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7 Insights Into How Google Ranks Websites

Seven insights into how Google ranks websites today and how it may impact SEO.

7 Insights Into How Google Ranks Websites

Google’s algorithm is built around solving problems for users. That’s why there are featured snippets, carousels and local search specific results.   The implications of how Google understands user intent and how it uses that information to rank sites is very useful for developing a winning content strategy. The following are insights developed by studying patents and research papers published by Google itself.

Insight 1: Multiple User Intents

One of issues with identifying user intent is that almost every query contains multiple user intents. Google solves this problem by showing links to web pages about the most popular user intents first. For example, in a research study about automatically classifying YouTube channels (PDF), the researchers discuss the role of user intent in determining which results to show first. In the below quote, where it uses the word entity, it’s a reference to what you normally think of as a noun (a person, a place or a thing):

“A mapping from names to entities has been built by analyzing Google Search logs, and, in particular, by analyzing the web queries people are using to get to the Wikipedia article for a given entity… For instance, this table maps the name Jaguar to the entity Jaguar car with a probability of around 45 % and to the entity Jaguar animal with a probability of around 35%.”

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In plain English that means researchers discovered that 45% of people who search for Jaguar are looking for information about the automobile and 35% are looking for information about the animal. That’s user intent.

If you go to Google and search for the phrase, Jaguar, you’ll likely see that the search results related to the automobile may show up in positions 1 and 2, followed by results about the animal in position 3. That’s by design. 45% of people expect to see results about the auto than for the animal.

Insight 2: Search Results are Ordered by User Intent

How many links are pointing to the Jaguar website have little to do with why it’s ranked number one. Links play a role, but links are not entirely why it’s ranked number one. Moreover, trying to rank a page about Jaguar the animal at the top of that search result may not be possible.  Because the automobile user intent is the most popular, it’s very likely those top slots are reserved for Jaguar the automobile in order to satisfy the most popular user intent.

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Insight 3: Links Don’t Always Win the Day

The search results are no longer just about links. Nor are they just about keyword relevance, your title tags or your heading tags. Those are all important but for the past few years it could be said that the most popular user intent is the leading determinant of what is selected to rank at the top of Google.

That means understanding that a web page with the commercial interpretation of user intent will likely never rank at the top when the most popular user intent is non-commercial in nature. No matter how many links that commercial page acquires, it will not rank at the top until users signal to Google that the most popular user intent is commercial in nature.

7 Insights Into How Google Ranks Websites

Learn What Content Best Satisfies Users

User satisfaction is clearly a good goal. It leads to repeat business, more earnings and so on. But user satisfaction is predicated on satisfying the most people and satisfying the most people sometimes means entry level content wins the day.

That kind of content is not necessarily the most comprehensive answer. Google is simply showing the answer that satisfies the most people and sometimes that means content that is easy to read and understand.

The way to understand what kind of content is satisfying users is to temporarily shift away from looking at the search results by studying the links and keywords. Put on the user intent glasses and see how Google is ordering the search results by user intent. Then focus on how the content at the top is satisfying users.

Is Google ranking short content? This may indicate that users prefer a quick answer. Is the content entry level? This may indicate that most users at are a 101 level.  Does the content feature reviews? This may indicate that users are researching and Google had determined that content with research-friendly content satisfies the most users.

There’s a big difference between expert content and expert content that is entry level. If entry level content is what satisfies the most people and that’s what Google is ranking, then you may wish to consider ranking that kind of content.

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Ever wonder why top-ten lists are sometimes popular in the search results? Because most people find them easy to understand. And if that’s what people want, then that is what Google will show. This kind of insight can be used to craft your content strategy.

Insight 4: Search Results Show What People Want to See

Ever walk down a supermarket cereal aisle and note how many sugar laden cereals line the shelves? That’s user satisfaction in action. People expect to see sugar bomb cereals in their cereal aisle and supermarkets satisfy that user intent.

I often look at the Fruit Loops on the cereal aisle and think, “Who eats that stuff?” Apparently a lot of people do, that’s why the box is on the supermarket shelf, because people expect to see it there.

Google is doing the same thing as the supermarket. Google is showing the results that are most likely to satisfy users, just like that cereal aisle. Sometimes, that means showing newbie 101 level answers. Sometimes that means showing something incredibly racist and sad.

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For example, in 2009 Google had to apologize for showing an image of Michelle Obama that was altered to resemble a monkey  every time someone searched on her name. Why did Google show that result? Because most people searching on the name Michelle Obama were the kind of people who were satisfied seeing an image of her that resembled a monkey.

Click through rates and other metrics of user satisfaction indicated that’s what people wanted to see. So Google’s user intent algorithm gave it to them. Remember those sugar laden cereals in the supermarket? That’s what those kinds of results are. It’s what I refer to as a Fruit Loops algorithm, a popularity based algorithm that gives users what they expect to see.

Satisfying user intent is what Google means when they talk about showing relevant results. In the old days it meant showing web pages that contained the keywords that a user typed. Now it means showing the web page that the most users expect to see.

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Essentially, the search results pages are similar to the cereal aisle at your supermarket. That’s not a criticism, it’s an observation. I think it’s useful to think of the search results as a supermarket aisle and considering what kind of “cereal” is most popular. It may influence your content strategy in a positive way.

Insight 5: Google’s Search Results are Biased

This is why Google shows YouTube videos in the search results. It’s what people want to see. It’s why Google shows featured snippets, it’s what satisfies the most people. It’s not entirely accurate to complain that Google’s search results favor YouTube videos. People find video content useful. That’s why Google shows it. It’s a bias in the search results, yes. But it’s a reflection of the users bias, not Google’s bias.

So if the user has a bias that favors YouTube videos, what should your online strategy response be? Write more content and build links to it? Or is the proper response to shift to the kind of content users want, in this case video?

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Insight 6: Drops in Ranking Sometimes are Related to User Intent

Some sites drop in rankings can sometimes be explained by a shift in how Google interprets user intent. For example, I witnessed a near rewrite in what kind of content ranked at the top. Informational content zipped to the top, commercial content dropped to the bottom of the top ten. There was nothing wrong with the commercial sites that dropped, other than how Google understood user intent changed.

Trying to “fix” the commercial sites by adding more links, disavowing links or adding more keywords to the page likely would not help the rankings. Fixing something that isn’t broken won’t help. That’s why sometimes, it’s a good idea to study the search results first when diagnosing why a site lost ranking. There might not be anything to fix.

If your site has dropped in rankings, review what Google is ranking. If the user intent is different than the intent inherent in your content, then the reason why your site dropped isn’t about something your site did wrong. It could be that how Google interprets user intent changed.

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Step Away from the Foil Hat
Of course, the conspiracy theorists will say that the SERPs changed because Google wants to increase clicks to the ads. But that’s not the real reason. Google orders the top ten results according to user intent. So if you really want to crack the top three then you must consider the top user intent and try to match that intent with your content.

You can believe a conspiracy theory and wallow on page two of the search results. Or you can be pragmatic and take the necessary steps for actually ranking at the top. No matter how many links you build to your commercial site, you will very likely never crack the top three if those spots are reserved are showing for informational sites because informational sites are what users are expecting. I once saw a commercial site get around this by salting the page and the URL with words such as “research.” But that’s not working as well anymore.

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Insight 7: Click Data Helps Determine User Intent

This is why I use the phrase Fruit Loops Algo to refer to Google’s user intent focused algorithm. It’s not meant as a slur. It’s meant to illustrate the reality of how Google’s search engine works.

Many people want Fruit Loops and Captain Crunch breakfast cereals. The supermarkets respond by giving consumers what they want. Search algorithms operate in a similar manner. That’s not keyword relevance to search terms you’re looking at. It’s relevance to what the most users are expecting to see. Sometimes that is expressed in how many links a site receives. But I’m fairly confident that one of the ways user intent is understood is by click log data.

Here’s a patent filed by Google that discusses using click data to understand user intent, Modifying Search Result Ranking Based on Implicit User Feedback .

“Internet search engines aim to identify documents or other items that are relevant to a user’s needs and to present the documents or items in a manner that is most useful to the user. Such activity often involves a fair amount of mind-reading—inferring from various clues what the user wants.

…user reactions to particular search results or search result lists may be gauged, so that results on which users often click will receive a higher ranking. The general assumption under such an approach is that searching users are often the best judges of relevance, so that if they select a particular search result, it is likely to be relevant, or at least more relevant than the presented alternatives.”

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Understanding user intent is so important, Google and other search engines have developed eye tracking and viewport time technologies to measure where on a search result mobile users are lingering in order to measure user satisfaction and understand user intent for mobile users.

Is Google or the User Biased Toward Brands?

Some people believe that Google has a brand bias. That Google is biased toward big brands. But that’s not it at all. If you consider this in light of what we know about Google’s algo, how it tries to satisfy user intent, then you will understand that if Google shows a big brand it’s because that is what users expect to see.

If you want to change that situation then you must create a campaign to build awareness for your site so that users begin to expect to see your site at the top. Yes, links play a role in that. But other factors such as what users type into search engines also play a role.

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Someone once argued that Google should show results about the river when someone typed Amazon into Google. But that is unreasonable if what most people expect to see is Amazon the shopping site. Again, Google is not matching keywords in that search query. Google is identifying the user intent and showing users what they WANT to see.

Key Takeaways

Understand the Search Results
The ten links are not ordered by which page has the best on-page SEO or the most links. Those ten links are ordered by user intent.

Write for User Intent
Understand what users want to accomplish and make that the focus of the content. Too often publishers write content focused on keywords, what some refer to as “semantically rich” content. In 2015 I published an article about User Experience Marketing in which I proposed that focusing on user intent will put you in line with how Google ranks websites.

“•What user intent is the content satisfying?
•What task or goal is the content helping the site visitor accomplish?”

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Understand Content Popularity
Content popularity is about writing content that can be understood by the widest audience possible. That means paying attention to the minimum grade level necessary for understanding your content. If the grade level is high, this means your content may too difficult for some users to understand.

I am not saying that Google preferes sites that a six grader can understand. I am only stating that if you want to make your site easily understood by search engines and the most users, then paying attention to the difficulty of your content may be useful.

Google is not a keyword matching search engine. Google is arguably a User Intent Matching Engine. Knowing and understanding this will improve everyone’s SEO. There is a profound insight into understanding this and adapting your search marketing strategy to it.


Featured image by Shutterstock, modified by Author


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Roger Montti

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Roger Montti is a search marketer with over 20 years experience. I offer site audits, phone consultations and content and ... [Read full bio]

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