. However, while the former is true, the latter isn’t; content output frequency is not a Google search ranking factor.

Confronted with a question on this matter, John Wu responded:

“Nope. A site isn’t a machine that pumps out content at a fixed rate. Well, it shouldn’t be :-).”

This, of course, does not answer the question of prolonged periods of inactivity affecting rankings. What’s more, it certainly doesn’t mean that sites shouldn’t strive to regularly produce quality content. It does, however, settle the debate on output frequency; it is not a penultimate metric in and of itself, and “a fixed [output] rate” is not a ranking factor.

Conclusion

To summarize, one can never truly know what is and what is not a Google search ranking factor. There are far too many hypothetical factors to address and verify, and many have not seen, or will not see, official confirmation. However, the persistent SEO mainstays that are domain age, DA, social signals, accessibility, and content output rate are not ones. They are, by all means, useful metrics in other regards and may help inform SEO, but according to Google, they don’t concern their algorithms.

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