We analyzed 11.8 million Google results to try to figure out which factors correlate to first page rankings in the search engine. We looked at content, backlinks, and page speed, among other things.
Collaborating with our data partner Ahrefs, we’ve found some information that could be incredibly useful to you and your brand or business.
A summary of our 12 biggest takeaways
- A site’s link authority (measured by Ahrefs Domain Rating) strongly correlates to higher ratings.
- Pages with more backlinks rank higher than pages with less. Google’s number one result usually has 3.8x more backlinks than other positions.
- Content with a high content grade outperforms content that doesn’t go into detail about a topic.
- There is no correlation between page loading speed and first page rankings.
- Having backlinks from many different websites may be important for SEO. The number of domains linking to a page has a correlation with rankings.
- Most title tags in Google match the keyword they rank for. But, there is zero correlation between using a keyword in your title tag and higher rankings.
- Page authority correlates with rankings, but only weakly.
- The average Google first results has 1,447 words. Word count is evenly distributed among the top ten results.
- HTML page size has no correlation with rankings.
- Shorter URLs have a bit of an advantage over long URLs.
- Using Schema markup doesn’t correlate with higher rankings.
- Websites with more “time on site” have higher rankings in Google. With solely three more seconds on a site, your webpage will be higher than other pages.
In-Depth Explanations of Findings
The higher you are on the first page, the higher your Domain Rating seems to be. A website’s authority has a stronger correlation to rankings than the page’s URL Rating.
The takeaway? Higher Domain Ratings give you higher rankings on Google’s page one. Domains have a huge advantage in the SERPs.
More Backlinks is Always Better
Pages with more backlinks rank higher than those with less- and oddly enough, lots of pages have zero backlinks. Precisely 94% of pages, actually. This skewed the data a bit, so we ran a separate analysis without the pages with zero backlinks. Here we found that the more backlinks, the higher your ranking in Google.
Google’s number one result, on average, has 3.8 times more backlinks than other results. Backlinks have a very high effect on ranking signals.
Comprehensive Content = Higher Rankings
SEO experts tend to agree that comprehensive content works better in Google. Covering an entire topic on one page seems to have an effect on rankings.
We found a correlation between Content Grade and Google rankings. Increasing your Content Grade by one also averages a higher ranking by one position. That’s huge! Having more comprehensive content does indeed affect your rankings, at least indirectly.
Google may prefer content that gives them in-depth information.
Loading Speed Does Not Correlate with Rankings
We analyzed the median load time of 1 million domains in our data, looking at the average loading speed across domains. We found zero correlation between speed and ranking, which seems a bit surprising.
This makes sense if you really think about it, though. Google’s Speed Update mainly affected slower pages, and the update in general only affected a tiny amount of queries. So sluggish pages are downrated and faster pages benefit.
But our previous analysis noted that a desktop page has an average load time of 10.4 seconds, with 27 seconds in contrast on mobile. Google’s highest ranked pages on it’s first page average 1.65 seconds- that’s a giant difference.
First page results simply load way faster than all other results, so they aren’t affected by Google’s speed updates.
Referring Domains Has a Ranking Influence
Having many backlinks from the same domain generally has diminishing returns. More links from different sites are better than many links from the same site. Our analysis backs this up.
Top results have more divergent domains than results on the bottom of Google’s page one. Diverse links are important for SEO!
Title Tags and Keywords
Most title tags on the first page have keywords that exactly or partially match the search. Your title tag is largely considered one of the most important SEO elements. Thus, the words you use in your title tag should affect your rankings.
Google’s SEO Starter Guide even recommends writing title tags that “effectively communicate the topic of the page’s content.” Our analysis backs this up- first page title tags contain all or part of the keyword they rank for.
However, a keyword-optimized title tag doesn’t seem to correlate to higher first page rankings. There’s a small relationship between title tag matching and rankings between positions one and ten, so a keyword-rich title tag can help you land first page access but the matching doesn’t do much. Once you’ve hit the first page, you’re set, and other factors besides keywords start to affect your SEO more.
Google’s top ten results have 65 to 85 percent of the keywords they rank for in their title tag.
Keyword-Optimized H1 Tags Don’t Equate to Higher First Page Ranking
Most pages in Google’s results have matching keywords in the page’s H1 tag- specifically 60 to 80 percent of the keyword. Keyword-matched H1s have no relationship with higher rankings, our analysis finds. H1s that are keyword-rich aren’t enough of a signal to help boost a page’s rankings.
A page’s webpage authority has a bit of a correlation with higher rankings. URL Rating and rankings are indeed tied, but the relationship isn’t large enough to be of any practical concern.
This correlation isn’t as important on impact as a site’s Domain Rating is.
URL Ratings are similar among the top 10 results, and the average URL Rating is 11.2 for first-pagers.
Mean Word Count
The mean word count of a first-pager on Google is 1,447 words. So yes- longer content does outperform shorter blog posts! Longer content has more backlinks, which help with ratings. Google’s ranking system prefers content on the longer side.
However, there’s no direct correlation between specific word count and rankings. Once you’re around 1,447 words, it doesn’t matter if you go to 2,000 or even 3,000. We can’t exactly find the core of why this longer-form content does better, as this is a correlation study, but we do know that pages with a higher word count have the same chance of ranking highly on page one than pages with lower words.
A page’s HTML size has no correlation to rankings, our analysis finds. SEO experts have thought that larger pages are at an SEO disadvantage, but our analysis finds no link between size and rankings.
Short URLS > Long URLS
Using “Simple URLs,” according to Google, helps more with conveying your content information. This information is more about optimizing URLs for users than SEO, but when we looked into it we did indeed find that shorter URLs are also better for SEO!
Position one URLS are on average 9.2 characters shorter than URLs in position ten. The average URL for a top ten result is 66 characters, with most URLs on the first page extremely similar in character length.
Why do shorter URLs perform better? They may lead to a higher organic CTR. Our CTR study discovered that shorter URLS have higher CTR than longer ones.
Short URLs also make it easy for Google to know what your page is about. Long URLs are usually multiple clicks away from a homepage, meaning there’s less authority on that page, meaning lower rankings.
Schema markup has no correlation with rankings. Google hasn’t told anyone what Schema does to rankings, but people have been speculating. Some think Schema gives search engines a more clear understanding of your content, and thus they’ll want to rank your content higher. Some sites use Schema to get rich snippets in SERPs.
According to our study, however, not many sites have used Schema. Only 72.6 percent of first pagers use Schema, and structured data has no relationship to Google rankings. Schema may be useful, but not directly for rankings.
More Site Time > Less Site Time
Sites with an above average “time on site” seem to rank higher in Google’s pages. This would back up the idea that many have that user experience does indeed affect rankings.
We ran a subset of data domains through Alexa to figure out site-wide time on site and then used those findings to see if there’s a correlation between site time and rankings. There is a strong correlation!
A first page result on average has a time of two and a half minutes. We’re not saying that time on site directly affects rankings, but the correlation between those variables is strong. Google may use bounce rate as a signal, or maybe time on site is a byproduct of high-quality content.
Because, again, this is a correlation study, we cannot determine this from our data alone. We can only find correlation, not causation.