16. September, 2020

Google Rankings Explained – How Does Google Decide Which Websites To Rank When Searching?

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Martin Petrov
Marketing @ Morningscore.io

How Does Google Rank Websites?

To rank websites, Google uses web crawlers which scan and index pages. Every page gets rated according to Google’s opinion of their authority and usefulness to the end user. Then, using an algorithm with over 210 known factors, Google orders them on a search result page.

Therefore, appearing higher in the search result pages for a given search query directly means you’re the most relevant and authoritative result for it according to Google.

These search result pages answer specific search queries which are made up from keywords and phrases. Google’s AI is also able to understand the meaning behind each query – and therefore processes them in concepts rather than just individual words. This algorithm works similarly to the way we humans understand and process language – and is therefore called Natural Language Processing (NLP).

But to say that’s the end of the story is unfair. As we established, there are over 210 known factors that influence your rankings.

Now, we know and understand many of those factors that determine your ranking positions in Google. However, some of them are still a mystery. This is because some of the ranking factors are also created and adjusted by Google’s Artificial Intelligence algorithms itself.

Understanding how Google thinks might seem like an impossible task. But worry not, as there are some clear and certain things you can do to improve your search rankings. 

Google does many things to support webmasters and guide them in ranking higher. One of those things are, for example, the regular talks with their representative John Mueller who often explains concepts on how to understand the algorithm and rank higher. In fact, Google goes as far as running a blog where they share news on the latest algorithmic updates.

Does Google Ever Change How It Ranks Websites?

Yes, Google regularly changes how it ranks websites. These are called algorithmic updates and occur daily. Most of the time, they are minor updates but sometimes Google releases a bigger update to the algorithm.

does google change the ranking algorithm

Larry Page & Sergey Brin developed Google and its ranking algorithm all the way back in 1996. However, throughout the years the algorithm has evolved and is constantly including new factors. In fact, Google has stated publicly that their algorithm gets continuous updates several times every single day.

Overall, these are minor changes that improve the search results and tailor the right pages to specific queries. We’ve researched exactly how many times google changes how they rank websites per day is, so keep reading.

But every once in a while – usually every 3-6 months, Google also releases a bigger update. These are known as “Broad Core Algorithm Updates” and normally affect millions of websites at a time. To simplify things we can say that these major updates happen when Google “becomes considerably smarter” and is therefore able to show better search results.

How Often Does Google Change How They Rank Websites?

Google changes how they rank websites regularly. The minor changes happen daily and about every quarter we get a larger algorithmic update. We can’t predict the changes but based on historical data, we can guess when an update is expected.

how often does google update their ranking algorithm

Both the minor and bigger changes affect which websites appear at what positions in Google’s search result pages. However, the bigger updates usually change rankings more drastically and last for longer. If you happen to lose your rankings throughout a Google update, the SEO process afterwards usually consists of recovering them. Such drastic drops generally do not affect websites that are well maintained, but technically no one is safe. Here’s a good post to learn more about recovering rankings. And naturally, as the internet becomes more common and Google expands even further, there are more regular updates.

Minor Algorithm Updates

The algorithm gets somewhere between 5 to 9 minor updates every day. The more advanced the algorithm gets, the more frequent the updates. Based on how frequent the updates are, the number of position changes throughout the day and how big the fluctuations are, we can estimate how big and volatile the algorithmic updates are. Ten years ago, those changes would happen about once a day. In 2018, however, there were over 3200 changes – which averages out to about 9 updates a day.

Broad Core Algorithm Updates

They roll out bigger algorithm updates around every three to four months. That usually ends up being about four to five times a year. Their very large updates usually have unique names (e.g. “Panda”, “Penguin”, “RankBrain”, “Medic”, “BERT”, etc.). However, some of the other updates have a generic name where the date is included (e.g. “June 2019 Core Update”, “May 2020 Core Update”, etc.)

How Does Google Decide To Update The Ranking Algorithm?

To decide when to update the ranking algorithm, Google primarily relies on both webmaster signals and user signals. Google closely monitors both what webmasters do with their pages and how users react to that content.

That is, Google’s main purpose is to always provide as much value to the user – and therefore protect it from bad pages and content in the search results. If it notices that a webmaster is trying to game the algorithm and get an advantage, or if it sees a certain type of user behavior pointing towards dissatisfaction with the results, Google is going to take action about it.

Such an update, for example, was the recent “Reviews Rich Snippets Schema Update”. In short, it targeted businesses who were using biased and sometimes even untruthful reviews and review stars in Google to attract more customers. In it, Google specifically pointed out that the reason they enforced those changes was the fact that many businesses were using self-serving tactics to gain an advantage and rank higher.

Now, it is important to also say that there have also been a few updates orchestrated solely by Google – but their end goal has always been to serve the users better and less biased content. Such is, for example, the somewhat recent “YMYL” update. The update called “Your-Money-Or-Your-Life” set strict guidelines on who and how can rank for content that is potentially dangerous for the users (e.g. health, happiness, loans, etc.)

In short, when a certain behavior gets exploited to gain advantage in the search results, Google is sooner or later going to catch up and penalize it.

Now it’s time for us to look at which ranking factors Google monitors closely to determine what to change.

What Factors Does Google Consider When Ranking Websites?

In short, the main factors that decide website rankings in the search result pages are how useful your content is, how well-rounded your website is from a technical standpoint, and how authoritative your website is based on links from other websites.

Now, let’s explore a little more of the individual factors that decide website rankings. Those are:

On-Page Content

Firstly, let’s establish that by “On-Page Content” we include the overall appearance of your pages – and not just e.g. the text featured in the main body of a page or a blog post. With that, there are several measurements that Google takes into consideration when analyzing your website content. The most important ones are:

  • How unique your content is

Based on analyzing other websites in your industry. Have you used someone’s content or is it original? Are you adding anything new to the subject or are you recycling what others have written about?

  • How helpful your content is

Based on user signals. Do users stay reading for a while? Or do they quickly bounce back to the result page? Do they scroll down and engage with your content? Do they click and explore other pages?

  • How in-depth your content is

Based on content length and topical relevance. Probably also measured by Google’s NLP algorithms. Writing extensively also increases your chances of featuring more related words which can be a good ranking signal.

Off-Page Factors

Up until now we looked at factors you directly control on your website. With off-page factors, however, we’re looking at what happens on other websites. More specifically, Google looks at:

  • How authoritative your website is in general

How many websites link to you? Are they authoritative themselves? Are they also relevant to your topic and industry?

  • How authoritative your specific page is

Similar thinking as the point above.

  • How authoritative your competitors’ websites are

How many other websites link to them, how strong those linking websites are and are the links relevant or spammy?

  • How relevant your competitors’ websites are compared to the search

If a website writes on the topic of pets, an article about “cars” won’t do well (unless it’s related to pets, of course).

All of these factors (and more) signal to Google how worthy and deserving your website is of ranking in the search results.

Since you now understand the factors that come into play, let’s look at some concrete actions you can take (even today) to improve your search rankings.

Which Ranking Factors Can You Improve To Appear Higher In The Search Results?

Summarized, the ranking factors that you can improve are: the general usability of your website, the quality of your content, your website performance, and your backlink profile.

Of course, there are some differences in exactly how you’d improve your pages depending on your type of business. But as as generall guide, regardless of what business you’re in, you’d need to improve the factors listed above. That being said, I always recommend that you start at the easiest place for you – and usually that is the content on your website. This is because Google needs to understand what they are about – and the user needs to like what they see.

Here, I will list how you can approach this as strategically as possible – one step at a time.

Before you jump in the deep waters, here’s some questions you need to roughly answer first:

How does your page look and feel?

  • Is it a fresh-looking website?
  • Is it well organized?
  • Is it clear and intuitive to navigate?
  • Is it easy to read and follow?

How unique and helpful is your content?

  • Is the information you provide comprehensive?
  • Is the content on the page unique?
  • Does it help potential customers more than your competitors’ pages?
  • Are you going in-depth with your subject?
  • Is it showing both features and benefits?

How well organized are your keywords?

  • Are you targeting specific keywords & topics with every unique page?
  • Do you have unique pages for every product you have?
  • Are your keywords & content ordered in an intuitive hierarchy or are they all over the place?
  • Are your most important pages in a prominent place? Can the user find them easily?
  • Is your whole website targeting a specific niche topic-wise or is it scattered and has no concrete topic?

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. For many of them there’s no right or wrong answers – given especially what we mentioned that Google constantly updates the algorithm.

To answer others, however, you need to get a bit more technical. And I’ll help you with that.

So here’s the steps you need to take. Based on this, you’ll be able to answer the above questions – and ultimately rank your website higher in Google.

Keyword Strategy – Step #1 – Honing In On The Right Optimizations

Your keywords are the pinnacle of ranking high in Google. This step is critical and defines what you should focus on. Google needs keywords to understand what your pages are about – and show them for the right search queries. This is why you need to begin with this step.

Much has been written on keyword research. Exactly how to do it, you can already find online. Otherwise, I strongly recommend that you read this comprehensive step-by-step guide on keyword research. I promise that the examples won’t disappoint.

Simply put, make a spreadsheet with a column containing the keywords you’re targeting and the corresponding page that is going to be optimized for that keyword in the next column.

Some made-up examples:

  • “buy cowboy boots online” – “https://CowboyHeaven.com/category/cowboy-boots”
  • “home cleaning services in michigan” – “HomeCleaning.com/service-areas/michigan”
  • “printing company in aberdeen” – “https://AberdeenPrintingCompany.com/”

Competitor Research – Step #2 – Standing Out In Google’s Eyes

Next, see what your competitor pages look like. Write your main keywords in Google and check out the first 3-5 results.

This can give you a good direction of what to work on. You can also see how to structure your pages. Compare their pages with yours and make a guess on why they rank higher. Then write down improvements for your pages based on what you find.

Here’s a great video to help you further analyze your search competitors.

Note: I know you might not have the resources to do everything they are doing. Because of that, simply rate your list and mark the things you can easily do.

Bonus: Try and look for what your competitors DON’T have on their pages but your customers will like. This could be your competitive advantage.

Want to analyze your competitors quicker? Find ranking opportunities they are overlooking with our simple SEO tool. It’s free for 14 days, which is long enough to figure out if it’s something for you. 😉

Some made-up examples:

  • “competitor https://HouseRepairServices.Com” – “has a ‘BetterBusinessBureau’ badge on website”
  • “competitor https://BestWebsiteChatTool.com” – “has alternative-to landing pages targeting competitor names for SEO”
  • “competitor https://BestGifstForEveryone.com/” – “runs a blog with 35 posts on gifts and gift ideas”

Still not sure what to look out for? Here’s how to think about it: Put yourself in the shoes of your customers and be critical. Do you find what you’re looking for? Or is there a reason to visit another search result?

Bonus 2: If your competitors have bad content and generally bad pages, search for other unrelated products and services. You usually can’t go wrong with some competitive industries like lawyers or consumer electronics. That’s simply because these businesses always need to be at the top of their game to keep their high positions. Here, look for what they’re doing good and bring something like that to your industry. Which is what being resourceful is all about..

On-Page Optimizations – Step #3 – Actually Optimizing Your Site

We’re now at the nitty-gritty stage. Here, you’ll have to actually put in the work to optimize your site. Start by adding more content to your important pages based on the keywords you mapped out in Step #1. Once, you’re done with that, you can expand into other website improvements. Here’s a quick list of things you can generally improve on all websites that haven’t been optimized:

Text improvements:

  • More information for each product or service
  • FAQs on products, category pages, and services 
  • Helpful resources (e.g. links to the PDF manual of the product)
  • Adding your keywords to your page titles, headings and product descriptions

Visual improvements:

  • More and better pictures of the product
  • Customer photos with the products
  • Spec charts (drawings) of the products
  • Graphics and charts
  • Video reviews of the product
  • 360 video showcase of the product
  • Customer testimonials
  • Tables with product specifications
  • Comparisons to other popular products
  • Written product reviews pulled from Social Media

The best part? Many of these improvements will not only rank your site higher in Google but also help with something called CRO – Conversion Rate Optimization. Simply put, this is the discipline of making your site more useful and intriguing to the visitors with the purpose of turning them into customers. It’s a double-win!

Backlink Building – Step #4 – Turning Your Site Into An Authority

If you’ve never heard what backlinks are, now is a good time to check out this post which explains it in detail. From here on, I’ll assume you understand what those are (you need to in any case if you really want to rank higher 😉).

To begin with, you need to know which websites currently link to you. You can learn exactly how to do this in our backlink analysis guide.  This is the process of examining your backlink profile and seeing where you’ve gotten your links from.

Next, you need to find a way to get more of them. That is, as long as they are authoritative and relevant. The four easiest ways to build backlinks as a beginner are:

  • Featuring Your Company In Business Registers

Building links and citations throughout websites that offer business listings is especially useful for local businesses. Don’t get me wrong – these links are not critical to your SEO and won’t necessarily get you to the top. They are, however, a good start. With such links you practically tell Google that your website is “alive” and something’s happening on it. 

  • “Owing Your Business Partners One”

Getting links from your business partners can be an easy way to build some authority. This way also you’re leveraging their SEO efforts as the link value (also called link juice) gets passed on from one site to another. The easiest way to do this is to call your closest business partners first and talk to their favorite marketing guy who will likely help you out very quickly.

  • Piggybacking Off Of Competitor Backlinks

Once you’re done with the previous strategies, you have an opportunity to expand by finding links from your competitors. Now, if your competitors are ranking higher than you, this is likely an indicator that they’ve done some SEO in the past. So all you need to do here is “follow the breadcrumb trail”. Explore their backlink profile (see the backlink analysis guide linked above) and find the links they’ve gotten.

  • Link Building Through Digital PR

Ask your network for a guest segment on their media. Whether they run a blog, a magazine, a podcast, or simply share news on their websites, you can find a way to add value to that medium from your experiences. Share something that’s relevant and politely ask them to attribute your inputs with a backlink to your site. As a bonus here, if you’ve done media appearances throughout the years, you can head back to those places and ask for credit. Be careful, however – marketers (and businesses in general) look down upon being directly asked for links. And Google disapproves of that practice either. Instead you need to provide value first – often not even expecting a link in return.

The more advanced you get in SEO, the more link building strategies you’re going to discover. There are tons of them, but don’t get overwhelmed from the get-go. Instead, focus on “the path of least resistance” at first – which should be the four strategies described above.

Remember, Google Is Constantly Playing The Cat-And-Mouse Game

And there you have it! We looked at how Google determines the rankings in search result pages and the most important factors it considers. With that, we also explored how you can influence those factors to help your website rank higher when your customers are searching for businesses like yours.

Meanwhile, remember to make sure you’re doing everything in accordance to Google’s webmaster guidelines. It is probably accurate to say that Google is always playing a “catch me if you can” type of game with website owners. Because appearing higher in Google can potentially bring in millions of revenue, it is in webmasters’ interest to try and get an advantage.

Over the years, search engine optimization professionals have come up with a countless number of tactics to try and trick Google into showing their website higher in the results. But fortunately, Google is actively fighting that, and is trying to stay as neutral as possible – and thus creating a better user experience for us, the end-users.

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