How Do Search Engines Rank Websites?

seo rankingsSearch engines can be a bit mysterious and their recipe for success is a top secret algorithm that includes hundreds of individual ranking factors. While search engines like Google won’t tell us exactly what’s included in that algorithm, Google does tell us what makes a great site in their Google Webmaster Guidelines. These guidelines give us a decent idea of what search engines look for in a website.

Provide A Great Experience

When it comes to the search engine results pages, called SERPs, Google ultimately has one goal: to provide the best possible result for the user’s query.

It’s that simple (and that complicated). Google will display the websites that it thinks will provide the most value to the searcher, based on the keywords they used. To be successful at SEO, you need to create a website that meets the needs of the leads you want to receive.

Search engines decide whether a page on a website is worth sharing based on two key elements:

  • Relevance – how relevant is the page to the users search?
  • Authority – how much do we trust this page based on its history and popularity?

In addition, there’s increasing evidence that search engines are using a third key element to evaluate a page’s worth:

  • Engagement – how engaged are users with the site after they visit this page?

In real estate, creating content that is relevant, authoritative and engaging can be tough. Real estate is all about buying and selling, but real estate SEO is focused on providing helpful content. (What does that content look like? We’ll get to that.) Essentially, you have to give users the information they want, not the information you want to give them. It’s hard, we know.

Relevance In Real Estate SEO

Within the real estate industry, relevant content is almost always going to talk about real estate. But we can refine this further by understanding what people are searching for, and then building content around those searches. By answering the underlying question that prompted a user to enter a search, we create content that’s relevant. 

For example, a user searching “Nanaimo homes for sale” is very likely looking for real estate listings, while a user searching “Nanaimo real estate agents” is probably researching who they should work with. Yet a person searching “Nanaimo real estate” could be interested in listings, community info, market trends and stats, or even a specific realtor’s website. It’s impossible to know for sure, but we can make educated guesses and plan accordingly. When we build content around users’ searches, the website becomes more relevant.

Authority In Real Estate SEO

Authority can be a bit more challenging to create, because it is built over time. The relationship you build with search engines is actually quite similar to the relationships you build in real life. Over time, you build up history, trust, referrals and reputation as you prove yourself to someone you’ve met. In search engine terms, this is “authority”.

Here are a few factors that impact your online authority:

  • Age– how old is the website?
  • History– how helpful has this website or page been in the past? Does this website have a history of breaking the rules?
  • Backlinks – how many other people think this website is worth linking to? (these are your “referrals”)

Engagement In Real Estate SEO

Though still emerging as a leading ranking signal, search engines do seem to be paying increasing attention to the way users interact with a website. There are numerous metrics that can help reflect engagement, including:

  • Bounce Rate
  • Pages Per Visit
  • Time on Site

Search engines want to send users to sites that meet their needs. The more engaging your site is, the longer people will stay on it. This is reflected in your engagement metrics, and helps search engines determine whether users are enjoying your site.

The Role of Keywords in SEO

A keyword is simply a term you think someone might search for. Within the real estate context, keywords tend to be real estate focused, centring around terms like “las vegas real estate”, “las vegas property for sale”, “home buying process in vegas”, and so forth.

Because search engines can’t actually read, they explore a page’s content using patterns and artificial intelligence. Keywords help show the search engine what the page is about, essentially reinforcing the subject-matter and demonstrating relevance.

There are two types of keywords:

  • Short Tail Keywords: 3 or fewer words and fairly general, such as “Sarasota real estate”
  • Long Tail Keywords: over 3 words and more specific, such as “Sarasota townhomes for sale”

Short tail keywords tend to have the highest search volume, which also makes them the most competitive keywords to try to target.Within the real estate context, we often see hundreds of websites competing for the same short tail keywords.

Long tail keywords have lower search volumes, but come with two key benefits:

  1. Less competition – long tail keywords typically have fewer competitors, and can be easier to start ranking well for.
  2. Higher opportunity – typically, the more specific a user’s search is, the farther along they are in a buyer’s journey. For example, a user searching “old city nanaimo duplexes” knows exactly what area and property type they are interested, and is often closer to making a purchase.

Of course, both short and long tail keywords have to be used in moderation. As Google and other search engines continue to refine their algorithms, they’re learning what type of keyword use comes naturally, versus unnaturally, and giving strong preference to pages that read well. Keywords need to be used strategically, yet sparingly, and should be naturally incorporated into your website pages.

Because SEO is all about driving traffic to a website, most of the pages on your site should be built around the keywords you want to target.

User Intent In SEO

To properly choose keywords, it’s important to also understand user intent, which is the reason why a user searches a keyword in the first place. There are three types of user intent in SEO:

  • Navigational – a user wants to reach a specific site
  • Informational – a user wants information on a topic
  • Transactional – a user wants to make a purchase in that moment

The vast majority of people looking for real estate online fall within the “informational” category. Essentially, they are seeking information on real estate, whether they are interested in available listings, finding a great Realtor, learning about the home buying process, and so forth.

Additional Keyword Intention

Understanding the intention behind specific keywords can help you provide content that’s relevant and makes sense. When writing pages around keywords, try to figure out the reasons why someone would be searching those specific keywords, and then write content that matches each intent.


Next Section: How Do I Do Keyword Research?