How Google Ranks Websites
The key to achieving success in the modern digital marketplace is search engine optimization or SEO. You want your website to rank above others when people search for relevant queries, which will lead to you outperforming your competitors and ultimately driving more clicks, conversions, and sales.
Without good SEO, it’s difficult to succeed online. Luckily, there are many ways to help your website perform better, and numerous techniques you can use to take your SEO to the next level. Part of this involves understanding the mechanics of how search engines operate, and how they crawl, index, and rank websites.
How Google Sees a Website
Spiders and Crawlers
One of the first concepts to grasp is how Google views websites. Google and other search engines don’t see the website the same way we do, with interactive modules, dynamic components, and stylized text. Rather, they just see the webpage as computer code in the form of HTML. HTML is the standardized computer language used to display websites on the internet.
Google uses crawlers, sometimes called “spiders” to parse through this code line by line and ascertain certain characteristics of the website, which it then uses to rank the site. These spiders can be understood as scripts or robots that automatically parse and analyze the HTML code of a website.
View Page Source
To view your website similarly to how Google would view it, right-click on the page and select “View page source”. This will open a side window with lines of code, which might appear technical and a little confusing if you aren’t familiar with HTML.
In this page source, there is only text. This computer language displays images, video, and other elements of a website as lines of code that the browser then turns into actionable items on the screen.
To maximize your SEO, you want your HTML to be easily understandable, compiled to be as simple as possible, and accurate. The more you can spoon-feed to Google by providing easily understood text, the better your page will rank compared to its peers.
Google’s crawlers or spiders go through this source code and use keywords and the information available to ascertain what your website is about. That’s why it’s important to make sure your website clearly explains its purpose, category, and function in plain language within the content.
While it’s not critical to know how to code in HTML, due to widely-accessible website creators, it’s still important to understand the basic functions and the fact that search engines only see websites as HTML.
For example, Google does not “see” images. Rather, it sees a line of HTML code that links to the image that is uploaded on a file hosting server. So, one way to optimize your HTML for Google’s SEO procedures is to always give your images file names that are relevant to what they actually show and your website, as this image title is all Google will be able to see. You can also use “alt tags”, which is an HTML attribute applied to images that can further help search engines understand them and improve SEO.
Text is Best: How to Optimize Your HTML for Google
Due to the difficulty search engines can have with interpreting various page elements like images or videos, simple text is the best way you can present data to them. You should attempt to have at least 400-700 words or more per page so that you have enough content for the crawlers to analyze and interpret. Any page that you want to show up in search engine rankings will need content on it, having more written content and keywords on each page will give you a better chance of ranking higher.
Because you want people who land on your page to see a nice, streamlined site with easy access to the links and tools they need, you can put this written content at the very bottom of the page. That way, it won’t clutter up the page or make it appear too crowded, but will still be accessible by Google.
A good way to figure out how much content you should have on your web pages is the following process:
- Go to your competitors’ sites, or the sites that rank at the top of the results for your relevant keywords.
- Once you are there, copy and paste the text on their pages into a word processor, and check it to see how many words per page they use on average.
- Shoot for slightly more than that so that Google will prefer yours over theirs due to its higher amount of text content.
Don’t hold back when writing this content, more high-quality written material on your pages is always better.
The Almighty Algorithm
Once Google has crawled your HTML code and received as much data as possible, it then puts what it has learned into its algorithm. This algorithm is highly secretive and proprietary, and no one except high-level engineers at Google knows the specifics of it.
Additionally, it can change at any moment, which is why SEO is an ongoing and continuous process. Google results change every day, meaning the algorithm ranks people differently every day as well.
There are over 200 different ranking factors that go into the algorithm, making it a complex operation to understand. However, understanding it isn’t necessary, the only thing you have to do is beat your local competitors in relevant search results. Essentially, ask not how the Google algorithm works, ask how you can do more SEO than your competitors.
Algorithm Updates and Changes
Every few months, Google will release a periodic update to their algorithm which can strongly affect search results. Some of these updates seek to penalize websites for not following SEO procedures or those that are doing it “wrong” in their eyes. That’s why maintaining the highest quality SEO procedures possible is always important.
Google does not like to be “tricked” or deceived by deceptive techniques or websites. They constantly look for loopholes to patch that will disallow people from manipulating their rankings in ways they find undesirable.
If you are penalized by Google, the worst-case scenario is being kicked off of their results entirely, but this doesn’t happen very often. More commonly, those found to be not following proper SEO procedures will be dropped in the rankings, causing them to lose traffic that can only be brought back by buying ads. Always make sure that your SEO is professional and above board in all regards.
However, you won’t necessarily be told when you are being penalized. While you may sometimes be informed through Google Search Console or Google Analytics, more commonly you will simply notice that your traffic has slowed. From there, you can check the date the slowdown started and see if Google released an update around that time and what might have affected you.
Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird
Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird are names given to various updates to Google’s algorithm which attempt to regulate or control which websites show up on their results. Their goal is to prioritize organic, original content with a high degree of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness while lowering results from irrelevant or low-quality websites.
The Panda version of the algorithm was released in 2011 and has had numerous updates since then. Its goal is to regulate websites with non-original, duplicated content or pages with “thin” content, defined as pages with not very many words. The goal here is to provide more points of view and options for those searching, rather than the same article or content in multiple places.
The Penguin update to the algorithm was released in 2012 and targets different areas of SEO. This update targets those who participate in what Google sees as “keyword stuffing” or “backlink schemes”, which are ways to try and trick Google into seeing your website as more highly-regarded or authoritative than it really is.
The Hummingbird update began the process of optimizing Google for mobile devices and the way people search on their phones, including speaking into it. The Hummingbird update to the algorithm changed the way Google works from searching from searching for each individual word in a query to contextualizing and understanding the search query as a whole. This allows for a more natural way to process language and user intent in each search by incorporating more variables into the search like geolocation, context, and other factors.
It’s important to be aware of how these algorithms look and what they try to penalize, as getting out of Google’s penalty schemes can be very difficult and isn’t guaranteed.
Q: Why is a landing page so important?
A: Landing pages are critical to SEO and online success because they are the page a user will land on immediately after clicking your ads. This is your best chance at making a sales conversion and people have short attention spans, so you need to make the most of every opportunity you have when someone lands on your page.
Always make sure your landing pages are up-to-date, attractive, function well, and have easy options for the potential customer to purchase your product, such as an easy way to make a sale, sign up for your service, or get in touch with you.
Q: Should you put dashes in between your keywords?
A: Try to use natural language whenever possible. If they normally have dashes then you should write them out that way, but if it’s normally just spaces then write them that way. For image filenames, dashes between words can help Google parse the information and understand it better, but this isn’t a requirement.
Q: What should I do if my website is more image-based, like for an artist?
A: If you’re an artist or your website is primarily image-based, then you just need to add content and descriptive titles to your pages. Try to come up with content that describes your images, and consider adding a few paragraphs at the bottom of your page describing what it is. Also, use descriptive language in your filenames and make sure that you are utilizing alt tags.
Q: Will Google keep ranking pages higher when I add quality content?
A: Yes, Google will keep updating its analysis of your page and will rank your page higher when you continue to add quality content. Make sure not to use the same content for multiple pages on your website, as you will be penalized for this and also find yourself competing against your own website, leading to lower rankings for each page.
Q: What if I have blocks of content and then a hotlink for the user to read more?
A: That should work, as long as there is enough content on the page for Google to read. Don’t hide the content and always make sure that Google can understand the basic function and purpose of the page without needing to click the link. Consider consolidating the content if you want the first page to rank higher.
Q: How does Google know what quality content is?
A: Google uses its hummingbird and other complex algorithms to determine what they describe as the authoritativeness, expertise, and trustworthiness of the content. Original and non-duplicate content is part of this, but there are other metrics they look for, such as how many people link to your site, legibility, and how helpful it is.
Q: Is it better to write one page with a lot of content or multiple pages with less content?
A: What you want to do is make one page with a lot of content and then replicate that for each service you offer. So, don’t split up content unnecessarily, but also don’t have multiple pages that could function as one instead. Each specific service, category, or product you offer can have 1,000+ words describing it, and always focus the most on your home page or top-selling product when it comes to content.
Q: What is an example of deceptive SEO techniques that Google doesn’t like to see?
A: One example of this is “keyword stuffing”, where you can put a bunch of keywords on your site in tiny, almost-invisible text that is the same color as your website background so it blends in. While we may not usually notice it, Google will immediately recognize this as a deceptive SEO strategy and penalize you for it.
Q: Does a 1,000-word page rank higher than a 1,000-word blog?
A: As far as Google is concerned, a blog is a page. There isn’t any real difference, so it won’t matter when it comes to SEO. Blogs can be a great way to increase the amount of content on your site once you have described your products and created a home page.
SEO is the most important factor in online success in the modern digital marketplace. Without it, your business will suffer and you will lose ground to your competitors. Contact an SEO professional today and watch your impressions, conversions, and sales soar!