How Do Search Engines Rank Websites?
Search engines use complex mix of overlapping, automated systems to rank websites based on a variety of factors.
Ultimately, the purpose of such systems is to provide users with a satisfying experience, usually by giving them relevant results quickly and safely.
As someone who wants their website to rank in search results, this is where you come in. Your aim is to also provide users with a satisfying experience in line with your business objectives.
However, no matter how good your website or services are, if search engines don't find you and show you to relevant users, then your online marketing efforts aren't going anywhere.
So, it is essential to know how and why search engines rank some sites over others, and how to implement these insights on your website. This is the business of SEO.
The difficulty in this process is that the precise functioning of search engines is largely a mystery. This is partly deliberate, as knowledge about how search engines work can be used to exploit the system, harming user experience.
However, search engines are also mysterious due to their sheer complexity. Google's own ranking algorithm changes everyday based on machine learning processes in addition to semi-regular manual updates.
As such, SEO is as much art as it is science, with a variety of general principles and best practices gleaned from experience and clues from search engine companies themselves.
Here we will be discussing some of these principles and practices. We also recommend you consult Google's Webmaster Guidelines, and this post on how to understand your real estate website search rank.
Website Ranking Factors
There are literally hundreds of potential ranking factors that determine the search ranking of a website. To make it even more complicated, these factors change depending on where or what is being ranked. For example, there's image search, video search, and local search, and even on Google's main search page there's the Knowledge Panel, People Also Ask, and a lot more.
So for now we will be focusing on some well-known, impactful, and easy-to-understand ranking for factors for improving your search position on Google search results pages (or SERPs).
1. Content Quality
Arguably the most important ranking factor of them all: Good content.
Search engines evaluate the quality and originality of a website's content, including factors such as its accuracy, depth, and comprehensiveness. Websites with high-quality, informative, and well-organized content are more likely to rank higher.
Quality, of course, is an incredibly vague and complex concept. But here are a few characteristics of content that improve its quality as a ranking factor:
- Original - Good content is unique and original, usually coming from specific expertise, knowledge, or experience.
- Helpful - Good content provides information (or an experience) that people are looking for.
- Readable - Good content is easy to read, with good grammar, spelling, and a well-organized structure.
- Credible - Good content is authoritative, factually correct, and accurate (when appropriate).
- Engaging - Partly a combination of previous factors, good content keeps users engaged.
Ultimately, the sites that perform the best are those that people want to visit, and people want to visit sites that offer some kind of value. So, to create high-quality content that performs well on search engines, it's important to focus on providing value to the user when creating online content.
2. User Experience
Whether a user has a good experience on your website will be strongly determined by whether your content is of a good enough quality, so in a sense we've already covered how to achieve it.
However, there are other characteristics of a website or page that contribute to user experience:
- Page speed - Faster-loading websites tend to provide a better user experience and are favored by search engines.
- Responsiveness - The ability of a website to adapt and display properly on different devices and screen sizes, such as desktops, tablets, and mobile devices.
- Navigation - Includes intuitive menus, logical site structure, and user-friendly URLs.
- Accessibility - Can pages be easily accessed and used by people with disabilities? This isn't just good SEO, in many places it's required by law.
- General usability - The overall user-friendliness and functionality of a website.
Imagine your website is like a physical store. You want your customers to have a pleasant experience from the moment they step inside until the moment they leave. The same goes for your online presence. Prioritize user experience by making your website fast, responsive, easy to navigate, accessible, and user-friendly.
The more enjoyable the experience, the more likely visitors are to stick around and return in the future.
3. Website Structure
Search engines assess the structure and organization of a website, including factors such as the use of headers, meta tags, and URLs.
Websites with well-structured and optimized content are more likely to rank higher. Part of this is how pages link together based on their content.
One effective strategy is to organizing website content into clusters of related topics centered around a central pillar page. The pillar page serves as a comprehensive, in-depth resource on a broad topic, and links to and is linked from related, more narrowly-focused content pages within the cluster.
This helps search engines understand the topic relevance and hierarchy of the content, improves internal linking, and provides a better user experience by offering comprehensive information on a topic while also diving into specific subtopics.
We've written a longer post about effective site structure for real estate websites which we recommend you check out.
As mentioned, when it comes to the search engine results pages, Google ultimately has one goal: to deliver results that provide the most value to the searcher.
One way to think of this value is in terms of relevance.
You may have published the world's best novel on the most optimized website, but if that content is not relevant to what anyone is using search engines to look for, then it's not going to show up.
What is relevance in SEO?
Relevance, in the context of content marketing and SEO, refers to how closely a piece of content aligns with the search intent of a user's query. In other words, how well the content addresses the specific topic or keyword that a user is searching for.
Google will first assess the intent of a search action based on the search terms used (AKA keywords), the user's history and profile, with some machine learning thrown in to help make a guess when precise meaning is ambiguous. This is then paired with an assessment of what various accessible pages are about.
Search engines like Google "understand" what web pages are about through a process of indexing. "Indexing" refers to the process by which search engines discover, crawl, and store web pages in their databases to make them searchable and retrievable.
Put simply, a lot of the work of SEO is making your page easy to find, index and understand, so that search engines can show your content in relevant search results.
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.
Keywords & Search Intent
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.
We recommend that you check out our two in-depth pages on SEO keyword research and analyzing keywords for real estate.
In addition to showing high-quality, relevant content on user-friendly websites, search engines like Google also have an interest in showing websites that are credible and dependable. Sites that optimize based on all the factors mentioned, but are ultimately spammy, harmful, dishonest, or fly-by-night operations will probably lead to negative user experiences, which search engines want to avoid.
As such, Google prioritizes a number of factors which indicate trustworthiness, expertise, and staying power. Together these are referred to as a website's "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 it have a history of violating search engine guidelines?
- Backlinks – How many links point back to the website? What are the quality of those links?
In general, backlinks are one of the most important and sought-after ranking factors, and one of the hardest to build. Learn more about building strong backlinks for real estate websites.
E-E-A-T For Real Estate Websites
E-A-T, which stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness, is not a direct ranking factor used by Google, but rather a set of quality standards that Google uses to train its search algorithms.
- Expertise refers to the knowledge and expertise of the content creators
- Authoritativeness relates to the reputation and authority of the website
- Trustworthiness evaluates the reliability and credibility of the information provided
Google also added a second "E" for "Experience", referring to whether the content author has relevant first-hand experience of the subject they're writing about.
While not a direct ranking factor, adhering to the principles of E-A-T can help website owners create high-quality content that is more likely to rank well in search results and build trust with users.
Site Security & Trustworthiness
Website security is a critical ranking factor that search engines like Google consider when determining search rankings.
Websites that implement security measures such as HTTPS encryption, SSL certificates, and protection against malware or other security threats are seen as more trustworthy and reliable to users.
Search engines prioritize user safety and security, and websites that prioritize security measures are more likely to rank higher in search results.
Although a little controversial, there is some evidence that search engines pay 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.
Even if engagement isn't a strong ranking factor, it's still worth paying attention to, since it can tell you a lot about the quality and effectiveness of your website.
And more isn't always better. For example, if users are spending a lot of time browsing through pages, it could be a sign that they are having a frustrating time trying to find what they're looking for.
Next Section: How Do I Do Keyword Research?