So … how does Google work, anyway?
In 1995, while Tupac and Biggie Smalls were vying for radio dominance, audiences were getting introduced to a big-screen rivalry that was just as newsworthy—Buzz Lightyear versus Sheriff Woody.
Needless to say, the world was a bit different back then. The internet, in particular, was a new and peculiar place. To get there, you’d boot up your computer, fire up your dial-up connection, and double-click your Netscape Navigator browser icon. Your web surfing choices would’ve been limited to a few thousand websites, and you’d use primitive web crawling tools like Lycos or Yahoo! (which initially launched as a search engine) to find what you were looking for.
At the time, leading search engines ranked websites by the number of times certain search terms appeared on web pages. Searching for cat posters? Well, the site that listed “cat posters” most often on the home page probably landed in the top spot—site quality or relevance be damned.
Google came into the picture in 1998, and their novel approach to search philosophy became the new way forward. They crafted a search algorithm that ranked websites based on how they related to other websites. How many websites are linking back to this one? What kind of websites are linking back to this one? Google’s PageRank was born, evolving over the years to get smarter as user behavior and technology advanced.
Today, Google’s web crawlers aren’t just tasked with scraping and indexing a few thousand websites. There are now more than 1.1 billion websites. That’s not just a ton of growth. It’s a ton of noise.
But that’s only half the story. Want to know what Google’s business model is for their search engine? They want people to leave.
While every other website ever created wants users to scroll through, click a bunch, and stay awhile, Google wants to give their users such good, high-quality, and uber-relevant search results, that they leave … and come back wanting more.
But Google also wants people to stay. Over the past few years, search results pages have morphed to include zero-click searches, like when you search for the weather in Albuquerque this weekend—the result is a large box showing weather data that sits above all the organic search listings.
It’s this one-stop-shop user experience that drives Google’s search dominance. They own more than 86% of the market share for desktop search traffic globally, and over 95% when users are searching on mobile devices.
For brands to succeed in today’s digital landscape, there’s no escaping the reach of Google. As much as other search engines still factor into marketing decisions, it’s Google’s algorithm that’s the code worth cracking.
Luckily, we’ve got glimpses into how the sausage gets made.
What is SEO? It’s a never-ending experiment
The only things more secretly guarded than Google’s search algorithm are Fort Knox, KFC’s original recipe, and whatever goes into school cafeteria sloppy joes. (Nobody knows.)
But marketers have experimented over the past few decades so they’re now just a little bit closer to understanding the factors that influence how websites rank in Google. A lot of what we know about Google’s ranking factors can also be applied to how we plan for other search engines.
This is where search engine optimization (SEO) comes into play—it’s the process of adjusting content on your website so pages increase in ranking. Marketers should focus on three things in particular:
- The quality of your traffic. When you’re attracting visitors to your site who actually want to be there, it means your traffic is worthwhile. Google looks at metrics like bounce rate and time on page to score how relevant your web content is to the audiences that find you in search results.
- The quantity of your traffic. You can have the best-looking website in the world, but if nobody shows up, it doesn’t matter. Ultimately Google wants to send users to places that have a proven track record of success. Increasing your web traffic is one way to start forging that track record.
- What shows up in organic results. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. For SEO, researching the other sites that show up in search engine results pages (or SERPs) can help marketers make educated guesses as to what Google thought was valuable enough for its users. Incorporate some of these learnings into the content you want to rank for that search term.
That last point is important because much of SEO is, at best, an inexact science. We don’t see why Google ranks sites the way it does. Instead, we see what sites they’ve chosen to rank. It’s up to marketers to use data and intuition to determine what tweaks they’ll need to make on their own content that’ll help them land in those coveted page-one spots.
Why page one matters so much
Location, location, location. It matters to business owners with physical storefronts because getting the right kind of foot traffic—or any at all—can be make-or-break. It isn’t that different for digital storefronts.
The top result in Google’s organic search results has an average click-through rate (CTR) of 31.7%. It’s also 10 times more likely to be accessed than a listing sitting at the bottom spot on page one. When spread out over millions of searches, this difference in percentage points can translate to major differences in revenue.
The job of today’s digital and content marketers is to create the content that gets to those top spots in Google. But there’s a point of diminishing returns. Click-through rates for positions 7–10 are essentially the same. So, unless your website has reached the top few results of page one already, trying to bump your organic ranking somewhere between those bottom few spots won’t really matter.
What about page two? While it’s true that any ranking is better than no ranking, you might as well be invisible if you’re not on page one of Google search results. Only 0.78% of searchers click on any result from page two.
Regularly diving into your content analytics helps build the right habits for SEO. How far are we from page one? What keyword themes are ranking well? What themes aren’t doing so well? These are some of the questions you should be asking as you parse through the data around your organic rankings.
Nothing is guaranteed except death and taxes. We can throw organic traffic into that short list. Out of all the billions of web pages, a whopping 90.63% of content gets absolutely no traffic from Google. Forget page one. Nothing. At. All.
But there are some nuances of SEO worth digging into that can put your content in Google’s good graces.
The parts of the puzzle
We can’t talk about SEO without first talking about keywords. Organic keywords are digital gold because they drive free traffic to your website. Pay-per-click keywords, on the other hand, power paid search campaigns. While the latter is important in growing brand awareness and driving key goals, nothing beats free traffic.
Google’s web crawlers weave in and out of the pages on your website to connect the dots between what users search for and what themes your content covers. As you improve your content over time, you’re giving search engine bots more opportunities to make these connections.
Keyword-informed writing also helps tap into search intent—why people are searching for the term in the first place. Writing with intent in mind helps laser-focus your content so it resonates with reasons. Right place, right time.
Keywords are an example of one of the two kinds of ranking factors that determine how Google grades and ranks your content.
On-page SEO comprises factors you have some direct control over. There are some critical considerations you need to be aware of:
- URL. If your web page is about financial content marketing, it helps to have the term “financial content marketing” baked into the web address. The URL is one of the most important factors for search ranking because web crawlers gauge the topic from what pops up in that web browser bar.
- H1 tag. The most important header tag (more on that in a moment), the top-level H1 is important for both humans and for robots. It’s the main headline you’ll see on the page, so it’s a major factor in keeping people scrolling further for more information or having them leave the page entirely. Search engines take H1 tags seriously, too. If it’s been called out by the writer as the single most important tag on the page, why shouldn’t search engines value it as highly?
- The (meta) title tag. This is the blue-lettered title you see show up in search engine results (and at the top of the browser window). It can make or break your click-through rates because it’s often the first cue a search user gets as to what kind of value your web page is promising. While the power of the title tag has diminished over the years, missing, duplicate, and poorly constructed title tags can negatively impact your search results ranking.
- Meta description. Right underneath the title tag in that search result listing is this block of text. A good meta description entices people to click through and visit the page. A not-so-good description will be quickly overlooked.
- Header tags. Once somebody gets to your page, you’ve gotta keep them there. Remember: Google cares about that. By structuring your content with one clear H1 and several subheaders (from H2 through H6, as needed), you’re giving your users a clearer picture of what they can expect as they scroll through the page.
- Internal links. Linking to other pages on your website gives users other places to visit if they’re already invested in your content. By optimizing anchor text for keywords you want to rank for, you can also indicate to search bots that they should connect the destination page with that anchor term.
- Technical SEO. The way a web page runs under the hood also matters. How quickly do pages load? Do images have the appropriate alt text? Is the site designed for mobile users? Search engines have realized that site performance dramatically impacts the way people view websites. Because users care, Google cares.
Off-page SEO includes factors you don’t necessarily have control over. Keep these in mind:
- Backlinks. Whether you’re actually doing the link-building efforts yourself or you’re earning them naturally, backlinks are the backbone of Google’s PageRank algorithm. Creating the kind of content that wins high-quality backlinks (i.e., links from trustworthy and prominent websites) is a huge reason some sites rank ahead of others.
- Brand signals. Showing up in more places online ends up building your brand awareness. Not just for humans, but for Google’s bots as well. Flank your web content marketing with a connected presence across different channels.
- E-A-T. This isn’t just a great reminder to stop what you’re doing and make sure you’re eating. E-A-T stands for expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. Similar to more general brand signals that tell Google you’re alive and well, E-A-T is how Google analyzes content online. Get high-quality author bios for your organization’s thought leaders. Earn positive reviews online. All those positive signals help.
Having a content strategy that’s anchored to an SEO strategy gives your content a fighting chance. Out of the billions of pages out there in cyberspace, recognizing and writing for these search factors helps you compete in the sea of noise that’s out there. People will notice. And so will Google.
Here’s how you start
Understanding what Google cares about is key to succeeding online today. In fact, it’s been that way for the last 20 years. But writing with SEO in mind doesn’t have to be rocket science. It just means creating and promoting high-quality content that drills into the search engine user’s intent and needs.
Ultimately, search engine optimization should serve as part of a larger content strategy. Using data to create user-focused content gives a rhyme and reason to your digital efforts. As you start building out your content marketing engine, write for humans. The search robots will end up liking you, too.