How Site Rankings Work in Google

Writing content for blogs and websites is often for one main reason, to get ranked by search engines and attract more traffic. It makes sense therefore that, in order to get ranked, you would need to have a good understanding of how Google’s search engine and site ranking system works.

This article explains in simplified terms some of the search processes that Google uses in order to rank pages.

It is designed to give you information rather than provide a definitive list of things to do and not to do. There are so many factors that affect ranking that it is not possible to cover all of them in one article.

Google the Biggest Search Engine

Google is not the only search engine, there are others such as Bing or Yahoo, but it is still the largest. It actually occupies the majority share (69%) for desktop searches and has a complete monopoly on mobile search platforms. Therefore it is important to understand how this particular search engine works, before developing knowledge about some of the other ones.

graph showing search engine market share

Google hold the leading market share of search engine traffic (Desktop figures according to Oct 2015)

The first priority therefore, for any website owner is to get ranked and indexed by Google.

Getting Indexed by Google

As Google engineer Matt Cutts points out in this video, when you make a search in Google you are not actually searching the web, you are searching Google’s index of the web. The difference is that not all pages and websites are indexed and so these will never appear in the search engine results.

Google Sitemap

One of the tools that can help you inform Google when new content is available to be indexed, is Google’s own site map. In Google console there is the option to set up a site map which guides google’s search bot to your site. Google recommend using a site map tool for the following types of websites.

  1. A new site that has very few external links going to it and might not be discovered easily by google.
  2. A very large site that has lots of content and google might miss new content when it’s added.
  3. A large archive of pages that are not very well linked
  4. The site uses rich media content or uses other site map compatible functions that google can take additional information from.

Search Results

Although there are many articles written about how to get indexed and ranked within google, the reality is that google (again according to Matt Cutts in the video) use over 200 questions, to help determine where your particular web page should be ranked in a search request. One of the questions that Matt mentions is Page Rank.

Page Rank

Page rank was developed by Sergi Brin and Larry Page at Stanford university in 1998 and worked from the theory that a web page that had more links coming to it was more authoritative than one with fewer links. For this reason page rank has always been associated as a measure of backlinks to your site, preferably from quality sites.

image link building

Building links is still an important part of search rankings (image found on hub

Google used to have a page rank toolbar which showed page ranks on a scale of 1-10. However this actually covered ranks from 0- 10,000 plus so it was only ever a rough estimate. Google have not updated this since 2013 and are planning to phase it out completely so it’s not worth focusing on the toolbar as a SEO writer.

 Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

SEO is the process of making it easy for google and other search engines, to understand what your page is about. It is not about tricking google, although initially many content writers thought that it was. Instead it is about making the page easy to read using the following methods.

  • Identify the keywords that will be used to rank the page and make it appear for searchers.
    • In your title, headings and text content
    • Use synonyms of the keyword to explain the context of your topic e.g. equine, horses, racehorses
  • Ensure that images have an alt tag because google can’t see pictures.
  • Give a proper meta description so that searchers are sure that your page gives them the information they need.

As Matt Cutts stated in the video, Google uses over 200 different processes to calculate how to position your page in any search result. The search system it uses is a mathematical calculation, which uses a specific algorithm.

Google Search Algorithm

Google’s search algorithm is constantly being updated and no-one is really privy to all the changes. However every so often major changes occur to the system and these are released to the public. Over the last 4 years there have been three major updates, all named after animals – Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird.

The following info graphic illustrates the major changes that each one brought.

screenshot image google updates

Image adapted from Pinterest


The Panda change occurred in 2011 and was aimed at penalising sites that used mass produced low quality content. It had a fairly substantial effect on certain types of websites especially those that were producing low levels of content and also copying directly from other sites.


The Penguin change was more focused on preventing spam. It penalised sites that were buying links and trying to beat search engine results by stuffing keywords into content.


The final change was hummingbird and this had a significant impact on sites that had poor quality content. The aim with the hummingbird update was to provide a best match result for the searcher, so content that asked or answered questions tended to rank higher.

Google Algorithm image

The google algorithm is constantly changing and is focused on meeting the needs of the searcher. In order for pages to rank effectively they also need to be seen as useful to searchers rather than search engines. This can be achieved in a number of ways but the main way is to provide good quality content with no spam.


Writing Good Quality Content

Good quality content aims to add value to the searcher’s experience. It should be informative, provide something interesting and use a number of different types of presentation approaches including images and video content.


image question marks

Most readers skim through articles looking for headings to grab their attention or an image that sums up all the text content. So the presentation of your content is important in order to retain the reader’s interest.

Under hummingbird Google also likes that questions are asked and answered within the content. This helps Google to match a searcher request to the correct answer.

Good quality content can be classified as having the following.

  • It is informative and adds value
  • It is interesting and uses different media sources
  • It answers questions
  • It links together with other content on the site

In addition good quality content does not have…

  • Lots of spam and trying to sell, sell, sell
  • Little or no content
  • Material that is not original or is copied from other sources
  • Lots of backlinks that are bought from link farms or do not add to the authority of the site.


Getting ranked on google is a challenge that all website owners have to face, however SEO nowadays is more about writing good quality content and ensuring that google can see what has been written.

There is no need to spend too much time worrying about all the questions that Google might ask, focus instead on providing the reader with information that they need and are looking for.

I would love to hear your thoughts on Google ranking so please leave a comment below. if you are interested in further reading on this topic here are a couple of further articles on the subject matter.

I have also published a small ebook on SEO Content Writing for Bloggers.

10 thoughts on “How Site Rankings Work in Google

  1. Andrew

    Very informative article, learned something from this. Thanks. I have a question, how often do I have to submit a sitemap update in the Google Webmaster tool? Is it just a one-time thing or do I need to update a new sitemap every so often?

    But I do agree that writing great quality content is the most important thing to do. It’s time-consuming but it has to be done.

    1. Marie

      Hi Andrew I simply set my sites up with Webmaster tools and use the All in One SEO plugin which updates and submits new pages automatically. So unless you are finding a specific problem with a certain page and want to manually submit it there’s no need to do anything.

  2. Chris

    Always bugged me this – why do certain pages or articles outrank my work when they seem much worse than my work? Seems as though there are a number of factors to add to good content to get it to rank well. I didn’t realize how important the webmaster tools are to a website’s position in the eyes of google

    1. Marie

      The search engines are still evolving and unfortunately length of website is still a high factor, so weak articles written a couple of years ago on a site with hundreds of other articles will often outrank newer but better written articles on younger sites. Over time things will balance out in your favour, just keep writing good quality material and build up trust.

  3. Jovo

    Hi, many thanks for such a great and informative text. I really did not have any idea about those ‘3 animals’ although I have heard about them. So Hummingbird is the last one? You mentioned page rank; I have heard that the algorithm Google uses now is different. What exactly do they use now, any idea? Thank you.

    1. Marie

      Hi Jovo, I don’t think anyone really knows what Google uses exactly, but they still seem to use the page rank algorithm except it’s filtered more with the ‘animals’ to check for link farms and spam. This means that it is the quality of the links which is more important now than the actual quantity.

      It seems that age and authority are still the main components in how Google ranks and unfortunately many new sites are affected by this, I have another article on the newness effect Understanding Google Sandbox 2.0 and this is probably the single biggest influence affecting how new websites are being ranked at the moment.

      All the best, Marie

  4. Luke

    Hey, good article.

    As far as I remember I was hit by Penguin last year. I lost some traffic to my site as a result of this. Fortunately it’s more or less OK now.

    Good content will rank. However juct creating great content is not enough. You need to spend as much time promoting your content as you spend on creating it. Just hitting the Publish button is not enough.

    1. Marie

      Hi Luke thanks for your comments and yes once published it’s not just google that you want to read your content. Social media is playing a greater role in inbound marketing strategies and although Google is vague about how much attention it gives to social media sharing, it certainly supports its own platforms of YouTube and Google+.

      Glad to hear you recovered from Penguin!

  5. Tasos Perte Tzortzis

    Hello there , interesting perspective on a subject that can be proved hard to understand for a lot of people.

    You have covered all the important aspects of rankings and you even included the updates of Google.

    I agree that get rankings is not an easy task but if you know what to do and how to it is achievable.

    I am glad that Google is fighting the organised crime of scams , spammers and black link builders so that everybody experiences a better environment.

    Your site is a good example of how modern helpful sites should operate.Thanks for this excellent and detailed article.

    Cheers Marie

    1. Marie

      Hi Tasos thanks for commenting, I agree it can be a difficult subject at first although with regular use it does get easier. I think you’ve hit on an important point which is that Google is not trying to penalise genuine sites but prevent spam sites succeeding. If your content is genuine and informative then this will be the greatest tool to avoiding any search engine penalties.

      Thanks again

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