What Is Google Algorithm And How It Works?

The Google algorithm is a complex system that retrieves data from its search index and displays the best results for any query that is entered. Google ranks web pages by relevance using a combination of algorithms and multiple ranking factors.

Google’s algorithms were only updated a few times in the beginning. Today, thousands of updates occur each year.

Most updates go unnoticed because they are so subtle. However, there are times when Google makes algorithmic changes that negatively impact the SERPs, such as:

How does the Google search algorithm work?

There are many factors to consider.

In this post, we will go over 5 major factors (as listed by Google) that influence what results are returned for a given query:

1. Meaning of the query

A Google search must understand what exactly the user is searching for and what his search intent is in order to return relevant results.

Various things must be understood and assessed:

  • The meaning of the words – what do the used words mean in natural language?
  • Search intent – what does the user want with the particular query – a definition, review, purchase, or finding a specific website?
  • The need for fresh content – is the query time-sensitive and requires fresh information?

It’s sometimes pretty straightforward. With the search query “buy new iPhone”, the intent, meaning, and need for freshness are evident.

When dealing with general queries, it can be difficult to understand what the user is trying to say. Users can specify the search results in these cases by using a number of options offered by Google, though it shows what it considers to be the best results.

2. The relevance of pages

Secondly, the search engine must find the pages that match the query. That is, to find pages that respond the best to the user’s query.

By continually crawling and indexing the web and analyzing the contents of all websites, it performs this task.

Keywords play a crucial role. There is a high chance the page is relevant if the search query and associated phrases appear on the page.

3. Quality of content

In a search query, millions of pages are likely to appear, so Google must prioritize those that provide quality content and demonstrate:

  • Expertise
  • Authoritativeness
  • Trustworthiness

PageRank, an algorithm used to determine the quality and quantity of links pointing to a website, is one of the key elements.

In addition, Google uses numerous spam algorithms to detect spammy black-hat SEO techniques used by low-quality pages.

4. Usability of pages

After Google has analyzed relevance and quality of content, they need to make sure the website is user-friendly and usable.

Included in this are technical aspects such as:

  • Page responsiveness
  • Correct appearance in all the browsers
  • Page speed
  • Security of the website

Although these factors are not the most important, they are considered if other factors (like relevance and quality) are equal.

5. Context and settings

The user’s circumstances and preferences have a tremendous influence on the search results.

These may include things like:

  • Location of the user
  • History of searches
  • Search settings

Google Search Quality Raters

Google uses input from real people in addition to algorithms and machine learning systems (such as RankBrain).

To assess the quality of the ranked pages, Google hires thousands of external employees, called Search Quality Raters, to evaluate the actual search results.

Google explains how it uses the data in the following way:

It’s important to note that this rating does not directly impact how this page or site ranks in Search. Nobody is deciding that any given source is “authoritative” or “trustworthy.” […]

 Instead, ratings are a data point that, when taken in aggregate, helps us measure how well our systems are working to deliver great content…

Thus, Quality Raters do not directly affect search results or rankings, but the data they collect is used to improve Google’s algorithm.

Algorithm updates

Google algorithm updates can generally be divided into two categories:

  • Minor updates
  • Core updates

The Google algorithm is tweaked quite often.

We mean a few times a day when we say quite often. The changes are usually very small and people are not aware of them.

In addition to these small updates, Google releases a couple of major algorithmic updates every year. There is often a lot of buzz about them in the SEO community, and the names are usually catchy.

Most important core algo updates

Here is a list of the most important algorithm updates in the last decade that shaped how Google works:

Panda (2011)

During 2011, Google Panda introduced a new update designed to penalize thin or poor content. In the update, a filter was introduced that stopped poor content from ranking highly for certain queries despite offering little value to readers.

Penguin (2012)

Penguin is an update to the Google ranking algorithm that was first rolled out in 2012. The rollout of that update had a profound effect on many websites back then. According to Google, the update was intended to combat webspam. The Penguin update is now part of Google’s core algorithm.

Hummingbird (2013)

Announced on September 26, 2013, Hummingbird was not really an algorithm update, but instead a rewrite of Google’s search platform, with a design goal of making the overall search engine more flexible and adaptable for the future. Part of the design of this rewrite included more support for natural language queries and semantic search.

Pigeon (2014)

One of Google’s local search algorithm updates is known as Google Pigeon. On July 24, 2014, this update was released. A local listing will now rank higher in search results due to the update. Along with the regular Google search results, the changes will also affect the search results shown in Google Maps.

Mobile Update (2015)

Mobilegeddon is the name given to the update to Google’s search engine algorithm on April 21, 2015. Chuck Price coined the term in a March 9, 2015 post published by Search Engine Watch. It was then adopted by webmasters and web developers alike.

RankBrain (2015)

Google’s RankBrain update is a form of machine-learning artificial intelligence. Computers are trained in Artificial Intelligence to perform tasks better than humans. Meanwhile, Machine Learning is at the heart of the way we are rethinking and transforming everything we do today.

Fred (2017)

Fred was an adjustment made to Google’s search ranking algorithm on March 7, 2017. Initially, Google did not announce the change. Many webmasters and SEOs flew into a panic when they analyzed their analytics data on March 8 due to this lack of warning.

Medic (2018)

In late 2018, Google updated its algorithm with the Medic update. The update affected numerous industries, but mainly Your Money, Your Life (YMYL) websites.

Bert (2019)

In this case, the BERT AI update is intended to make inroads into the science of language understanding through machine learning applied to a full body of text, such as a Google search. The company claims it is their biggest search system update in at least five years.

There is usually a great deal of speculation and discussion about each broad core algorithm update in SEO social media groups and forums.

If you’ve been affected by an algorithm update from Google, what should you do?

It’s always a good idea to wait until the dust has settled after core updates roll out for several days. A hasty fix can make things worse.

Don’t always trust forum “experts” that say their advice is “100% verified” (there are lots of them). You should instead wait for expert analysis and publications like Search Engine Journal or Moz.

Sometimes the best thing to do after an algorithm update is to do nothing. After a few weeks, many updates are improved or reverted, so make sure you are not fixing things that don’t need fixing.

If you recognize that your rankings are dropping because of a problem on your website, it’s time to fix it. Maybe you should rethink your entire SEO strategy to focus more on quality rather than quantity.

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