You’ve heard that Google is the most popular search engine, much like the wizard of Oz, operating behind a curtain of mystery.
But how does Google work?
Why is Google so powerful?
And how on earth does Google rank your website?
If you’re new to SEO and want to get to the bottom of this marketing riddle, this post is for you.
Note: Google is a machine that’s forever changing. At the time of writing, all the information provided is up-to-date and relevant, as to the best of my knowledge.
Why is Google so powerful?
Google is the #1 search engine worldwide, and a BBC report from 2016 names it the most valuable company in world, worth nearly US$520bn. There are other search engines you can use, such as Bing and Yahoo, but Google is the only one that’s captured our cultural devotion, and gone on to become an official verb within the dictionary.
So what makes Google so popular? For starters, the Google homepage is incredibly user-friendly, and it loads quickly. Also, Google displays far less ads on its homepage compared to competitors, making it appear more like a tool than a business.
But that doesn’t account for its alleged reputation as the smartest search engine.
The question is, what makes a search engine valuable?
Compared to other search engines, Google is top of their game for the way they deliver relevant search results. As Ben Gomes, Google’s Vice-President of Engineering, said, “our goal is to get you the exact answer you’re searching for faster.”
Essentially, Google was created to crawl the web, and other search engines weren’t. Yahoo was created as a directory, and businesses paid to be listed. It's this industry-leading, world-first algorithm that sets them apart from the rest.
So how does Google do it?
You may have heard a few animal names bandied around when industry pros refer to Google’s search algorithm. Before we get into those names, let’s go through what an algorithm is.
The word “algorithm” refers to the logic-based, step-by-step procedure for problem solving. When we’re talking about Google, the problem is how to find the most relevant webpages for this particular set of keywords (or search terms) that a users types into the search field.
But here’s the thing: it changes every day, and Google’s algorithm today is a lot different from 2014.
A brief history of Google’s search algorithm
Google has always strived to deliver relevant search results, but it wasn’t always the best at managing those search results.
Before Google Panda and Google Penguin updates were introduced, a website could easily rank for a specific key word or search term phrase by ‘keyword stuffing’. That’s the black hat SEO practice (read: totally dodgy SEO practice), of placing keywords a bunch of times within a page to rig the search results. It’s totally un-useful, right?
Eventually, Google's engineers decided things needed to change.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on four key changes that continue to impact how the search engine works today.
· The Panda update - 2011
· The Penguin update - 2012
· The Hummingbird update - 2013
· The Pigeon – 2014
Let’s get one thing straight before we power on ahead: there is just ONE algorithm, and all of these animal names describe specific updates to this ONE algorithm. Each update assists with a particular part of the search engine that Google is trying to improve.
- Panda – An update designed to stop sites with poor quality content ranking in the SERPs (search engine ranking pages).
- Penguin – Prevents spammy websites ranking through buying links, or using poor quality back linking tactics.
- Pigeon – Assists with delivering relevant local search results.
- Hummingbird – An update that was designed to help the algorithm focus on the meaning behind the words and the entire search term, rather than treat each individual word as distinctively separate from the overall sentence structure.
All of these algorithm changes and updates were intended to ensure that Google delivered the best possible content for users.
How does Google rank your website?
Google has one goal, and that’s to help each person find the most relevant, up-to-date information they’re looking for, as quickly as possible.
With Google changing its algorithm all the time, the most recent articles with the most factually correct information should be listed on the first page.
That said, Google is a machine that uses an incomplete science. And although Google’s engineers are developing a sophisticated machine that mimics the human brain, Google doesn’t get it right 100% of the time. It’s quite common to find very old SEO articles floating to the top of the search results, which contain information that’s no longer relevant.
However, for most search queries, the odds are in your favour. You’ll likely receive the most relevant and factual articles for your search query on the first page of the search results.
How do I work with Google’s algorithm?
There are many, many factors which Google uses to assess your website. In fact, there are over 200.
Now, I’m not going to list ALL of these here for you.
But, there are a few key ways you ensure that your content is deemed worthy by Google, and high quality by your website visitors.
When you your content is both optimised for search engines and for your customers, that’s when you’ll see an increase in traffic, happy customers, and your bottom line.
How to boost your Google ranking
Keep it fresh...if time = relevance
Google loves fresh content.
Cyrus Shepard notes that “the freshness score can boost a piece of content for certain search queries,” even though it then degrades over time.
But what does FRESH content mean? Does it mean you need to constantly update your home page?
When we talk about fresh content, what we're referring to is “timely” content. Think of timely content as sensitive to relevancy within a time-period. For example, news articles. These can often be seen in Google’s search results by a Top Stories section of links for the query. For example, if I were to Google 'Spring Racing Fashion', the first article that pops up is the official spring racing fashion website. Underneath that, articles that were published this racing season.
These pages you see above are the most relevant, because they were published this year. It makes sense you'd want to see what's on trend this season, as opposed to last year's cup.
But this begs the question: Do I need to be publishing content frequently to boost my Google ranking?
The answer: it depends on whether this fresh content is valuable for your readers. Ensuring you have fresh, quality website content can drive more traffic to your website if:
You have a large portfolio of keywords you can target;
You're engaging in a link-building campaign that sees this new content promoted by others on their blog, or on their social channels.
If you have a business that seeks to educate customers and clients (for example, a service-based business, like mine), publishing industry-relevant content frequently will definitely work in your favour. Even better if you can target a variety of industry-related keywords.
But what if you don't blog frequently? In my opinion, all businesses should be creating content regularly. But as for blogging weekly? It all comes down to the nature of your business.
How to optimise:
- Keep your pages up-to-date with new information. This could be updating blog posts with more relevant information, or changing your about page, or adding to your portfolio page.
- Perform a content audit at least once a year to assess whether your copywriting needs a refresh, and prioritise pages with less traffic. They’re the ones that need a boost.
- Don't stress out about blogging every week. You want to aim for quality over quantity.
Consider content length
It’s a common myth that your articles have to be looooong in order to rank. Additionally, Google’s Panda update took aim at “thin” content. But length is relative. For example, if competitors within your industry features articles over 1500 words, you should use that word count as a bench mark. It’s all a matter of what you audience is receptive to. Copyhackers wrote a great article on blog length over here.
How to optimise:
- Use content marketing tools like Buzz Sumo to search for industry-relevant topics. Buzz Sumo allows you to see the most popular articles first, and from there you’ll be able to manually explore these blogs to assess the right word length for your content.
Backlinks (that’s a link from another website that points to your website) remain an important ranking factor. But over the years, Google’s wised up and learned that not all links are created equal. If you have more backlinks, you can boost your Google ranking. Yet these links have to be more a diverse number of sources, and from authoritative websites.
Once upon a time, you were able to comment on blogs with your website URL, creating a backlink from high quality websites. This isn’t the case any more, and your SEO efforts require a more strategic approach.
How to optimise:
- The first place to start is by guest posting on websites that have a similar authority to yours. Offer a blog post guest swap, or interview each other on related topics.
- Reach out to high-quality partners for backlinks. Buzz Sumo is a great tool for this. I also have a resources page that lists a few select businesses that I feel confident enough in to recommend to my clients.
- You can also join high quality directories: I’m a member of the Dream Big collective, Business Chicks, Women in Business and the League of Extraordinary Women. Join earns you membership to a community, and a high quality link back to your website.
- Have an SEO audit performed to take stock of your current bank links, and to reveal any potential back linking opportunities.
One of the biggest changes we saw in 2016 was Google’s shift towards mobile-first indexing. This means that Google prioritises your mobile website experience over the desktop version.
In 2017, your website’s SEO relies upon how responsive it is across all mobile platforms. Mobile-first is now the norm, and with 85% of all websites now meeting Google’s criteria for being mobile-friendly, it’s time to ensure your website is easy-to-use on the fly.
Page speed is another important ranking factor that ties heavily into a good user experience. Desktop websites should load in 3 seconds or less, while mobile websites should load in 2 seconds or less (according to SearchMetrics, the top-ranked mobile websites are approximately one second quicker than their desktop equivalents).
How to optimise:
- Use Google Search Console to assess the mobile version of your website.
- Use the Structured Data Testing Tool to ensure that the same structured markup exists on both your desktop and your mobile site.
- Ensure that your mobile site is accessible to Googlebot using the txt testing tool.
- Test your page speed using PageSpeed Insights. If your page is slow.
- Have an SEO audit performed to assess what aspects of your website can be altered to improve the page speed.
SEO is an ever-evolving science, with the aim to provide a useful tool to solve searcher queries. Google isn’t out to ‘get you’ or your website, but is rather trying to master the art of problem-solving. Learn to play by Google’s rules, and your business will come out on top.