How the Google Search Algorithm Works: A Zero-Fluff Guide

Written by Kris Black on June 20, 2024

Ryan Prior | Dec 01, 2023 | 15 min read

What Is the Google Search Algorithm?

The Google Search algorithm is a complex system Google uses to decide how pages will rank in the search results. The algorithm is believed to consider hundreds of factors. Content relevance, quality, and the user experience (UX) are among the most important ones.

How Does Google’s Search Algorithm Work?

The exact details of how the algorithm works aren’t public information. So, trying too hard to understand it completely likely isn’t worthwhile. Instead, you’ll probably find it more useful to focus on the broader ranking process and the ranking factors that go into the algorithm.

Google’s Ranking Process

Here’s a simple overview of what Google says about their process:

  • Google crawls pages: Google discovers the page exists (e.g., by following a link from a known page to a new page or reading a sitemap).
  • Google indexes pages: Google determines what the page is about and whether or not it is unique and high quality. Not every page will be indexed.
  • Indexed pages are then served to users: This is where the search ranking algorithm comes in. Pages are ordered by which ones Google thinks are most relevant and helpful.

For more details, check out our guide on How to Get Your Website Indexed by Google.

What Are the Key Google Search Algorithm Ranking Factors?

Many people in the SEO industry believe that 200+ signals help determine ranking positions in Google. Here are some key areas:

1. Content Relevance

If you want to rank for a target keyword, you first need to understand what the person is looking for. Then, create useful content that provides the relevant information. Before you start trying to rank for a keyword, see which pages are currently ranking well. This will give you hints about what people are looking for.

2. Content Quality

Google wants to reward content that is people-first, not search engine-first. That means content that is helpful, trustworthy, and full of useful information that the searcher is looking for. One way to improve content quality is to ensure you can demonstrate E-E-A-T (Expertise, Experience, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness).

3. User Experience

Google wants to reward pages that deliver a great user experience. Which can mean fast page load speeds, a mobile-friendly design, no frustrating pop-ups or excessive ads, clear navigation and website structure, and security (HTTPS).

4. Backlinks

If various other websites in an industry are linking to a webpage, that’s a good indication that the page is helpful and relevant. These links are known as backlinks. They’ve been a part of the ranking systems from the very beginning and they’re still important today.

5. Topical Authority

To have “topical authority” for any topic, your site needs to cover it comprehensively. Over time, consistently publishing quality content around specific subjects builds credibility.

6. Context

Although you can’t control it, it’s worth knowing that Google’s search algorithm also uses context as a ranking factor. For example, a search result can be personalized based on your search history or location.

Disputed Ranking Factors

In the SEO community, some “ranking factors” are widely accepted by many, even though Google denies their significance as actual ranking factors. Here are three common ones:

  • Domain Age: Naturally, the longer your domain has been around, the more time it has to build authority and acquire backlinks. The age alone isn’t inherently an algorithm factor, though.
  • Bounce Rate: Google says it doesn’t use any Google Analytics data in the ranking algorithm, and bounce rate is no exception.
  • Domain Authority: Domain Authority (like Domain Rating and Authority Score) is a third-party metric that Google has repeatedly confirmed Google does not use in any way.

A Brief History of Google Algorithm Updates

There are thousands of algorithm updates every year to improve the quality and relevance of results and prevent spam tactics. Let’s look at five significant updates through Google’s algorithm history.

  • RankBrain, Oct 2015: Google’s first deep learning model which helped to better understand new queries.
  • Hummingbird, Sep 2013: An improvement to how Google could understand the meaning of search queries and match them to relevant results.
  • Penguin, Apr 2012: An update intended to penalize sites engaging in web spam SEO tactics like keyword stuffing.
  • Panda, Feb 2011: An update intended to reduce rankings for low-quality sites and content that isn’t very useful.
  • Florida, Nov 2003: An update to prevent simple manipulations of the algorithm, such as keyword stuffing.

For more details, check out A Complete List of Google Algorithm Updates.

The Effect of Algorithm Updates

Google algorithm updates can shift what is considered a ranking factor. And the importance of ranking factors. For example, meta keywords previously affected rankings. But, after webmasters abused them by stuffing meta keywords on pages, Google released algorithm updates that diminished the importance. And, eventually, removed their impact entirely.

What to Do if Your Website Was Affected by an Algorithm Update

If you suspect you’re being negatively impacted by an algorithm update, here’s what you can do:

  1. Confirm There Was an Update: Follow Google’s official channels for announcements, and use tools like Semrush Sensor.
  2. Research the Update: Figure out what Google is trying to improve. Which specific factors does the update seem to target?
  3. Understand Which Pages Were Affected: Use tools like Semrush’s Position Tracking or Google Search Console to identify impacted pages.
  4. Make an Action Plan: Wait for the dust to settle, then prioritize and update your content based on competitor analysis and the changes needed.

Get Ahead of Google Algorithm Updates

The core purpose of Google’s updates is almost always the same—to make it easier for searchers to find the most useful content for their search query. If you’re creating great content and focusing on helping users, you increase your chances of being rewarded by algorithm updates.

On top of that, here are two things you can do to get ahead of algorithm updates:

  1. Subscribe to Semrush Sensor notifications: to get the biggest possible head start on any changes.
  2. Set up rank tracking: using Semrush’s Position Tracking to get quick data on the specific pages that gain and lose keyword rankings during future updates.