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How Does Google Rank Websites?

Many marketers wonder, “How does Google rank pages?” The journey to the top spots in search can be a daunting trek with misinformation littering the path along the way. Keep reading to learn what does (and what doesn’t) impact your visibility in search.

Dec 12, 2023

7 m read

Ranking high in Google can deliver a dependable stream of traffic to your website. However, the world’s most popular search engine features an incredibly complex and ever-changing algorithm. So, how does Google rank search results? Ultimately, it comes down to how the algorithm evaluates several on and off-page factors, many of which you can control to help your site rank higher.

Google’s Algorithm Explained

Google stores pages in an index, which functions like an enormous content library. However, when you enter a query into the search engine, it wouldn’t be very helpful if it just returned an unfiltered list of all these pages. Instead, Google uses algorithms — complex mathematical rule sets — to filter and rank web pages based on the relevance and quality of the content.

But what determines whether the search engine adds a website to its index, and how does Google rank websites from that point? The process of Google ranking websites begins with crawling. This is where a bot reads the content on a particular page, following links to gradually discover all pages on your site.

While the crawler checks the text and media on each page, it can’t fully comprehend what it reads. Instead, Google uses other technologies, such as natural language processing (NLP), to discern the meaning of sentence structure and semantics, particularly in combination with keywords and other on-page search engine optimization (SEO) elements.

Once Google understands your content and adds it to its index, ranking for a particular search term depends on how the algorithms rate the value of your page based on over 200 ranking signals. However, some of the most important ranking factors include:

How & When the Algorithms Change

Much to the dismay of website owners, Google updates its algorithms and systems frequently. However, this constant evolution is necessary to ensure the search engine returns valuable results. Often, major algorithmic changes occur specifically to counteract the latest quality problems.

One of Google’s first significant algorithm updates, Florida, launched way back in 2003 to combat keyword stuffing and link spam, as marketers were using these tactics to game the search engine. In 2011, Google launched Panda, another notorious update, to punish sites publishing many pages with thin or duplicate content.

Google has also often used algorithm updates to adapt to changes in user behavior. For example, the search engine launched a mobile-friendly algorithm in 2015 to boost the ranking of pages optimized for smaller devices. This was in response to the shift of most users shopping and browsing via their phones. A similar but more recent change you may remember is Google’s page experience updates in 2021 and 2022, which saw the search engine factor load time, layout shift, and other aspects of the user experience into rankings.

Most Google algorithm updates fall into a few categories, depending on the update’s size and goal. These categories include:

  • Minor Updates: Small algorithm changes that target specific issues, such as spam, are minor updates. While some websites are unfairly affected, you usually don’t need to worry much about minor updates if you focus on content quality and user experience.
  • Major Updates: Large-scale algorithm changes, such as the Penguin update that built upon the foundation Panda laid, significantly impact the search engine’s results pages. The Diversity Update, which reduced the number of rankings presented from the same domain, is another prominent example of a major update.
  • Core Updates: Google updates all its algorithms and systems several times a year, and these widespread changes are called core updates. They’re often the most challenging adjustments to prepare for or recover from since they don’t target anything specific. If your site is affected, Google simply states that you should focus on overall content quality, user experience, and adherence to search guidelines.
  • Systems Updates: Besides algorithms, several systems are essential to how Google rankings work. These systems affect how the algorithms perceive your content. For example, the helpful content system sends a ranking signal to the other algorithms when content comes from unique expertise or experience and delivers exceptional value. The reviews system also rewards in-depth product reviews that offer unique insight.

How Google Ranks Websites

Understanding Google’s many algorithms is one part of the puzzle, but how does Google rank search results using these algorithms? Despite the search engine’s overwhelming complexity, we do have a grasp of many on and off-page signals that are essential to how it works. Targeting these Google ranking factors can help your website gain higher positions for relevant keywords.

First, a note: Google doesn’t rank websites; it ranks web pages. It considers most ranking factors at the page level. However, there is an exception (of course) for the helpful content system. This algorithmic system can impact an entire site’s rankings, rather than just a particular page’s rank.

On-Page Factors

On-page ranking factors are signals within the content and architecture of your site. Because you can control your website, optimizing these factors is one of the most efficient ways to gain higher search rankings.

Search Intent

Search intent is the meaning behind the query you type into Google. For example, depending on the other words in a query, Google can usually tell the difference between a search for Apple, the tech company, and apple, the fruit. The four main types of intent include:

  • Navigational: Queries where the user is looking for a particular site or web page, such as a Wikipedia article about a specific topic or the login page for Facebook.
  • Informational: Searches that ask a question. The user generally wants to know more about a subject.
  • Commercial: Queries that have a future purchase intent. The user may search for the “best TV” or product-specific information to assist with shopping.
  • Transactional: Searches that occur once a user is ready to make a purchase. The keyword “buy” is a common inclusion in these queries.

Search intent has a massive effect on rankings because Google usually ranks websites for queries only when the page content reflects what it believes users want. For example, Google likely won’t present a product review page about a brand of solar panels to someone who wants to know how solar energy generation works.

User intent also affects the type of results and search features on the page. So, how does Google rate websites differently based on the specific search? One example is the search engine providing more video content for how-to style queries, where the user may want a visual answer. Users may also find search snippets better for any informational question requiring only a short answer.

Searching for your target keywords and studying the top-ranking pages before creating or adjusting your content is always a good idea. Consider what a typical user might want and ensure your page reflects that for higher rankings.

Relevance

Google sometimes provides personalized results to users if it thinks they’re looking for specific things based on their past search history or location. For example, a user searching for the best hairdresser probably doesn’t want to get on a plane for a haircut. Google understands this and returns results relevant to the person’s location.

Freshness is another form of relevance, as Google may rank updated content higher for time-sensitive search terms. For instance, someone searching for information about a product recall likely wants to know about the most recent event rather than past recalls. Google will rank up-to-date pages higher than older content in this situation.

You can’t ensure your content is 100% relevant to all users. However, there are some simple things you can do to optimize its applicability to a broader audience:

  • Create evergreen content with long-lasting appeal. 
  • Check and update keywords for changing search intent.
  • Update pages with new information and multimedia to maintain freshness.
  • Perform regular SEO audits to check for broken links and other technical issues.

Content Quality

Content quality is central to high search engine rankings. But how does Google rank search results with quality in mind, and what is E-E-A-T?

E-E-A-T signifies experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness — qualities Google seeks when manually rating content. Because Google uses the feedback its manual raters provide to fine-tune its algorithms, you can think of the algorithms as using these principles indirectly.

If your site doesn’t adhere to E-E-A-T principles, you may not rank as highly as you could otherwise. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to improve content quality:

  • Publish in-depth content backed by research.
  • Collaborate with experts and influencers within your niche.
  • Provide transparent details about your business to build trustworthiness.
  • Use expert authors or have professionals review information for accuracy.

Usability

Google’s page experience and mobile friendliness algorithm updates raised the importance of a good user experience. While having a lightning-fast website won’t necessarily propel your pages to the top of search for the most competitive keywords, it can often mean the difference between first and second position when all else is equal.

Core Web Vitals are among the most critical metrics to target for page experience, as they’re what Google uses in its algorithms. You can check these measurements easily with the following tools:

In addition to optimizing Core Web Vitals, you should improve your site’s accessibility where possible. As website performance and accessibility optimization can get technical, you may need help from an experienced web developer if you’re unfamiliar with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and don’t have an in-house professional to coordinate the changes.

Off-Page Factors

While on-page factors relate to the content itself, off-page factors are the signals Google receives from external sources. These signals are more complicated and time-consuming to optimize, but they’re essential to how Google ranking works. 

Some of the most vital factors include:

  • Backlinks: Of all the off-page factors, backlinks are probably the most crucial to how Google ranks results, as they demonstrate a referral of trust and authority. When deciding on rankings, the search engine considers both the quality and number of backlinks to your domain and individual pages. However, backlink quality carries more weight than anything else, with links from established and highly trusted websites holding the most value.
  • Google Business Profile: Creating a Google Business Profile helps build trustworthiness and authority for your brand. While this tactic is more important for local marketing, it can also benefit your overall SEO efforts by improving your E-E-A-T score and attracting backlinks from other sites.
  • Domain and Page Authority: Domain authority measures the value of your site’s overall backlink profile, while page authority provides a similar score for individual URLs. Both metrics are third-party measurements Google doesn’t explicitly use. However, these metrics can help you track the overall effect of your off-page SEO over time, allowing you to measure the success of link-building efforts.

Off-page SEO is tricky because Google punishes websites for shady black hat tactics such as comment and forum spam. Generally, it’s best to build links as naturally as possible. Some common strategies include:

  • Publishing link-worthy content that serves as valuable resources for businesses in your niche.
  • Collaborating with other websites through guest posting and social media campaigns.
  • Creating highly linkable multimedia content such as infographics and videos.
  • Building relationships with influencers.
  • Issuing press releases.
  • Partnering with a reputable link-building service.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to note that most ranking factors are relative, and the actions of your competitors can affect how highly your own site ranks on Google. 

Suppose a competitor makes sweeping improvements to content quality and expands their link outreach program. In that case, you might experience keyword rank changes even though you haven’t changed your own content or marketing strategy. The best way to avoid this is to focus on SEO and continuously improve your website even when you’re already on top.

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