SEO, Thought Leaders

How Google Determines Your Ranking on Search Results Pages

October 28, 2019

by Bethany Guelbert

Marketer, Yellowball

Everyone uses Google on a daily basis for everything from searching for information, to buying a product, but why are the results on the front page of Google – on the front page of Google?

Google “reads” a website to determine its content, structure and link profile, from there it’ll determine the relevance that a website holds for any given search term. As such, ensuring that your website is optimized for priority search terms can result in higher rankings, traffic and conversions.

Road Map to Understanding How Google Determines Your Rank 

  1. Know the Difference Between PPC and Organic Results
  2. Understand Crawling and Indexing
  3. Be Aware of Algorithms and Ranking
  4. Recognize Value and Relevance
  5. Consider Formats and Convenience
  6. Conclusion: Expect Search Results to Continue to Evolve From Here

Data breaches happen everywhere you look, especially in this digital age. It’s only right that a lot of us are starting to be more careful about how our data is used, where the information is coming from, and fundamentally, how it all works.

Facebook accounts are being closed, cookie allowances are being turned off and location sharing is being disabled. However, it seems one thing people can’t avoid or turn off is Google and other search engines. Google receives over 63,000 searches per second on any given day. With this in mind, how does Google determine your search results? 

Know the Difference Between PPC and Organic Results

It’s important to first differentiate between organic results and PPC (Pay-Per-Click) results. PPC results are paid-for positions that are purchased by companies on a bidding platform provided by Google, known as Google Ads.

These appear at the top and bottom of the page and have a small “ad” badge at the top left of the result. Site owners bid to appear in these areas for specific search terms, subsequently paying for every click on their link.

Organic results are those that Google has determined to be the most relevant and valuable solutions to a user’s query. They make up the bulk of the search results and we’ll be taking a look at how Google calculates this to choose the first page results.

Understand Crawling and Indexing

In order to determine the purpose of a website, Google sends out bots (a.k.a spiders). These follow hyperlinks to journey through the web and ‘crawl’ (read) each page they come across. The information that these spiders look to obtain consists of page titles, headings, text content, images, load speed, structured data and more.

Google then takes this information and it is categorized and filed within their ‘index’. Unsurprisingly, this process is called indexing. When you enter a query into Google, you’re not actively searching through the entire world wide web. You’re searching Google’s Index.

Google’s index database has an entry for every word seen on every webpage that they index. It’s essentially an enormous super-library full of billions of pages worth of information, that information needs to be organised so that results can be found as quickly as possible. 

Be Aware of Algorithms & Ranking

There are millions of web pages available for any given search query, so Google has to prioritize these sites in order of relevance and value, specific to each individual query. This is called ranking, and Google has a whole arsenal of algorithms dedicated to working out which web pages should rank for which search terms.

These algorithms consider a multitude of factors – the search term used, the content & functionality of the site, and the web page’s authority. A site’s authority is determined by a number of factors, including the perceived value of the site’s content and the number of sites that link back to the site as a reputable source of information.

In the eyes of Google, reputable sites tend to link back to other relevant, reputable sites. So, if for example a BBC article linked back to your site as a source of further information on a topic, it would be a good signal to Google that your site was also authoritative on the subject matter. 

Recognize Value & Relevance

Key factors in this determination are value and relevance. Google needs to take into account the underlying intent of the searcher and then be able to return the correct result for their query.

Now, Google knows that not all sites fit the same purpose. For example, “freshness” will be a bigger factor to consider when a user searches for Lotto results or the latest stock updates, and less of a factor when looking at “how to” articles and thesaurus entries.

Websites with more “value” or “relevance” for a given search term will be ranked higher on the SERPs (search engine results pages) so that Google’s users are always getting the most appropriate information. 

With the information retrieved by the bots, Google’s algorithms then assess the data from the site to determine whether the information provided is an appropriate answer for the query submitted to the search engine. Content is one of the most fundamental factors used to calculate the relevance of a page to a query. Take the result below for a “world’s heaviest apple” search:

link value and relevance

Like in the image above, a webpage’s content is determined to be relevant to apple-related searches if, on a basic level, it likely includes the keyword “apple.” Of course, Google has spent years developing algorithms and systems to hone in on the relevance of a page. Results for “how to make an apple crumble” would be different for “world’s heaviest apple” (which weighs 1.849 kg by the way).

Consider Formats and Convenience

Google’s search results have come a long way in the last decade or so. The SERPs no longer consist solely of 10 blue links with three paid ads at the top of the page. Google has developed new features in the SERPs to make it easier and quicker than ever to find the information you’re looking for.

Google’s synonym search means that it can match users to articles that might be targeting a similar keyword or key term, even if they’re using slightly different phrasing. For example, “how to change a fuse” will also display results for “how to replace a fuse”, like in the images below.

google synonym searchgoogle synonym part 2

Though the searches are worded differently for the searches above, the intent is similar, so the top results will likely overlap.

Additionally, Google will assess the best results format to offer depending upon the search term and the intent behind it. “How to replace a fuse” draws results for an explainer video, followed by suggestions for other “how to” videos that may also be appropriate for the query. Google’s Hummingbird and Rankbrain updates were significant advances in their ability to understand that intent behind searches rather than just matching up specific keywords.

Soon after the videos is the “people also ask” answer accordion. Google often also shows results for searches that other users made following the original search, all in the quest to make finding the correct information as easy as possible.

Google’s search result formats are split into five different categories outside of the traditional list of blue links: 

  1. The Knowledge Graph
  2. Directions and Traffic
  3. Direct Results
  4. Featured Snippets
  5. Rich Lists

Know these five results formats to truly understand Google searches.

1. The Knowledge Graph

The knowledge graph is a format that was released by Google in 2012 as a feature that answers relatively binary questions with other useful snippets of information about that query. When it was introduced, it contained more than 500 million people and objects, encompassing billions of facts.

For example, if you were to Google Marie Curie, the knowledge graph would display the information below:

marie curie google results

Along with Marie Curie’s date of birth, death, and notable discoveries, users can read a quick summary of relevant information Google compiled, without having to click a link.

2. Directions and Traffic

The “Directions and Traffic” feature was a simple but effective addition to the search engine. The feature takes your location and intent into account to provide the most useful result possible.

When Googling “Bermondsey, London” Google assumes you’re not looking for information on pot-holes in Bermondsey, otherwise you would have searched something like “pot-hole updates Bermondsey”. Instead, the search engine assumes that you’re looking to get there, or find its geographical location and so provides users with a handy, clickable and movable map, as below:

directions and traffic google

Along with the detailed map in the image, it might also display directions and timings for various modes of transport, whether that be by train, car, bike or by foot to further help you.

3. Direct Results

Direct results are those provided directly in the search results, but do not link through to an alternate resource. Google has access to information (e.g weather information) to provide direct answers to users. For example in the image below, by searching “weather forecast” I was provided with the weather forecast for London.

direct google results weather example

Clearly, this snippet above also takes into account the user’s location data as well, as it showed me the information relevant right down to the post code. 

4. Featured Snippets      

Ah, the humble featured snippet— another update of convenience from Google. Featured snippets are portions of information drawn from highly ranked websites that Google perceives to be the most direct answer to your query. They include a few sentences of information, a link to the source site for further information and the page title.

Unlike direct results, which are generated directly from Google (or licensed information), featured snippets are scraped and directly attributable to other websites. Here’s an example of a featured snippet outlining how to go about embracing a zero-waste lifestyle.

featured snippets google results

The snippet above features the relevant information from the article (a list) and the source is directly attributed in the link at the bottom, making it easy for users to read the content entirely.

5. Rich Lists

No, these aren’t lists of the world’s richest people. Rich lists are an at-a-glance answer to queries that have more than one answer using information from the same data set as the Knowledge Graph.

To clarify, if you were to Google “female scientists” like we did below, the search engine will provide you with a list of famous female scientists. The same goes for searches along the lines of “Famous 80’s bands” and… “the world’s richest people."

featured snippet google example

The list features the top results for the given search, but is compiled in an easy to read (and scroll) way. The same goes for searches along the lines of “Famous 80’s bands” and “the world’s richest people”. 

Expect Search Results to Continue to Evolve From Here

So, after reading this article you should have a better understanding of how the results on the first page of Google got placed there. You can be rest assured it’s not all sleight of hand and sorcery. It’s simply a matter of Google displaying what it perceives to be the most relevant and useful results for each search term.

As discussed, Google takes into account a wide variety of data sets to determine the best results. On the searcher side, this might be location or the underlying intent behind a query, whereas on the webpage side it might be relevance of content, mobile usability or authority.

Don’t expect it to stop here. Search engines are continually growing in complexity and, with the growing use of voice search, the evolution of search will continue.  

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