When it comes to website traffic, Google is still king. With 5 billion searches per day, Google outranks social media and other search engines in terms of generating traffic to websites.
If you want a piece of that traffic, you need to understand the Google algorithm. Since it determines which sites show up in the search results, the importance of the Google algorithm for SEO is clear.
This article will tell you everything you need to know about Google’s algorithm so you can improve your SEO efforts and start showing up on the search engine results pages (SERPs).
What Is the Google Algorithm?
First things first: what even is an algorithm? And what does this have to do with SEO optimization?
When it comes to computers, an algorithm is the set of rules to follow to solve a problem. The Google algorithm is what generates results to show users when they perform a Google search.
Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” They do this by writing the “rules,” or the algorithm, that determines which results to show.
Many people get a bad taste in their mouths when they think of algorithms. Social media marketing can sometimes feel like fighting against the algorithm.
This is not the intent; algorithms focus on the user’s experience. When it comes to Google, the most important thing to remember is that the Google algorithm wants to give searcher’s the most useful information possible. If you keep this in mind when creating SEO content, it will make it much easier to rank in the SERPs.
How the Google Algorithm Works
Understanding how Google’s algorithm works will help your SEO efforts immensely. When you understand what Google is looking for, you’ll be able to cater your content to appeal to the algorithm.
Essentially, the Google algorithm finds, ranks, and displays the most relevant results. It does this by crawling, indexing, and ranking web pages.
Google’s algorithm starts by searching the Internet for content. This process is called crawling. It does so by following links to discover the web’s information. This is one reason that internal and external links are helpful for SEO; using links helps Google discover your website’s pages.
Once Google discovers a web page, it stores and organizes the content that it finds. This process is called indexing. The Google index is the database of all the information the algorithm has found.
When an individual performs a Google search, the algorithm looks through the index to find content that will best answer a searcher’s query. It will then show content based on what it finds.
Key Factors for Ranking
Though Google looks at 200 ranking factors, there are a few key factors the algorithm focuses on. SEO is not going to get you far if you aren’t aware of what the algorithm is looking for, so it’s important to understand the factors in play so your site can rank in the SERPs and gain traffic.
The following are the factors that Google’s algorithm deems most important, according to Google.
Meaning of Query
Google looks at a user’s search intent when determining which pages to rank. It is important to Google that searchers find the information they are looking for, so the algorithm caters to this need.
The Google algorithm looks at search intent instead of just keywords. This means that it will search the index for synonyms of the search term, and it also corrects for spelling.
Relevance of Webpages
Google also wants users to find relevant information to what they are looking for. The most basic thing the algorithm looks for is keywords matching the search query, but the algorithm goes beyond that. It uses other user data and machine learning to make the search results as relevant as possible.
Quality of Content
The algorithm’s goal is to display high-quality content to searchers. This means it avoids spam sites and looks to things like backlinks to determine how reliable a source is. It’s also important that sites follow Google’s webmaster guidelines.
The algorithm looks at a lot of factors for this, such as the length of the content. Duplicate content is punished, and spam sites are filtered out.
The Google algorithm wants users to have a positive experience. This means the sites that show up in the SERPs must be usable. Page loading time, user interface, and mobile accessibility are all important for this.
Context and Settings
Finally, the Google algorithm will look at the context of the search. Location plays into the algorithm, which allows users to find relevant results based on where they are located; searching “football” will yield different results in the US than it will in the UK. And location services help queries like “restaurants near me” yield relevant results.
Recent searches also play a role in the algorithm. By looking at a searcher’s history and location, the Google algorithm is able to tailor results to the user.
Google Algorithm Updates
Google periodically updates the algorithm to improve search results for the users. This is sometimes frustrating for websites hoping to rank in the SERPs, but understanding the updates and the reasons behind them can help alleviate that frustration.
Why Are There Google Algorithm Updates?
Typically Google algorithm updates are just small changes, but there are sometimes bigger overhauls to the way the algorithm works. The important thing to remember is that Google’s focus is on improving search relevance for users.
In the past, people have figured out how to trick the Google algorithm. They would take advantage of it with black hat SEO tactics like keyword stuffing. This led to a lower quality experience for Google users.
Google took notice of this and has continually pushed out updates to the algorithm. These have penalized sites that try to “game” the system, so to speak. The updates also reward high-quality, unique content.
How to Avoid Being Penalized by Updates
The Google algorithm is not out to get you. Google’s focus is on providing high-quality, relevant content to searchers. To avoid being penalized by updates, focus on creating high-quality content that is relevant to the search intent of users.
Of course, there is more to SEO strategy than just creating quality content, but if you start with high-quality content you’ll avoid being penalized by updates. The rest of your SEO strategy is useless if the content you create is not what the algorithm is looking for.
History of Google Algorithm Updates
Understanding how the Google algorithm has evolved over the years can help you with your SEO content strategy. We will briefly look at a few of the bigger updates that Google has pushed out over the years.
The Panda update was actually a series of small updates pushed out every couple of months between February 2011 and May 2015. The focus of Panda was to value quality content over quantity.
Panda penalized content farms that created lots of low-quality content to rank in SERPs. Instead, it shifted the algorithm to look for longer articles. Duplicate articles were also penalized, and bounce rate started to play a role in the algorithm; single-page sessions signaled to Google that the content wasn’t helpful.
Another large Google algorithm update called Penguin took place in April 2012. Penguin’s main focus was to combat shady link-building tactics. Since Penguin, backlinks that are built too fast or seem spammy are penalized. Penguin also helped combat keyword stuffing practices that led to low-quality, unhelpful content.
Hummingbird was issued in September 2013. Whereas Penguin and Panda were updates to the algorithm, Hummingbird essentially overhauled the old algorithm with an entirely new one.
The intent of Hummingbird was to focus on users, not the keywords. With this update, the algorithm learned to infer what the users meant rather than just paying attention to the strict keywords they used.
This, again, made search intent the most important thing. With Hummingbird, rather than asking “how do I rank for this,” SEO content creators need to ask “how do I answer this question,” making long-tail keywords and understanding your audience important.
In July 2015, Pigeon made the Google algorithm emphasize local searches. This allowed Google to cater to searcher’s needs when they were on-the-go. This update also meshed search results with Google maps, allowing users to find location-based searches more easily.
In June of 2017, Google updated the algorithm again, though they have no comment on the intent of the Fred update. It’s suspected that this update penalized sites that focused on revenue over the quality of content. It hit sites with lots of ads or affiliate links that didn’t provide much value.
In 2018, the algorithm began to focus on mobile usability. This was in response to the fact that most users are searching on mobile devices. Speed and mobile optimized sites were prioritized.
Appeal to the Google Algorithm
It’s clear that the Google algorithm is all about providing searchers with valuable content that is relevant to their queries. The ranking factors and all the algorithm updates point to the fact that Google is continually looking at improving the user’s experience.
With this in mind, the best way to appeal to the Google algorithm is by creating high-quality, original, and in-depth content that matches the user’s search intent. On-page and off-page SEO are important, but without the foundation of quality content, your chance of making it in the SERPs is low.
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