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How search engines rank pages

For any given query made by a user a search engine needs to answer a fundamental question:

Who has the most authority to answer this query?

In deciding this search engines will consider:

  • Relevancy - if the content of your page is relevant.
  • Past user experience (if there is enough data available) – did other people who made this query react positively to your website?
  • The profile of links pointing to your site or page - are they from good quality sites and on pages where the topic is related to the topic of your page.
  • Where the person who is carrying out the search is located - because someone located in Dallas searching 'Italian Cafe' probably wants an Italian Cafe in Dallas.
  • What websites the person who is carrying out the search has visited before
  • Technical issues - will this page work well on the device (laptop, tablet, phone) that the user has?


So, for example, if someone searches “what is the time in New York now” and one of your pages has the title “What is the time in New York now” and the content seems to be about the current time in New York then your page is very relevant to the query.

The How to SEO your website guide covers how to show Google your page or site is relevant for particular search queries.

Past user experience

Carrying on the example – did other people who carried out the search “what is the time in New York now”:

  • click through to your page more often than others (a positive signal known as the Click Through Rate or CTR)
  • stay longer on the page than those of your competitors (a positive signal known as Time on Site)
  • click the back button and then go and visit another site (a negative signal known as the Bounce Rate)
  • click the back button and then do something else (a positive signal that your content met their need)

There's more detail about this on the page User Behaviour and SEO


Search engines don't accept any old link to your site as a good thing. In the example we are working on now, for any given link to your site or page they will consider:

  • Are the links from pages on another website with related content (e.g. to do with time or time in different places)?
  • Are the websites that are linking to yours good quality ... what sort of links and user behaviour do they have?
  • Is the link to your website within the content of the page – i.e. not in a list of links somewhere off to the side or bottom
  • How any other links to other websites are there on that page?
  • Is the link marked as 'no follow'?

From this they will conclude how much Authority your site should be given because of the link.

We'll look at links in much more detail on the page Links in SEO

Searcher location

Most people tell search engines, usually without even realising it, where they are located. So a person who is in New York and searches “What is the time now” might see the same results as a person based in India who searches “What is time in New York now” while a person in Washington who searches “italian restaurant” will see a completely different set of results compared to a person in Detroit who searches “italian restaurant”.

This is reason number one why anyone who promises you your website will be number one on Google if you use their services is to be avoided. In other words Google #1 is a myth.

Searcher history

Most search engines also keep track of where you have been on the web in the past unless you explicitly block them and as most people don't know how to do this search engines know an awful lot about most people.

This means the search results you see are often different from those of a person who sits next to you but uses their own computer!

As a personal example when I'm planning to cook my favourite curry I always look up 'Prawn Saag' on Google and from the results I always choose the Curry Frenzy website. This wasn't always at the top of the search results when I looked it up but it is now number one for my search results.

Google has learnt this is the site I am looking for after I search 'Prawn Saag' and so it tries to be helpful by placing it at the top of the list.

And so we have reason number two why Google #1 is a Myth.

Its also why many people who are just getting started on their own SEO suddenly think their work has succeeded because they notice their website at the top of Google all the time. We'll look at how you can get round this so you can see what other people do later.

Technical issues

You may have authority, you may have relevance but if there is another website out there with similar authority and relevance it could pip you to the post because it works.

When I talk about 'working' I mean two things:

  • Responsive layout - the page displays well in the device the user is searching on, be that a PC, laptop, tablet or phone.
  • Loading speed - the page will actually load in a reasonable time because it is on a good host, doesn't have ridiculously large images, etc.

Don't get me wrong, search engines will rank the above pages if they have nothing else to offer and so you will see them up there at the top of the results from time to time ... but only if they have nothing else to offer.

How the cocktail works

This mix of signals is meant to avoid anyone being able to game the system and most importantly to give users an excellent experience with good quality results. This means:

  • It is possible for a page or site with no links to rank higher than one with many links if its content is more relevant to the query being searched and user behaviour is more positive - this site, for example ranks higher for "how to SEO your website" than Wikipedia. Wikipedia has a whole lot more links but it is not relevant to the search.
  • It is possible for a page that has little to do with a search query to rank highly because of the link profile. Just Google 'click here' to see Adobe as one of the top results even though its site has nothing to do with 'click here'!

Most search engines actually claim to use hundreds of signals but what we have discussed here are the 'big five' and many of the other signals are in fact sub parts of these.

Signals search engines don't use

There is a lot of myth and bluster on the web about things that will improve your rankings. Here are a few that won't:

  • Social media - because they don't know how... yet. You can have lots of followers because you share pictures of kittens but it doesn't mean you are an authority on what your website is about.
  • Links from spammy directories - because their just a bunch of links so if you are offered 17,000 directory links for $50 give it a miss and treat your self to dinner out with the savings. Better still treat me to dinner out because I just gave you the tip.
  • Links from spammy article sites - those ones that, if you went to one, you would never bookmark and probably never read any of the content because it is verbal vomit.

All things being equal

Throughout this guide one of the endless phrases I repeat is this:

How much SEO do you need to do? Slightly more than your competitors.

Imagine two pages on two different websites about pink roses, both with very clear content - the search engines can see they are both equally relevant to the topic 'pink roses'. One has a link from their webhost company on a page called "Our Clients", the other has no links at all.

The link is not relevant but it is a link so it carries a little sway, enough to make that page rank higher than the linkless page.

How Search Engine Optimization fits in

So now you know how search engines rank sites and pages in their search results pages its time to understand what SEO is.

I'm Tim Hill, a Search Engine Optimisation and Online Marketing specialist. I created this site to help others understand that SEO is not a mysterious black art!.

If your a newbie try the Getting Started in SEO page, otherwise feel free to dig around and learn more.

Find me on Facebook or get in touch if you need help.

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