For most of us, Google’s search engine is the first port of call when navigating the online world. In fact, 90% of desktop/laptop searches worldwide occur on the Google platform, which accounts for about 3.5 Billion searches every day [source]. Users search Google habitually for matters big and small. This makes the Google search platform immensely powerful, granting it power over what we find and when we find it; thus it’s critical that business owners who want more visitors understand how the Google algorithm works. And while the ranking process might sound simple (Google crawls the web to find and index new pages, then analyses and categorizes them), it’s far from it — all because Google relies on a complex and ever-changing ranking algorithm that controls which links show up first when a user searches for something on its platform.
As a user, you know how important ranking well in Google is for generating visits to a website. When you make a search, thousands or hundreds of thousands of results show up; filling pages of search results or SERPs. But, users don’t scroll through hundreds of pages looking at all the links. Instead, they pick a link or a couple of links from near the top of the SERPs. This is common for most users. Forbes argues that 71% of all clicks flow to the first results page, with the top 5 results receiving almost all of this (67.6%), and most of that goes to the first result on the first page.
Because of its impact on traffic, the Google algorithm is a point of obsession for many people in the digital media industry. They eagerly follow all the latest news about possible changes, determined to get ahead of the curve and outperform their competitors. Some get too fixated on it, spending huge amounts of time trying to figure out the inner workings and uncover Google’s secrets.
Assuming you have a website you want to rank well, you might be wondering how important it is to understand how the Google algorithm works; what do you need to know and what doesn’t really matter? Let’s get into the basics that truly warrant your awareness:
There isn’t actually just one algorithm
Talking about the Google algorithm makes discussions easier, but that isn’t strictly accurate. In truth, Google uses a broad set of search algorithms that assess different elements in its efforts to give users the best experience. There may be one algorithm that collates the results, of course, but that doesn’t mean much. The reason it’s dangerous to get this wrong is that it makes it easier to humanize the ranking system.
Here’s what I mean: if you think there’s a solitary algorithm deciding how Google ranks your website, you start to view the algorithm as a capricious judge, and imagine finding ways to earn its favor. The ranking system is far more complex than that. When updates come along, they can alter the component algorithms in myriad ways that are all but impossible to predict.
The moment you feel confident that you know how the Google algorithm works, Google decides to change the algorithm. When Google finds websites trying to game the system, for instance, such as using keyword stuffing, it updates the algorithm to penalize these sites, all in an effort to ensure users see the most valuable sites first. The key to success is to Stay flexible and adaptable and focus on making the best content you can since providing valuable content on a consistent basis will always meet Google’s goals. Envision the end goal of a search engine, which is satisfaction for the user. Make your pages more deserving of searcher attention, and you’ll eventually be rewarded in the SERPs.
Semantic search takes context into account
Computer systems traditionally perform poorly in interpreting human language. Speech is intricate and full of elements that only make sense in context. However, following a lot of work in the field of natural language processing (NLP), Google systems are now vastly better at using contextual clues to figure out what searchers desire.
This is known as semantic search, and it stems from the 2012 introduction of the Knowledge Graph: a system for tracking relationships between entities that radically overhauled the previous method of simply breaking search queries down into individual keywords. Today, Google is very proficient at determining what searchers mean.
Here’s an example: suppose that you search for a wide variety of cooking utensils, then search for “ice cream”. A search engine might interpret a vague search term like that in many different ways, but since the system knows you’ve been making cookery-related searches, it infers you’re looking for ice cream makers or even suggestions for ice cream recipes and provides much more nuanced suggestions of links to satisfy the search you really wanted. As more users make searches using voice-enabled devices on their Android devices or Google Home, semantic search becomes increasingly important and you need to plan for that in the content you create.
Bear this in mind when writing content. You don’t need to hammer primary keywords these days — if anything, that might get you penalized. Just use your keywords as frameworks and build valuable content around them: Google will eventually figure out what your content is about.
Page tracking isn’t particularly smart
It’s easy to think of Google as omnipresent (looming over us, watching closely at all times), but that isn’t the case. The search algorithms don’t use live data. They really can’t: there’s too much work involved, far too much (even for a system with Google’s resources), to closely monitor every accessible page on the internet.
So how does it work? Through crawlers. At any given time, Google has numerous crawlers steadily charting the online world. Each one visits a page, sends data back to the page index, then follows a link on that page to reach the next destination. If there are no on-page links to be found, it’ll use a provided sitemap to identify new locations.
Over time, the entire internet as we know it was mapped out in this fashion. Periodically, a crawler will return to a mapped URL to look for changes — those changes are used to update the rankings with new content found. What this means practically is that you don’t get to update your site and immediately see SERP improvements. You need to play the waiting game.
This is why SEO requires a lot of patience, and why it’s a major concern while re-platforming: Google only stops by occasionally, and if you don’t use every tool at your disposal (such as requesting to have your site crawled again) to let it know what you’re doing with your pages, you can run into problems — having SERP listings pointing to the wrong pages, for instance.
Any SEO expert claiming to know Google’s secret sauce is lying
The biggest thing you need to know about how the Google algorithm works is that most of the algorithm is concealed. This makes total sense, of course: if SEO experts knew exactly how different factors contributed to rankings, they would manipulate results to their advantage. To best serve searchers, the operation must run in the dark, with websites working hard to provide value to users.
Even so, some SEO professionals present themselves as having everything figured out, and it’s fundamentally comical. They make big claims about how following their specific methods are guaranteed to deliver success (even going for the classic “You can be #1 on Google!” line), then they make contrived excuses when they can’t deliver on their promises.
So when you’re looking to rank high by knowing how the Google algorithm works, follow general best practices to choose the right tactics for getting your business performing in the SERPs, and don’t worry too much about hitting the specific ranking factors, as they’ll no doubt change over time, anyway.
To recap, here’s what you need to know about how the Google algorithm works:
- it’s actually a set of algorithms that are changing all the time
- Google can understand searcher intent fairly well
- page updates take time to make a difference, and no one has all the answers
- tick to optimizing your website, thinking about what’s most relevant and useful to searchers, and you should have a lot of success.
Rodney Laws is an e-commerce expert with over a decade of experience in building online businesses. Check out his reviews on EcommercePlatforms.io and you’ll find practical tips that you can use to build the best online store for your business. Connect with him on Twitter @EcomPlatformsior.
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