The Science Behind Page Ranking

Before you ask, “How do I get my pages to rank #1 on Google?”, there’s another question you should ask first…

“How does Google decide its page rankings in the first place?”

To answer this question, you’ll need to learn how Google interprets search queries, how it matches different queries to relevant web pages, and how it ranks relevant pages in search results.

By understanding this process, you can start looking at keywords and content the way Google’s algorithm does. At that point, it’s much easier to create relevant content and craft it in a way that boost its ranking.

Determining Search Intent

Before Google calculates page rankings for a query, it first attempts to determine the query’s search intent. In many cases, this is an even more complicated process than the actual ranking of search results.

In determining searcher intent, Google looks at a range of signals. Some of these signals come from the query itself. Others come from data generated by billions of past Google searches. Google can also use data about your device and your Google history to make assumptions about your search intent.

This process has a lot of moving parts. So, to give you a sense of how this process works, let’s take a look at an example to see how Google might determine search intent…

Search Intent for “Restaurants Near Me”

Google has a gets over 20 million searches each month for “restaurants near me.” So, it has a ton of data to work with to figure out search intent.

Based on that data, Google knows that searchers who make this query are looking for restaurants in close proximity. But the user hasn’t told Google where “near me” is. Google has to look at the location of the device to determine where the user wants to search. So in addition to the query itself, Google will look at your location to determine search intent.

But Google’s analysis of search intent doesn’t stop there.

Google will also draw on data from other users searches to make educated guesses about your intent. For instance, Google knows that most people who search for “restaurants near me” are looking for restaurants that are currently open. So, Google might assume that you’re looking for restaurants with hours that line up with the time you made your search.

Google can also look at information from your Google history to narrow down your search intent. For example, if you tend to search for and visit burger joints and ramen shops, Google might assume that you’re looking for fast-casual restaurants based on your Google Maps history.

These factors — along with several others — help Google figure out the search intent for any given query. But once it’s determined that intent, how does it actually rank its search results?

Calculating Page Rankings

Once Google has determined a user’s search intent on a given query, it needs to do two things. First, it needs to sort out the relevant search results from the non-relevant results. Then, it needs to rank those results from most-helpful to least-helpful.

To sort and rank search results, Google’s algorithm looks at over 200 different signals. These signals include your site’s security certificate, the frequency of keywords and related terms in your content, the layout of your webpage, the backlink profile of the page, and many, many more.

What’s more, Google will weight these signals differently for different queries. For example, if Google believes that searchers are looking for detailed information on a topic, it will reward pages with a higher word count. In other cases, Google might believe that users are looking for shorter, to-the-point content. In these cases, it may reward pages with a lower word count.

Google can even weight these signals differently for the exact same query, depending on contextual signals. Here’s an example of how that can occur…

Calculating Page Rankings for “Black Hole”

If you searched for the term “black hole” on March 10, 2019, Google would assume that the intent of your search was to find general information about black holes. It would then adjust its ranking factors accordingly.

To do so, it would look for pages on trusted domains that specialize in general information (like Wikipedia) or space science specifically (like NASA). It would give higher rankings to pages with longer word counts and keywords related to the subject of black holes. And it would look for pages with high volumes of inbound links from trusted sources.

But if you conducted the same search on April 10 — the date that the first-ever image of a black hole was published — the results would look entirely different.

Based on signals from news sites, social media, and search habits, Google would assume that most searchers were looking for content about the black hole image. So, it would reconfigure the weighting of ranking factors to find pages related to the breaking news story.

To do this, it would prioritize more results from trusted news sites, like The New York Times and CNN. It would also prioritize recently published pages, rewarding newly posted content. And it would reward pages that contained trending keywords in other news stories and on social media.

The end result? A completely different set of rankings.

Bottom Line = Finding the Most Helpful Results

Based on this overview of how Google calculates page rankings, it’s clear that the process is complicated. At this point, even Google’s own engineers don’t fully understand why some pages rank ahead of others.

But if you’re looking for a general guideline on how Google’s algorithm ranks pages, look at this this way…

Google is trying to serve users with the content that they consider most relevant and most helpful for any given search. The best way to achieve high rankings is to approach content creation with the same goal: try to anticipate the pages that users are looking for, then create your content accordingly.