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How the Google Search Algorithm Works

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How the Google Search Algorithm Works

Google’s search algorithm is easily one of the most influential technologies ever created. With an estimated 5.6 billion Google searches per day, it’s safe to say Google has a heavy impact on the world—and on your business.

But what is the Google Search Algorithm? How does it work? And, most importantly, how can you rank higher on Google and get more traffic?

This guide attempts to demystify the mysterious Google Search Algorithm: 

What is the Google Search Algorithm?

The Google Search Algorithm refers to the process Google uses to rank content. It takes into account hundreds of factors, including keyword mentions, usability, and backlinks.

Sidenote.

Google has multiple search algorithms all working together to return the best results. In this article, we’ll focus mainly on Google’s ranking algorithm(s), as we believe that’s what most people are referring to when they talk about Google’s search algorithm. 

How does the Google Search Algorithm work?

Google’s algorithm is extremely complex, and how it exactly works is not public information. It’s believed that there are well in excess of 200 ranking factors—and nobody knows them all. 

Even if they do, it won’t matter because the algorithm is always changing. Google releases updates to its algorithm, on average, six times per day. That’s up to 2,000 times per year.

That said, Google does give hints on how you can rank well in its results.

What are the Google Search Algorithm ranking factors?

When you think of a “search algorithm”—as it relates to search engine optimization (SEO)—the first thing that comes to mind is probably Google’s ranking factors. In other words, what is Google looking at when deciding which pages to rank and in which order?

If we look at Google’s “How Search Works” page, it directly reveals some of Google’s most prominent ranking factors:

  1. Backlinks
  2. Freshness
  3. Keyword mentions
  4. User experience
  5. Topical authority

Let’s break these down.

1. Backlinks

Google wants to display pages where “prominent websites on the subject [are] linking to the page.” In layman’s terms, it wants to see backlinks from authoritative websites (that are also topically relevant) pointing to your pages.

Acquiring these links is called link building, and it is arguably one of the most important tasks you should do to get Google to trust and display your website. This has reliably been Google’s biggest deciding factor in determining a site’s trustworthiness since its inception in 1996.

You can determine if links may be holding your content back from ranking by comparing your page’s backlink profile to your competitors’.

First, plug the URL of the page you’re trying to rank into Ahrefs’ Site Explorer, and you’ll see how many backlinks and referring domains (linking websites) your page currently has.

1-site-explorer-overview

Next, go to Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer and enter the main keyword you’re targeting for that page. Scroll down. You’ll find the SERP overview section, where you can see how many backlinks and referring domains your competitors have.

2-serp-overview-for-seo

If you notice that your competitors’ pages have more backlinks than your page does (like ours do in the example above), it means you probably need to prioritize building links to rank above them.

Here are some strategies to get started on link building:

PRO TIP

If you want to dive deeper into understanding the backlink landscape of your target keywords and what kind of links you need in order to rank, check to see what linking domains all of your competitors share that you don’t. To do this, plug the top three ranking competitors for your target keyword into Ahrefs’ Link Intersect tool and your page into the “But doesn’t link to” box, like so:

3-link-intersect

When you hit “Show link opportunities,” you’ll see all the sites that link to your competitors’ pages but not yours. These are the first sites you can approach to acquire links.

2. Freshness

Content freshness refers to how “fresh,” or recent, the content on your webpage is. When was the last time it was updated?

This factor matters more for some queries than others. For example, if you search for something news-related, Google will typically rank results published within the last 24 hours.

4-google-serp-sandiego-news

However, if you search for a topic that doesn’t need to be updated as often, freshness isn’t quite as heavy of an influence. For example, the top-ranking results for “RV storage ideas” are from over two years ago:

5-google-serp-rv-storage-ideas

This is because good RV storage ideas today are largely the same as they were two years ago. So how recently it was published doesn’t make as much of a difference. Guides like this are what we call “evergreen content.” That is, content that will be good for years to come without needing many frequent updates.

Overall, when determining the importance of freshness for the keywords you’re targeting, you should always analyze the SERP for that keyword. Is Google seemingly ranking fresh content? If so, you will need to update the piece frequently to stand any chance of staying at the top.

3. Keyword mentions

One of the things Google cares about is “the number of times your search terms appear [on the page you’re trying to rank].”

In general, it’s good practice to try to include your exact keyword on the page several times in several places, including:

  • The title.
  • At least one subheading.
  • The page’s URL.
  • The intro paragraph.

That said, we don’t believe you need to worry about keyword mentions beyond that. This is as you’ll naturally mention the keyword you’re targeting throughout the content as you’re writing about it.

For example, our post on evergreen content mentions the words “evergreen content” 18 times—and we made zero effort to do this.

Instead, pay more attention to making sure your page fulfills search intent and answers what the searcher is looking for. In other words, ensure that you’ve covered everything searchers may want to know.

Google highlights the importance of this on its ‘How Search Works’ page:

Just think: when you search for ‘dogs’, you likely don’t want a page with the word ‘dogs’ on it hundreds of times. With that in mind, algorithms assess if a page contains other relevant content beyond the keyword ‘dogs’ — such as pictures of dogs, videos, or even a list of breeds.

One way of doing that is to use Ahrefs’ Content Gap tool to look for subtopics of a given keyword that you should mention on your page. Plug your site into Site Explorer, then click “Content gap” on the left.

6-site-explorer-overview-2

Next, go to Google, search for the keyword you’re targeting with your page, and pull the top three to five ranking URLs that match the intent of your page (e.g., if your page is a blog post, choose other blog posts).

Once you have your competitors’ URLs, plug them into the tool as I did in the screenshot below, then click “Show keywords.”

7-content-gap

I did this for our “What Are Keywords?” guide. In the screenshot below, the result tells us we can potentially improve the article by adding a section on whether keywords are still relevant for SEO.

8-are-keywords-still-relevant-in-seo

Plus, by doing this type of content gap research, you may also find opportunities for additional articles related to the one you’re currently optimizing. I found keywords like “seo keyword best practices” and “what is keyword research” that we can potentially write content for.

If you want to learn more about how to optimize a page for a keyword and where to place a keyword, check out our guide to on-page SEO.

4. User experience

Google states that it cares about “whether the page has good user experience.” But what is considered “good user experience”?

User experience (UX) encompasses a lot of different things, including the following:

  • Page load speed (Google recommends under two seconds)
  • No intrusive interstitials, like ads or pop-ups
  • Intuitive navigation and internal linking
  • Mobile-friendliness
  • Website design
  • Meta tags (having a meta title and description that match search intent)
  • And more

Speed, in particular, has become more important to Google in the past few years. In the summer of 2021, Google released a major update. Because of that, it’s now more important to pass Google’s Core Web Vitals (CWV) test, which is essentially a speed test.

You can check your CWV and learn how to improve your site’s performance by plugging your site into Ahrefs’ Site Audit and clicking on the “Performance Report” tab. You’ll need to enable the CWV scan in the settings. (You’ll see a notice about this at the top of the report, as shown below.)

9-performance-report

Once you’ve allowed CWV with the Google API, run a new scan on your site. When it’s done, you’ll get a report showing the pages that need improvement and the pages with errors.

10-performance-report-2

To see those pages, click on the number next to “Needs improvement” or “Poor.” It will show you which pages aren’t passing the Lighthouse Score or CrUX performance. (These are page speed scores that are part of the CWV report.)

If you want to learn more about how to optimize your site for user experience, follow our website audit guide.

5. Topical authority

Google wants to display “sites that many users seem to value for similar queries.” This means sites that have additional, valued content about queries relevant to the one being searched.

While Google isn’t explicit about what it means by “users seem to value,” we can safely assume that topical backlinks are a part of it. So in addition to creating a lot of related content, you also need to acquire links from topically relevant sites.

For example, if you want to rank for “best protein powder,” Google may be more likely to rank you if people also come to your site for content on topics such as the following:

  • Best time of day to consume protein
  • Can pregnant women have protein powder?
  • Where does protein powder come from?

In addition to having content on these topics, you should also aim to acquire topically relevant backlinks to them.

Having a lot of related content and contextually relevant links may show Google (and its users) that you’re an authority on that topic and may help you to rank higher in the search results. Of course, we’re assuming you are also optimizing for the other ranking factors as well.

Ready to check this ranking factor off your list? Start creating content hubs for SEO.

A note on Google algorithm updates

Google updates its algorithm nearly every day, and it releases major updates two to three times per year that can have a fairly massive impact on rankings.

In other words, things change. It’s important to stay up to date on Google’s ranking factors so that you don’t get left behind on the SERPs due to a Google penalty or shift in search intent.

Some of the major Google updates include these:

Of course, this isn’t an extensive list. See our SEO glossary for a more comprehensive list of Google algorithm updates and other common SEO terms.

Where to find Google’s official updates

Google has several channels that release public updates about changes in its algorithm, and it has a ton of official public documentation about how its algorithm works.

Here are some great sources to stay up to date on what Google is doing:

If you’re keen to stay on the cutting edge of what Google is doing to its algorithm, it also offers regular office hours called Google Search Central. There, people like John Mueller, Google’s senior webmaster trends analyst, will answer your questions live.

Final thoughts

The Google Search Algorithm is a complex beast with a lot of moving parts, and it’s constantly changing. But its goal of returning the best results for a given search query remains the same.

Despite Google’s many updates, the fundamentals of SEO haven’t changed much since search engines came to be. If you focus on the ranking factors you learned in this article, you will be able to rank on the SERPs.

In essence:

  • Create high-quality, well-formatted content that matches your keywords’ search intent.
  • Keep your content up to date. 
  • Ensure your site has a good user experience.
  • Build topically relevant links. 

These are the things the Google Search Algorithm cares about, according to Google.

Ready to dive deeper? Check out these other articles on Ahrefs’ blog:


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Google Quietly Ends Covid-Era Rich Results

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Google Quietly Ends Covid-Era Rich Results

Google removed the Covid-era structured data associated with the Home Activities rich results that allowed online events to be surfaced in search since August 2020, publishing a mention of the removal in the search documentation changelog.

Home Activities Rich Results

The structured data for the Home Activities rich results allowed providers of online livestreams, pre-recorded events and online events to be findable in Google Search.

The original documentation has been completely removed from the Google Search Central webpages and now redirects to a changelog notation that explains that the Home Activity rich results is no longer available for display.

The original purpose was to allow people to discover things to do from home while in quarantine, particularly online classes and events. Google’s rich results surfaced details of how to watch, description of the activities and registration information.

Providers of online events were required to use Event or Video structured data. Publishers and businesses who have this kind of structured data should be aware that this kind of rich result is no longer surfaced but it’s not necessary to remove the structured data if it’s a burden, it’s not going to hurt anything to publish structured data that isn’t used for rich results.

The changelog for Google’s official documentation explains:

“Removing home activity documentation
What: Removed documentation on home activity structured data.

Why: The home activity feature no longer appears in Google Search results.”

Read more about Google’s Home Activities rich results:

Google Announces Home Activities Rich Results

Read the Wayback Machine’s archive of Google’s original announcement from 2020:

Home activities

Featured Image by Shutterstock/Olga Strel

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Google’s Gary Illyes: Lastmod Signal Is Binary

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Google's Gary Illyes: Lastmod Signal Is Binary

In a recent LinkedIn discussion, Gary Illyes, Analyst at Google, revealed that the search engine takes a binary approach when assessing a website’s lastmod signal from sitemaps.

The revelation came as Illyes encouraged website owners to upgrade to WordPress 6.5, which now natively supports the lastmod element in sitemaps.

When Mark Williams-Cook asked if Google has a “reputation system” to gauge how much to trust a site’s reported lastmod dates, Illyes stated, “It’s binary: we either trust it or we don’t.”

No Shades Of Gray For Lastmod

The lastmod tag indicates the date of the most recent significant update to a webpage, helping search engines prioritize crawling and indexing.

Illyes’ response suggests Google doesn’t factor in a website’s history or gradually build trust in the lastmod values being reported.

Google either accepts the lastmod dates provided in a site’s sitemap as accurate, or it disregards them.

This binary approach reinforces the need to implement the lastmod tag correctly and only specify dates when making meaningful changes.

Illyes commends the WordPress developer community for their work on version 6.5, which automatically populates the lastmod field without extra configuration.

Accurate Lastmod Essential For Crawl Prioritization

While convenient for WordPress users, the native lastmod support is only beneficial if Google trusts you’re using it correctly.

Inaccurate lastmod tags could lead to Google ignoring the signal when scheduling crawls.

With Illyes confirming Google’s stance, it shows there’s no room for error when using this tag.

Why SEJ Cares

Understanding how Google acts on lastmod can help ensure Google displays new publish dates in search results when you update your content.

It’s an all-or-nothing situation – if the dates are deemed untrustworthy, the signal could be disregarded sitewide.

With the information revealed by Illyes, you can ensure your implementation follows best practices to the letter.


Featured Image: Danishch/Shutterstock

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How to Persuade Your Boss to Send You to Ahrefs Evolve

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How to Persuade Your Boss to Send You to Ahrefs Evolve

There’s one thing standing between you and several days of SEO, socializing, and Singaporean sunshine: your boss (and their Q4 budget 😅).

But don’t worry—we’ve got your back. Here are 5 arguments (and an example message) you can use to persuade your boss to send you to Ahrefs Evolve.

About Ahrefs Evolve

  • 2 days in sunny Singapore (Oct 24–25)
  • 500 digital marketing enthusiasts
  • 18 top speakers from around the world

Learn more and buy tickets.

SEO is changing at a breakneck pace. Between AI Overviews, Google’s rolling update schedule, their huge API leak, and all the documents released during their antitrust trial, it’s hard to keep up. What works in SEO today?

You could watch a YouTube video or two, maybe even attend an hour-long webinar. Or, much more effective: you could spend two full days learning from a panel of 18 international SEO experts, discussing your takeaways live with other attendees.

How to Persuade Your Boss to Send You to AhrefsHow to Persuade Your Boss to Send You to Ahrefs
Evolve speakers from around the world.

Our world-class speakers are tackling the hardest problems and best opportunities in SEO today. The talk agenda covers topics like:

  • Responding to AI Overviews: Amanda King will teach you how to respond to AI Overviews, Google Gemini, and other AI search functions.
  • Surviving (and thriving) Google’s algo updates: Lily Ray will talk through Google’s recent updates, and share data-driven recommendations for what’s working in search today.
  • Planning for the future of SEO: Bernard Huang will talk through the failures of AI content and the path to better results.

(And attendees will get video recordings of each session, so you can share the knowledge with your teammates too.)

View the full talk agenda here.

There’s no substitute for meeting with influencers, peers, and partners in real life. 

Conferences create serendipity: chance encounters and conversations that can have a huge positive impact on you and your business. By way of example, these are some of the real benefits that have come my way from attending conferences:

  • Conversations that lead to new customers for our business,
  • Invitations to speak at events,
  • New business partnerships and co-marketing opportunities, and
  • Meeting people that we went on to hire.

There’s a “halo” effect that lingers long after the event is over: the people you meet will remember you for longer, think more highly of you, and be more likely to help you out, should you ask.

(And let’s not forget: there’s a lot of information, particularly in SEO, that only gets shared in person.)

The “international” part of Evolve matters too. Evolve is a different crowd to your local run-of-the-mill conference. It’s a chance to meet with people from markets you wouldn’t normally meet—from Australia to Indonesia and beyond.

How to Persuade Your Boss to Send You to AhrefsHow to Persuade Your Boss to Send You to Ahrefs
Evolve attendees by home country.

If you’re an Ahrefs customer (thank you!), you’ll learn tons of tips, tricks and workflow improvements from attending Evolve. You’ll have opportunities to:

  • Attend talks from the Ahrefs team, showcasing advanced features and strategies that you can use in your own business.
  • Pick our brains at the Ahrefs booth, where we’ll offer informal 1:1 coaching sessions and previews of up-coming releases (like our new content optimization tool 🤫).
  • Join dedicated Ahrefs training workshops, hosted by the Ahrefs team and Ahrefs power users (tickets for these workshops will sold separately).

As a manager myself, there are two questions I need answered when approving expenses:

  • Is this a reasonable cost?
  • Will we see a return on this investment?

To answer those questions: early bird tickets for Evolve start at $570. For context, “super early bird” tickets for MozCon (another popular SEO conference) this year were almost twice as much: $999.

There’s a lot included in the ticket price too:

  • World-class international speakers,
  • 5-star hotel venue,
  • 5-star hotel food (two tea breaks with snacks & lunch),
  • Networking afterparty, and
  • Full talk recordings to later share with your team.

SEO is a crucial growth channel for most businesses. If you can improve your company’s SEO performance after attending Evolve (and we think you will), you’ll very easily see a positive return on the investment.

Traveling to tropical Singapore (and eating tons of satay) is great for you, but it’s also great for your team. Attending Evolve is a chance to break with routine, reignite your passion for marketing, and come back to your job reinvigorated.

This would be true for any international conference, but it goes double for Singapore. It’s a truly unique place: an ultra-safe, high-tech city that brings together dozens of different cultures.

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Little India in Singapore

You’ll discover different beliefs, working practices, and ways of business—and if you’re anything like me, come back a richer, wiser person for the experience.

If you’re nervous about pitching your boss on attending Evolve, remember: the worst that can happen is a polite “not this time”, and you’ll find yourself in the same position you are now.

So here goes: take this message template, tweak it to your liking, and send it to your boss over email or Slack… and I’ll see you in Singapore 😉

Email template

Hi [your boss’ name],

Our SEO tool provider, Ahrefs, is holding an SEO and digital marketing conference in Singapore in October. I’d like to attend, and I think it’s in the company’s interest:

  • The talks will help us respond to all the changes happening in SEO today. I’m particularly interested in the talks about AI and recent Google updates. 
  • I can network with my peers. I can discover what’s working at other companies, and explore opportunities for partnerships and co-marketing.
  • I can learn how we can use Ahrefs better across the organization.
  • I’ll come back reinvigorated with new ideas and motivation, and I can share my top takeaways and talk recordings with my team after the event.

Early bird tickets are $570. Given how important SEO is to the growth of our business, I think we’ll easily see a return from the spend.

Can we set up time to chat in more detail? Thanks!

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