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Keeping up with all of Google’s ranking algorithms and systems can be a lot. It seems like every time you turn around, the search engine has pushed out some new ranking system that brands need to be aware of if they want to reach users on the largest search engine around. 

Making matters even more complicated, Google also occasionally retires older systems as they become obsolete or redundant over the years.

Thankfully, Google has released a comprehensive guide to its many different ranking systems so you can be sure you are optimized for the most important ranking signals without investing resources into systems that are out of use. 

Ranking Systems Vs. Ranking Updates

Along with information about each ranking system and how it influences your standings on Google Search, the guide clarifies the language between ranking updates and ranking systems.

These terms have been used somewhat interchangeably but Google is finally drawing a clear line between the two.

According to the guide, a ranking system is something that is constantly operating behind the scenes – such as RankBrain or the helpful content system.

On the other hand, a ranking update is a one-time change to the ranking systems. For example, Google regularly rolls out updates to its spam detection systems.

Active Google Ranking Systems

Here are Google’s currently active ranking systems in alphabetical order:

  • BERT: BERT (or Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) is an AI system that allows Google to understand how combinations of words may change meanings and intent
  • Crisis Information Systems: This is a system Google has in place to handle important information during times of crisis – both personal and public. For example, the system helps intervene when users search for content related to potentially dangerous personal crises, such as suicide, sexual assault, or poison ingestion.
  • Deduplication Systems: This is used to help Google avoid delivering search results with duplicate or nearly identical content.
  • Exact Match Domain System: A system is used to balance the importance of ranking brands highly for searches containing their exact business name without giving too much credit to sites with domain names that exactly match broader queries.
  • Freshness Systems: Google’s freshness systems work to show newer content more prominently for queries where it would be expected.
  • Helpful Content System: The relatively new Helpful Content System guarantees that users see original content written with their needs in mind, rather than content crafted specifically to rank well.
  • Link Analysis Systems and PageRank: These systems determine what content is about and what pages may be most helpful for specific queries based on how pages across the web are linked together.
  • Local News Systems: Google uses this to highlight information from local news sources when they will be the best resource for a query.
  • Neural Matching: This lets Google understand representations of concepts in queries and match them with the most relevant pages.
  • Original Content Systems: Google’s Original Content Systems help identify the original source of content and highlight them above those who simply cite it.
  • Removal-Based Demotion Systems: The system responsible for demoting or removing content with a high volume of content removal requests.
  • Page Experience System: The Page Experience System is designed to assess which sites will provide the best user experience.
  • Passage Ranking System: Passage ranking is an AI system used to identify specific sections of content which may be most relevant for search.
  • Product Reviews System: As part of Google’s shopping tools in search, Google uses the Product Reviews System to reward highly reviewed products and to showcase reviews that contain the most insightful or relevant information.
  • RankBrain: RankBrain is an AI system crucial to the search engine’s ability to understand how words and concepts are related and return more relevant content – even when all the exact words in a search may not be present.
  • Reliable Information Systems: These are a number of systems that ensure Google’s search results prioritize information from reliable sources.
  • Site Diversity System: The Site Diversity System prevents Google from showing more than two specific pages from the same domain in the top results for a query.
  • Spam Detection Systems: The Spam Detection Systems identify content and behaviors which violate Google’s spam policies and deal with them appropriately by demoting or delisting them.

Retired Google Ranking Systems

  • Hummingbird: Originally rolled out in 2013, Hummingbird was a broad overhaul to Google’s ranking systems. Since then, Google’s recent systems have evolved past the need for this system.
  • Mobile-Friendly Ranking System: This system rewarded sites that were optimized to render well on mobile devices. Since then, it has been absorbed into the Page Experience System.
  • Page Speed System: Initially a standalone system that highlighted sites that loaded quickly on mobile devices, this system has since been incorporated into the Page Experience System.
  • The Panda System: Panda was released in 2011 with the purpose of surfacing high-quality, original content. Since 2015, it has been part of Google’s core ranking systems.
  • The Penguin System: The “cousin” to Panda, Penguin demoted websites that used spammy linkbuilding strategies to rank abnormally well. It has been part of the core ranking systems since 2016.
  • Secure Sites System: Originally, it gave a small boost to sites that adopted HTTPS security protocols when it was less commonly used across the web. Though HTTPS sites are much more common these days, the system is still in use as part of Google’s Page Experience System.

Google is rolling out a new addition to its “About this result” feature in search results which will explain why the search engine chose a specific result to rank.

The new section, called “Your search & this result” explains the specific factors which made Google believe a specific page may have what you’re looking for.

This can include a number of SEO factors, ranging from the keywords which matched with the page (including related but not directly matching terms), backlink details, related images, location-based information, and more. 

How Businesses Can Use This Information

For users, this feature can help understand why they are seeing specific search results and even provide tips for refining their search for better results. 

The unspoken utility of this tool for businesses is glaringly obvious, however. 

This feature essentially provides an SEO report card, showing exactly where you are doing well on ranking for important keywords. By noting what is not included, you can also get an idea of what areas could be improved to help you rank better in the future.

Taking this even further, you could explore the details for other pages ranking for your primary keywords, helping you better strategize to overtake your competition.

What It Looks Like

Below, you can see a screenshot of what the feature looks like in action:

The information box provides a quick bullet point list of several factors which caused the search engine to return the specific result.
While Google only detailed a few of the possible details the box may include, users around the web have reported seeing information about all of these factors included:

  • Included search terms: Google can show which exact search terms were matched with the content or HTML on the related page. This includes content that is not typically visible to users, such as the title tag or meta data.
  • Related search terms: Along with the keywords which were directly matched with the related page, Google can also show “related” terms. For example, Google knew to include results related to the Covid vaccine based on the keyword “shot”.
  • Other websites link to this page: The search engine may choose to highlight a page which might otherwise appear unrelated because several pages using the specific keyword linked to this specific page.
  • Related images: If the images are properly optimized, Google may be able to identify when images on a page are related to your search.
  • This result is [Language]: Obviously, users who don’t speak or read your language are unlikely to have much use for your website or content. This essentially notes that the page is in the same language you use across the rest of Google.
  • This result is relevant for searches ih [Region]: Lastly, the search engine may note if locality helped influence its search result based on other contextual details. For example, it understood that the user in Vermont, was likely looking for nearby results when searching “get the shot”.

The expanded “About this result” section is rolling out to English-language U.S. users already and is expected to be widely available across the country within a week. From there, Google says it will work to bring the feature to more countries and languages soon.

For many small-to-medium businesses, appearing in search results around their local area is significantly more important than popping up in the results for someone halfway across the country. 

This raises the question, though. How many of the countless searches made every day are actually locally based?

We now have the answer to that question thanks to a new tool released by LocalSEOGuide.com and Traject Data.

What Percent Of Searches Are Local?

Working together, the companies analyzed over 60 million U.S. search queries and found that over a third (approx. 36%) of all queries returned Google’s local pack – indicating the search was location-based. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise from the data is that locally-based searches have remained largely consistent throughout the year. Following an uptick in early 2020 (likely driven by the coronavirus pandemic), the rate stayed around 36% over the course of the year. The only significant exception came in September, where the data shows a significant decrease in locally-driven searches. 

This data shows just how important it is for even brands that are strictly local to establish their brands online and optimize for search engines. Otherwise, you might be missing out on a big source of potential business.

Other Features In The Local Pack-O-Meter

Along with data on the appearance of local packs in Google search results, the Local Pack-O-Meter includes information on several other search features. These include:

  • Knowledge Graphs
  • “People Also Ask” Panels
  • Image Boxes
  • Shopping Boxes
  • Ads
  • Related Searches
  • And more

Though the current form of the tool doesn’t include ways to more selectively filter the information, there is plenty to take from the information for planning what search features you need to prioritize and which can be put on the back burner. 

To explore the Local Pack-O-Meter for yourself, click here.

Throughout 2020, approximately 65% of searches made on Google were “zero-click searches”, meaning that the search never resulted in an actual website visit.

Zero-click searches have been steadily on the rise, reaching 50% in June 2019 according to a study published by online marketing expert Rand Fishkin and SimilarWeb.

The steep rise in these types of searches between January and December 2020 is particularly surprising because it was widely believed zero-click searches were largely driven by mobile users looking for quick-answers. Throughout 2020, however, most of us were less mobile than ever due to Covid restrictions, social distancing, and quarantines.

The findings of this latest report don’t entirely disprove this theory, though. Mobile devices still saw the majority of zero-click Google searches. On desktop, less than half (46.5%) were zero-click searches, while more than three-fourths (77.2%) of searches from mobile devices did not result in a website visit.

Study Limitations

Fishkin acknowledges that his reports do come with a small caveat. Each analysis used different data sources and included different searching methods, which may explain some of the variance. Additionally, the newer study – which included data from over 5.1 trillion Google searches – had access to a significantly larger data pool compared to the approximately one billion searches used in the 2019 study.

“Nonetheless, it seems probable that if the previous panel were still available, it would show a similar trend of increasing click cannibalization by Google,” Fishkin said in his analysis.

What This Means For Businesses

The most obvious takeaway from these findings is that people are increasingly finding the information they are looking for directly on the search results pages, rather than needing to visit a web-page for more in-depth information.

It also means that attempts to regulate Google are largely failing.

Many have criticized and even pursued legal action (with varying levels of success) against the search engine for abusing their access to information on websites by showing that information in “knowledge panels” on search results.

The argument is that Google is stealing copyrighted information and republishing it on their own site. Additionally, this practice could potentially create less reason for searchers to click on ads, meaning Google is contributing to falling click-through rates and making more money off of it.

Ultimately, Google is showing no signs of slowing down on its use of knowledge panels and direct answers within search results. To adjust to the rise of zero-click searches, brands should put more energy into optimizing their content to appear in knowledge panels (increasing your brand awareness) and diversify their web presence with social media activity to directly reach customers.

A lot has changed at Google over the past few years, but one thing remains the same – the majority of people will click the top link on any search result page. 

A new study of over 80 million keywords and billions of search results found that an average of 28.5% of users will click the top organic result for a given search. 

From there, the average CTR for results sharply declines. Listings in the second place receive an average of 15% of clicks, while third place falls to 11%. 

By the time you get to the last listing of a results page, links receive only a 2.5% click-through rate. 

You can imagine what the CTRs for anything after the first page would be like. 

Other Factors Influencing Search CTRs

Unsurprisingly, there is quite a bit of variance in the actual click-through rates for some results pages. In the study, Sistrix found click-through rates for listings in the first position swung from 13.7% to almost 50%. 

While the relevance of the top listing has some effect on its CTR, the study suggests another major factor is the SERP layout. 

For example, search results including sitelinks extensions significantly outperformed those without. 

On the other hand, the study found that search results including featured snippets had a significant negative impact, dropping click-through rates by at least 5% on average. 

Similarly knowledge panels reduced the average CTR from 28% to 16%.

In these situations, the researchers believe users don’t feel the need to investigate further when provided with quick answers directly within the search results pages:

“The CTR in the first two organic positions drops significantly compared to the average. Many users appear to find the information they are looking for in the Knowledge Panel – especially on their smartphones, where each time a page is loaded it takes a lot of time.“

For more information, you can explore the full study report here.

Google is making a change to how featured some featured snippets function by taking users directly to the associated text when clicked. 

Featured snippets are the highlighted search results that appear at the top of some results pages, showing a specifically relevant bit of text.

The company announced the update through its Google SearchLiason Twitter account, which posted:

“As we have done with AMP pages since December 2018, clicking on a featured snippet now takes users to the exact text highlighted for HTML pages, when we can confidently determine where the text is.”

While it is a relatively small change, it makes featured snippets even more useful to searchers (and thus, more essential for businesses to put in place). 

Surprisingly, the company says there is no additional code or special markup needed to prepare your featured snippets for this change. 

Instead, the search engine is essentially using a trick that highlights specific text by tweaking the URL for each snippet.

As Roger Montti explained over at Search Engine Journal, this is a feature previously used for Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), which has the dual benefits of being easy to implement and trackable.

In the latest episode of Google’s “Search for Beginners” series, the company focused on 5 things everyone should consider for their website.

While it is relatively straight and to the point, the video shares insight into the process of ranking your site on Google and ensuring smooth performance for users across a wide range of devices and platforms.

Specifically, Google’s video recommends:

  1. Check if your site is indexed: Perform a search on Google for “site:[yourwebsite.com]” to ensure your site is being properly indexed and included in search results. If your site isn’t showing up, it means there is an error keeping your site from being crawled or indexed.
  2. Provide high quality content: Content is essential for informing users AND search engines about your site. Following the official webmaster guidelines and best practice documents will help your site rank better and improve overall traffic.
  3. Maximize performance across all devices: Most searches are now occurring on mobile devices, so it is important that your site loads quickly on all devices. You can check to ensure your site is mobile friendly using Google’s online tool here.
  4. Secure your website: Upgrading from HTTP to HTTPS helps protect your users information and limit the chance of bad actors manipulating your site.
  5. Hire an SEO professional: With the increasingly competitive search results and fast-changing results pages, Google recommends hiring an outside professional to assist you.

The video actually implies that hiring an SEO professional is so important they will be devoting significantly more time to it in the future. Here’s what the presenter had to say:

“Are you looking for someone to work on [your website] on your behalf? Hiring a search engine optimizer, or “SEO,” might be an option. SEOs are professionals who can help improve the visibility and ranking of your website. We’ll talk more about hiring an SEO in future episodes.”

Google says it is walking back a significant recent redesign of its desktop search results after widespread negative reaction.

Earlier this month, the company released an update which brought desktop search results closer to the current mobile results, including changing how ads appeared in the results.

However, many said the change made it difficult to distinguish between paid advertisements and organic search results.

This isn’t the first time Google has been accused of making it difficult to tell ads from organic results, however it is the first time the company has agreed to backtrack on the changes.

In a Tweet, the company said: “Last week we updated the look of Search on desktop to mirror what’s been on mobile for months. We’ve heard your feedback about the update. We always want to make Search better, so we’re going to experiment with new placements for favicons.”

Despite the negative response, Google says initial tests of the change were positive and cited the warm response to similar mobile search results designs.

Read the full statement below:

“We’re dedicated to improving the desktop experience for Search, and as part of our efforts we rolled out a new design last week, mirroring the design that we’ve had for many months on mobile. The design has been well received by users on mobile screens, as it helps people more quickly see where information is coming from and they can see a prominent bolded ad label at the top. Web publishers have also told us they like having their brand iconography on the search results page. While early tests for desktop were positive, we are always incorporating feedback from our users. We are experimenting with a change to the current desktop favicons, and will continue to iterate on the design over time.”

If you have claimed a short name for your Google My Business listing, you may want to be on the watch for a new bug which is causing some GMB listings to be suspended. 

Short Names for GMB were first introduced back in April as a way for businesses to create unique URLs for their Google My Business listings and easily differentiate individual locations in search results. 

However, a wave of reports suggests that some who claimed a short name for their legitimate listings are being suspended and removed from search results entirely. 

It is important to note that the issue does not seem to be affecting all Google My Business listings with short names. Still, the issue is widespread enough for many agencies to be sounding the alarm. 

Specifically, Joe Youngblood started alerting others about the issue last week, including sharing screenshots from a Facebook group where those affected were speaking out. 

As you can see, the issue only affected 2 of more than 10 listings the person above manages, with other listings using short names being entirely unaffected. 

The initial reports of the issue began early last week, but new cases are still being reported this week. SEO professional Lily Ray says one of her listings was suspended yesterday, almost immediately after adding a short name to the listing. 

While Google has not officially confirmed the problem, many say they have been able to get their listing successfully reinstating when notifying the search engine. 

With all this in mind, you might consider holding off on adding a short name to any of your Google My Business listings until the bug is fixed. If you already have a listing with a short name, it would be worthwhile to check that it is still properly showing in search results and has not been suspended.

It seems like everybody these days is going crazy about fidget spinners, especially teens. Well, you can save yourself a few dollars – if you haven’t already bought one. These “spinners” are now just a search away, thanks to Google’s latest Easter egg.

By searching “spinner”, you can play with a virtual version of the fidget spinners that are everywhere.

Technically, there are two different spinners available. There’s the classic spinner that’s become so ubiquitous it is getting banned in schools, as well as one with up to 20 spinning numbers. Aside from Dungeons and Dragons players who forgot their 20-sided dice, I’m not totally sure who that’s supposed to be for.

Fidget Spinner

Google’s fidget spinner functions pretty much exactly as you would expect. You can swipe either direction to send it spinning, or just tap the convenient “spin” button to watch the thing go. It will match however fast you spin it and stop when you tap.

Number Spinner

Unlike the fidget spinner, this option is more like something you’d see on a game show. You swipe to send it spinning, and it eventually comes to a stop on a specific number. You can choose to customize the wheel with between 2 and 20 numbers, making it a sort of limited number generator.

Whether you love or hate spinners, there’s no denying how popular they are. Once Google puts you in the search results, you know you’ve made it!