A Realistic Explanation of How Google Ranks Sites
Recently, Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America, went on record claiming that Google (and “others”) have been manipulating search results to make him look bad by “…hiding information and news that is good.”
His top economic advisor even suggested that the administration would look into whether or not Google searches should be regulated.
Sorry, Mr. President, but we’re going to have to call fake news on this one.
For those of you that live within the confines of reality, who heard this news and thought, I don’t know how Google works, but that really doesn’t sound right to me, you’re both correct and in luck!
We figured we’d take this terrifying/amusing anecdote and use it as a chance to shed some light on how the search giant ranks websites and presents information, so we’ve gone ahead and written a pretty detailed guide to Google’s main ranking factors.
We hope that if more Presidents (political or otherwise) understand how Google actually works, then less of them will call for nonsense like regulating the world’s biggest search engine because you don’t like what it says.
So read on for an in-depth look at Google 101!
Google Uses Over 200 Factors to Rank Websites
(And We Haven’t Quite Nailed Them All Down)
To repeat for the sake of emphasis, because this is important: over 200.
If you ask two hundred SEO professionals what those 200 factors might be in terms of importance, you’ll probably get 200 different answers.
Because despite the SEO community’s best and most consistent efforts, the deep-down specifics of Google’s algorithm have never been fully cracked.
(And even if they were, they’d likely change within a week, based on the rapid evolution of both the web and user behaviour).
For their part, when asked about the top three ranking factors in search last fall, Google’s own Gary Illyes offered up the crucial information that “the role of top three ranking factors is dynamic and fluctuating on a per query basis.”
In other words, the ranking factors that Google uses to organize sites in search results are likely to vary depending on the search conducted.
This raises a tough point. If we don’t fully understand how the algorithm works, then how can we be sure it isn’t filtering what The Donald says it is?
Let’s take a closer look for a better understanding of the full picture.
Breaking Down Google’s Ranking Factors
Links & Link Building
Links from one website to another are seen as essential because Google’s crawlers count them as an endorsement and, depending on the relevance and value of the link, a good boost for user experience.
They’re trusting that if users are being sent to your site from another, it must a) have something to do with the topic of the linking site and b) be a relevant, quality resource from which the linking site trusts their audience will find some value.
The key words (pardon the pun)are relevant, quality, trust and value: a link from a website about cooking to a website about cars probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in the eyes of both users and search engines.
However, a link from a cooking website to one that specializes in kitchen knives could be seen as a trusted endorsement, and one that helps make a user’s browsing experience that much more satisfying and successful.
Read more about the value of links and link building with this informative article, from Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO.
Local Link & Citation Building
Breaking this down a bit further, websites for local businesses also want to focus on local link building, which involves earning links with a local emphasis.
This helps rankings for queries with a location modifier, such as custom t-shirts in Hamilton.
If you were the owner of a custom clothing store here in Hamilton, a good chunk of your link building strategy could consist of reaching out to local organizations for partnerships or collaborations that would result in a link to your store’s site.
Citations also count towards local SEO. These are any mention of your business name, address and phone number. The key here is that citations need to be consistent in appearance across the web.
Even if you’re not that well-versed in SEO or don’t spend time researching it, you’ve probably heard the mantra that content is king.
We’ve even made that claim ourselves.
Google loves to see expertise, authority and trust in the content that we create. They’ve gotten better and better at recognizing it and taking it into account, and that’s what makes it such an important ranking factor.
The more you can develop content – be it E-Books, videos, infographics, blog posts, interviews, white papers, or other creative formats – that users see as valuable (meaning they spent time reading and interacting with the content) and share-worthy (meaning it was good enough to show others online), the better you’ll look in Google’s eyes.
Why? Because they want to provide users with the most authoritative answers for their questions. If your content can do that – especially with consistency – you’ve got a great head start on a major ranking factor.
Quality content creation also has some excellent fringe benefits: for example, if it’s share-worthy, you could be looking at a few new links from other relevant sites – the ranking advantages of which we’ve already discussed.
There’s a bundle of sub-categories within this one.
On-page SEO i refers to a group of factors that make up a single web page such as its title, written copy, media (i.e., videos & imagery), and links.
The title of a web page as it appears as a clickable link in Google’s search results and within the user’s browser bar.
Google tends to look for core keywords that describe the page’s topic within this.
The snippet of text that appears underneath the page title in Google’s search results.
Though not officially used as a ranking factor, a well-written description is crucial for a strong click-through rate.
The interesting thing about the page description is that Google may choose to outright ignore it and pull from the written content on your page, depending on the search query.
This means that not every page necessarily needs a description – if you think the page copy speaks for itself, you’ll be safe to leave it.
The written content on a page. Google crawls and analyzes it to better understand the context of a page’s topic.
A common tactic with on-page copy used to be stuffing the same keyword on the page by repeating it ad nauseum. Be warned that this is no longer valid, and is an almost surefire way to finding yourself off the first page of Google.
Focus on writing quality copy with expertise, authority and trust. Write for the user, not the search engine. Trust us: Google’s getting smart enough for this.
Image ALT Text
Google’s crawlers can’t see images the way we do.
(For context, this is more like what crawlers see when they explore our site.)
That’s where image ALT text comes in: it offers a description of the image to search crawlers, as well as visually impaired users who may not be able to see the image properly.
Google’s crawlers tends to look for a keyword that describes the picture they can’t see within this, which is why it’s so important to include accurate ALT text with your images.
We’ll talk a bit more about page speed in general below, but for a quick tease, one thing to keep in mind is that images should be optimized for fast loading without losing quality.
Anything that can help a page load faster and more smoothly is going to work towards a better search presence, images included.
Internal linking refers to linking from one page of your site to another page on it, rather than to another website.
While it doesn’t carry nearly as much weight as a quality link from another site might, it does direct users to other relevant and valuable pages while also helping Google better understand the overall structure of your site, which can help with earning sitelinks in search results.
It’s the user experience, however, that is more likely to win you the most favour.
External linking refers to linking from your site to another site.
Depending on your own site’s quality and authority in the eyes of Google, the site to which you link will get much more of a benefit than yours, but it can go a step further in allowing Google to understand what your site is about.
Traffic & Engagement
It’s easy to assume that the more clicks a website gets, the higher it appears in search results.
That would be great, because then us SEO professionals would have little more to do than sit and click the same search result all day.
While this, unfortunately, is not the case, there is speculation that organic click-through rate (the amount of clicks a site gets on Google, vs. the number of times the result appears) does have an impact on search performance.
Further to this, Google has confirmed they look at site dwell time, indicating that site engagement metrics also play a role in search rankings.
Honestly, it makes sense: Google wants to deliver the best content it can for users, so if a site has a low click-through rate and a lack of engagement, Google would pick up on the fact that it might not be bringing users as much value as a top result should.
Did you know that 40% of users abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load?
A big part of what makes up Google’s algorithm involves giving users what they want, and users want to see pages load fast.
Paying attention to design & technical issues that prevent any part of your website from a speedy delivery will help you work towards a better search presence.
There is absolutely no mistaking the fact that we are living in the mobile-first era.
Mobile has surpassed desktop usage on the web, and – well, you don’t need stats to tell you how commonplace these devices are: just look around you.
And just this year, Google introduced a mobile-first search index “to better help [their] – primarily mobile – users find what they’re looking for.”
With this comes the caveat that your site should be mobile-friendly if you want to keep pace with both user behaviour and search engine prioritization.
Curious about your own site’s mobile functionality? Check out Google’s test tool to get started.
This one is tricky, because a lot of people assume that having an active and popular Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram profile will automatically mean better rankings for their site.
Not necessarily: it isn’t that simple, although Google does pay attention to what they call ‘social signals’.
Your brand’s overall presence on these platforms – both from its own profiles and from anyone talking you up, say from a piece of content you created that’s being spread – can lead to an improved search presence via increased links and user engagement.
There is also much speculation that Google’s algorithm does pay attention to the general social presence of businesses and takes that into account, but if it’s true, it’s important to keep in mind it’s still just one of two hundred signals.
Google wants its users to feel safe on the web.
They want them to be able to trust the sites they visit, especially those on which sensitive information, such as credit card data for E-Commerce, is shared.
They have also confirmed https:// is used as a ranking signal – albeit a light one – further emphasizing the need to ensure you’ve got it in place.
Schema.org Structured Data Markup
Schema.org markup consists of microdata that can be added to HTML in order to better help search engines understand and present the content of your site.
Structured data, in Google’s words, “is a standardized format for providing information about a page and classifying the page content.”
The example used in the above link is a recipe, with which structured data can be used to break down ingredients, cooking time, temperature, etc., all to help search engine crawlers understand and organize it.
While Schema does not in and of itself guarantee higher rankings, it is yet another small piece of the bigger picture in Google’s algorithm.
It can also lead to your site earning rich snippets!
Yes, Google personalizes your search results, although they say it’s only to a very light degree.
They take into account your location, search and browsing history, as well as additional signals for context. From Google themselves (click Considering Context on the page for the full quote):
In some instances, we may also personalize your results using information about your recent Search activity. For instance, if you search for “Barcelona” and recently searched for “Barcelona vs Arsenal”, that could be an important clue that you want information about the football club, not the city.
So, to Mr. Trump’s point, perhaps his own search results have been showing more negative stories – depending on what he’s been Googling about himself.
Google’s Algorithm: A Puzzle of Many Pieces
(And One We’re Still Trying to Solve)
There are a lot of elements that make up Google’s search algorithm. A lot.
In fact, what we’ve just shared with you could probably be considered light reading when it comes to breaking them down.
Regardless, you now have an idea of just how much goes into reading and ranking sites on Google’s end, and just how outlandish the President’s claim – and subsequent calls for regulation – are.
Google doesn’t work by showing you what it wants to show you.
It works by taking into account over 200 signals associated with a domain, analyzing them and their importance based on the search query, and using a finely-tuned, constantly changing algorithm to sort and present the information they think you’re looking for.
Is it perfect? No. And sometimes, that means your search will return results that you might not have been specifically looking for, or even things that you didn’t want to read.
That is – unfortunately for Mr. Trump – how information sharing, and therefore Google, works.