Google and other search engines are very secretive about how their algorithms work.
They don’t want people to know exactly how they work, because then people would be able to trick the search engines into sending them undeserved traffic.
However, Google has actually been telling people constantly what the single most important ranking factor is: high-quality content.
Google quotes on content quality
Here’s a quote from a Google guide called Steps to a Google-friendly site (emphasis mine):
“Provide high-quality content on your pages, especially your homepage. This is the single most important thing to do. If your pages contain useful information, their content will attract many visitors and entice webmasters to link to your site.”
Here’s a quote from the Google Search Quality Rater Guidelines (emphasis mine):
“The quality of the MC is one of the most important criteria in Page Quality rating, and informs the E-A-T of the page. For all types of webpages, creating high quality MC takes a significant amount of at least one of the following: time, effort, expertise, and talent/skill. For news articles and information pages, high quality MC must be factually accurate for the topic and must be supported by expert consensus where such consensus exists.”
In this quote, MC stands for Main Content and E-A-T stands for expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness, another key ranking factor.
And another one from Google’s own SEO Starter Guide (emphasis mine):
“Creating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any of the other factors discussed here. Users know good content when they see it and will likely want to direct other users to it.”
Clearly, high-quality content is important and Google wants you to know about it. When you consider Google’s purpose, it actually makes a lot of sense.
Google wants to show the best content at the top of the search results
Put yourself in Google’s shoes for a moment. What exactly are they trying to achieve with their search results?
The truth is, Google search is a highly sophisticated AI-powered machine with one key purpose: show users the content that best answers their search query.
You can think of each search query as a question and each listing in the search results as an answer. When a person searches for something, Google wants to show the best answer as #1, the second best answer as #2, etc.
This is actually in the best interest of Google. People use their search engine because it is the best at giving them answers. When people find their answers quickly and efficiently in Google, then they won’t switch over to another search engine.
If Google suddenly started prioritizing something else as a ranking factor, then that would weaken their competitive advantage against other search engines and lead to reduced traffic, revenue and profits.
So if your content contains the best possible answer to a search query, then it is in Google’s best interest to show your content at the top.
In this case, the interests of yourself, the reader and Google are all aligned. The readers find great answers to what they’re looking for, Google gets satisfied customers and you gain visits to your site. It’s a win-win-win for everyone.
How to write high-quality content that ranks
When a person clicks a search result, Google sees that click. If the person doesn’t find their answer, then they will hit the back button and return to the search results and click on another site.
Google can see this, along with various other usage patterns, to figure out that the person did not find the answer to their search query on your site.
So when you’re writing content that you want to rank high in search engines, then you need to make sure that people can easily find the answer that they are looking for in your article.
Do NOT give them a reason to hit the back button!
That being said, having the right answer to the search query is not enough. It also needs to be available in a form that people want to consume.
The text needs to be well organized and easily readable, with clear headings and subheadings. You need to use paragraphs to break up the text so that people can read easily.
Few things are worse for search engine visitors (or any other visitor) than massive blocks of unorganized text.
You also need to make sure that the content is scannable, because most people who come to your site through a Google search won’t read from start to finish.
No matter how good your writing is, most of them will simply scroll through the article and scan the text until they find their answer.
In addition, your site needs to look modern and trustworthy. If people think your site looks bad then they may not stick around to give your content a chance.
It goes without saying that your text also needs to be well written. Spelling and grammatical errors will pretty much guarantee that people will think you don’t know what you’re talking about, so they will look elsewhere instead.
High-quality content helps you acquire high-quality links
If high-quality content is the most important SEO ranking factor, then high-quality natural links will definitely take second place.
Having a lot of relevant, trustworthy links to your site is a key ranking factor in Google. Links determine your PageRank and help feed the E-A-T algorithms, which have a huge effect on your site’s ability to rank for competitive terms.
Although it’s definitely possible to rank for search terms with a weak link profile, it is unlikely that you will be able to rank for the most competitive terms without having a well-established site with a lot of links.
That being said, having high-quality content is actually a crucial factor in building a natural link profile. If your content is exceptionally good, then you won’t need a ton of links to rank because the links will come naturally when people find your content.
Even if you’re targeting a search term with competition, you might be able to start getting a bit of traffic to the article despite your link profile being weak.
As people discover the article through Google, then it will start accumulating links naturally, which will help push it even higher in the search results.
Back when I was writing about nutrition, I was able to easily outrank sites like WebMD, Health.com and Wikipedia. I even scored stable #1 rankings for super-competitive terms like “weight loss,” “calories” and “green tea.”
My link profile was much weaker than these sites, but the content was in a completely different league quality-wise.
Even if you’re using outreach to build links, most webmasters don’t want to link to bad content. If your content is exceptionally good then they are much more likely to want to link to it or share it on social media.
So even in the case of links, high-quality content is still a crucial factor.
High-quality content should benefit from future algorithm updates
Webmasters who use shady tactics to make their sites rank live in constant fear of a new algorithm update catching up with them.
However, if your main focus is simply creating the best content possible for your readers, then you can sleep well at night.
Google is constantly getting smarter, with multiple updates to its algorithm pushed out each and every day.
As it gets smarter, the raw quality of content should continue to gain importance relative to other ranking factors.
If your content is the best available on a specific topic, then these algorithm updates should help you climb the search results over time.