It’s easy to take Google for granted. Most of us conduct searches every day, and some of us conduct dozens or hundreds of searches every day. Whenever we conduct a search, we’re instantly greeted with hundreds to thousands of relevant results that all offer information or destinations we need. It’s so simple, so intuitive, and so easily available that we don’t much think about what’s going on behind the scenes.
But if you’re in the search engine optimization (SEO) industry, you know that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. And if you want to take advantage of Google’s algorithm to rank higher and generate more organic traffic, you need to have at least some understanding of how Google’s ranking algorithm works.
Therein lies the problem, and a massive challenge for most SEO newcomers. As almost any SEO expert will tell you, Google’s ranking algorithm is extremely complicated. But is it really as complicated as they say? And either way, how can you understand it better?
Google Search Algorithm Transparency
Google wants to build the best technology in the world. There’s no hiding it or denying it. But Google isn’t necessarily interested in making sure that everyone understands exactly how that technology works.
The company is notorious for keeping its core search algorithm shrouded in secrecy. It does not officially publish the algorithm, but it does give hints about how it works. Why the secrecy? There are a few good explanations. For starters, their search algorithm is proprietary, and they don’t want other people copying exactly what they’re doing. This is a basic business fundamental that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone reading this.
But it’s also important because search optimizers often look for the quickest path to rise in rankings and generate more traffic, sometimes at the expense of their users. Because Google wants a reliable user experience, with consistently authentic and trustworthy results, it doesn’t want the full information on how its ranking algorithm works officially disclosed.
Because of this, it’s almost impossible to say exactly how complicated Google’s ranking algorithm is – because we’re probably never going to have eyes on it.
Google Ranking Factors and What We Know
Let’s focus on what we do know. Because of Google’s lack of transparency, we can’t say for absolute certain how Google’s search algorithm is coded or how it works. But by running our own experiments and gathering data, we can put together a list of Google ranking factors.
The process goes something like this. Using a variety of tools, we can figure out which websites and which pages are ranking for which keywords and queries. We can study correlations, rule out certain possibilities, and eventually narrow down a list of factors that are likely responsible for allowing a website to rank highly.
There are some issues with this. Most notably, it’s hard to separate correlation from causation. For example, we know that web pages that have high rates of user engagement, as indicated by factors like time spent on page, are more likely to rank highly – but is this because Google preferentially ranks pages with that factor? Or do people naturally spend more time on page because the page ranks as highly as it does?
The safe play is to optimize for all correlative or causational factors we can find, ultimately positioning your website and your pages to rank as highly as possible. The problem is, there are literally hundreds of Google ranking factors. Some of these are more important than others, and some of them are trivially easy to accomplish – but this is still a massive list that’s difficult to parse, especially if you have limited experience in this field.
Starting With the Basics
That said, many of the ranking factors we understand can be consolidated. For example, there are individual factors for the presence of keywords in different header tags and in different places throughout your body copy – but this can be effectively summarized by saying it’s important to include relevant keywords throughout your content, especially in areas that users are likely to notice.
If we zoom out far enough, we can effectively boil down Google’s ranking algorithm to two main factors:
- Relevance. Relevance is simply a measure of how appropriate a web page is for a user’s query. Is there content on this page that answers the user’s question? Is the keyword or phrase used by the user present on this webpage?
- Authority. Authority is a measure of how trustworthy or how competent the source is. If Google finds thousands of results that are hypothetically relevant, it wants to preferentially select the results that are most likely to provide reliable, trustworthy information.
You can achieve more relevance and more authority by focusing on the following:
- Onsite technical optimization. How well is your site technically optimized? In other words, how is your website built, coded, and arranged? Technical optimization means making sure your website is easy to crawl and discover, while also making sure it loads quickly and efficiently for users, providing the best possible user experience. It means making sure your website is secure for users. It means optimizing your website for mobile devices. It means optimizing your site for loading speed and dozens of other variables.
- Onsite content. What kind of content do you have on your site and what is the quality of that content? Websites with in-depth, trustworthy content consistently ranked better than websites with no content or bad content. The relevance of your content also matters; onsite content is your best opportunity to optimize for specific keywords and phrases.
- Offsite content and links. You’ll also need to think about your offset content and links. This is another opportunity to optimize for relevance, but links themselves are indispensable for building your trustworthiness and authority, as sites with more inbound links tend to be more authoritative than others in a predictable, measurable way.
Additional Google Ranking Factors for Complexity
After reading this simplistic breakdown, you might breathe a sigh of relief that you have Google’s ranking algorithm figured out. But remember, there’s a lot more complexity lurking beneath the surface, and it goes beyond even the most comprehensive lists of ranking factors.
- Semantic search. Google no longer considers keywords in isolation, or in strict, one-to-one relationships. It now uses semantic search, understanding the context and meaning of keywords and phrases. It makes it much more difficult to optimize for specific phrases using old school techniques.
- User behavior. To what extent does your behavior play a role in search rankings? We can make estimates based on measurements, but it’s hard to determine how much of this is correlation and how much is causation.
- Personalization. Optimization is all about helping users find what they’re looking for. That’s why Google employs many tools to personalize search results. Based on your location, your profile, and even your search history, you may end up seeing very different results than someone else searching for the same keyword phrase.
- Ongoing changes. Google search is not a stagnant entity. It’s constantly changing, with new updates, user interface tweaks, and more. As such, the half-life of knowledge in the SEO industry is relatively short.
- Industry-specific variables. Not all industries are treated exactly the same by Google’s search ranking algorithm. Certain industries require additional strategic considerations – and certain industries simply have a harder time ranking than others.
- Machine learning and AI. In recent years, Google has attempted to automate as much of its search engine (and as many search engine updates) as possible. Its primary way of doing this is by incorporating machine learning and AI algorithms to better understand user search behavior and automatically apply updates based on what they learn. Because these updates sometimes happen in a “black box,” it’s impossible to understand all the minute details – even for the engineers that designed them.
Google’s Algorithm is Highly Complex
So what’s the bottom line here? The truth is yes, Google’s ranking algorithm is extremely complicated if you’re judging it based on its raw sophistication. But if you’re looking at practical outcomes, it’s easy to summarize some of the “broad strokes” ways that Google operates. In the span of this short article, we’ve covered many of the basics, and with a few hours of follow-up reading, you can probably understand most of the elements of how Google’s ranking algorithm works. But thanks to automated AI updates, even Google’s top engineers probably don’t understand everything about it – and that’s perfectly okay.