If you want your website to be visible, understanding how Google’s search algorithm ranks web pages is crucial.

With Google handling 5.9 million searches per minute and accounting for over 90% of internet searches, visibility means appearing on the first page—where 95% of users stop searching.

This guide breaks down how Google evaluates and ranks billions of pages, giving you the insights you need to enhance your site’s visibility.


What is the Google Search Algorithm?

Google search algorithm

The Google Search Algorithm is a complex set of rules and formulas that Google uses to rank the billions of websites and pages available across the internet.

This algorithm is designed to sift through immense amounts of information and select the most relevant and high-quality pages based on a user’s search query.

These results are then organised and displayed on what we call the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

The algorithm isn’t just one formula, but a combination of many algorithms and ranking signals that take into account various factors such as the relevance of content, the usability of web pages, and the context of the searcher’s query.

For instance, Google considers the keywords found on a page, the age of content, the loading speed of the web page, how often other reputable sites link to the page, and even the location of the searcher.

Google’s algorithm is continuously updated to ensure it adapts to new internet trends, changes in user behaviour, and advances in technology.

This constant evolution is what makes Google’s search engine incredibly effective at delivering search results that meet user needs and expectations, thereby maintaining its position as the leading search engine worldwide.

This dynamic nature of Google’s algorithm means that SEO strategies also need to evolve.

Understanding the key components of this algorithm is vital if you want your website to perform well and be visible to your target audience on Google.

How the Google Search Algorithm works

Google’s method for ranking web pages involves three key phases: crawling, indexing, and ranking.

Each step is vital in ensuring that search results are not only relevant but also of the highest quality possible. Here’s how each phase works according to Google:

1. Crawling

This is the first stage where Google’s automated robots, also known as spiders or crawlers, discover new and updated web pages.

These crawlers start with a list of web addresses from past crawls and sitemaps provided by website owners.

As they visit these web pages, they use the links on those pages to find additional sites.

The data collected by the crawlers is then sent back to Google’s servers.

2. Indexing

After a page is crawled, it’s analysed and, if deemed suitable, is added to Google’s index, which is a vast database of discovered URLs.

Here, Google processes the content of each page—text, images, and video content—and also assesses key signals such as keywords and site freshness.

This analysis helps Google understand the content and purpose of each page, which is crucial for the next phase.

3. Ranking

When a user enters a query, Google sorts through its index to find the most relevant pages.

It uses complex algorithms and considers hundreds of ranking signals to prioritise these pages in the search results.

Factors influencing this ranking include the page’s content relevance to the search query, the information quality, the user experience (such as page loading speed and mobile-friendliness), and the amount of engagement the page receives.

By following these three steps, Google aims to deliver the most relevant and useful information to users for every search query they make.

Understanding and optimising for each phase can significantly enhance your site’s visibility and performance in Google Search results.

Understanding ranking factors

To decide how web pages are ordered in search results, Google’s algorithm uses a complex array of ranking factors – potentially over 200, with some estimates suggesting thousands when accounting for variations.

These factors are essential in determining which pages appear first for any given search query, and they can broadly be categorised into on-page and off-page factors.

On-page ranking factors

These are elements that you can control directly on your website.

They include the quality and organisation of your content, the presence and optimization of keywords, the use of HTML tags, and the implementation of structured data.

Each of these factors helps Google understand what your page is about and how effectively it might answer a user’s search query.

To learn how to optimise these elements, check out our detailed On-Page SEO Guide

Off-page ranking factors

These factors involve elements outside of your website that indicate its reputation and authority.

They include the quality and number of backlinks from other reputable sites, social media mentions, and other forms of external recognition that can influence how search engines view your site.

While you have less control over these factors compared to on-page elements, they are no less important in boosting your website’s visibility and credibility.

Dive deeper into how these work by reading our Off-page SEO Guide

Understanding Google Algorithm updates

Google constantly updates its search algorithm to enhance the relevance and quality of its search results.

These updates are crucial for SEO professionals and website owners to understand, as they can significantly influence the visibility of websites in search results.

What are Google Algorithm updates?

Google algorithm updates are changes made to the way Google ranks web pages in its search results.

These updates aim to improve user experience by prioritising high-quality, relevant content.

They can be minor adjustments that tweak existing algorithms or major overhauls that fundamentally change the SEO landscape.

Each update targets specific aspects of the Google Search algorithm.

For example, some updates focus on reducing the prevalence of low-quality content, while others might be aimed at improving the ability to understand and rank content in specific languages.

Google uses these updates to adapt to new user behaviours, emerging technologies such as AI, and evolving web standards, ensuring that users get the most accurate and helpful results for their queries.

Why Google updates matter for SEO

For those managing websites, staying informed about these updates is essential because they can impact a site’s ranking dramatically.

An update could cause a website to drop in rankings if it doesn’t align with the new changes, or it could boost a site’s visibility if the site benefits from the updated criteria.

Being proactive and adapting to these updates can help safeguard your site’s performance against potential penalties and take advantage of changes that might favour your content.

Types of Google updates

Understanding the different types of Google updates can help SEO professionals and website owners anticipate changes and adjust their strategies accordingly:

Core updates

Core updates are broad changes to the main search algorithm itself.

These updates are designed to improve Google’s overall ability to assess and rank content, making search results more relevant and reliable for users.

Core updates happen several times a year and can cause noticeable fluctuations in search rankings across many websites.

Panda and Penguin updates

Named updates like Panda and Penguin specifically target issues like poor quality content and unnatural backlinks, respectively.

The Panda update assesses content quality, penalising sites with duplicate, thin, or spammy content.

The Penguin update scrutinises a site’s link profile, reducing the rank of sites engaged in link schemes or those with manipulative backlink profiles.

Page experience updates

This type of update focuses on the user experience on web pages.

It considers factors such as mobile-friendliness, safe browsing, HTTPS-security, and intrusive interstitial guidelines.

The Page Experience update aims to prioritise sites that offer a superior user experience, especially on mobile devices.

Mobile-friendly updates

Often referred to as “Mobilegeddon,” this type of update rewards sites that are optimised for mobile viewing and penalises those that aren’t, reflecting the increasing importance of mobile internet access.

BERT & neural matching updates

These updates integrate advanced natural language processing techniques to better understand user queries and the context of pages.

BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) helps Google grasp the nuances and context of words in searches, allowing it to match those queries with more relevant results.

Neural matching allows Google to understand synonyms and improve its understanding of intent.

Product reviews update

This update aims to promote high-quality product reviews in search results.

It rewards detailed, insightful, and helpful reviews with rich analysis and original research, differentiating them from thin content that simply summarises a bunch of products.

Resources for tracking updates

To stay ahead of these changes, SEO professionals should regularly check several authoritative sources that track and analyse Google algorithm updates.

Here are a few recommended resources where you can find detailed information and discussions about past and recent updates: