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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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Five things you need to know about content optimization in 2023

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5 Things You Need To Know About Optimizing Content in 2023

30-second summary:

  • As the content battleground goes through tremendous upheaval, SEO insights will continue to grow in importance
  • ChatGPT can help content marketers get an edge over their competition by efficiently creating and editing high-quality content
  • Making sure your content rank high enough to engage the target audience requires strategic planning and implementation

Google is constantly testing and updating its algorithms in pursuit of the best possible searcher experience. As the search giant explains in its ‘How Search Works’ documentation, that means understanding the intent behind the query and bringing back results that are relevant, high-quality, and accessible for consumers.

As if the constantly shifting search landscape weren’t difficult enough to navigate, content marketers are also contending with an increasingly technology-charged environment. Competitors are upping the stakes with tools and platforms that generate smarter, real-time insights and even make content optimization and personalization on the fly based on audience behavior, location, and data points.

Set-it-and-forget-it content optimization is a thing of the past. Here’s what you need to know to help your content get found, engage your target audience, and convert searchers to customers in 2023.

AI automation going to be integral for content optimization

Technologies-B2B-organizations-use-to-optimize-content

As the content battleground heats up, SEO insights will continue to grow in importance as a key source of intelligence. We’re optimizing content for humans, not search engines, after all – we had better have a solid understanding of what those people need and want.

While I do not advocate automation for full content creation, I believe next year – as resources become stretched automation will have a bigger impact on helping with content optimization of existing content.

CHATGPT

ChatGPT, developed by OpenAI, is a powerful language generation model that leverages the Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) architecture to produce realistic human-like text. With Chat GPT’s wide range of capabilities – from completing sentences and answering questions to generating content ideas or powering research initiatives – it can be an invaluable asset for any Natural Language Processing project.

ChatGPT-for-content

The introduction on ChatGPT has caused considerable debate and explosive amounts of content on the web. With ChatGPT, content marketers can achieve an extra edge over their competition by efficiently creating and editing high-quality content. It offers assistance with generating titles for blog posts, summaries of topics or articles, as well as comprehensive campaigns when targeting a specific audience.

However, it is important to remember that this technology should be used to enhance human creativity rather than completely replacing it.

For many years now AI-powered technology has been helping content marketers and SEOs automate repetitive tasks such as data analysis, scanning for technical issues, and reporting, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. AI also enables real-time analysis of a greater volume of consumer touchpoints and behavioral data points for smarter, more precise predictive analysis, opportunity forecasting, real-time content recommendations, and more.

With so much data in play and recession concerns already impacting 2023 budgets in many organizations, content marketers will have to do more with less this coming year. You’ll need to carefully balance human creative resources with AI assists where they make sense to stay flexible, agile, and ready to respond to the market.

It’s time to look at your body of content as a whole

Google’s Helpful Content update, which rolled out in August, is a sitewide signal targeting a high proportion of thin, unhelpful, low-quality content. That means the exceptional content on your site won’t rank to their greatest potential if they’re lost in a sea of mediocre, outdated assets.

It might be time for a content reboot – but don’t get carried away. Before you start unpublishing and redirecting blog posts, lean on technology for automated site auditing and see what you can fix up first. AI-assisted technology can help sniff out on-page elements, including page titles and H1 tags, and off-page factors like page speed, redirects, and 404 errors that can support your content refreshing strategy.

Focus on your highest trafficked and most visible pages first, i.e.: those linked from the homepage or main menu. Google’s John Mueller confirmed recently that if the important pages on your website are low quality, it’s bad news for the entire site. There’s no percentage by which this is measured, he said, urging content marketers and SEOs to instead think of what the average user would think when they visit your website.

Take advantage of location-based content optimization opportunities

Consumers crave personalized experiences, and location is your low-hanging fruit. Seasonal weather trends, local events, and holidays all impact your search traffic in various ways and present opportunities for location-based optimization.

AI-assisted technology can help you discover these opportunities and evaluate topical keywords at scale so you can plan content campaigns and promotions that tap into this increased demand when it’s happening.

Make the best possible use of content created for locally relevant campaigns by repurposing and promoting it across your website, local landing pages, social media profiles, and Google Business Profiles for each location. Google Posts, for example, are a fantastic and underutilized tool for enhancing your content’s visibility and interactivity right on the search results page.

Optimize content with conversational & high-volume keywords

Look for conversational and trending terms in your keyword research, too. Top-of-funnel keywords that help generate awareness of the topic and spur conversations in social channels offer great opportunities for promotion. Use hashtags organically and target them in paid content promotion campaigns to dramatically expand your audience.

Conversational keywords are a good opportunity for enhancing that content’s visibility in search, too. Check out the ‘People Also Ask’ results and other featured snippets available on the search results page (SERP) for your keyword terms. Incorporate questions and answers in your content to naturally optimize for these and voice search queries.

SEO-and-creating-content-in-2023

It’s important that you utilize SEO insights and real-time data correctly; you don’t want to be targeting what was trending last month and is already over. AI is a great assist here, as well, as an intelligent tool can be scanning and analyzing constantly, sending recommendations for new content opportunities as they arise.

Consider how you optimize content based on intent and experience

The best content comes from a deep, meaningful understanding of the searcher’s intent. What problem were they experiencing or what need did they have that caused them to seek out your content in the first place? And how does your blog post, ebook, or landing page copy enhance their experience?

Look at the search results page as a doorway to your “home”. How’s your curb appeal? What do potential customers see when they encounter one of your pages in search results? What kind of experience do you offer when they step over the threshold and click through to your website?

The best content meets visitors where they are at with relevant, high-quality information presented in a way that is accessible, fast loading, and easy to digest. This is the case for both short and long form SEO content. Ensure your content contains calls to action designed to give people options and help them discover the next step in their journey versus attempting to sell them on something they may not be ready for yet.

2023, the year of SEO: why brands are leaning in and how to prepare

Conclusion

The audience is king, queen, and the entire court as we head into 2023. SEO and content marketing give you countless opportunities to connect with these people but remember they are a means to an end. Keep searcher intent and audience needs at the heart of every piece of content you create and campaign you plan for the coming year.

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Headings With Hierarchical Structure An “Awesome Idea”

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Headings With Hierarchical Structure An "Awesome Idea"

Google’s John Mueller discussed heading elements with a member of the SEO community where he affirmed the usefulness of using hierarchical structure when using heading elements.

Background Context to What Mueller Said

Heading elements <H1> – <H6> are supposed to be used to indicate what a section of a webpage is about.

Furthermore the heading elements have a ranking order, with the <H1> being the highest rank of importance and the <H6> being the lowest level of importance.

The heading element purpose is to label what a section of content is about.

HTML specifications allow the use of multiple <H1> elements. So, technically, using more than one <H1> is perfectly valid.

Section 4.3.11 of the official HTML specifications states:

“h1–h6 elements have a heading level, which is given by the number in the element’s name.

If a document has one or more headings, at least a single heading within the outline should have a heading level of 1.”

Nevertheless, using more than on <H1> is not considered a best practice.

The Mozilla developer reference page about the use of headings recommends:

“The <h1> to <h6> HTML elements represent six levels of section headings. <h1> is the highest section level and <h6> is the lowest.

…Avoid using multiple <h1> elements on one page

While using multiple <h1> elements on one page is allowed by the HTML standard (as long as they are not nested), this is not considered a best practice. A page should generally have a single <h1> element that describes the content of the page (similar to the document’s <title> element).”

John Mueller has previously said that it doesn’t matter if a webpage uses one <H1> or five <H1> headings.

The point of his statement is that the level of the heading isn’t as important as how they are used, with the best practice being the use of  headings for indicating what a section of content is about.

What Mueller Said on Twitter

A member of the SEO community was joking around and gently ribbed Mueller about using more than one H1.

He tweeted:

The SEO followed up by sharing how he preferred using the best practices for heading elements by using only one <H1>, to denote what the page is about and then using the rest of the headings in order of rank, give a webpage a hierarchical structure.

A Hierarchical structure communicates sections of a webpage and any subsections within each section.

He tweeted:

“I’m too traditional with header elements. (HTML 4 for Life! lol)

I’d still recommend using just one H1 element on a page.

I patiently go back to pages to implement header hierarchy for fun.”

John Mueller tweeted his approval in response:

“I think that’s an awesome idea & a great practice.

Header hierarchy is not just useful to Google, it’s also important for accessibility.

(Google still has to deal with whatever weird things people throw up on the web, but being thoughtful in your work always makes sense.)”

Hierarchical Page Structure

In the early days of SEO, <H1> used to be counted as an important ranking factor, one that was more important than an <H2>.

So, back then, one always put their most important keywords in the <H1> in order to signal to Google that the page was relevant for that keyword.

H1 used to have more ranking power so it was essential to use the <H1> to help rankings.

Google’s algorithm was using keywords as a way to “guess” what a webpage was about.

Keywords in the anchor text, keywords in the title tag and keywords in the <H1> helped Google guess what a page was relevant for.

But nowadays, Google doesn’t have to guess.

It is able to understand what sections of a webpage are about, and consequently, what the entire webpage is about.

Despite those advances, many SEOs still believe that using an <H1> is some kind of magic ranking factor.

Headings are no longer about shouting what keyword you want to rank for.

The role of heading elements are now about telling search engines what a section of content is about.

Each section of a content is generally about something specific.

Heading tags make it easier for search engines to know what a page is about.

And that helps them rank the page for the topic.

And according to the official HTML specifications, that’s technically the proper way to use heading elements.

Lastly, Mueller mentioned a quality of the heading element as a way to better communicate for accessibility reasons, like for people who use screen readers.

The official HTML specifications say:

“Descriptive headings are especially helpful for users who have disabilities that make reading slow and for people with limited short-term memory.

These people benefit when section titles make it possible to predict what each section contains.”

So thank you John Mueller for calling attention to the benefits of using headings with a hierarchical structure, for calling attention to how hierarchical structure is useful for Google and for accessibility.

Featured image by Shutterstock/Asier Romero



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The Challenges & Opportunities For Marketers

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The Challenges & Opportunities For Marketers

Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., reported its fourth straight quarter of declining profits.

It made $76 billion in sales over the past three months, but it wasn’t enough to meet Wall Street’s expectations.

Google’s revenue was down 9% compared to last year, and its biggest business, Google Search, saw a 1% drop in revenue. Even YouTube’s advertising sales fell by nearly 8%.

Alphabet has decided to cut its workforce by 12,000 and expects to spend between $1.9 billion and $2.3 billion on employee severance costs.

This latest earnings report shows tech giants like Google are facing challenges in the current digital advertising landscape.

But Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, believes that the company’s long-term investments in AI will be a key factor in its future success.

In a press release, Pichai says he expects major AI advancements to be soon revealed in Google search and other areas:

“Our long-term investments in deep computer science make us extremely well-positioned as AI reaches an inflection point, and I’m excited by the AI-driven leaps we’re about to unveil in Search and beyond. There’s also great momentum in Cloud, YouTube subscriptions, and our Pixel devices. We’re on an important journey to re-engineer our cost structure in a durable way and to build financially sustainable, vibrant, growing businesses across Alphabet.”

Alphabet’s CFO, Ruth Porat, reported that their Q4 consolidated revenues were $76 billion, a 1% increase from the previous year. The full year 2022 saw revenues of $283 billion, a 10% increase.

Going forward, Alphabet is changing how it reports on its AI activities.

DeepMind, which used to be reported under “Other Bets,” will now be reported as part of Alphabet’s corporate costs to reflect its increasing integration with Google Services and Google Cloud.

What Does This Mean For Marketing Professionals?

It’s important to stay updated on the latest developments in the tech industry and how they may affect advertising strategies.

Google’s declining profits and decreased revenue in their search and YouTube platforms are reminders that the digital advertising landscape is constantly evolving, and companies must adapt to keep up.

Marketers should consider diversifying their advertising efforts across multiple platforms to minimize the impact of market swings.

Additionally, Google’s focus on AI and its integration with Google Services and Cloud is something to keep an eye on.

As AI advances, it may offer new opportunities for marketers to target and engage with their audience effectively.

By staying informed on the latest tech advancements, marketers can stay ahead of the curve and make the most of these opportunities.

Despite Google’s recent financial setbacks, the tech giant is still a major player in the digital advertising landscape, and its investments in AI show its commitment to continued growth and innovation.


Featured Image: Sergio Photone/Shutterstock

Source: Alphabet



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