The Google Search Algorithm Explained in a Nutshell


What is the Google search algorithm?

By 2024 the Google search algorithm is 

  • a highly complex combination of 18 “search ranking systems”
  • potentially using many thousands of ranking factors
  • employing AI (artificial intelligence) to verify and rank results
  • using additional AI Overviews on top to summarize search results

Sounds complicated? Yes, it is. 

Thus I will simplify it and explain it in a nutshell.


How does the Google search algorithm work?

When Google started out in 1998 it revolutionized Internet search. How? 

Let me explain the historical basics first!

It introduced a new type of search algorithm. It was called PageRank

Instead of merely scanning web pages and counting mentions of keywords like other search engines it focused on links. 

The more and the better links led to a website the more important it became for Google. Hence the more likely it was to show up on top of search results.

Over the years the original Google search algorithm became less reliable though. Why?

Soon enough spammers started to trade and buy links to “game it”. 

They would essentially recommend themselves using “unnatural links” instead of being referenced by others.

Thus Google had to step up the game. Over time they added other ranking factors. They said “more than 200” in recent years but it’s rather thousands by 2023. Ultimately they introduced alternative search ranking systems

This process culminated in the introduction of AI back in 2015 (called RankBrain) and more AI powered systems ever since.

Fast forward 25 years and there is no unified Google search ranking algorithm

(For the sake of simplicity we will keep on saying “search ranking algorithm” even though the reality is more complicated than that.)

They rather employ multiple intertwined algorithms that make it almost impossible to trick Google by now.

What you can do though is to support Google and its bots at finding and assessing your website and content. Here’s how.


How to make the Google search algorithm rank you?

First of all Google has to be able to find your site and have access to its content. 

Then it is crawling (checking out) and indexing (adding to its database) them. That allows Google to show them as search results.


There are mainly two ways to tell Google about yourself and make it crawl, index and rank you:

  1. Link to your new content from an already indexed site or page.
  1. Use so-called XML sitemaps and/or Google Search Console to tell Google directly.

Only then Google is able to rank your assets according to its manifold ranking factors and systems.

Google Search Console can help you see whether and how many pages of your site have been indexed. 

A toolset like Semrush can also assist you in determining and removing roadblocks to crawling, indexing and ranking. 

The Semrush website audit tool is also showing indexed pages.

So once we know that the website content can get indexed by Google, we can also ensure that the search engine assigns a high value and authority to it.

There are many ways to convince Google and also searchers about the quality of your site yet some are more important than others.

Also Google won’t disclose the impact of many of those ranking factors that are used behind the scenes.

Officially the Google Search ranking algorithm is mainly about helpful content by now yet under the hood the engine is still using many other signals. 

In essence you need both: the content Google officially requires and the signals it uses to measure whether the content is worth showing.


What are the official Google ranking factors?

Make sure you check out the official Google page explaining its inner workings called “How Google Search Works” and specifically the “Ranking Results” section for a start.

There you will get a very basic overview of how the search engine provides searchers with the best possible results for their search queries. 

According to the official explanation Google is mainly looking for five things when ranking results:

  1. Meaning – The meaning of your query is what you want to find when you search Google. It is also closely tied to your intent. Do you want to locate, research or buy something? 

So depending whether by typing in “apple” you search for the fruit or the technology brand you get different results ideally. 

Obviously when you want to get found for the hardware manufacturer you write about smartphones e.g. and when you’re a food blogger you rather cover the edible apples.

  1. Relevance – The relevance of content is measured not only by the number or prominence of keywords matching your search query. 

Google also looks at how people view and act upon your result to measure whether it’s relevant: 

“We also use aggregated and anonymized interaction data to assess whether search results are relevant to queries”.

Simply mentioning lots of keywords without context, coherent information and additional visuals is not enough.

  1. Quality – The quality of content is determined by the level of experience, expertise, authority and trust that can be assigned to the website that publishes it and the author who created it. 

The more helpful the content is and the more people refer to it the better. 

Google also employs human quality raters who assess results manually and feed back their reports to the engineers responsible for the algorithms.

  1. Usability – The usability of web pages is how fast they load, how easy to read they are and how well the website works on various devices and for different people.
  1. Context – Context and settings of a Google search have also a significant impact on the outcome. 

So whether you search on the go, while traveling or using a different device will most likely influence the end result. 

Google uses your language, location and search history and your individual search settings to choose the most apt result for a particular place and person.

Yet these are just the publicly shared insights that Google is keen to spread the word about.

In reality the Google ranking process differs from the ideal that the company presents to the general public.

What is the actual secret sauce then? 

The ingredients are somewhat different albeit some of them are indispensable of course.

For many years Google claimed that it uses “more than 200 ranking signals”. 

Some well known SEO specialists even created lists of those that are probably among them.

Yet the current reality is rather even more complicated. Already a probably less sophisticated search engine like Russian Yandex has thousands of them! 

How do we know? Their search ranking algorithm has been leaked. 

Technical SEO expert Michael King has analyzed it and came up with a list of almost 18 thousand ranking signals! Some of them were surprising. Many others were expected.

A tool created to track those ranking factors lists almost 21.500 already! 

You can bet that Google has a similar or larger amount of criteria that get taken into account.

It’s very hard to pinpoint the actual most important ranking factors.

Some potential ranking factors are fiercely contested so that there is a lot of debate. 

When Semrush published a study a few years ago that attempted to measure them by using correlation there was considerable controversy. 


The SEO success factors experts agree on

Yet there is a tentative consensus on what ingredients, “search engine” or “SEO success factors” (as some call them to avoid being called out for spreading myths) probably matter most. 

To make it as easy as possible I reduced the number of ingredients to the obligatory ones. 

Without satisfying these you might not show up prominently on Google despite having a healthy website.

I sorted them in alphabetical order, not by importance:

Content

Over the years Google spokespeople often stressed the need to “create great content” to get ranked high by Google. 

In recent years they have specified how great that content should be in more detail.

Also Google’s focus on content has grown increasingly. Empty sites don’t rank anymore.

Semrush has a content audit tool to support you at creating people and search friendly content. You can check up to 50 pages for free!

The content that Google and thus search users prefer is:

Unique – The content you publish has to be original, providing a personal perspective and expressing your first hand experience. 

Google does not like rehashed “me too” articles that merely mention a lot of keywords and could be written by an AI summarizing what it finds on the Web. 

High quality The content has to cover the topic in depth while being very specific about details without adding unnecessary fluff. 

It has to be easy to read and ideally contain visuals, data and expert insights.

There must be a way to verify whether the content reflects the current state of knowledge on the particular topic.

Links to original sources are expected and articles that expand on particular subtopics are appreciated.

Helpful – It has to solve actual problems within the article. The solutions suggested should be explained in detail and be able to replicate ideally.

No piece of content is an island. Thus links to additional resources are highly valued.

Google dislikes attempts to keep the visitor reading just for the sake of viewing ads or extending the time on site. 

Key takeaways: 

  • Use your personal perspective. 
  • Make your content as specific as possible.
  • Provide actionable solutions.
  • Link out to sources and for additional insights.

Intent

When people search they have a particular goal in mind. 

Usually they don’t just want to get entertained like on streaming sites or get distracted like on social media.

On Google we usually want to accomplish a task.

There are mainly four types of user intent:

navigational – Example: wanting to visit Facebook or looking for the Facebook login page.

informational – Trying to find out what a word means or looking for an explanation of a concept.

commercial – Researching different types of products or services.

transactional – Looking for a specific type of product or brand to buy it directly.



Screenshot: Semrush Organic Research – Positions tool showing Semrush.com rankings with intent marked as “c”, “i” and “n” (in red rectangle).

Also given the context Google already preselects what you are most likely looking for.

When you are searching for [apple] they will serve you results for the company or brand and not the fruit assuming that you’d searched for that in the local supermarket instead.

Given your location, search history and clues within the keywords Google will show you different results.

Thus Google wants the site it ranks to reflect the particular intent and provide the information that is appropriate for it.

Depending on what keywords a person uses, that intent might also be local: “near me”, mentioning a location, or additional modifiers like “restaurant”.

Some online stores forget that not all people are knowledgeable about their specific offerings yet. Instead they just add some keyword rich text in the footer “for the SEO”.

Google prefers sound informational content like guides, videos demonstrating features or at least third party tests and reviews covering their products.

Searchers who are already looking to buy products do not want to get distracted by blog content in contrast. Adding “buy now” or “visit our store” buttons may be a good idea then.

Key takeaways: 

  • Give searchers what they are looking for.
  • Create different types of content depending on intent.
  • Inform upfront when needed.
  • Mark products and buying options as such.

Links

Even though the original link-based Google search algorithm has been replaced by now the idea that links represent recommendations still applies to the current ranking.

Most SEO experts agree that Google keeps on using inbound links to measure the authority of a resource.

Yet the number and value of links were often artificially inflated in the past. 

To limit these manipulations Google spokespeople tend to deemphasize the importance of links in the ranking algorithms.

Thus you won’t see as many mentions of backlinks on official documents or communications as previously. 

Yet even Google admits that links still matter for search rankings on their search essentials page.

Without links both internal and backlinks from other sites you will struggle to put your content on top of Google’s organic results.

There are several types of links that are particularly helpful for SEO.

Anchor text links – When you link something on your site it’s advisable to use self-evident descriptive text to announce upfront what the target page of that link is about. 

This can be done by way of anchor text

Useful anchor text reflects the content of the page you link to. 

A page about apples would use anchor text mentioning terms like “apple”, “apples” or “apple trees”.

Links with meaningless anchor text like “click here”, “article” or “this” are not as helpful for people and rankings.

Be careful when you ask others to link to you though! Anchor text that exactly matches lucrative keywords may get you in trouble! Why? Google may consider it to be manipulative.

Don’t fret though! Semrush helps you find and fix those potentially “toxic” links.


Screenshot from the Semrush backlink audit tool while selecting “money” anchors with high “toxicity score”.

Backlinks or inbound links – The still most important type of links are backlinks. Some also call them inbound links or incoming links as they are leading from other websites to yours.

Why do they still matter? Backlinks are among the best ways to determine whether a resource is also valuable for others. 

A link is in most cases treated as an endorsement.

Even when an author disagrees with the premise of a linked document they still assign importance to the opinion they contest. Otherwise they would merely ignore it.

The Web is made of links. Without links it would be just a huge number of dead end sites not connected to each other. 

Google relies heavily on links to discover and assess content.

Make sure to tell other people about your website and content so that some of them will ideally link to it. The SEO practice of outreach has been born out of this necessity.

Do not attempt to acquire backlinks you do not deserve though. These “unnatural links” may backfire or will be most likely simply demoted.

Focus your efforts and investments on attracting organic editorial links that people point at your useful resources voluntarily.

Brand mentions Google looks at the number of times third party websites mention your name or brand name. 

This is done by counting the number of branded anchor texts, website addresses (or URLs) linked to but also unlinked brand mentions.

Large brands like Apple, Amazon or Google itself tend to have a very high number of branded links. The more important and popular your name the higher it is.

Generic “no name” websites can be set up overnight in a fully automated fashion. Yet it takes years and a lot of trust to build a brand or have your name recognized.

Make sure you become a reliable source of information, quality products or high value services so that over time people will refer to you by your name.

While unlinked brand mentions are not actually links Google is most likely considering them when measuring the importance of a particular brand. 

Internal links – When your site has been online for a while you sometimes merely need to link new pages from existing ones to tell the search engine that there is new content. 

In the best case it will rank high quickly just based on your previous track record or authority.

On the flipside pages that are not linked anywhere on your site or only somewhere where the link is barely visible might get demoted.

Key takeaways: 

  • Use descriptive anchor text that explains what the linked page is about.
  • Tell other people – especially those who publish on websites – about yours.
  • Make a name for yourself and your website.
  • Link yourself from existing content.

Trust

The original Google search algorithm measured trust by the number and value of links.

Over time – when links have been manipulated increasingly – they have come up with many additional methods of determining whether a site, author or resource is trustworthy.

Some of these ways have been abandoned ever since but many others have been added. 

To stress the need of trust Google has coined a new concept of trust that heavily influences the search ranking.

The concept came to be known as E-A-T for expertise, authority and trust whereas trust has been the most important of those. 

In 2022 Google added another “E” for (first hand) experience – hence E-E-A-T. Why? 

It’s to ensure there is a distinction between the ever growing pile of auto-generated content created by AI and that written by human authors.

Google prefers helpful content that is written by actual subject matter experts who have established themselves as trustworthy in a given area of expertise.

How does Google determine whether a given source is to be trusted? There are different angles to find out.

Authority – A lot of sites may have accumulated authority over the years. Some SEO specialists even call it domain authority. 

Yet Google also looks at particular authors so that these content creators may get recognized and aptly ranked on sites that haven’t been around for so long. 

Also websites tend to change owners and sometimes authority literally vaporizes given the new owners. To get authority you must be a recognizable author by name and context. 

Using a real name is of course best and associating yourself with reputable industry publications, conferences or trade fairs also count.

Credibility – Even an author with a considerable track record and lots of awards may not always be credible. 

A parody site like The Onion has a huge number of links, a well known brand and a considerable domain authority. 

Yet their authors are not credible for obvious reasons – they are not telling the truth in a conventional manner. 

They invent fictitious stories and exaggerate trends instead of reporting and covering facts.

“The Father of SEO” Bruce Clay argues that Google is already doing sentiment analysis (like some enterprise-level social media analytics tools) to determine reputation. 

They even offer this as a service on Google Cloud.

This way they would be able to see whether something gets a positive, negative or neutral reaction.

Yet Google has other ways to establish credibility and whether they trust your content. They are looking for expert advice.

Expertise – How does content become trustworthy? Ideally the information comes “straight from the horse’s mouth”.

Google relies on subject matter experts with proof of expertise based on their past mentions.

As Google’s search liaison Danny Sullivan explained when you search for medical advice content written by actual doctors will be shown on top. 

When it comes to law, government websites are more likely to be found first. 

For local results “local guides” serve as reviewers who have been to a location and checked it out personally.

Key takeaways:

  • Establish yourself as an authority.
  • Associate yourself with trustworthy sources.
  • Become credible by amassing expertise.
  • Create content based on your own experience.

Usefulness

Google wants the search results they show on top to be both usable and useful.

At the beginning of both their ranking results and ranking systems pages they say so:

“To give you the most useful information, Search algorithms look at many factors and signals…”.

“Google uses automated ranking systems (…) to present the most relevant, useful results…”. 

Emphasis added by myself.

Since at least 2023 they focus on helpful content that can be used to solve actual problems real people face. 

Ask yourself: does your page and content have an actual use beyond making money or distracting?

You have to create truly relevant content having concrete use cases. Coming back to our apple and fruit example that would be: how to make an apple pie?

Do not merely gobble up keyword-rich fluff or simply list dozens of related keywords. Write for humans first and search engines second.

What is Google specifically looking for to show the best search results?

Answers – In the past it was often enough to post a question on a forum to make it rank for people who were asking about it. 

By now Google understands the meaning of text and can locate answers that provide solutions.

Page experience – In recent years the search engine also increasingly focused on a proper page or user experience.

Websites that overwhelmed their visitors with a cluttered design or annoying ads became a red flag long ago.

You need a clean interface, well-formatted content and an easy to use navigation among other best practices.

Website mobile-friendliness, speed and security also count but are rather taken for granted by now.

Quality – The more advanced Google ranking systems become the more the respective AI and algorithms detect low quality pages. 

Useless content only meant to lure searchers without delivering value gets demoted.

By now you have to offer a findable, readable and usable website full of useful how-tos, guides and tutorials to attract search visitors.

Additional formats beyond text – think charts, visualizations, photos or videos are also a way to get fast-tracked to the search results, especially by so-called SERP features (like image or video results).

Timeliness – While evergreen content is sometimes ranking for years, often fresh content that refers to recent developments and has been published not so long ago will rank higher.

It’s always a good idea to update existing content frequently or to reflect current events.

Key takeaways:

  • Solve problems and provide actual solutions.
  • Provide answers to questions people ask.
  • Create easy to find, read and use actionable content.
  • Provide additional (visual) content formats.


Google algorithm updates

So you think that once you have figured out the Google search algorithm you could outsmart it and rank forever? Dream on. 

Google routinely updates its search ranking algorithm, tweaks and adds ranking factors or improves current ranking systems. 

This way the search engineers ensure that Google stays spam-free.

In the past SEO experts would watch the Google index constantly to determine what caused ranking fluctuations.

Nowadays there are tools for tracking major Google index changes like the Semrush Sensor:


Screenshot of Semrush Sensor – an algorithm tracking tool – showing fluctuations.

Do algorithm updates still matter?

When you focus too much on single ranking factors and neglect the overall quality of your website and content you risk getting demoted in an update. 

Otherwise – when genuinely optimizing for Google and searcher’s manifold requirements – you are far less likely to experience major tremors.

Then checking algorithm updates becomes secondary yet allows you to improve your website and content even further.

Also sudden traffic drops or rises may have been caused by internal issues like a hacked website or seasonal demand.

Then it is a good idea to cross-check whether there’s an internal cause or a general change of focus on behalf of Google.

So whether you optimized your site successfully already and were able to fulfill Google’s requirements or you are just starting out it’s always a good idea to look into it. 

Webmaster and SEO tools help you find out how you fare.


AI Overviews above the results

By mid 2024 Google introduced so-called AI Overviews. These are AI generated summaries of search results from various sources.

The Google AI digests information from one or more websites, rephrases it and publishes it directly on the Google search result page above the rest of Google ads, features and organic results.

These summaries are often based on obscure sources that do not rank high on Google’s regular search results. This led to some hilarious mistakes in the early days of AI Overviews.

Google advised searchers to “eat rocks”, told pregnant women to smoke or add glue to pizza in some of the more spectacular examples.

Yet despite these strange blunders we can safely assume that feature is here to stay.