SEO Basics: What does Google do?

How does Google work? What does Google actually do? For many of you, this will be fairly old news. But for all the SEO newbies: let me explain (in easy to understand prose) what Google actually does. Understanding Google could really help you create an SEO strategy that works!

How does Google work?

Search engines like Google follow links. They follow links from one web page to another. Google consists of a crawler, an index, and an algorithm. Google’s crawler follows the links on the web. It goes around the internet 24/7 and saves the HTML- version of all pages in a gigantic database called the index. This index is updated if the Google crawler comes by your website again and finds new or revised web pages. The new version of this page is saved. Depending on the traffic on your site and the number of changes you make on your website, Google crawlers come around more or less often.

For Google to know of the existence of your site, there first has to be a link from another site – one that is already in the index – to your site. If crawlers follow that link, it will lead to the first crawler-session and the first time your site is saved in the index. From then on, your website could appear in Google’s search results.Google’s secret algorithm

After indexing your website, Google can show it in the search results. Google tries to match a certain search query with web pages that it has indexed. To do so, Google has a specific algorithm that decides which pages are shown in which order. How this algorithm works is a secret. Nobody knows exactly which factors decide the ordering of the search results.

Google’s algorithm isn’t static. It changes regularly. The factors that determine the ordering and the importance of the different factors change very often. Although the algorithm is secret, Google does tell us which things are important. We don’t know how important though, and we don’t know whether Google communicates about all factors. Testing and experimenting give us a relatively good feel for the important factors and changes in these factors. We incorporate these factors into our SEO plugin and tell you about it in our many blog posts.

Google’s results page

Google’s results page – also known as an SERP– shows about 7 or 10 links to sites which fit your search the best (according to Google). We refer to these results as the organic search results. If you click to the second page of the result page, more results are shown. The further down the results you are, the less likely someone is going to find your site.
Above the 10 links on the first page are paid links, most of the time. These links are ads; people have paid Google to put these links at the top of the site when people search for a specific term. Prices for these ads vary greatly, depending on the competitiveness of the search term.

Read more: Elements of the Google Search Engine Results Page »

The value of links for search engines

It’s very important to have a basic understanding of how Google and most other search engines use links. The number of links pointing to a page is used to determine how important that page is. So, the more links a specific site has, the more important search engines think it is. Both internal links (coming from the same website), as well as external links (from other websites), could help in the ranking of a webpage in Google. Some links are more important than others, though. Links from websites that have a lot of incoming links themselves are generally more important than links from small websites with only a few incoming links.

The importance of links actually was something that lead to active link building. As long as you are collecting links that are useful and logical, link building can be a good SEO strategy. But if you are collecting (or worse buying) shady links, Google may punish you for that. Read more about the dangers of link building in this article.

SEO and Google

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the practice of optimizing sites to (attempt to) make them appear in a high position in the organic search results. In order to do so, SEO tries to shape a website according to Google’s algorithm. Although Google’s algorithm remains secret, over a decade of experience in SEO has resulted in a pretty good idea about the important factors.

We monitor all communications by Google about (changes in) the algorithm, and we test what actually works in the search engines. At Yoast, we advocate holistic SEO. Your SEO strategy should never feel like a trick. Google wants to show the user the result that fits his or her search query best. If you want to appear high in the results for that specific search term, make sure your website fits that search term.

Keep reading: How to write a high-quality and SEO friendly blog post »

17 Responses to What does Google do?

  1. Žiga Pipan
    Žiga Pipan  • 4 years ago

    Thank you! This post clarifies a few things for me. I really like your plugin so far!

  2. Suanlian Tangpua
    Suanlian Tangpua  • 4 years ago

    Thank you so very mush..Very helpful and informative. Yoast blog is my favorite blog.

  3. Dhaval Parmar
    Dhaval Parmar  • 4 years ago

    This is truly a great post indeed. Great information Thanks. I am however looking for tips that can monitor our SEO projects.

  4. Ben
    Ben  • 4 years ago

    I just started blogging… I’ve been reading my eyes off learning the nitty gritty I need to succeed. Yoast have been very helpful honestly. Take a look at my two weeks old blog and give me ideas, pleeease.

  5. Kent Svenstrup
    Kent Svenstrup  • 4 years ago

    Great explanation of the basics – just sent this to our director as an explanation to some of the things I work with :)

  6. Matheus (Calculadora Gestacional)
    Matheus (Calculadora Gestacional)  • 4 years ago

    Very interesting article, I also really liked the question of Maven, which by the way is very similar to one that I was going to do. I was going to ask about the weight of the backlinks generated by comments on “disqus”.

  7. Madhusudhan
    Madhusudhan  • 4 years ago

    Nice article… I have a question.. Google might have missed a good site while some other Search engine did so Do Google use other search engine results to compare it’s own rankings?

  8. Marieke van de Rakt

    Thanks for all the nice comments! I am going to write more ‘SEO basics’ articles in the next few weeks. So stay tuned!

  9. Børneværelset
    Børneværelset  • 4 years ago

    Great advices, thanks for also taking it to basic level.

  10. Zum Johnson
    Zum Johnson  • 4 years ago

    I appreciate it! Yoast SEO plugin is very easy to use and it has been improving for quite some time now. It’s my favorite plugin for search engine optimization. This is also a good read.

  11. Fabienne
    Fabienne  • 4 years ago

    Hi Marieke, thanks for this post.
    Your clear description about the 3 basic components of a search engine helps website owners to understand how Google works and reminds us SEOs how to explain the “Google myth” to our customers without getting too technical.

  12. Thelma Harcum
    Thelma Harcum  • 4 years ago

    Thank you for this awesome information! I really appreciate it!!
    Since getting your e-mails and your newsletters, my website have been getting more hits. I see this article immensely important to know or get an idea of how Google works as far as increasing your chances of better ranking.
    I believe SEO is something that can be carried over into authors who write books and e-books and is as important as learning how to write.

  13. Maven
    Maven  • 4 years ago

    Thanks for all the great info, and for your invaluable plugin! I’m wondering about links from social media, specifically Pinterest. When someone pins a link to my site on a Pinterest board, is that a valuable external link for Google?

    • Marieke van de Rakt

      I don’t think pins in Pinterest will count as links. We don’t know these things for sure though (as Google’s algorithm is secret). That does not mean that Pinterest isn’t a useful tool in your SEO strategy. Read:

  14. Georg Nasser
    Georg Nasser  • 4 years ago

    Dear Marieke,
    I tend to partially disagree with you . In an ideal “Google” world, this could be true, but having setup my wife’s website a year ago, I tend to view Google as a “dumb” system, and alas a necessary evil, not to mention the fact that Yoast and other SEO marketers do make money out of it (good for you). But my qualm about it? how does Google really judge the quality of the links? and I’m not talking about obvious spammers. I’ve been following our competition ( top 3 in our field), and I can only shake my head at the “quality” of the links involved and the “quality” of the site whether as a website or as a physical location. Somebody (MOZ, Yelp, Alexis …?) at one point in time (2 out 3 are old sites) must have decided that these links are so relevant to Google to propulse them to the three top spots. And I’m not talking about major sites but small sites and small businesses . Even the physical locations of these three are wrong: if I Google for a particular business in a downtown area, I still get the above mentioned top two listings outside the downtown area: where is the added value for the customer ?- to get redirected outside the area he is looking for and just because one site has more links than others. Thank you.

    • Marieke van de Rakt

      We don’t exactly know how Google judges the quality of links. We think that high-quality sites (universities, trustworthy newspapers) are more important than other ones. I don’t know if I understand your situation exactly and it is very hard to say anything general about such a specific situation. Google’s mission is to organize the worlds information and make it universially accessible and usefull. Your example suggests that the information Google provides in your case is not the most useful. Links is not the only thing Google cares about: content, site structure, technical aspects, site speed, mobile friendliness… all the aspects should be taken into account.

  15. Gilbert Ortiz
    Gilbert Ortiz  • 4 years ago

    Thank you very much for your blogs. They are very informative and I for one cannot get enough of reading about SEO. I have a travel website and I do my own SEO and PPC campaigns, so every bit of information I can get my hands on, is very good for me.

    Thank you again