With the vast amount of information available on the Internet, finding what you need is only possible with some help sorting through it. Google’s ranking systems are designed to do just that: sort through hundreds of billions of web pages and other content in their Search index to present the most relevant, useful results in a fraction of a second. 

Many often refer to Google’s ranking systems as “The Algorithm.” In actuality, Google has many complex systems designed to ensure that the results served in the SERPS meet the high standards that users have come to expect. Google continually improves these systems daily to provide users with the most useful and relevant information. In 2021, Google made over 4,000 updates to its systems.  

Unless you’re like us––marketing/dev nerds who keep on top of every single announcement made at Google––it’s incredibly easy to get confused about what update or algorithm does what. 

A new guide to Google Search ranking systems will keep you informed about which systems Google uses to rank search results and which are retired. Having a clear understanding of which ranking systems exist, how Google defines them, and which are still in use is obviously helpful for a multitude of reasons. 

Google also introduces new terminology, distinguishing between ranking “systems” and ranking “updates.” For example, a system such as RankBrain is always running in the background when Google delivers search results, though it can receive updates to improve how it functions. Other examples of one-time changes to ranking systems are core algorithm updates and spam updates.

Let’s take a look at the highlights in Google’s guide to ranking systems.

Current Google Ranking Systems

Here is the list, in alphabetical order, of Google’s ranking systems that are currently operational.

  • BERT: Short for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, BERT is an AI system that allows Google to understand how combinations of words can express different meanings and intent. 
  • Crisis information systems: Google has systems in place to provide helpful and timely information during times of crisis, such as SOS alerts when searching for natural disasters.
  • Deduplication systems: Searches on Google may find millions of matching web pages, some of which may be very similar. Google’s search systems aim to show only the most relevant information to avoid unhelpful duplicate content. 
  • Exact match domain system: A system that ensures Google doesn’t give too much credit to websites with domain names that exactly match a query. For example, someone might create a domain name containing the words “best-places-for-happy-hour” in hopes all those words in the domain name would propel content high in the rankings. Google’s system adjusts for this.
  • Freshness systems: Google has various systems designed to show fresher content for queries where it would be expected. 
  • Helpful content system: A system designed to ensure that users see original, helpful content written by people, for people, rather than content made primarily to gain search engine traffic. 
  • Link analysis systems and PageRank: Systems that understand how pages link to each other as a way to determine what pages are about and which might be most helpful in response to a query. PageRank is a core ranking system that has been around since Google first launched. 
  • Local news systems: A system that surfaces top stories and local news sources when relevant to the query.
  • MUM: Multitask Unified Model (MUM) is an AI system capable of understanding and generating language. It is not used for general ranking but for more specific applications, such as improving featured snippet callouts. 
  • Neural matching: An AI system that helps Google understand representations of concepts in queries and pages and match them to one another.
  • Original content systems: A system to help ensure Google shows original content prominently in search results, including original reporting, ahead of those who merely cite it.
  • Removal-based demotion systems: Systems that allow the removal of certain content. For example, if a particular website sees a high volume of removal requests, it can be demoted. 
  • Page experience system: A system that assesses various criteria (such as how quickly pages load and mobile-friendliness) to determine if a web page provides a good user experience.
  • Passage ranking system: An AI system that identifies individual sections or “passages” of a web page to understand better how relevant a page is to a search.
  • Product reviews system: A system that rewards high-quality product reviews, content that provides insightful analysis and original research, and is written by experts or enthusiasts who are knowledgeable about the topic. 
  • RankBrain: An AI system that helps Google understand how words are related to concepts. RankBrain allows Google to return relevant content even if it doesn’t contain all the exact words used in a search. 
  • Reliable information systems: Google has multiple systems to show the most reliable information possible, such as elevating authoritative pages and quality journalism and demoting low-quality content.
  • Site diversity system: This system prevents Google from showing more than two webpage listings from the same site in the top results.
  • Spam detection systems: A range of spam detection systems, including SpamBrain, that Google employs to deal with content and behaviors that violate spam policies.

Retired Google Ranking Systems

The following systems are noted for historical purposes. They’ve been incorporated into other systems or made part of Google’s core ranking system

  • Hummingbird: A vast improvement to Google’s ranking systems that rolled out in 2013. Systems have continued to evolve since then, Google says.
  • Mobile-friendly ranking system: A system that prefers content rendered better on mobile devices. The system has been incorporated into Google’s page experience system.
  • Page speed system: A system introduced in 2018 that gave preferences to content that loaded fast on mobile devices. It has since been incorporated into Google’s page experience system.
  • Panda system: A system introduced in 2011 designed to ensure high-quality and original content. It became part of Google’s core ranking systems in 2015.
  • Penguin system: A system introduced in 2012 that demoted websites with spammy link-building practices. It was integrated into Google’s core ranking systems in 2016. 
  • Secure sites system: A system introduced in 2014 that preferred websites secured with HTTPS. It has since been made part of Google’s page experience system.

Source: Google

Published by Merilyn Ritchie

Merilyn Ritchie is a co-founder and Senior Marketing Strategist at EX Media, where she helps clients of all sizes achieve their marketing goals. She's a skilled craftsperson of top-notch strategies and content, with a proven track record of success in a variety of industries, including small businesses, large non-profits, and tech startups. When she's not conjuring marketing magic, Merilyn can be found in the garden or with her nose buried in a book, fueling her passion for the written word. While she loathes talking about herself in the third person, she's been persuaded to do so from time to time. So it goes. You can catch her latest musings and insights by following her on Instagram at @merilynmcg.