How Google Ranks Websites
You’ve probably heard of Google rankings because of topics like search engine optimization (SEO) — there’s hundreds of factors that go into SEO rankings. The same goes for Google rankings.
The reason sites appear higher than others on search results pages has to do with how Google ranks websites. If you’re familiar with the basic ins and outs of SEO, you probably also have some idea of the steps you can take to help your site rank higher on Google.
But how Google ranks websites differs slightly from how SEO ranks sites. In this article, we’ll take you through the basics of how Google ranks websites, from key ranking factors to the infamous Google algorithm.
How does Google rank websites?
To rank a site, you have to know it’s there first. Google uses crawlers — website cataloging programs that use links to travel, or “crawl,” between webpages — to discover, scan, and index websites.
You can think of their collection of crawlers as a team of surveyors noting the terrain, marking down where you can find an ecommerce site or information about astrophysics.
Once the crawlers have the lay of the land, the ranking process can begin.
Understanding Google’s ranking factors
While gathering the raw data is necessary, Google needs a way to determine which pages are worth recommending and which are best to be avoided.
Google uses over 200 known ranking factors, which can be a lot to keep up with! The good news is that Google has identified a few key factors to help you focus on the most critical aspects — or at least give you a place to start:
- Meaning: Google’s first and most important goal is to return results that are relevant to a user’s search. With their AI and synonym system, exact language matches are less important than providing an answer to someone’s question. The more closely your page can match a query’s user intent, the more likely you’ll rank high.
- Relevance: Keyword matching is a simple way to identify content that matches search intent, but you still want to avoid keyword stuffing! Beyond keywords, Google analyzes interaction data to determine if a piece of content is truly relevant to a query.
- Quality: Once they’ve identified which content is relevant, it’s time to prioritize the best results by looking for pages that demonstrate expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T). Google looks for indications like links or references to your content on other trusted websites and articles written by subject matter experts.
- Usability: Pages that are more accessible score higher since content that users can access easily is inherently more helpful. This factor centers on user experience elements like quick load times and mobile-friendly site design.
- Context: Google uses user context like location, Search settings, and Search history to return results that are relevant to a user’s current context. While a pizza restaurant in New York may have a high rank for a user in Brooklyn, it likely won’t appear in the same search by a user in downtown Los Angeles.
Each factor’s importance varies from query to query — that’s where the algorithm comes in.
How does the Google algorithm work?
Most people have heard of the Google algorithm. However, fewer people know that the name is misleading — Google uses multiple algorithms in a complex system to rank its search results.
The key factors above give Google a shortlist of the results most likely to answer a query. Once they have this list, their algorithms apply the rest of the ranking factors to organize those results. While Google is pretty tight-lipped about the details, one thing we know for sure is that artificial intelligence (AI) plays a significant role.
Google first introduced AI algorithms in 2015 and has continued to add new ones ever since, including:
- RankBrain: The first AI algorithm to join Google’s process, RankBrain helps relate words to real-world concepts, finding relevant pages even if they don’t contain an exact match for the keywords.
- Neural matching: While similar to RankBrain at first glance, this AI algorithm is a Natural Language Processing (NLP) tool that processes language similarly to how people do. It helps interpret the context of a query to understand the search intent, then evaluates the pages the same way to determine how well their content matches the query.
- BERT: Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) is another NLP tool. It interprets word combinations into different meanings, concepts, and intents. Beyond just looking at words, BERT evaluates their sequence to understand a search query’s meaning.
As these AI functions indicate, the primary purpose of the Google algorithm is to understand the real intent behind a user’s query regardless of how they word it and find pages that provide the answer. Their algorithm grows and advances with new technologies to help them meet this goal.
When does Google make algorithm changes?
Google continuously releases updates to improve its algorithm — typically at least one daily. While every update represents an improvement, most are so minor they go largely unnoticed.
However, a few times a year, they release core updates that bring significant changes. Core updates release when Google identifies a new safeguard to help them deliver relevant and authoritative content and protect users from bad results.
Google monitors webmaster activity and user response to determine the need for a core update. They may decide one is necessary if the algorithm:
- Detects signals that pages are ranking high without providing helpful content.
- Sees user behavior that indicates dissatisfaction with the returned results.
For example, Google released its helpful content update on August 25, 2022, to adjust the ranking for pages where the content appeals to search engines without containing information that users will find informative or helpful. Since this high-ranking “search engine-first” SEO content can be frustrating for users, Google has stepped in to promote content written for people over search engines.
Improve your Google rank with WebFX
While there may be over 200 factors determining how Google ranks websites, creating helpful, relevant, authoritative content will always be a must. If you want to improve your ranking, Google advises focusing on people-first content that provides helpful information.
Luckily, that’s how we’ve always approached content creation here at WebFX.
Want some help boosting your Google rank but not sure where to start? Our content marketing services include keyword research, content development, professional website copywriting, and more to deliver high-quality, people-first content. We also provide SEO services to help ensure that your content finds the users who need it most.
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