The year 2024 just keeps hitting the SEO world with big news after big news. Hot off the heels of the seismic March 2024 Core Update and the US launch of Google’s AI Overviews, we have another spicy situation on our hands.

On May 24th, a significant leak of Google’s internal algorithm documentation was revealed, shaking the SEO community. The leak was orchestrated by Erfan Azimi, CEO and director of SEO for the digital marketing agency EA Eagle Digital. Azimi, who was not a Google employee, obtained over 2,500 pages of internal Google API documentation and decided to share these with the public.

Azimi’s motivations for the leak stemmed from a desire for greater transparency in how Google’s search algorithms function. By exposing these internal workings, Azimi aimed to empower SEO professionals with knowledge that could help them better understand and navigate Google’s complex ranking systems.

The leaker also lamented the fact that Google has “lied” to the SEO community over the years by issuing statements that seem to be in conflict with the  data in the documentation. By making the documents public, Azimi hopes to enlighten the SEO community on how Google’s algorithms really work.

Azimi initially approached Rand Fishkin, SparkToro  founder and a legendary figure in the SEO community from his Moz days, with the leak. It’s not hard to see why Rand was chosen: he still has one of the loudest voices in the SEO world despite moving on to new ventures and getting him to talk about the leak would amplify its reach in a much bigger and faster way than how it would have been if Azimi just posted it himself.

Recognizing the potential impact of this information, Fishkin brought in Mike King of iPullRank, another prominent SEO expert known for his analytical prowess and deep understanding of search algorithms​. Mike went over the data over a weekend and published his initial impressions here.

To minimize the chances that we’re all being taken for a ride, Rand showed some unnamed ex-Googlers the documentation and some of them commented that the code seems to be in line with what Google uses internally. After Rand and Mike’s initial analyses, other SEOs started going over the documents, bringing us to today where we know the following, but there might be a lot more to the data that remains to be discovered:

What It Is

 

The May 2024 Google algorithm leak provided extensive insights into the internal workings of Google’s search ranking systems. Here’s a closer look at what the leaked documentation is and what it reveals:

a. A Documentation Written in Proto Buffers, Java, and Go Links.

The leaked documents are primarily written in Proto Buffers, a language-neutral, platform-neutral extensible mechanism for serializing structured data. This format is extensively used within Google’s infrastructure to manage data efficiently. Alongside Proto Buffers, the documentation also includes sections written in Java and references to Go Links, which are internal Google URLs used for quick access to internal documents and tools​.

b. A Seemingly Legitimate List of Possible Ranking Signals.

Contained within the leak are over 14,000 attributes that outline potential ranking signals used by Google. These signals cover a wide range of factors, from content quality and user engagement metrics to link analysis and site authority. It is unclear, though, which among these attributes are actively being used  on the live SERPs, which ones are being tested, and which ones are possibly no longer in use.

c. A Confirmation of Generally Accepted SEO Concepts.

Many of the signals detailed in the leak confirm long-standing SEO practices. For instance, the importance of high-quality backlinks, the significance of user engagement metrics like click-through rates and dwell time, and the necessity of fresh, relevant content are all reiterated within the documentation. This confirmation helps validate many of the strategies that SEO professionals have been employing for years​.

d. An Indication That Google Hasn’t Been Entirely Honest with Us.

The leak also suggests that Google has not always been fully transparent with its statements about ranking algorithms. For example, while Google has publicly denied the use of certain metrics like sitewide authority, the documents reveal the existence of a “siteAuthority” score. This discrepancy between public statements and internal practices highlights the importance of taking Google’s public statements with a grain of salt.

Personally, I didn’t really find anything utterly groundbreaking with the leak, but it’s good to know that many of my own suspicions seem to be correct. I’ve long advocated the adoption of a mindset that doesn’t take Google’s word as Gospel truths. Rather, I’ve always encouraged people to discern between factual statements and possible propaganda.

What It’s Not

 

While the May 2024 Google algorithm leak provides valuable insights, it’s important to recognize its limitations and what it does not offer. Understanding these boundaries helps set realistic expectations for how to utilize the information effectively.

a. No Earth-Shaking New Ranking Signals Revealed.

The leak did not unveil any groundbreaking new ranking signals that revolutionize our understanding of SEO. Instead, it reaffirms existing signals and provides deeper insights into their potential use and significance. The focus remains on known factors like backlinks, content quality, and user engagement, rather than introducing entirely new concepts​.

b. No Information on Ranking Signal Weights.

One of the critical limitations of the leak is the absence of details regarding the weighting of different ranking signals. While the documents list numerous attributes that could influence rankings, they do not specify how much weight each signal carries in the overall ranking algorithm. This leaves an unfilled gap in understanding which factors are most influential in determining search results​.

c. No Clear Distinction About Ranking Signals in Use Versus Testing Stages.

The documentation does not clearly differentiate between signals currently in use and those that are experimental or in testing phases. This makes it challenging to determine which signals are actively impacting search rankings and which are merely under consideration or trial.

d. Not a Magic Bullet to Exploit Google’s SERPs.

The leak is not a cheat sheet for instantly improving search rankings or exploiting Google’s rankings. The insights provided confirm many best practices but do not offer a straightforward formula for success. Effective SEO still requires a comprehensive, quality-driven approach rather than quick-fix solutions.

While the May 2024 Google algorithm leak provides insights into the inner workings of Google’s ranking systems, it doesn’t offer definitive answers or revolutionary new techniques. The word “leak” may sound sexy, but you might be disappointed if you were expecting to get naughty with it.

Confirming What We Already Know

 

The May 2024 Google algorithm leak primarily reinforces a lot of time-tested SEO principles. Here are the key takeaways that confirm what the SEO community has long believed:

a. Engagement Signals Matter.

User engagement metrics such as click-through rates (CTR), dwell time, and bounce rates remain crucial indicators of content quality and relevance. If the documentationis to be believed, Google uses these signals to assess how well a page satisfies user queries despite their repeated claims to the contrary. Successful engagement can positively influence rankings, as confirmed by metrics like “goodClicks” and “lastLongestClicks” mentioned in the leak​.

b. Ease of Navigation is Getting More Important.

The leak highlights the importance of a well-structured, easy-to-navigate website. Good site architecture not only improves user experience but also helps search engines crawl and index content more efficiently. Making content not just informative but also easy to skim so users can find the exact information they need is getting more, as evidenced by the way the Helpful Content Update (HCU) and the March 2024 core update rocked the SERPs lately.

c. Title Tags are Still Big Time.

Title tags continue to play a significant role in SEO. The documents mention “titlematchScore,” a metric that measures how well a page title matches user queries.

d. Site Authority Does Exist

Despite John Mueller’s public denials, the leak confirms the existence of a “siteAuthority” score. This metric assesses the overall credibility of a website, influencing how its content is ranked. This revelation aligns with the long-held belief that domain-level signals affect search rankings​.

This is not to say that Google and its reps have been lying through their teeth when they said Google doesn’t use Domain Authority (DA). DA is a proprietary metric from Moz’s site explorer which was developed to mimic how PageRank worked back in the day, so duh, you damn right Google doesn’t use it. However, they likely have something internally that’s DA-like but doesn’t go by the same name.

e. Backlinks Still Matter a Lot.

The importance of backlinks is reiterated and still cannot be understated. High-quality, diverse backlinks continue to be a cornerstone of SEO success. The documents confirm that Google evaluates the quality and relevance of backlinks, reinforcing their crucial role in ranking algorithms​.

f. Seed Sites Exist.

The concept of seed sites, or highly authoritative and trusted websites such as CNN, the CDC, the WHO, etc. is validated by the leak. Links from these sites are given extraordinary weight, and pages closer in link distance to these seed sites tend to rank better. This underscores the importance of earning links from reputable, high-authority sources​ – or at least the websites they link to.

Interestingly, this is the concept that Majestic’s Trust Flow metric is built on. You might want to start trusting that metric more than most others if you’re not doing so already.

g. Fresh Content and Links Make a Major Difference.

Freshness is a key factor in Google’s ranking algorithms. The leak highlights that newly published content and recently acquired backlinks are often given more weight. This supports the strategy of regularly updating content and continuously acquiring new links to maintain and improve rankings​. If you’re a hardcore link builder, this should also give you a hint that you should prioritize acquiring backlinks from new webpages rather than existing ones.

h. Link Locality and Relevance Trump Everything.

Relevance and locality of links are paramount. The leak mentions “localCountryCodes,” indicating that locally relevant links can have more impact than those from other regions. Additionally, the relevance of the linking site’s content to the linked content is crucial for the value of backlinks​. If Google’s algorithms see no contextual relevance between the source and destination pages connected by a backlink, the backlink’s value might be nullified.

i. A Google “Sandbox” Does Exist.

The concept of a “sandbox,” where new or untrusted sites are temporarily restricted in their ability to rank, is confirmed. This is used to prevent spam and ensure only credible sites gain visibility over time. The “hostAge” attribute in the documentation supports this long-debated concept​.

j. Twiddlers Refine SERPs.

Twiddlers, or post-processing functions that adjust search results before display, play a role in fine-tuning SERPs. These functions push down potentially undeserving search results that might have made it past the main ranking algorithms. Conversely, twiddlers may also move up more deserving webpages up the ladder.

k. Text Adjacent to Anchor Text Plays a Role.

The surrounding text near anchor links is used to determine the context and relevance of a link. This means that not just the anchor text, but also the content around it, is important for link evaluation. Ensuring relevant context around links can enhance their value​.

Again, nothing new to see here but at least we can all take comfort that most of us were right to believe in what we believed in all these years even when Google says a lot of it is made up by SEO professionals.

What You Can Do Based on This Info

 

The revelations from the algorithm leak provide several actionable insights that SEO professionals can use to refine their strategies. Here’s how you can leverage this information:

a. Build Sites With Better UI

Given the increased emphasis on user engagement and ease of navigation, it’s crucial to focus on building websites with intuitive user interfaces (UI). Ensure that your site – especially webpages with long form content — is skimmable and easy to navigate. Having TL:DR sections, table of contents with jump links, clear subheadings and intuitive layouts will definitely help.

b. Build Websites Based on Helpful Content Update (HCU) Learnings.

The leak confirms the importance of high-quality, user-focused content. Implement the principles of the Helpful Content Update (HCU) by creating comprehensive, valuable content that addresses user needs and queries directly. Use data and feedback to continually refine and improve your content​ while making sure that your website exudes qualities suggestive of high E-E-A-T.

c. Focus on Localized Backlinks from Reputable Sites.

With the confirmation that local relevance of backlinks plays a significant role, prioritize earning links from reputable sites within your country or region. This can enhance your site’s authority and relevance for local searches. Engage in local digital PR and community outreach to build these connections.

d. Invest in Authoritative Human Authors.

The leak underscores the value of content authored by recognized and credible individuals. Invest in high-quality, authoritative authors who can provide unique insights and expertise. This not only boosts content quality but also enhances trust and authority in the eyes of both users and search engines​.

e. Nothing to Change If You’re a Good SEO to Begin With.

If you’ve been adhering to best practices in SEO, focusing on high-quality content, user engagement, and ethical link-building, there’s no need for drastic changes. The leak reinforces the effectiveness of these strategies. Continue refining and improving your approach based on the confirmed insights, but rest assured that your existing good practices are aligned with Google’s ranking considerations​.

In short, the more that things “change” with Google, the more that things stay the same in the SEO world. As long as your practices are geared towards ethical, human-focused website operations, no major changes to how SEO is done is necessary at this point.