I was listening to the Search Off the Record Podcast from Google (sidenote: if you don’t listen to it yet, go do that now) and I heard Gary Illyes refer to something as a ranking signal. I have heard thousands of words from Gary at conferences, in videos, and personal conversations but this was the first time his usage of the phrase “ranking signal” rather than the commonly used “ranking factor” really jumped out at me.
I went on Twitter and I searched all of his past tweets and blog posts and there were hundreds of mentions of the phrase “ranking signal” going as far back as I could see. Yet, if you Google the term “ranking signal” Google considers this to be a synonym of “ranking factor” and the results mention ranking factors rather than signal.
This got me thinking about the distinction between those two words “signal” vs “factor” and how the usage of factor contributes to a common misconception of how search algorithms actually work. Many people look at search ranking factors as a precise mathematical formula for success ; if you score high on each of these factors you are guaranteed SEO success.
This could not be further from the truth. Let’s take a few of these and walk through an example of how this doesn’t actually add up to fact. Moz has a great page which they update every year on ranking factors, so I will use this a source for this discussion. According to Moz, the title tag is the second most important ranking factor for a page. I don’t necessarily disagree, however the importance of this as a ranking factor is absolutely flexible. I have seen pages rank well on valuable terms without any title tag whatsoever, likewise I have seen pages with fantastic titles rank deep in the search index.
The reasons for these results are obvious because a title tag is simply taken into account when calculating rankings for relevant keywords for that pages – not of course all words that exist in the world.
Now let’s look at a second example which is page speed. A fast-loading website and page are of course important, but in no way does a fast website guarantee SEO success just like a slow website does not guarantee SEO purgatory. If you are curious, Google some popular terms and you will notice that page speeds of top ranking websites are really all over the board. I have even seen a site that consistently gets a score of 1 out of 100 (the lowest) rank #1 on extremely valuable travel terms for every city in the US.
Taken into context, I think these two examples demonstrate the definition of a “signal” rather than a “factor”. The word factor is a mathematical term which is defined as “a number or quantity that when multiplied with another produces a given number or expression.” According to that definition a factor that is presented needs to be included as a part of an equation, and I know when I was taught math in elementary school, excluding a number in a math problem was not an option.
However, a signal can be ignored or interpreted in a more flexible way. When you are driving and see a red light signal, you are being told that cross traffic is likely going to be in front of you, but there is nothing actually stopping you from ignoring that signal if you don’t see any traffic. If you are willing to risk a ticket from the police, you can certainly make a choice to use your own judgment and experience in ignoring that signal.
This is how I believe search engine algorithms calculate visibility in choosing which webpages to show for a given result. Having a great title tag might be indicative of what a webpage is about, but the algorithm can simply choose to ignore it if there are other signals that override this one. Unlike a factor which actually has to be taken into account in a calculation, signals can be magnified or minimized depending on a particular situation. This means that as elements of how a website ranks, each signal has variable strength rather than a fixed value like a factor.
This line of thinking is even more appropriate when applied to link building efforts. Rather than approach links the way some backlink tools do as a mathematical calculation. Only the algorithm will know the true value of each link and each link is a signal of quality which may or may not be calculated rather than an absolute contribution to a sites total value.
When you build your SEO efforts, focus on each of these declared factors as signals rather than ingredients for success. Accrue as many positive signals as you can, but don’t feel like ranking factors are a checklist that you must achieve. How a website earns visibility is a confluence of all of these signals and you can very well rank in strong positions without a perfect score.
Just to end with one clarification that I hope doesn’t confuse things, while it is helpful to think of search engines ranking websites based on signals, the algorithms absolutely do approach these signals as mathematical factors. Algorithms are long series of code and do not have intellect or emotion to choose which signals to trust. Rather, they approach everything they know about a website and query and maximize, minimize, and ignore signals based on if/else rules. But, knowing how this works is completely unnecessary and from a logical standpoint just think of everything as a positive or negative signal that may or may not be calculated in a ranking.