Ranking Systems vs. Ranking Signals

ranking system versus ranking signal

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Have you ever wondered how search engines rank websites? Is it based on a specific set of rules or signals, or is it a more complex ranking system? The answer is not as straightforward as you might think. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a crucial aspect of digital marketing, and understanding how search engines rank websites is vital for businesses and website owners. 


What’s up and welcome to Hack My Growth. Today, we’re going to be looking at the difference between ranking systems and ranking signals when it comes to Google Search algorithms and why the difference between these two things matters to SEOs. 

Google’s Update to Documented Ranking Systems

If you’ve been following anything in the SEO community lately, you might have realized through tweets or blogs you followed that Google has updated its documented ranking systems page. It removed some things from this page, like the page experience system, the mobile-friendly ranking system, the page speed system and the secure site system.

What’s more is on April 19, Google said that it was dropping page experience, saying that it was more of a concept. This has created a lot of confusion in the SEO and web development community. People are wondering, “Do these things matter? Did they ever matter? Where do these things sit today? 

I’ve always been under the impression that, yes, they matter for user experience. However, none of these systems (at least when they were called systems) played a massive role. Every time I would do a SERP study, I would notice sites with bad page experience, mediocre mobility, or sites with poor speed would still tend to rank relatively high.

This has brought some confusion to our industry, and people are looking for clarity. Because of this confusion, Google has been trying to clear things up. On April 28th, they updated their stance, saying that page experience, mobile friendliness, page speed, and secure site ranking were signals but never systems

Danny Sullivan, Search Liaison over at Google, said that “Taking them off didn’t mean that we no longer consider aspects of page experience. It just meant that these weren’t ranking systems, but instead signals used by other systems.” They are signals that other systems would use when taking into account the page or ranking factor was from that specific system. You can read more about this at SEOroundtable. They do an awesome job at covering everything that pertains to Google. 

But to me, there’s still a little bit of ambiguity with the whole deal. Let’s take a look at these different Google systems, and then I’ll show you where you can find them and read more so that you can come to conclusions of your own. 

Google’s Ranking Systems

Google has a number of ranking systems, and these are just a few of them. 

  • BERT
  • Deduplication systems
  • Exact match domain system
  • Helpful content system
  • Link analysis systems and PageRank
  • MUM
  • Neural Matching
  • Passage Ranking System
  • Product Reviews System
  • RankBrain

These are live and still running within the Google system. They have also sunset a number of older systems that they’re no longer using, and each one of these systems contains multiple signals. 

An example is the helpful content system (which Google also just recently updated documentation on) leverages a number of page experience signals. It’s looking at the experience of the page as an aspect of content being helpful. 

Some of the more advanced systems like BERT, MUM, neural matching, or RankBrain are going to focus on entity recognition and things of that nature as signals within the system. Let’s look deeper at some of these and where we can learn more about each system and the signals that are associated with them. 

Inside Google Search Central, you can click the tab called documentation, and inside the documentation will give you a broad guide to Google Search ranking systems. As you can see here, these are all the current systems. You can read more about how search works and how their ranking systems are combined with other processes so that Google can organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. That’s their “mission.” 

The guide shows the different systems – BERT and some others we talked about – and then  some that are retired. Hummingbird, Panda system, and Penguin system drove and built those systems, and the older ones have now been either upgraded or integrated into some of these other systems.

 You can learn more about BERT and the bidirectional coding representation from Transformers and the AI Google uses to understand words and concepts. You can also learn about crisis information, deduplication, exact match domain, freshness system, helpful content, and the like. Check out the guide. It can be helpful. It can also lead you down a big rabbit hole trying to understand these. You won’t get all of them, but what’s cool is you can learn more of the concepts and systems that are running to help inform search. 

We have to take all of these into account when developing a holistic SEO strategy. It doesn’t mean that you have to target these systems, but you do need to have an understanding of the systems that are running the search engines today.

Much of this is implemented using artificial intelligence, and so understanding how that artificial intelligence works and making sure that your content is machine-readable and that it works the way that it’s supposed to is very important. 

If you have any questions about this, I’ll do my best to try to answer those. I highly suggest that you check out SEOroundtable. SEO by the Sea is another great blog that I like to use in order to understand these systems better. If you have a question, please contact us. I’d love to continue this conversation with you guys. And until next time, happy marketing.

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