22nd July 2022
How Does Google's Algorithm Work?
Understanding Google's algorithm can help us to better use it to our advantage. How does the algorithm work, how much do we really know about it and its updates, and how can we use that knowledge to improve our SEO? These are all big, difficult questions, but let’s try to shed some light on them.
What is the Google algorithm?
An algorithm is a list of rules or a procedure to follow in order to solve a problem or make a calculation. The Google algorithm, therefore, is the list of rules Google follows in order to solve the problem of where to rank web pages – deciding who should get top spot and who should follow. So when people ask how Google’s algorithm works, what they often really want to know is how Google decides where their website will rank in search results. By knowing how Google decides which order to rank pages in, marketers can then optimise their websites to try to get them to appear higher and get more clicks.
How does Google’s algorithm work?
So, what are those magic calculations Google makes to decide where to rank your website on SERPs, and how much of a bearing does each factor have on your placement? How does Google’s algorithm really work?
Well, I don't know. In fact, nobody knows. And it’s a good thing they don’t, in a way, because it would make the process much easier to exploit – remember the days when black hat tactics were rife? That wasn’t good for webmasters trying to rank ethically, or for users who wanted any kind of useful search results. (I remember using Alta Vista or Lycos as a pre-teen and being perplexed that the websites returned were unrelated to my search query.)
So the short answer is that we don’t know how Google’s algorithm works. But keep reading, because there is still a lot we can discover about the mysterious workings of Google’s algorithms.
What we do know is that Google takes many factors into consideration when ranking your website, and Google has provided some information over the years about these factors. They include, but are not limited to:
- Search meaning, user intent and relevance
- Quality of your content
- User experience
Let’s look at each of these in more detail:
Search meaning, user intent and relevance
One of the first things Google will consider is the meaning and intent behind the user’s query, and once Google understands what the user is searching for, it can determine how relevant your page is to their search. The most basic part of this is the language the query is written in and the location of the user – the latter being particularly important if the user is searching for local businesses.
Google will also consider the synonyms of words used in the query and be able to match those to website content. So you don’t need to optimise your page for every variation of a word, as Google is likely to understand the relevance of the keywords, for example, “remove” and “delete”.
If the query is timely and requires up to date information, words within the search query may indicate this intent, for example “today” or “next week”. Google will be able to tell whether your page is relevant to this query and rank it accordingly.
Whether the query is broad or more specific will also help Google determine the type of information the user is looking for – for example, “how to improve my writing” versus “should I use Grammarly?”
Quality of your content
Google has provided detailed guidelines around the kind of content it likes. This includes:
- Original information, reporting, research and analysis
- Substantial or comprehensive topic descriptions
- Descriptive headings and page titles (not clickbait)
- Content written by experts or enthusiasts
- Trustworthy information with clear sourcing and no factual errors
- Well-produced content with no spelling or grammar errors
- Content that displays well on mobile devices
- Content that provides substantial value compared to other pages in search results
- Content that is genuinely interesting to website visitors and not created purely for ranking purposes
Take a look at the guidelines for the full list. These guidelines also include the three pillars of assessment, E-A-T (expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness). They are particularly important if you publish what is known as “your money or your life” (YMYL) content. This is content around subjects that could affect a user’s health, safety, happiness or financial stability, and E-A-T is vital for these subjects because the stakes are higher if incorrect information is provided. In fact, if you publish this kind of content, it may be that your content is not ranked unless it is written by a relevant expert.
Google’s algorithm aims to promote pages that provide a better user experience. This means that your website should load quickly and be compatible with different browsers, screen sizes and device types, including desktop, mobile and tablet. Google has confirmed that Core Web Vitals are a ranking factor, so it’s important to ensure your website is optimised for these.
The context of a search is also important, but this is something you have less control over. For example, if I search for “Stranger Things Eleven”, Google tells me the actress who plays her is Millie Bobby Brown. If I then start typing “Millie Bobby Brown” into the search bar, Google knows and suggests what I am searching for after I’ve typed in just the first two or three letters. That’s context at work, because Google is using my previous search to understand what I’m looking for next. Someone else making similar searches may see different results depending on their own search history.
One way to find out more about Google’s algorithm is to pay attention to what Google says, both officially as a company and when employees speak on its behalf. Google’s Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller often provides insight into whether or not something could influence rankings, through his blog posts, social media, webinar appearances and more. Though neither John nor anyone else at Google will divulge exactly what the algorithm is, what they do say can be a great insight into what optimisations to focus on.
How often does Google’s algorithm change?
It used to be that Google only made a few updates to its algorithm every year, but now there are thousands of updates – some of which are large core updates and have a significant impact on SERPs, while other, smaller updates go unnoticed. The variable nature of SEO means that it isn’t always easy to plan your optimisations. However, by keeping up to date with the latest news and updates from Google, you can be aware of big changes they are planning.
How can we use this information to improve our SEO?
So even though we don’t know exactly how Google’s algorithm works, there are a few key takeaways:
- Familiarise yourself with Google’s content guidelines and pillars of assessment.
- Optimise your content for keywords and topics with user intent in mind.
- Optimise for Core Web Vitals.
- Ensure your website works well on all browsers, screen sizes and devices.
- Do your research by keeping up to date with news and advice from Google and its spokespeople.
- Monitor your SEO performance regularly to identify any problems early on.
Finally, remember that rankings should not be the end goal. They are a means to an end, while conversions, sales, revenue, or anything else relating to your overarching business goals should be the ultimate aim for your SEO efforts.
If you would like any help with your SEO, get in touch with SilverDisc.