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Google Algorithm – Decoding the Monster

Google Algorithm Decoding the Monster

The Google algorithm is always changing, constantly evolving, and seems to be the primary culprit behind a lot of headaches for marketers and business owners.

Did you know Google is currently processing over 40,000 search queries every second? That works out to about 3.5 billion searches every day.

That’s mind boggling. You want in on a piece of that pie. But how daunting does it feel to compete with numbers like that?

There’s some good news, don’t worry. If you nail your SEO and please the beast that is the Google algorithm, you won’t need to compete. You’ll already be on page one. Keep reading and we’ll break down how to get there.

Hacking Google’s Ranking Factors

Even though Google won’t reveal what exactly qualifies as a top-ranking factor, there are a few that we do know about. While they’re far from being the only factors, they’re probably the most effective.

The Relevance and Context of Your Content

Using keywords on your website increases the relevance of your information, but it should always be tied to the content that you’re delivering. This means that if someone searches for ‘best coffee beans’, they’re going to get results about coffee (hopefully). 

Not only that, but they’ll receive results that link to their location. This is where context comes in. Someone based in Washington will not get a search result that links to a coffee shop in Wales. 

You want your content optimized for your target audience, and you want to be sure that people in your area are seeing you!

The Quality of Your Links

Links are especially valuable for high-ranking SEO and are one of the most important search engine optimization tools you can invest in. When we say invest, we mean do your research and make sure your links are high quality. 

There is a direct correlation to the quality AND quantity of links to your site. An inbound link is the most valuable as it means traffic is coming to your site from another source. Obviously, these can be challenging to get, but they position you as an expert in the field.

The algorithm loves experts.

A link on someone else’s page is like a vote of trust. It establishes credibility and authority. 

However, it’s important to remember that a good quality site will link to other good quality sites, so outbound linking is also valuable. They not only produce organic traffic but also facilitate the growth of relationships with other businesses.

Finally, internal links help someone navigate your site and allow you to direct them to various products or articles that would fall within their sphere of interest. 

The average person only spends about a minute on any given page. By providing valuable internal links, you’re giving your site the chance to avoid a high bounce rate.

Mobile Friendliness, A Modern Problem

Because Google uses the mobile version of your website for its testing and ranking, “mobile-friendliness” is valuable as a decision-making factor. Most people are browsing the internet on their phones and having a poorly optimized website would result in anyone clicking away.

Mobile-friendliness contributes to overall customer loyalty. If someone was satisfied with the time they spent on your website, they’ll want to revisit.

You can easily test how mobile-friendly your site is with the tools that Google itself provides.

Page Speed and HTTPS Status

Speed and security. Core fundamentals to any successful website. Google prefers secure websites, which is all that HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) means. The only way to get an HTTPS address is through an SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificate. 

This is telling Google that your website is safe! 

Finally, the speed of your website is important as it determines user experience. Think about the last time you googled something and ended up on a page that took ages to load. 

Did you just click away and look for a site that would give you the information quicker? 

Exactly. 

We don’t want the speed of your page to affect your ranking, and if it’s slow, it surely will.

How Does the Google Search Algorithm Work Anyway?

Before we go much further into breaking the algorithm down further, let’s have a look at what it actually is. 

When Google is attempting to determine a webpage’s rank, it considers a variety of variables, and we only listed a handful of them above. Overall, it’s an internal technique for ranking material by quality.

We can split this process into three primary stages: 

  • Crawling
  • Indexing
  • Serving

For the first phase, Google bots crawl the web, looking for new and updated web pages. The more links that point to a page, the easier it is for Google to find. 

In order to create orders of rank, bots crawl through various pages, then index them. 

When Google indexes a page, it analyzes various URLs and determines what each website is about. It does so by examining the content, images, and other media assets on the website.

It then stores this information in a massive database called the Google Index. It’s critical that your technical SEO is in good working order during these first two stages. You want your sitemap, headers, and tags adequately configured.

Finally, we look at serving. This is the actual ranking stage, and it involves Goole sorting through web pages for relevance and context. Think of Google literally serving your page to your audience like a fine wine.

The Algorithm Is Still a Mystery

Unfortunately, outside of Google’s actual inner circle, no one really knows how the algorithm works. We can make the best guesses and work with the information at hand, but that’s the best we can do. 

There are good reasons for this, of course. The algorithm is a business asset and, therefore, needs to be kept close at hand. 

If the algorithm became public, it is a certainty that people would take advantage of it and work the system in their favor. This would cause poor search results and a worse internet for it.

This doesn’t strictly mean that Google doesn’t share some of its secrets. It wants people to succeed through its platform, so it’s going to give information where relevant. 

Google has provided plenty of detailed guidelines around what it values regarding rank content. As a marketing specialist, it’s imperative to pay close attention to Google’s official press releases and communications.

Tracking Updates to the Google Algorithm 

As a whole, Google is constantly making minor changes to the algorithm. We’re talking on a daily basis here. Multiple updates might even see a release in the same 24-hour time span. 

Because these changes are so small, they’re unlikely to actually make a difference in your search page rankings. 

Core updates are another matter entirely. In these core updates, Google makes large, sweeping changes a few times a year, and these are the ones that can directly impact the performance of your page. 

While you don’t need to keep track of every tiny change Google makes to its algorithm, you do need to maintain an awareness of major changes; otherwise, your SEO approach will become swiftly obsolete.

There are three things you can do to keep track of these major changes. Set up a Google alert, follow Google SearchLiaison on Twitter, which is an official page run by Google’s public liaison of search. Lastly, you can use Google Analytics as a tool to help you spot changes. 

While Google Analytics is more about advertising, it will show you if there are unusual fluctuations in traffic and conversion rates. You can then act accordingly to get back on track, but it’s always better to be on the ball rather than reacting to situations when they occur.

The Biggest Updates Google Has Released (And How They Changed the Game)

In order to truly understand the function of Google’s algorithm and how it works, we must look at its history and growth. Just as we track major shifts in politics, the media, and society to decide how to live in the now, so too must we pay attention to what Google has grown from.

2011

Google Panda was released and was one of the first major algorithm changes that took hold of poor behaviors like keyword stuffing and duplicate content. It established a “quality score” which allowed web pages to achieve a rank based on how people perceive their content.

2012

Google Penguin directly combated bad SEO tactics like spammy backlinks and link directories, which is an online catalog of websites. Until 2012, Google didn’t have a means of explicitly picking out bad links from good ones, so it was easier to abuse the system.

The goal with Penguin was to move towards high-quality content and away from link-volume as a tool to boost a page’s search ranking.

2013

The goal of Google Hummingbird was to close the gap between keywords people typed into the search field and the type of information they were actually given.

The primary goal was to make the search engine experience more human by putting the most relevant and useful stuff on the front page.

As a result, marketers have improved their chances of satisfying readers’ expectations by providing more keyword variations and relevant search words.

2015

RankBrain, a Hummingbird plugin, was launched by Google as a tool to assign a score to pages based on how well they appeared to respond to a user’s search intent. 

You want to pass RankBrain’s requirements. To do this, you need to understand the user intent behind every keyword someone may use and compile quality content that satisfies their expectations.

2016

2016 saw a release of an updated Google Penguin that no longer penalized sites for bad links, but focused instead on devaluing them. When there is no value in a tool, there is no need to exploit it. Google’s approach is to dissuade rather than punish, and it is largely effective, though not impenetrable.

2021

With little to no major changes happening between 2016 and the present, we’ve seen two big updates in the last year alone. 

One is a focus on product reviews and a preference for in-depth reviews rather than thin or spammy reviews and affiliates. 

Additionally, in June 2021, Google began rolling out a Page Experience Update which has a significant focus on the quality of your website and how people feel about being there!

A Deep Dive Into What (Actually) Works

While we have discussed what you can do to ‘hack’ the system, there are tried-and-true methods for engaging with your website ranking on Google. 

Keep in mind that we want to focus on the relevance and context of your content, the quality of your links, and how mobile-friendly your site is. Through tested methods and some guidelines provided by Google, we know for a certainty that these work.

It’s important to note, however, that these very much fall into creating an enjoyable experience for your site visitors. If you’re aiming for authentic information and a user experience that strengthens and highlights your brand, then the following steps are simply par for the course.

Avoid Duplicate Content

Here, just swapping out a few words here and there won’t necessarily be enough for the algorithm to acknowledge that your content is unique. As a response to duplicate content, your organic search performance can suffer.

We want to avoid this because it attracts penalties, even if it’s only a few lines of text. You can use various tools to identify any duplicate content on your own site. Additionally, you want to make sure that other people aren’t using your content on their site because this will negatively impact you too.

Improve User Engagement

In order to make sure that the volume of traffic you’re receiving isn’t surface level, you want to make sure that your website provides trustworthy and useful content. 

At its core, this means doing your research about your keywords. Quality keywords mean that when someone Googles something, you’re always answering correctly for that search intent.

There are a few ways you can do this that aren’t time-consuming and they involve simply tweaking the content you already have.

Make sure you’re providing the “aha” moment early on, but slowly expose your users to new and helpful information and products.

Use qualitative feedback tools to see where things aren’t working. Unfortunately, most of these tools can’t tell you why things aren’t working, which is where user feedback and surveys become very helpful.

Provide Informative Content

Your goal is to create content engaging enough that if someone clicks on your website, they stay there. 

The result of this is if you’re hitting the right buttons for your viewers, then your page rankings will be higher. You’re not only feeding relevant google pages into the machine, but you’re also providing exemplary service to your potential clients and readers.

Steer Clear of Keyword Stuffing

Keyword stuffing is a grievous sin and should be avoided at all costs. It’s not only difficult to read and often feels unnatural, but Google really despises it. 

You don’t want your audience to get distracted and there are simple ways to insert your keywords into your text in such a way that it feels natural, organic, and easy to digest.

Want to know what to avoid? Don’t add words that are out of context and be sure to use synonyms to guide you if you’re feeling like things are getting a bit repetitive.

Don’t Go Overboard With Optimizations

While it’s challenging to strike a balance between what we consider effective SEO and what we see as over-optimization, it is more than doable. 

If you avoid black hat approaches and aggressive link-building practices, you should be more than alright. 

By the way, black hat SEO refers to a set of techniques for improving a site’s ranking while violating the search engine’s terms of service. It originates from old Western films, where the “bad guys” wore black hats and the “good guys” wore white ones.

We want to always aim for white hat SEO practices. Be the good guys.

Everything we’re talking about here is white hat SEO, so if you implement it, you have no cause for concern.

Improve Your Site Navigation

Streamline your website menus, create a site map, and make sure all of your navigation links work properly. These are simple, easy steps that make the total user experience much more enjoyable.

The more usable your website is, the longer people will stay. The better your website looks, and the more organic it feels, the more confidence you instill in your audience.

Man vs. Machine

Google is an incredibly smart machine. The algorithm itself is very close to reading text in the same way that humans do. 

That being said, parts of Google’s algorithm aren’t smart at all. And while that bodes poorly for the AI uprising, it is also an unfortunate and frustrating part of dealing with SEO and optimization. 

In its infancy, Google could only understand the basics of language. That’s where the benefit of mentioning keywords repeatedly came from. As we know now, after updates, you’ll be punished for behavior like this. 

The Panda update was the first sign that Google was getting better at understanding text. The following Hummingbird update only improved on that. This serves a good purpose, but the consequence of it is that you, as a user, need to be constantly evolving and changing. 

In order for you to succeed with the search engines, your content should be easy to read and easy to navigate. This is because, as smart as it is, Google still needs help in understanding what is what on websites.

The Untested Formula

For years now, armies of SEO experts have claimed to have “tested” various ideas concerning Google’s algorithms using some very dubious methods. These experiments used to comprise a person testing and tweaking one feature of a single page, then waiting to see how this affected their stats. 

They would post their findings in various forums or even on their website if they succeeded. If the post gained enough traction, the SEO community would copy their “trick” until Google or one of the other search engines told them to stop. 

This is where the algorithm falls down until it’s updated. It’s the failing point of the machine. Without aid from the people that govern it, it has no chance to grow and adapt. This makes it vulnerable, though much of this has changed in recent times.

Google would sometimes shut these theories down with the saying, “correlation does not equal causation,” and while this is true, it was regardless enough to exploit.

All that being said, how much can we really claim to know about the algorithm? Google’s various algorithms take into account hundreds, if not thousands, of data points from which it creates a massive index. With something this large and sophisticated, are our methods and statistical knowledge really enough?

In-depth understanding requires intricate knowledge of statistics and maths, and the average person is not an analyst. You need to work with people who are experts.

We know what works well and what doesn’t, but even with that knowledge, we must still change, update and be proactive in our approach. 

Sometimes, the beast that is Google will cooperate. Sometimes it will act in a way that you weren’t expecting. At the end of the day, you want to be working with someone who knows what they’re doing.

Predicting the Unpredictable

The moral of the story? Create work that feels authentic, that keeps people engaged in your content. While there are things we can do to boost this and optimize your content, this must always be your core.

Our approach has always centered on customer-first principles, and that applies to both you and your customers. You don’t have the time or desire to figure out all the intricacies of the Google algorithm 

With our expertise and knowledge, we’ll have your SEO optimized in no time. Throw in an in-depth understanding of marketing, branding, and content management and we’ve got you covered. Get in touch with us today and let’s discuss how we can help you grow your business and establish your success.