Google’s overall goal as a search engine is simple: show users the most relevant results for their query, the first time. If Google suggests results irrelevant to their query, it could provide a less than useful experience. What exactly determines relevancy is a more complicated process. In the early days of search engine optimization, exact match keywords were the key to unlocking the top spots.  Now in 2018, SEO is worlds away from that primitive era. There are so many things that go into Google’s rankings – some in our control, and some not. In fact, this Backlinko article proposes 200 different ranking factors!

While you can’t completely control your rankings, you can control your content. Your best bet is to create high quality content and show Google that it is relevant for the terms potential clients are searching. Here are some factors that show Google your content is relevant.

Outbound Links to Relevant Sites

This Search Engine Journal article reports on an SEO study conducted by marketing firm Reboot. The researchers created ten test sites, half of which linked out to authoritative sites in their niche, and half of which did not. The results showed that outbound links seem to have a positive impact on rankings.

It could be that consistently linking to authoritative sites in your niche associates your site with experts in the industry. Looking at this from a UX perspective, it could also be that Google sees this technique as a helpful resource aggregator for the user.

Relevant Keywords Placed Close to Link Text

This anchor text guide from Nathan Gotch of Gotch SEO recommends avoiding exact match anchors due to Google’s Penguin update. Instead, Gotch advises placing the keywords around the link. He explains that Google is able to determine the link’s relevancy to the topic based on the words surrounding it. For example, instead of linking to your apartment rental site with the text “New York apartments for rent,” you should do something like this: “you can find New York apartments for rent at BigAppleApartments.com” (using the domain name as anchor text rather than the keyword “New York apartments for rent”).

Inbound Links from Sites in Your Niche

This is a harder tactic to employ, since getting natural links takes consistent PR outreach over time. It is well worth the effort, as relevant inbound links show Google that you are a credible site in your niche. Not only do links associate you with these authoritative sites, but they also demonstrate that your content is useful to experts in the field.

Additionally, links are cited by Google itself as one of the most important ranking factors. In a Q&A with WebPromo, Google Search Quality Senior Strategist Andrey Lipattsev said that the top three ranking factors were RankBrain, content, and links – but not in that order; he wouldn’t disclose the order Google takes these factors into account.

Including Synonyms and Related Words in Addition to Your Targeted Keywords

This YouMoz article explains how Google understands that synonyms of a keyword have the same meaning. As a result, pages using variations of the keyword also rank for that query.

If you’re trying to rank for a certain keyword, make sure to use variations of it in your content. You can use a suggestion tool like Moz’s Keyword Explorer to help you think of ideas. Another great tool that’s completely free is Google’s Related Searches, found at the bottom of the search engine results page (SERP). Also pay attention to Google’s Related Questions and autocomplete features.

Rand Fishkin emphasizes the importance of including not just variations of a keyword, but also related words. In his Whiteboard Friday How to Write for SEO in 2018, he explains that Google identifies certain words as being associated with a search term. He gives the example of “New York neighborhoods.” Google has learned that words like Brooklyn, Harlem, Manhattan, and Staten Island often show up along with this term. Therefore, it will tend to favor pages that include these words, since it knows to look for them when receiving a query for New York neighborhoods.

By following this advice and filling your article with words associated with the main topic, you can clue Google in on the relevancy of your content.

Emulating Content Google Sees as Relevant

A quick disclaimer that this is not a proven method, but something that would be intriguing to test out. Obviously, Google ranks certain pages for a reason. While this could be due to many factors (see this article from Neil Patel), it stands to reason that at least some of the top results got to where they are by having content that is relevant to users. Try doing a search for your target keyword, and then analyze each of the top ten organic results. Read through the copy and evaluate its quality and structure. What questions does it answer? What information is included about the topic? Does it use bullet points, headings, and other features that make the content easy to digest?

Take this method with a grain of salt – the top-ranking page for a certain query could have gotten there based on massive Domain Authority, or another factor out of your control.

While we don’t know for sure what causes one page to rank above another (it could be multiple ranking signals), we do know that Google seems to favor comprehensive pages, according to this Search Engine Journal article. This makes sense as Google wants to deliver the best solution to the user’s query.

Ranking for the top slots on the SERPs is a constant battle for content creators. There may be some factors out of your control, such as dominant brands with metrics you can’t possibly hope to surpass any time soon. However, as Google continually tweaks its algorithm, it does so with one goal in mind: return the results most relevant to the user’s query. If you focus on creating quality content that does this, and implement an effective SEO strategy to raise your other metrics, you could see your pages climbing in the rankings.