There are 19 notable active ranking systems that Google uses to organize information by relevance, usefulness, and accessibility. These ranking systems work in sync with other Google processes behind the scenes, attempting to ensure that Google Search delivers the best response to user queries in the quickest amount of time. Together, they work hand-in-hand to make Google as user-friendly, helpful, and intuitive as it can be. That’s no small task.
Of the 19 ranking systems at work, there are 5 stand-outs that search engine optimization (SEO) professionals should understand better. These ranking systems are fascinating, and they’ve come a long way in helping Google adapt and understand users’ search habits.
What’s a Ranking System & How Does it Differ from an Update?
Google recently released a guide to Google Search Ranking systems, and the notable difference is in how what would traditionally be called an “update” is used. In the old days, just about every change was labeled as an “update” — including the addition of a ranking system to Search.
Going forward, “updates” will now refer to one-and-done changes to the algorithm and various Google processes, whereas the term “ranking systems” will help distinguish systems that are continually running. To reframe the distinction, on December 5, Google released a few “updates” to its more recent helpful content ranking system. While changes are made to and within the helpful content ranking system, the existing system continues to operate, albeit with tweaks and enhancements to its process.
While this may sound confusing, the distinction serves to parcel out Google’s many updates and changes going forward, and it means that those who work in SEO should pay closer attention to any new Google Search changes described as a new, added, or retired ranking system. It also means that any updates assigned to existing ranking systems can better inform marketers as to where sites may feel the biggest impact and where Google is placing priority.
With SEO, information is the name of the game, and we’ve picked the five ranking systems we think are both fascinating and can tell us the most about Google’s priorities.
The “Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers,” or BERT, is an AI system that understands that the sequence of words in a Google Search query matters, not just the words themselves. With BERT, Google Search is able to understand the intent behind combinations and patterns of words and better deliver results based on that intent. Since its addition in 2019, BERT has been heavily relied upon to pay close attention to small, previously ignored words and prepositions surrounding a keyword and more accurately decipher what, specifically, users are searching for.
The helpful content ranking system, which was initially rolled out in late August 2022 and is being updated again as we type, aims to reward sites that offer helpful, original content that puts users first over keyword ranking. It’s Google’s response to the dominance of aggregate sites in Search results, as the helpful content system prioritizes original, targeted content that answers questions and delivers information that users are searching for over a scattershot of short, unhelpful content designed for the purposes of ranking. In SEO, it’s easy to work in as many keywords as possible into a piece of content, but the helpful content ranking system rewards the opposite approach, giving a boost to content that stays on topic and offers a better user experience. For tips and tricks on how to write content that’s helpful, check out our article “Top 10 Ways to Create Authentic Content.”
The “Multitask Unified Model,” — AKA MUM — is similar to BERT in that it’s an AI system, but it’s much more powerful and has yet to reach its full potential. MUM has an understanding of more than 75 different languages, and it can extract meaning from text, images, and video content. We touched on MUM as a trend to watch in SEO in “4 SEO Trends in 2022 to Renew Your Focus on in 2023,” but to cut to the chase, MUM can identify whether images/videos are related to the focus or intent of any given page. It’s a ranking system that helps Google identify whether an image adds to the helpfulness and usefulness of a piece of content or if that visual aesthetic is merely there for show.
The Page Experience system sounds like a no-brainer, but there are many factors that play into what makes a positive “page experience.” This Google ranking system looks at page speed, mobile-friendliness, interstitials (think “annoying pop-ups”), whether or not a page has the appropriate security, and Core Web Vitals. All of these elements can affect a user’s experience on a site, and in turn, a poor page experience can result in a decrease in ranking. For more on this, check out “Why Page Speed is Important to SEO and Online Marketing.”
RankBrain was Google’s first AI ranking system, implemented way back in 2015, and it is still key to Google’s understanding of how words and concepts are related. Much like BERT, the idea behind RankBrain follows the notion that different word pairings can take on entirely different meanings. The goal of RankBrain is to fill in the gaps when a user searches for something, pulling from information across the web to infer meaning or a concept of what a user is searching for. For example, if someone were searching for the name of a “leader,” depending on what followed or preceded the term “leader,” RankBrain would provide vastly different results. By itself, the term “leader” is vague, but when paired with words that indicate either a certain country or business, the RankBrain system helps Google deliver results focused on the idea or concept behind what the user was initially searching for.
We find these five Google ranking systems to be some of the most fascinating of the 19 in play now. In addition to these, the spam detection and page experience systems are likewise critical to understanding Google’s priorities in judging whether content deserved to rank highly in organic search. Make sure to visit Google’s guide to its ranking systems to learn all you can about its systems.
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