Search Engine Ranking Factors Are Kept Secret, Really?

What makes your website rank high on search engines?


There’s a lot of speculations out there, digital marketers and SEO experts are continuously seeking the truth about ranking factors on search engines. The ranking factors assessed by Google and Bing algorithms (among others search engines) are the best-kept secrets in the internet business and that mainly to avoid manipulations.

Hopefully many companies that have SEO experts employed perform complex data analysis and publish their results in so-called SEO White Papers. Lucky for us, the SEO software SEMrush recently released a massive SEO White Paper which studied the ranking factors of top 100 positions for 600,000 keywords.


Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get ready to rumble ranking factors…


Let's get ready to rumble ranking factors


The truth, the whole truth is that a website must first and foremost generates web traffic to rank high on SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages) and in order to achieve this, a high level of user experience (UX) and quality product(s) / service(s) / contents are necessary!

If your website has good web traffic then you will indirectly generate these most important ranking factors (based on the last SEMrush study):


  • Direct website visits
  • Time on site
  • Pages per session
  • Bounce rate


“We analyzed the 12 most prominent and controversial factors and came up with a conclusion that direct traffic is the top ranking factor these days.”

– SEMrush




SEO first things first


Sorry to burst your bubble but it’s a waste of time to work forcefully trying to build backlinks and improve the On-Page factors on a website if first of all there’s no quality product(s) / service(s) / contents presented on a user friendly interface.



Like we mentioned in one of our previous post 5 Off-Page SEO Best Practices to Build Your Reputation Online it is crucial to offer excellent product(s) or service(s) and develop quality contents as the foundation of your web authority.

Now let’s dig deeper into the last SEO White Paper released by SEMrush


SEMrush (with their 2,000,000+ users) analyzed their own data consisting of 600,000 keywords from their worldwide base (US, Spain, France, Italy, Germany and others) to evaluate the first 100 SERP positions for each of them.

To have a complete description of their research methodology I invite you to download their white paper here’s the link:



SEmrush analysed a list of 17 alleged ranking factors that might influence the page positions on SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages). Here they are:


  1. Direct website visits
  2. Time on site
  3. Pages per session
  4. Bounce rate
  5. Total referring domains
  6. Total backlinks
  7. Total referring IPs
  8. Total follow-backlinks
  9. Content length
  10. Website security (HTTPS)
  11. Total anchors
  12. Keyword in anchor
  13. Keyword in body
  14. Keyword density
  15. Keyword in title
  16. Keyword in meta
  17. Video on page


The White Paper results are presented in 7 sections as followed: Backlink profile factors, Website security, Content length, On-page SEO elements, Website visits, User behavior signals and Why we observe drops on the 1st position.

Let’s begin…


Section 1 – Backlink profile factors


Like we all already know and as confirmed by Google, a robust backlink portfolio is essential for website rankings. Unfortunately we cannot use general economic models and suppose that all things being equal which allow us to change one variable in order to examine the other variables because all the backlink portfolio metrics/variables are interconnected.

To get good results, the best practice is to work on all the backlink metrics. Stated differently, link diversity is one of the key features of a Google-friendly backlink portfolio i.e. number and quality of referring domains,  backlinks,  referring IPs, follow-backlinks and anchors. To reach that goal it’s recommended to try various link-building strategies and ultimately gaining natural backlinks is the best.

Nevertheless, SEMrush reminds us an inescapable fact:


The high search volume niche is extremely competitive and the first positions are occupied by the giants with the richest backlink portfolios. The competition is lighter in the low-volume SERPs, so extra link-building efforts will make all the difference for the page/domain rankings. 

– SEMrush


For people who wants to see data and details about backlink profile factors, here’s the graphs from SEMrush study:


Total Number of Referring Domains

Total number of backlinks

Total number of referring IPs

Total number of follow-backlinks

 Total number of anchors

Keyword in anchor


Section 2 – Website security


There’s no debate anymore if having a website secure (https) or not make a difference for SEO. Back in August 2014 Google officially announced that switching your website over to HTTPS will give you a minor ranking boost.

In SEMrush white paper, they reveal that top positions domains with high and very-high volume keywords (1,001 to 10,001+) have more HTTPS domains compared to top positions domains with low and mid volume (1 to 1,000).


The HTTPS adoption rate in less competitive niches is up to 20% lower, which creates a great opportunity to outrun the competition.

– SEMrush



Website security (HTTPS)


Section 3 – Content length


One of the SEO basics that few experts can agree on is the content length. I don’t think there’s a perfect content length for every website. How long your page should be depends heavily on your industry, target audience and traffic source but a minimum content length that I normally recommend is 500 words.

Focusing solely on the length of your content is not enough, especially if the content is irrelevant to the user’s query then it doesn’t matter how long it is, relevancy in general for SEO is the key!


The results of our research indicate that pages that rank higher have longer content on average. So, content length is important for your page’s success as long as it is valuable, well-written, and optimised, especially if you target high-volume keywords.

– SEMrush



Content length


Section 4 – On-page SEO elements


SEMrush checked if the presence of keywords in the on-page elements (Title, Meta Description, H1, etc.) influences the page rankings and in contrary to expectation it doesn’t affect rankings much. In fact, it is more important to provide value, diversify your text and make it relevant to the target keyword instead of copying the keyword in the on-page elements.

Unfortunately keyword placement is a common practice and is the most popular SEO service offers online however the data proves that it doesn’t have a strong impact on rankings:



keyword in title

keyword in meta

keyword in body

keyword on page


Section 5 – Website visits


Obviously one of the major indicators of a website’s popularity is its number of visits. Visitors find your website from different traffic sources: organic search, referrals, social media, email marketing, paid search, direct traffic etc. SEMrush examined how traffic influences page rankings and whether organic search traffic has the greatest influence.


After excluding organic search and other traffic data, we can see that there is a strong connection between the number of direct visits and the page position on the SERP. This could indicate that Google prioritizes domains with more authority and consequently more direct traffic when ranking the high-volume keyword group.

This also means that organic rankings is not the only thing you should be concentrating on. Direct visits are fueled by your brand awareness, so building a strong brand image should be an essential part of your promotion strategy.

– SEMrush



Direct website visits


Section 6 – User behavior signals


We saw a debate around the correlation between behavioral metrics and rankings for few years. SEMrush mentioned the following in their research:

“Google reps declare that all user behavior signals are too noisy to be considered during the page qualification…”

but Google employees would often publicly say the opposite!

SEMrush examined several user behavior signals such as bounce rate, the time that the user spends on the website in general and how many pages per session the user opens.

The results indicate that users tend to spend more time on websites that rank higher in SERPs most probably because users give more trust to top-ranking pages compared to lower-ranking ones. The next graphs show that for the bounce rate and time on site, users tend to visit more pages on websites that are in the top of organic search results:



Bounce rate


Time on site


Pages per session


Section 7 – Why we observe drops on the 1st position


By now you most likely noticed that on every chart the numbers for the first position are always less than for the second one i.e. every trend line has a drop on the first position. This is something unexpected since SEMrush assumed that the most optimized websites with the biggest ranking factor value would have the highest position.

They explained this observation by the branded keyword search queries. When people searches for a brand name on search engines, a more relevant but less optimized website (domain) will appear on the first position.


Data proves that the analyzed ranking factors have more influence on the positions of the single URL than the domain on which it resides. That means that the rankings of a particular page are more sensitive to on-page optimisation, link-building efforts and other optimisation techniques.

–  SEMrush


Direct visits


Time on site


Referring domains


The results we received don’t let us state explicitly that if you improve the factor X, you will rank higher for Y. However, we have come up with a list of observations regarding the nature of these alleged ranking factors and their influence on the SERP that we wanted to share with the SEO community.

– SEMrush


Thank you SEMrush



Xavier Clapin-Pépin

Co-founder of LinkoPlus
SEO & PPC enthusiast

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