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7 Insights Into How Google Ranks Websites

Insight 1: Multiple User Intents

One of the 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)

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.

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.

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.

Insight 4: Search Results Show What People Want to See

Ever walk down a supermarket cereal aisle and note how many sugar-laden kinds of cereal 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.

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 favour 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 user’s bias, not Google’s bias.

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

Insight 6: Drops in Ranking Sometimes are Related to UI

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.

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.

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