By the time you are done reading this sentence, Google’s search engine will have completed over 300,000 queries, each one containing unique webpages, advertisements, photos, and other information. The sheer computing power of Google can be mind-boggling, yet the typical user never asks the simple question, “How does Google work?”
All search engines, whether it’s Google, Bing, or Yahoo, work in similar ways. In order to find relevant material associated with a search term, the engine deploys their army of automated robots (software programs) to browse through billions of individual links. If a link is seen by a robot, its on-page content, link information, and page titles are stored in a massive index. When a search is conducted, Google’s bots return to those indices and look for webpages that contain the search term. Google then considers over 200 factors to determine a webpage’s relevance and popularity. These factors include:
- Keyword placement
- URL structure
- Relevance of on-page content
- Content length
- Google PageRank
Although it is not the only search algorithm used by Google, PageRank is the original and most widely known search factor. In their landmark research paper “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page describe PageRank as “an objective measure of (a website’s) citation importance that corresponds well with people’s subjective idea of importance.” Once all of the factors have been considered, each page is given an overall score. The pages with the highest scores will be placed at the top of Google’s rankings. For more information on how search engines work, check out Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO.
In addition to organic search results, Google also displays paid advertisements which account for over 90% of the company’s revenue. If a business wants Google to display an ad associated with a certain keyword, they must place a “cost-per-click” bid. Each time a Google user clicks on a business’s advertisement, Google will receive the amount designated by the business owner. Businesses can also place an automatic bid that allows Google to maximize the number of ad clicks while remaining within the company’s cost-per-click budget.
The ranking of each advertisement is determined by the bid amount, the quality and relevance of the ad, and ad extensions such as links, company descriptions, and customer testimonials. Some companies are willing to spend massive amounts of money—over $50 per click—to acquire a customer through Google. The five most expensive keywords are “Insurance”, “Loans”, “Mortgage”, “Attorney”, and “Credit.” Financial companies and law firms believe that the lifetime value of a customer outweighs the high cost-per-click.
Google is constantly tweaking its search algorithms in order to better satisfy the user with high quality search results. In its early days, webmasters took advantage of the relative simplicity of Google’s ranking algorithms by placing desired keywords on their site as much as possible. Consequently, the company began to make changes to its algorithms, big and small. These changes have included punishments for keyword-stuffing, link farms (a group of webpages that all link to each other), paid links, thin content, and other ploys that constitute “black-hat” search engine optimization. Recently, Google began rewarding secure websites (those with an “https” in their URL) and mobile-friendly sites with higher rankings. Stay up to date with the latest algorithm changes by visiting Google’s Webmaster Blog.
Even a slight decrease in a site’s Google ranking has a drastic affect on its traffic. According to a 2013 study by Chitika Insights, the top five results on Google account for over 75% of all traffic. Achieving a top five ranking won’t happen overnight, but following proven SEO (search engine optimization) tactics will increase your site’s reputation and visibility. These strategies include:
- Structuring your URL so it is easily understood by Google and its users
- Organizing your site’s pages in a coherent manner
- Attracting reputable backlinks (links that point to your website)
- Following Google’s Webmaster Guidelines
SEO might seem like a daunting task, but there are countless resources available to assist you in achieving and maintaining desirable rankings. So remember, keep your content fresh and focus on the user experience, not Google’s robots.
About the Author: Alex Knickelbein is a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park spotlighting as a Marketing & Analytics intern at Webs. He is passionate about big data, bass guitar, and college football. Learn more about Alex on LinkedIn.