How Does the Google Search Algorithm Work in 2021?

So how does the Google search algorithm really work, and how can you ensure your content is aligned with it? 

For a digital marketer, content marketer, or SEO, the mystery around Google’s search algorithm can be frustrating and intriguing in equal measure. There are countless articles out there that aim to lend some clarity to the topic, but these can often fall into the realm of speculation and opinion, rather than anything concrete.

So, What Is the Google Search Algorithm?

For a digital marketer, content marketer, or SEO, the mystery around Google’s search algorithm can be frustrating and intriguing in equal measure. There are countless articles out there that aim to lend some clarity to the topic, but these can often fall into the realm of speculation and opinion, rather than anything concrete.

The Google search algorithm refers to the internal process that Google uses to rank content. It takes a number of factors into account when determining these rankings, such as the relevance and quality of the content against a particular search query.

Before we go deeper into what exactly these factors are, though, it’s a good idea to first understand the broader context of the Google ranking process.

This process is split into the following three stages:

  • Crawling: The first stage involves Google’s bots (the infamous “spiders”) crawling the web and looking for new or updated web pages. In general, the more links a page has to it, the easier it is for Google to locate it. Pages need to be crawled and indexed in order to rank.
  • Indexing: Google’s next step is to analyze these URLs and try to figure out what each page is about. It does this by looking closely at the content, images, and other media files on the page, and then stores this information in a huge database known as the Google index. It’s vital during these first two stages that your technical SEO is in good order, and that your sitemap, headers, and tags have been configured properly.
  • Serving: The final step is to determine which of these pages are the most relevant and helpful for a particular search query. This is known as the ranking stage, and this is where the Google search algorithm comes in.

So How Does the Google Search Algorithm Work?

Unfortunately, the short answer to this question is that, outside of Google’s inner circle, nobody really knows.

There are two good reasons for this. Firstly, the algorithm is a closely-guarded business secret, and releasing it would greatly diminish the company’s value.

More importantly, though, if the algorithm was made public, then anyone would be able to exploit it and doctor the system in their favor. This would generate unhelpful search results for users and — given the influence and importance of Google as an online tool — undoubtedly create a worse internet.

As a result, many digital marketers and SEOs often speculate about how exactly the algorithm works, and what they should be doing to rank in SERPs. But just because the algorithm itself is off-limits, it doesn’t mean that Google is entirely silent around the issue.

Google’s Official Communication Channels

In fact, since 2019, Google has provided a wealth of information and advice through its official communication channels, including detailed guidelines around what it values when it ranks content.

John Mueller, the company’s Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst, also often acts as something of an unofficial spokesperson for Google in this context. Through regular blogs, social media posts, and appearances in webinars, conferences, and other media events, he frequently attempts to bridge the knowledge gap between Google itself and the wider SEO community.

Therefore, as an SEO, content marketer, or digital marketer, it’s recommended to pay close attention to both Google and Mueller’s official communications. Neither will ever divulge any formal information about the algorithm itself, of course, but they will often drop some pretty big hints on how to stay on its good side.

What Are the Key Ranking Factors in the Google Search Algorithm?

Based on what Mueller and Google have said in the past, we can look at some of the main factors that the algorithm takes into account, as well as how they can be applied to your ranking strategy.

1. Meaning and Intent

Within Google’s search algorithm, understanding and clarifying the meaning and intent of the search query is the key first step. The mechanisms that enable this are, again, a secret, but we know that it allows the search engine to understand:

  • The scope of the query. Is the searcher looking for results around a broader topic, such as “how to get into gardening,” or a specific one, like which gardening tool should be used for a particular task?
  • Synonyms. This system took five years to build, and allows Google to understand, for instance, that “changing a lightbulb” means the same thing as “replacing a lightbulb”.
  • Language. If the search query is written in, say, Spanish, does that mean the searcher wants the results in Spanish?
  • Locality. Is the searcher looking for local business information, such as the opening hours of their nearest McDonald’s, or are they searching for information about McDonald’s in general?
  • Freshness. If the searcher is looking for, say, Tesla’s stock price, or the latest Premier League scores, then Google can interpret that only the most up-to-date information will be valuable and useful to the searcher.

As a result, it’s worth ensuring that your content is optimized with these things in mind. For instance, you should ensure that the intent behind your keywords is clear (this can be done using in-depth keyword research tools), and that you pay close attention to your local SEO tactics if you have a local business.

2. Relevance

Once the algorithm has understood the meaning and intent of the query, it then looks at the Google index to identify which pages offer the most relevant solution to it. This is where on-page SEO is important, as one of the most basic signals of relevance is if your page contains the same keywords as the search query (especially if they are in your headings).

Beyond this, Google implements “aggregated and anonymized interaction data”, which means that it explores the relevance of the page far beyond simple keyword mentions. This is why it’s important to establish an actual topic beyond your keyword, ensuring that your content is relevant to the search query and increasing the chances of it being read.

3. Quality

In the last few years, Mueller has made many references to the concept of quality as a ranking factor, and since 2019, Google has even implemented a series of detailed guidelines to give SEOs and content marketers a clear idea of what it “likes”.

Within these guidelines, Google provides a series of questions that can assess the quality of your content, many of which focus on the concepts of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. These are the three pillars of assessment that make up the company’s E-A-T process.

What Is E-A-T?

E-A-T — or expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness — is one of the most important parts of the Google algorithm but is not the final, definitive judge of content quality. Google now actually employs human search quality raters to verify the algorithm’s results.

For example, once a piece of content has been uploaded and has been indexed by Google, the algorithm will make an assessment based on its quality (we, of course, don’t know how exactly that assessment is made). However, a search quality rater will then review the content themselves, and make a decision on whether it contains “strong” E-A-T before it is ranked.

These decisions are made based on the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines (SQEG), a detailed PDF document that is publicly available. Therefore, you can see for yourself how the quality of your content is likely to be assessed.

Your Money or Your Life (YMYL)

Within the SQEG, it’s also worth paying particular attention to what Google defines as YMYL content, which touches heavily on the “authoritativeness” and “trustworthiness” aspects of the E-A-T guidelines.

YMYL content is any information you publish that could affect a reader’s happiness, health, safety, or financial stability. In such instances, Google will likely not even consider ranking your content unless it is written by a relevant expert.

For example, if you produce a blog post advocating a particular type of diet, then it would need to be written by a relevant professional, such as a dietician. An article about the pros and cons of a particular pension scheme would need to be written by a certified financial professional, and so on.

The SQEG gives detailed guidelines on what is classed as YMYL content, and they are a significant ranking factor within Google’s search algorithm, so ensure that you follow the guidelines around it closely.

4. User Experience

According to Google, its algorithm looks to promote more usable pages over less usable ones, particularly where it identifies “persistent user pain points”.

In reality, this means that the search algorithm gives preference to sites that:

  • Load and appear correctly on different web browsers (i.e. Chrome, Firefox, etc.)
  • Are compatible with different device types and sizes (i.e. desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and mobile phones)
  • Feature quick loading times, even for users with slow internet speeds

Google usually gives fair warning to webmasters about any significant updates that may be about to happen, and also provides a number of tools to help them measure and improve their site’s usability and performance.

Google has confirmed that its UX metrics — known as the Core Web Vitals — are a ranking factor, with Mueller stating in 2021 that “it’s more than a tie-breaker, but it also doesn’t replace relevance.” Therefore, to ensure that your site is fully optimized, it’s advisable to monitor your site’s performance (including your Core Web Vitals).

5. Context

This ranking factor is closely related to relevance, but also takes into account the personal context and settings of the searcher.

For example, if someone in the US searches for “today’s football results”, then they will likely see the American Football (i.e. NFL) results for that day. However, if someone in the UK searches for the same thing, they will likely see the soccer (i.e. Premier League) results.

The algorithm can also identify patterns and preferences based on previous searches, and provide results accordingly. For instance, if somebody searches for “San Francisco”, but they also regularly search for “San Francisco 49ers”, the algorithm may interpret that the user wants information on the NFL team rather than the city.

Finally, the algorithm can also take into account the preferences of the searcher, especially if they surf the web while logged into their Google account. For instance, if the algorithm knows that the user is interested in music and when the user searches the term “events near me”, it might give precedence to music concerts.

These are all factors that are dependent on the searcher, and so it’s difficult to implement any tactics that can improve your site’s performance at this stage of the algorithm.

Algorithm Updates

Google’s search algorithm is dynamic in nature and is always being tweaked to ensure that it’s as useful as possible. At certain points, it also undergoes larger core updates that can significantly impact existing rankings, resulting in some sites improving their rankings, and others losing theirs.

As a result, it can be difficult to try and figure out what exactly you should be doing as an SEO at any particular time. There is no set calendar for these updates, and to make things trickier, Google doesn’t always confirm whether or not an update has even taken place.

However, you can use a SERP volatility monitoring tool to get an idea of whether any significant changes have been made; the Sensor tool even allows you to review volatility by industry and niche, which can help you identify if any significant changes are likely to be applied to your industry.

You can also use the Personal Score tab to see how volatile your own site is based on your Position Tracking campaigns.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, it’s difficult to get an exact idea of what exactly Google’s search algorithm gives precedence to, and that algorithm is often subject to change, anyway.

The good news, though, is that Google is pretty forthcoming with its general guidance and advice. Regardless of any core changes and updates, it will always look to reward content that is:

  • High-quality, especially if it adheres to the principles set out in the E-A-T guidelines
  • Relevant in terms of content and topic to the keyword you are targeting
  • Written with the meaning and intent of the search query in mind
  • Optimized to deliver a seamless user experience across multiple devices and platforms

These are the core factors that you have control over, and toolkits like Semrush can help you to ensure that you create and publish content that incorporates them to your benefit, whether that means higher quality writing, better on-page SEO, or faster technical performance.

Finally, remember that, when it comes to information about Google’s search algorithm, the only source that carries weight is Google’s official communications (as mentioned, it’s also worth keeping an eye on John Mueller’s public appearances, too). There is a lot of speculation within the digital marketing community about what you should and shouldn’t be doing, but it’s always better to get the facts from the horse’s mouth.