Google’s Latest Algorithm Update + A Layman’s Guide to Search Engines

Zac Heinrichs

The Google algorithm has changed! I repeat, the Google algo has changed!

Quick, grab your laptop, an emergency thermal blanket, and lock yourself in that bunker with a six-month supply of soylent!

Wait… that’s not a surprise at all… Google has said time and time again that there are changes made daily. This time around, however, it was a “broad core algorithm update” that is widely confirmed to have rolled out last week.

But fear not, this update is not one that’s penalizing sites for anything necessarily.

“Instead, it’s that changes to [Google’s] systems are benefiting pages that were previously under-rewarded.”

So, good news for good websites that weren’t getting full credit for being amazing and bad news for sites that were benefitting from the plight of others

Also, if you’re not already, I highly recommend you follow @searchliason on Twitter for official tweets from Google’s public liaison of search, @dannysullivan. It’s a new era of transparency from the Googlers. Well, maybe not transparency, but perhaps less opaque.

But while you’re here, and still coming down from the mild panic that follows most search algorithm updates, let’s talk about what’s really going on here, in terms that more marketers can actually understand from Portent client partner Justin Brasser.

How Search Engines Work: A Layman’s Guide

Some people make it their entire life’s work to understand exactly how Google’s algorithms work. This post is not for those people.. As a matter of fact, those folks will probably be writing angry letters about the nuanced parts of search engines that we’re not going to cover, or the examples we didn’t give.

Instead, this one goes out to digital marketers of all shapes and sizes, executives, interns, writers, project managers, and designers. Because SEO is important for you too.

SEO can seem incredibly complex, but don’t sweat the technical stuff. You don’t need a complete understanding of Canonicalization, Structured Data Markup, or JavaScript Indexing. There are experts for that stuff.

However, everyone on your team should have a general understanding of how search engines work, why it’s important and what they can do to contribute to SEO.

How Search Engines Work

You don’t need advanced technical knowledge of SEO or years of experience to understand how search engines work. Basically, the search engine process can be broken down into three main components: Crawl, Index, and Rank.

Crawl – Search engines deploy crawlers, or spiders, that scour the publicly accessible internet, following links to discover new and updated pages. They scan and record the source code and content of a website, compiling a vast web of data.

Index – The index is the giant digital library where all the data collected by crawlers is stored and organized. When you do a Google search, you are not technically searching the internet. You are searching Google’s index of pages on the internet.

Rank – On the surface, this is fairly straightforward. For any given query, a search engine displays a list of webpages with the most relevant information on top. Below the surface, a complex series of algorithms works to analyze the query against hundreds of ranking factors and rank related pages to best satisfy the intent of the users’ query.

Why is understanding SEO important for marketing?

This can seem terrifyingly complex and technical when you dive into the details. However, marketers should be confident if they have a basic understanding of the way search engines work. All marketers should be generally fluent in SEO, be able to effectively communicate with the experts on their team, and ask the right questions.

Google absolutely dominates the search landscape. It’s the 800-pound gorilla in digital marketing. Every day, average people perform billions (BILLIONS!) of searches using Google’s algorithm. This is no accident. Google has embraced a simple purpose from the beginning.

Google Search’s Mission: “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Google’s entire business model depends on users having a great experience and coming back to search again; it needs to keep users happy and provide value to both searchers and marketers. Google’s search algorithm starts by analyzing the text of a search query using advanced natural language processing to determine exactly what the user is looking for. Then the algorithm finds relevant content in the index and ranks that content in order, again based on hundreds of factors.

All digital marketers should understand be familiar with these factors. Google does not make their proprietary algorithm public, but SEOs make it their business to measure and understand it. Search Engine Land’s Periodic Table Of SEO Success Factors is a great overview of the things that we know will have an impact on where your site ranks. It looks at on-page and off-page factors that impact the success of a site in rankings.

You should be able to judge how your site measures up in each of these categories and follow best practices when adding new pages and content to your site.

Broad Elements That Drive Performance Within Search Engines


Keyword research is important to have a solid understanding of what your target audience is searching for, and how they most commonly phrase those searches. Keyword data and analysis should guide your editorial process. It should guide your keyword choices for all on-site SEO elements, help with content ideation, and can help you answer relevant questions that your audience is asking. While you would never want to simply write a blog post that had nothing to do with your business in order to target a keyword that had a lot of searches per month, aligning what you write about and how you write it with your audience’s interests and lexicon is a great idea.

For this reason, answering useful audience questions is a great method to rank for specific long-tail queries. Answer the Public is a great resource for researching questions relevant to your business or product to answer. If you need more research tools for creating great content, this post from Portent’s content team lead Katie McKenna will blow your hair back.

Moreover, formatting your content to answer specific questions is increasingly important in a world with voice search and provides the opportunity to appear in Google’s Knowledge Graph, voice search answers, and the answer box at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs).

There’s no specific guidelines to follow for the length of your content. Instead you should focus on providing in-depth and relevant information. To stay at the forefront of thought leadership in your industry, dive into keyword research, and create high-quality content that satisfies your audience’s intent when they visit your site.

Site Infrastructure

Make sure the technical infrastructure of your site is solid. This will provide a solid foundation for all your marketing efforts, not just organic performance.

Your site needs to be easily accessible to crawlers and your site’s code should be simplified for crawl efficiency. Crawlers dedicate a limited budget of time and bandwidth to crawling your site. So, the most important pages should be clearly identified and linked to from your primary navigation.

Make sure your site works well on all mobile devices. This is increasingly important. Soon, Google will begin indexing the mobile versions of sites first. Google’s search algorithm will primarily use the mobile version of your site for determining where it ranks.

Websites need to be fast to satisfy both impatient users and impatient search engines. Faster pages provide a better UX and contribute to a higher conversion rate. You may not be able to make major changes on the server side, which can contribute to much faster site speed, but there are things you can easily implement to speed your site up.

For a deep dive into creating a blazing fast site, check out our Ultimate Guide to Page Speed.

Images contribute to a significant portion of the time it takes to load a website. Images can be easily compressed so that they load faster without appearing any differently to the naked eye.

Some quick examples.

Images make up a significant portion of the time it takes to load a website. Images can easily be compressed so that they load faster without any difference to the naked eye.

All websites should be secure. If you’re using http instead of https, you need to fix this ASAP. Google will begin to mark all sites that have not migrated to HTTPS as not secure in Chrome browsers this July. Portent’s architects put a brief test together to help you determine if it’s worthwhile to move your site to HTTPS. The short answer is YES.

Technical SEO Best Practices

There are a handful of HTML elements which you control that are known ranking factors and are simple enough for every marketer to understand and implement, regardless of your role. Lean on the experts for the rest.

Title Tags are the first thing users see in a SERP. They’re displayed as the primary link and title on SERPs as well as on top of each browser tab. These should be specific and unique to every page on your site.

Make sure all content is organized under relevant headers. This helps search engines to understand and interpret the main points of your content.

Meta Descriptions are the summary of a webpage that appear below the title tag in SERPs. These should be fully descriptive, yet clear and concise. They are not an especially significant ranking factor, but they are important for engagement. Users need to be able to judge whether your site will provide the information they’re looking for quickly. Test your titles and descriptions and see how they’ll look in search results with our SERP Preview Tool.

Structured Data – Implement structured data using Schema markup. This gives search engines the ability to understand your content and provide relevant information in a easily digestible format on the SERP.

Images & Videos – Search engines cannot effectively view and interpret images, videos, or any non-text content, yet. So, all non-text elements should have descriptive alt attributes that give context to search engines.

Off-Page Factors

Links that point to your site are a signal that your content is useful and relevant to others. The more authoritative and respected a site that links to you, the better the signal. This also works in reverse. Links from sites that have been flagged for abusing links or are low-quality can hurt your site’s authority.

The length of time users spend on your site and how much they measurably engage with the content is another factor. Test and optimize your most important and highest converting pages to increase engagement. Iterate and improve, always.


Google will never give us all the details and that’s probably a good thing. It keeps us on our toes and forces us to keep learning. However, they will drop hints. When asked what the most significant ranking factor is, John Mueller, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, replied “Awesomeness.” At the end of the day, Google’s goal is to provide the best possible results for its users. So, you need to be focused on your audience.

Portent has a motto. We strive to be Weird, Useful, and Significant. This means that we should stand out from the crowd and appeal directly to your unique audience. You should provide useful and relevant information and do work that matters in your industry.

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