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‘How Google Works’ Session Overview from SMX West

By Joe Mulvihill

You go to Google and type a phrase into the search box. In the blink of an eye, results fly across your screen, ready to take you wherever you want on the web.

Have you ever wondered how Google determines which results to present? If you have, you are in luck. We can explain the answer by comparing the search index to a database, but the better path to an answer is to get the explanation from Google itself.

At the industry conference SMX West in March, the search engine held a session called “How Google Works,” led by software engineer Paul Haahr. The session recording has recently been uploaded to YouTube by SMX for all to view.

As a viewer interested in how a Google software engineer would describe the way the search results actually operate, there were no Earth-shattering revelations in the session, but it was valuable to hear a discussion of function from a ranking engineer’s perspective.

The essence of the session was a discussion of different things that ranking engineers do throughout their process, and how those things make the search engine operate. The process tasks include:

  • Writing code for the servers in order to accurately deliver relevant results in response to a query.
  • Identifying new scoring signals, or combining old signals in new ways.
  • Optimizing for specific metrics.
  • Moving results with good ratings, higher, and similarly, results with bad ratings, lower.
  • Fixing rater guidelines or developing new metrics when necessary.

Haahr spent a lot of time discussing the ways engineers evaluate results in order to show consistent improvement. Google regularly performs live experiments and A/B testing. He said that it is rare for a user to enter a Google search and not be part of a live experiment.

Google also has human rater experiments to keep the algorithm delivering as accurately as possible. With these experiments, the raters will evaluate search results based on page quality and whether or not a user’s needs would be met by the result. Google places a heavy focus on mobile with these ratings, stating that there are twice as many mobile queries in their evaluation process, as compared to desktop.    

The goals that Google software engineers measure themselves against for search results (relevance, quality and time to result) don’t differ that drastically from the goals that we have for our partner schools. It is imperative that the content successfully meets the needs of the end user and that the page quality remains high from expertise, authority and trustworthiness perspectives. Speed of delivery is important, too, especially as people expect to see quick processing on mobile devices.

These are very similar elements to what we continue to focus on for our clients when it comes to content strategy. It’s not about ‘gaming the system’ or anything like that. If you truly focus on what your audience is looking for and needs, and you maintain quality in everything that you do with your website, you will see success.

View the video for the full context of the session here.

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