How Search Algorithms Work

You don't have to be a programmer to know how Google's search algorithm works. Here's a quick primer.

Google is notoriously tight-lipped on the specifics of how its proprietary algorithms work. It has been up to diligent SEO practitioners over the years to uncover trends, dig into the algorithm update announcements that Google makes, track the data and test variables to develop best practices on what matters most and how to get content to rank in the SERPs.

There are three aspects to complete SEO: on-page, off-page and technical. The algorithms consider metrics in all three groups to determine whether the content is relevant to the search being performed, whether the site is trustworthy and authoritative, and whether the page functions well enough to deliver a good user experience.

On-page SEO

On-page optimizations primarily focus on keywords and content quality. Google indexes every word on the page as well as its relative importance according to placement and context. Keywords placed at the beginning of any section — title, H1, H2, body copy, metadata, etc. — are considered more important than those placed further down. Beyond that, the content needs to be structured clearly, be informative and remain engaging.

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO is a cousin to PR. Its entire purpose is to earn backlinks and brand mentions from reputable, relevant websites. Inbound links are an important signal Google uses to evaluate whether your page is authoritative and trustworthy enough that other high-reputation websites use it as a citation, source of SEMs or related resource for additional reading. Much of this work consists of reaching out to website managers to negotiate partnerships and ask for favors. Often these partnerships include an exchange of links or guest blog posts that benefit both brands equally.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO is a collaboration between design, UI/UX, analytics and the SEO practitioner. UI/UX helps ensure the website information architecture makes sense both to a user and to Google; that the relationship between pages makes sense from both a content and hierarchy perspective. Design helps make sure that on-page images and other assets are the right size and do not slow down page load times across device types. Analytics helps identify any performance issues as part of regular reporting. And the SEO practitioner puts all the pieces together, managing elements such as redirects, broken links and anchor text, and monitoring Google announcements for algorithm updates that might mean they need to make adjustments to any of the above factors.

Now That You Know How Search Algorithms Work, Start Optimizing

Together, these three areas of practice work together to signal to Google that a page is relevant and high-quality, that the site is trustworthy and reputable, and that the experience of the user post-click will be a good one. So as you review your existing and in-progress content, make the updates needed to meet each criteria. When you do, Google will be much more likely to serve up your content to your target audience.

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