This is a high-level look at how search engines weigh and measure different factors relating to your website, and introduces the topic of how to optimize your website to rank higher in search engine results.
For further reading, please see also:
How can I get my website to #1 on Google? (The real, boring way)– a guide for your overall SEO strategy.
What is SEO, and how can I improve my website’s search ranking if I don’t know code?– this article explains off-page SEO, which is how to improve your search ranking with factors that are outside of your website itself.
Now that you’ve launched your new website, you may be wondering when you can expect to see good results from search engines like Google.
The goal is to get your website ranking for search queries that are related to your products and services, like “service near me” or “product + location”. But right now, when you plug those terms into the search box, you may not see your website come up at all. Sure, you probably rank for your business name (if your business name is unique enough), but if you type in a generic version of your product or service, you might not see your business at all yet– at least in the top results where you WANT to be.
So how does Google decide which websites rank on page one, in the top spots, for any given search term?
Well, there’s an entire industry dedicated to sussing that out and optimizing that. Welcome to the wild world of SEO.
How does Google decide what results are relevant?
Search engines like Google use automated programs called spiders to crawl the internet and catalog internet content into an index. Then, when users query that catalog with a query like “plumber near me,” relevant results are returned.
Google has developed a complicated algorithm with hundreds (at minimum) of what’s called ranking signals. Ranking signals are the factors your website is evaluated against to decide whether it’s more or less relevant to a given query than your competition.
This algorithm is constantly being updated. One reason for that is the pursuit of better and more relevant results. The field is constantly advancing, and computers continue to get better at understanding natural human language, and figuring out what a given website is about.
Another reason for constant updates to the algorithm is the endless battle with those who want to game the system. There’s a natural incentive to get websites pushed to the top of the search results without doing the hard work to make high-quality content.
The exact number of ranking factors that go into this algorithm is something only Google knows. The exact weight given to each of these factors is also kept private.
That’s part of why the SEO community can be tough to navigate. Imagine if your local building department’s permitting process for your new room addition was a total secret, and you just had to fork over cash to a contractor who promises that he knows what the building department wants and he can get your room addition approved ✨ for sure ✨. But you won’t know if he’s telling the truth until the inspector comes. Meanwhile, your contractor is rolling in cash, regardless of whether you get your room addition or not.
Like I said, SEO can be a wild world. It doesn’t take any certification or license to call yourself an SEO. And there’s a lot of nonsense around as a result. That’s why I want to acquaint you with the fundamentals of how search engines work, so that you can apply your good sense to distinguish between the charlatans and the honest SEO professionals.
What are the ranking signals that Google takes into account?
There’s far too many to list individually here, but grouped into the main categories, we can safely say that Google looks at things like:
- your domain name
- website reputation (do only spammy websites link to you, or vice versa?)
- website age (Google favors new things and old things)
- website structure and code
- content (can Google tell if your text and images are relevant to the search query?)
- website security
- backlinks– when other websites that link to yours
- citations– non-linking mentions that can be tied to your brand
- user interaction patterns, like how long users stay on your site before returning to the search results
Additionally, they also throw in a special spicy mix™ of factors that are almost completely out of your control. For example:
- a need to mix things up on the results pages to correct for some algorithmic bias
- the search history and profile of the actual searcher (yes, Google customizes search results per user– your search results are not necessarily the same as mine!)
- a need to inject fresher/newer content to see if it’s any good (the “spaghetti against the wall” factor)
- geo-specific factors like where the user is when they submit their search query
As you can see, there’s a lot to the question of how Google decides where your website ranks compared to the competition.
But the search engine’s ultimate goal is to play matchmaker with the user searching “hvac installation MyTown, Arizona” with, say, MyTownHeatingandCooling.com.
To be successful, they have to make sure that the user gets the answer they’re looking for– and they’ll only know if that happened by the behavior of the user (ie, eventually they stop clicking through the search engine results page for more results).
And they have to keep their methods sophisticated and fairly secretive, because there’s a ton of spam-spewing hordes out their who are constantly trying to game the system.
Guiding principles for succeeding in SEO
Try to make your goals align with Google’s by being helpful to their users. The content on your website should be deeply helpful to the real people that are searching for answers that you want to give them.
Follow Google’s best practices recommendations for a high-quality website. That means your website should be easy for Google to read and understand, load fast, be secure, etc. For more tips, check out the companion post “How can I get my website to number 1 on Google? (The real, boring way)”
It won’t happen overnight, but as with planting a tree, the best time to start is ten years ago… the second best time is today!
Just building and launching your website won’t make traffic start flowing overnight. Jumpstarting things with your own “launch campaign” is the first step to getting free organic (natural, ie, non-advertisement-based) traffic flowing to your website. There’s a whole host of things you can do as soon as your website launches to get real eyeballs on it right away. To get started, check out my website launch campaign guide.
Google’s own documentation on how search works.
Moz’s guide to how search engines work
Ahrefs guide to search engines