As a digital marketing consultant, I am always on the look-out for Google updates and algorithm changes that could impact the websites I manage. The largest most recent change is the Diversity Update. This update made changes to show more site diversity on the SERPs, to reduce the number of times the same site would be shown for one query.
Image credit: Google
Google are notorious for never specifically saying what they are going to change (or have changed), or what industries/websites are going to be affected. However, they’ve recently launched a new resource centre – ‘How Google Search Works’ – which goes through what happens behind the scenes when you type in a query on Google.
This resource is aimed towards the mass market and is very generalised. But they have specified some key elements of their search algorithms, something that Google very rarely do. From this information Google has provided, I see some key points that SEOs and marketing consultants should take note of, and I wanted to share them with you here.
‘How Google Search Works’
This resource takes you through exactly what happens from when you search, to what results you see, and why some results look different to others on Google’s search engine.
The site is split into these main areas: overview, organising information, search algorithms and useful responses. The ‘search algorithms’ section stood out to me the most.
‘How Search algorithms work’
In this part of the resource, Google specify there are five main factors they use that affect a user’s search. These are:
- Meaning of your query
- Relevance of webpages
- Quality of content
- Usability of webpages
- Context and settings
When reading through these, they do not give any specific ‘ranking factors’. However, reading between the lines, I have found some key points that indirectly detail ranking factors.
– Google use their new synonym algorithm to rank related categories in search
– Buying links and hidden text will negatively impact rankings
– Google look at page speed on slow internet connections
Meaning of your query
Image credit: Google
“To return relevant results for your query, we first need to establish what information you’re looking for – the intent behind your query. […] We build language models to try to decipher what strings of words we should look up in the index.”
The example shown here are searches including the keyword ‘change’ – and that Google’s “synonym system helps Search know what you mean by establishing that multiple words mean the same thing. This capability allows Search to match the query “How to change a lightbulb” with pages describing how to replace a lightbulb.”
Google state that the synonym system took “…over five years to develop and significantly improves results in over 30% of searches across languages.”
From this I can see that now, Google Searches can be very specific, and still bring back related results for the user. This might sound simple in practice, but this has changed my way of thinking for how I target broad-type and long-tail keywords and phrases. There are several articles and guides that say we should be using more long-tail keywords, and that they bring in the traffic – but this just applies to one query.
From what Google have stated about their algorithm, it can differentiate the purpose of the search – meaning that we can target more keywords and phrases to rank for several queries. For example, a popular article on a website I manage, ‘How to Treat Concrete Burns’ – originally, I would target keywords and headers that are directly linked or related to the main purpose of the article, ‘concrete burns’.
With my example in mind, several related queries show on Google which at first glance seem to be unrelated.
But now we know that Google can group these queries into the same category, meaning that one piece of content can not only rank for related queries (including the same keywords), but for related queries to the category of the search.
Now that we know Google can match related queries for categories of content, we can re-evaluate how we target broad-type and long-tail keywords across a website and content. These keywords do not have to specifically target the same group of keywords, but we can now target keywords related to the category.
We can now start to rank for not only keywords, but categories across Google.
Relevance of webpages
Google have been a bit more friendly when letting us know how they crawl a website, and they give us direct information for what is ‘Google friendly’. This section goes into detail as to what Google look for on a website. “The most basic signal that information is relevant is when a webpage contains the same keywords as your search query. If those keywords appear on the page, or if they appear in the headings or body of the text…”
Google say that their algorithms rank a website based on “whether a webpage contains an answer to your search query, rather than just repeating the same question.” But how does this relate to a service page, or product page of a website?
If Google can differentiate a page which contains “an answer” and a page which does not, I would argue that it is of benefit incorporating a ‘question and answer’ style of writing into the copy of any page on your website. This can be of benefit to the user, and for rankings.
Many service pages tell the user what the service is and what the business can do for them, and sometimes how much this service costs. With Google’s algorithm in mind, it would be of value to include how this ‘service’ offers a solution – as this could act as providing the answer to a search query and help increase rankings.
If we look a pool builder, their page for ‘infinity pools’ could tell you how nice an infinity pool is and why you need one. But if the page answered a common question, this could be identified by Google’s algorithm.
“With an invisible edge that gives the impression of the water merging into the surrounding terrain, infinity pools are one of the most luxurious options on the market.” Does this not answer the commonly asked question (on Google), ‘what is an infinity pool?’
From what Google have stated in this section, I see that this algorithm that can identify if content on page provides an answer, even if there is not specifically a question. Therefore, I see a benefit in incorporating answers into the copy of all pages of a website, be that services or products.
Quality of content
What adds quality to content? There are supposedly many factors, including copy length, images, schema markup, videos, audio, keywords, headings, page speed, backlinks etc. Every day, these factors seem to change in importance. One day we need a video on every website, the other day we need to schema everything.
In this section, Google state that their algorithms “aim to prioritize the most reliable sources” through PageRank and spam algorithms. Google say that websites need to follow their ‘webmaster guidelines’ – and if you have not read these, I would suggest doing so.
Google do not specify anything that helps to rank a page in terms of content, but they do mention factors that will negatively affect a page: “…low-quality spam sites, including buying links that pass PageRank or sneaking invisible text onto the page”. At least from this, we know what to avoid.
Usability of webpages
Google talk about how they evaluate a website as ‘easy to use’. This includes “whether the site appears correctly in different browsers; whether it is designed for all device types and sizes… and whether the page loading times work well for users with slow Internet connections.”
We all know that ensuring a website is responsive on all devices and displays correctly across all browsers is a must. As now it seems that your website needs to show correctly on the most popular browsers (or all browsers) to avoid any penalties from Google.
Another point they make is about slow internet connections. It was interesting to see that Google does not rank pages on loading speed alone, but the page speed for slow internet connections. When I think of page speed, I don’t think of how fast the connection is, and as Google is developing technology and systems in more countries across the world, I see why they see page speed in terms of connection speed, as an important factor.
Users with slower internet connections should be able to access your website, or your rankings could be affected.
You can see page speed in Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool. Google say that they have “provided detailed guidance and tools like PageSpeed Insights [to aid website owners]”.
There are several plug-ins and processes that will make a site load faster, but Google’s PageSpeed Insights does not currently show any data to indicate if a site can load fast on a slow connection. I am hoping that Google will add this metric into Insights soon, if it is indeed a ranking factor.
Context and settings
This section talks about “location, past Search history and Search settings” for all users of Google search.
Building upon what we already know of how Google will pull physical location data, and previous searches to influence results, they also say that previous searches now work with the ‘synonym algorithm’, as mentioned in the ‘meaning of your query’ section.
As Google put it, your search history directly impacts what you will see. For example, if you “search for “Barcelona” and recently searched for “Barcelona vs Arsenal”, that could be an important clue that you want information about the football club, not the city.” This applies across any search.
It has been shown that on many websites, returning visitors are more likely to convert. With the connection of previous search history, and the ‘synonym algorithm’, this could possibly hint that a user who has visited your website from a specific query is more likely to be shown your website again for a related query, if Google deem it to be in the same category.
All the more reason to start optimising for those related categories, not just related keywords.
After reading between the lines of Google’s new resource, I have found some very interesting information that I feel will help me to target more keywords effectively and increase rankings for my clients’ websites across Google.
I would love to hear what you think, and if you will be using any of my recommendations in this article.
Did you find my insights useful? Share this with your colleagues to see what they think ⬇