How does Google decide which websites rank for a given search term?

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figuring out how to get more website traffic

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 “[your service] + near me” or [“product” + [your 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 get bupkis, at least on page one.

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.

Meme of obi wan, luke, and threepio just before they entered the mos eisley cantina. you'll never see a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
As a community, SEO professionals don’t have the greatest reputation.

SEO, which stands for Search Engine Optimization, is the method of getting better results from search engines by optimizing your website and other factors to rank higher in search engine results.

Google has developed a complicated algorithm with hundreds (minimum) of what’s called “ranking signals”, ie, factors your website is evaluated against to decide whether it’s more or less valuable to a given searcher than your competition.

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 county’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 county 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.

There’s far too many to list 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 and citations (that’s other websites that link to yours, and 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 evaluate a special spicy mix of factors that are almost completely out of your control, like 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 and see if it’s any good, and geo-centric 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 their ultimate goal is to play matchmaker with the user searching “hvac installation mytown, arizona” with, say, 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. So my advice is:

  • 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?”

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.

So here’s a list of things you can do as soon as your website launches to get real eyeballs on it right away. This will go a long way towards the long term success of your website.

How to jumpstart website traffic with a launch campaign:

  • Start with your current contacts and customers. Invoices and letterhead should have your website address printed at the top. This can help customers who maybe aren’t aware of ALL of your services to perhaps expand their relationship with you.
  • Do you have a list of email addresses of current customers who’ve given you permission to email them? You can send out a mass email to let them know about your new website.
  • Marketing materials. If you make use of flyers, business cards, brochures, trade magazine ads, etc, make sure your website address is included too.
  • Signage. Decals, wraps, or magnet signs on your buildings, car, truck, or any fleet vehicles can be great advertising if your website is prominent and clear.
  • Current vendors, affiliates, resellers, partners, or suppliers. Think about the network of other businesses that you interact with– do they know about your website? If you are a supplier or vendor, or others promote your business in some way, you might ask if they will update that content with a link to your new website.
  • Conversely, if you make use of someone else’s services or products, you may offer to write a review/testimonial for your supplier and ask them to link to your website along with the review the review. Worth an ask!
  • Your email signature. Adding a simple, readable link to your website underneath your name is a great way to make people you’re already in contact with aware of your new site. I also like to add a link to my reviews, as well.
  • Business directories– as soon as you can, add your new website address to your Google My Business listing, Yelp, and any other directories you maintain listings with. This may also include trade organizations or communities where you interact with colleagues or customers, local chamber of commerce, local or state small business guilds, etc.
  • Social media. Most social media profiles will have a place to include your website, so add yours today! You may also want to post an announcement about your new website. My recommendation is to coordinate this with your web designer, just to make sure everything is truly launched, live, and ready for primetime by the time you post.

Those are just a few ideas for getting traffic flowing to your website. Meanwhile, your website designer will be taking care of submitting the website for indexing by Google, which ensures that when your potential customers do search for things that you want to rank for, Google can decide where to rank your site. They will also be making sure that your website is “Google friendly,” meaning, it complies with the best practice recommendations that Google puts out to make sure that the website’s content can be processed and understood by Google’s algorithm. They may also be able to help you write content that will put your business’s best foot forward on the web.

The next step, of course, is trying to improve your website’s ranking in the search engine results pages. You don’t want the only traffic you get to be coming from your Facebook announcement post, or someone who saw the sign on your truck at a stoplight– there’s a world of people who are searching for your products and services on Google, and organically showing up when they search is the cheapest way to get new leads.

But when you start out, you may need to click through page after page of search results before you see your own website. And no customer is going to search all the way to page 42!

So how do you move up through the rankings to where you have a shot at getting actual clicks from organic searches? Check out my other post “How do I get to #1 on Google?” to learn more about that topic.

Kelsey Barmettler headshot

Kelsey Barmettler

I'm a web designer near Tucson, AZ and I write these articles to help business owners (including my clients) be more informed and empowered about their websites.