The mystery surrounding Google’s search algorithm can be both intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. With so many different articles circulating, all of which are quick to speculate, it can be difficult to understand what’s what.
So, what is the Google search algorithm, how does it work, and most importantly, how can you ensure your content ticks all the right boxes?
What is the Google search algorithm?
Put simply, the Google search algorithm is an internal process Google uses to rank its content. It’s used to retrieve data from its search index to then instantly deliver the best results for a specific search query.
The search engine takes a number of different factors into account when determining its rankings to deliver relevant web pages on its search engine results pages (SERPs), including content quality, keyword mentions, backlinks, usability and much more.
How does the Google algorithm work?
The Google algorithm is highly complex, and how it works is purposely not released as public knowledge.
Google choses to keep its algorithm top secret for good reason. Not only would releasing how the algorithm works decrease the company’s value, there’s also the risk that anyone would be able to exploit and manipulate it to work in their favour. In turn, this would likely generate unhelpful and ineffective search results, and, since Google is such an influential and important online tool, this could be detrimental to the internet.
It’s thought that Google uses over 200 ranking factors, and there’s no way of knowing what they all are. Even if it was possible to understand each one, it would be a futile task due to how frequently the algorithm changes. In fact, Google updates its algorithm approximately six times a day, which means there can be up to 2,000 changes every year. Most of these updates are so slight that they often go completely unnoticed. However, sometimes the search engine rolls out big algorithm updates that have a significant impact on SERPs.
There’s speculation among digital marketers and SEOs about how the algorithm works and what a website needs in order to rank in SERPs. That being said, Google is known for dropping hints on how websites can rank well.
What are Google's algorithm ranking factors?
In short, ranking factors refers to the criteria applied by Google when it comes to evaluating pages in order to determine the best order for the most relevant results in return for a specific search query.
We’ve already mentioned that Google uses over 200 of these – but which are the most important? Here are some of the main factors that the algorithm takes into account.
The Google search algorithm seeks to reward quality content. This is something that a website needs in order to satisfy Google’s EEAT framework – but what is this?
EEAT is an essential element of Google’s search algorithm, helping to establish which websites should rank higher in the search results based on the value and credibility of the content. EEAT stands for:
- Experience – User experience is considered to be an essential factor when ranking websites in search results. Website optimisation is a must for user experience, improving the chances of ranking higher to ultimately provide a better overall experience for the user. Websites can demonstrate experience by including author bios on relevant pages.
- Expertise – This refers to the content creator’s knowledge or skill in a specific subject area. In order for content to be considered high quality, the content should be created by someone with the relevant expertise on the topic.
- Authoritativeness – This refers to how credible the content is, and the website it is being hosted on. It can be established by the quality of the content, as well as the site’s reputation, the credentials of the content creator, and the use of external links and citations.
Backlinks are clickable links that take the user from one website to another. Google prefers to display pages where prominent sites relating to the subject matter are linking to the page in question. Essentially, Google wants to see backlinks coming from authoritative websites that are topically relevant pointing to your pages.
The acquisition of these links is called link building, and it’s thought to be one of the most important steps you can take to encourage Google to trust and display your website. This is considered to be Google’s strongest deciding factor when determining a site’s trustworthiness.
You can find out if links are holding your content back from ranking highly by comparing your webpage’s backlink profile to your competitors. From this, you will be able to see how many backlinks and referring domains (linking websites) your page has. You can do this using an SEO tool such as Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.
Website speed has become more important to Google in recent years. Speed is measured by the time it takes for a page to load after a user has clicked on a link in the SERP. Page loading speed is especially important as it is required in order to pass Google’s Core Web Vitals (CWV) test. CWV essentially uses a speed test to evaluate the loading, visual stability and interactivity of a web page.
The search engine recommends page load speeds of under two seconds, and even users with slow internet speeds should be able to experience quick page loads.
Google takes good user experience into consideration – but what is this exactly? User experience (UX) can include lots of different elements, including:
- Website design
- No intrusive interstitials, such as pop-ups or ads
- Relevant meta information, including meta titles and descriptions that match search intent
- Intuitive navigation
- Internal linking
Google has confirmed that its UX metrics are a ranking factor, meaning that it’s essential for your site to be fully optimised in this way. Usually, Google provides fair warning about any major updates that may impact UX. It also provides a number of useful tools that can help measure and improve a site’s usability and performance.
Freshness and relevance
Google favours ‘fresh’ or recent content, so it’s important to ensure copy is updated regularly. This matters more for some queries than others. For instance, if you carry out a news-related search, Google typically ranks results that have been published within the last 24 hours. Google interprets what the search is for so that only the most up-to-date, valuable and useful information is displayed to the user.
Relevance is also key. Once the algorithm understands the meaning and intent of the search query, it uses the Google index to determine which pages provide the most relevant solution to it. It’s at this point that on-page SEO, such as User Focused Content, is especially important. One of the most basic indicators of relevance is if the page features the same keywords as the search query – especially if these keywords are structured in your headings.
In 2015, mobile-friendliness became a Google ranking factor. This looks at the usability of a website on a smartphone device – something that’s more important than ever since mobile devices account for 60% of worldwide internet usage.
As a search engine, Google wants to be able to deliver the most relevant results for the search requests for each and every user. By taking mobile-friendliness into consideration, mobile searchers are guaranteed to be able to access and consume the information on the page. For example, if a web page displays less information on mobile compared to a desktop, this means that Google won’t have as much context to use for rankings. In turn, this provides a lesser experience for the mobile user. Responsive mobile design that visitors can easily interact with and navigate is a must in order to satisfy this ranking factor.