Google’s Leaked Search Ranking Factors: What They Mean for SEO

Patrick Coyne
Patrick Coyne Director of Organic & Local Search

A major leak of Google’s internal search ranking documents has sent shockwaves through the SEO community. While the authenticity of the leak hasn’t been officially confirmed by Google, the fact that prominent SEO figures like Rand Fishkin have vouched for it suggests it’s worth paying attention to.

The leaked information offers a rare glimpse into the complex algorithms that determine how websites rank in Google search results. Here are some of the most significant revelations from the leak:

  1. Clicks and Click-Through Rate (CTR) Matter: Google has long denied that clicks and CTR directly impact rankings. However, the leaked documents reveal a system called “NavBoost” that tracks whether a click leads to a “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” result, using this data to influence rankings. This means that focusing on attracting clicks and engaging users is more important than ever.

  2. Links Still Matter, but Not All Links are Created Equal: High-quality backlinks remain a critical ranking factor. Interestingly, the leak suggests that nofollow links, which were previously thought to pass no value, can actually contribute to rankings if they generate clicks. Conversely, follow links that don’t generate clicks may not be as valuable.

  3. Homepage Quality is Crucial: The leak reveals that the PageRank of a website’s homepage is considered for every page on the site. This means that a poor-quality homepage can negatively impact the rankings of all other pages.

  4. Chrome Browser Data is Used for Rankings: Google is reportedly storing and using data from its Chrome browser to inform its ranking algorithms. This highlights the importance of optimizing for user experience and engagement signals across all platforms.

  5. Site Authority and Content Quality are Interconnected: A new factor called “Site Authority” has been uncovered, and low-quality content on any part of a site can negatively impact the site’s overall ranking. This reinforces the importance of consistently producing high-quality content throughout your website.

  6. Exact Match Keywords Still Hold Value: The leak confirms that Google considers how closely a page’s title and title tag match the search query, indicating that exact match keywords still play a role in rankings.

  7. The “New Site Sandbox” is Real: The leak confirms the long-held theory that new websites are often restricted in rankings for the first few months after launch, making it harder for them to compete with established sites.

  8. Content Freshness Matters: Google tracks the dates on your pages to determine freshness, which can be a factor in rankings, especially for time-sensitive queries.

How This Impacts SEO & Your Business

While the leaked information doesn’t drastically change the fundamentals of SEO, it does offer valuable insights into how Google’s algorithms work. Here are some key takeaways for website owners and marketers:

  • Focus on User Experience: Create engaging content that encourages clicks and keeps users on your site.
  • Build High-Quality Backlinks: Continue to prioritize earning backlinks from reputable websites, but also focus on generating clicks from those links.
  • Optimize Your Homepage: Ensure your homepage is well-designed, informative, and engaging, as it can impact the rankings of all other pages on your site.
  • Monitor Your Chrome Data: Pay attention to how users interact with your site in Chrome, as this data may be influencing your rankings.
  • Produce High-Quality Content Consistently: Don’t neglect any part of your website, as low-quality content can drag down your overall rankings.
  • Use Exact Match Keywords Strategically: While not the only factor, exact match keywords can still be beneficial for rankings.
  • Be Patient with New Websites: Understand that it may take time for new websites to gain traction in search results due to the “new site sandbox.”
  • Keep Your Content Fresh: Regularly update your content to signal to Google that your site is active and relevant.

By understanding and adapting to these revealed ranking factors, you can better optimize your website and content for improved visibility in Google search results.

So, What Does it All mean?

Obviously, as we’re dealing with thousands of leaked search documents, this is only scratching the surface. And some have already started to question the legitimacy of the leaks.  Finally, these ranking factors are from March 2024, meaning that all of this is subject to change (or perhaps has already changed). Plus, let’s not forget about AI Overviews.

Some SEO and digital marketing professionals believe this leak confirms many long-held but unproven SEO theories, and subsequently, that Google has been lying to us for years. While we wouldn’t take it that far (and we will remind everyone again that none of this is confirmed), what it does confirm for us is the importance of employing SEO strategies that benefit a real human audience, rather than search engine crawlers. The industry sometimes operates under the idea that we are just living in Google’s world. But Google’s emphasis on user data, clicks, and intent shows that Google is beholden to its users. And just as they are focused on delivering the best possible search results that satisfies a user’s query, we too should focus on connecting our clients to their target audience.

Disclaimer: It’s important to note that Google’s algorithms are constantly evolving, and the leaked information may not be entirely accurate or up-to-date. However, these insights provide valuable clues about what Google considers important for rankings, and they can inform your SEO strategy moving forward.