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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 would be best at answering this question?

How search engines rank wesites

Yes, its complex in the detail but actually fairly simple at a top level. To understand the process they go through let's consider our search for "seafood recipes".

Are you in the search engine's index

Search engines don't consider every page on the internet that has this information. When they discover your page about seafood recipes they'll consider:

  • Is it original? - if they have seen your content elsewhere before there is no need for them to list it again.
  • Is your page safe? - are there any viruses that could cause issues.
  • How do you display your content? - if your page is over run with advertisements or redirects unexpectedly to something else they might give it a miss.

If they think your page has something to offer they will add it to their index. If not you don't even stand a whisper of a chance of being seen anywhere in their SERPs.

You can find out if you are in Google's index by searching Google itself like this: site:url.

For this page you would search

When I am first approached by clients many are surprised to find how many of their pages are not even in Google's index!

In deciding which pages in their index should rank search engines will consider:

  • Relevancy - is the content of your page is relevant to the query.
  • Accessibility - is the content of your page clear and easy to digest, especially for users on mobile devices.
  • Authority - do others see you as an expert in this area because they linked to your site.
  • Past user experience of your site (if there is enough data available) - did other people who made this query react positively to your content?
  • Where the user 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 user who is carrying out the search has visited before. - is your website similar to the kind of websites this user likes?

While that is only 5 points search engines use hundreds of signals to make decisions about them and I'll cover how to optimize for many of them on this site. But first let's look closer at these 5 points.


Does your page about seafood recipes:

  • have the title that includes the words "seafood recipes"
  • have content which seems to be about seafood recipes

... if it does then your page is very relevant to the query.

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


If lots of people are mega relevant to the search term "what is the time in New York now" then the search engines know they are spoilt for choice. So now they'll want to deliver the best content and a key aspect of this is:

  • How fast does your page load - because users, especially on mobile devices, don't want to be waiting around all day
  • How clear is your content - is it lost amoung adverts, is the text too small or too pale, etc.

Search engines want users to have a great experience when using their services and websites which load slowly or are difficult to read don't give them that.

The How to SEO your website guide shows you how you can test the accessibility of your pages.


There are a lot of websites which are very relevant to the search term "what is the time in New York now", they load fast and their content is clear so where does a search engine go from here in deciding which websites should be on the first page of the SERPs?

If your website really is great at answering this question it is likely that other websites will have linked to it. Each link has the ability to pass on something known as link juice. The more respectable the website, the more link juice it can pass on.

Websites like CNN, BBC, Wikipedia, etc. have serious amounts of link juice. Auntie Jo's family blog has almost none.

Whoever links to you, even if they have buckets of link juice, how much you actually get and how effective it will be for you depends on:

  • How many other links there are on the page linking to you? - because link juice is shared out between all the links on the page.
  • Is the link from a page on another website with related content? - e.g. to do with time or time in different places or New York
  • 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 close to the start of the main content is the link? - because if they link to you early on in their content you are more important than the other links further down the page.
  • Is the link marked as 'no follow'? - because this tells search engines that the webmaster wants no link juice to flow your way :(

From all the links to your websites and all their characteristics they will conclude how much Authority your site has.

We'll cover how to get these all important links later in the course

Past user experience

Carrying on the example - did other people who carried out the search "seafood recipes":

  • click through to your page more often than other pages? (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 Dwell Time)
  • click the back button and then go and visit another site? (a negative signal known as 'Needs not met' or 'Needs not fully net')
  • click the back button and then do something else? (a positive signal that your content met their needs)

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

Searcher location

Most people tell search engines, usually without even realizing it, where they are located. So 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.

Even for something as simple as 'seafood recipes' location can be important. Search engines like Google will know if users located in the San Francisco prefer certain types of seafood recipe sites to those based in Florida.

Searcher history

Most search engines can tell where you have been on the web in the past unless you explicitly block them.

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 favorite 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 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. A process known as Personalized Search.

This is reason number two why no one can promise to make your website Google #1.

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 rising to the top of Google all the time. It's not because they have become search engine optimization gurus, it is because they are spending a lot of time on their own sites.

A little later we'll look at how you can get round this so you can see what other people do.

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 behavior is more positive.

Its exactly how I got a brand new page without any links to rank on the first page of Google withinin two weeks - have a look at this SEO example to see how I did it.

Tim Hill SEO

I'm Tim Hill, a Search Engine Optimization 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.

If you need help simply get in touch.

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