How Do Algorithms Work?

I hear about algorithms a lot, not only by virtue of working in SEO. Algorithms – and talk about them – are everywhere. Most recently, I’ve noticed algorithms coming up in conversation when friends of mine are once again amazed that TikTok showed them a new category of videos that they didn’t even know they loved until the video app put it in front of them.

Algorithms play a significant part in our day-to-day lives, particularly if you spend a lot of time online. Algorithms are designed to understand you, but understanding what an algorithm is, and how it works, can give you valuable insight into why search engines and social media platforms are showing you what they’re showing you, and why that matters.

In this article, we’ll dive into what an algorithm is, how they work, and where you’ve seen them in the wild so you know a little more about them, instead of them knowing everything about you.

What is an algorithm?

An algorithm is a set of instructions to carry out a particular task or solve a problem. When we talk about algorithms, we are generally referring to algorithms in the context of computers and technology. The computer is given the algorithm to carry out a task based on the information or data they receive.

How do algorithms work?

Algorithms can be a simple concept to understand, but complex in their application. First, the algorithm is written. What do you need the computer to do? What information does it need to consider to carry out the task? What is the goal of the algorithm?

Once these things are established, you run this through the computer. The computer will then take in the relevant and necessary information it needs to complete the task and then go through the instructions specified by the algorithm.

In some cases, algorithms do not need to lay out a step-by-step plan for computers, but can instead encourage learning on the part of the computer, and are designed to allow the computer to learn over time, often through pattern recognition, or through the integration AI learning and reasoning into the process.

Where do you interact with algorithms?

If you’re online (which you must be to be reading this), you have interacted with algorithms. Algorithms can be used for organization, “calculation, data processing, and automated reasoning.”

Today, algorithms are not only used to speed up menial tasks or solve simple problems but also provide us with custom online experiences, generally through analyzing our data to find patterns or correlations in what we click on and engage with. If you tend to click on this, you will also tend to click on that. And if you don’t, all the better – each piece of information you give to these algorithms will help them determine what they need to show you to keep you around.

It can be difficult to fully grasp how an algorithm works without using examples, but there are examples all around you. The movies Netflix recommends, the suggested videos from TikTok, the ads you see in various apps – even the results you see in Google search are presented to you by algorithms.

Google’s Algorithms

how do algorithms work

Earlier, we talked about how algorithms can recognize patterns and make decisions about what to show you based on the data at their disposal. Google search has a LOT of data, which it uses to inform its algorithms in general for a better search experience overall, as well as specifically for particular users to better show you what it thinks you are looking for.

The overarching goal of Google’s search algorithm is to give you the best possible results for your search query (or, the phrase you plug into Google).

To do this, Google has determined several ranking factors to help determine where any particular page should rank for a particular search query. Google’s algorithm locates each page, analyzes the page to determine what it is about, and then ranks the page for relevant search queries.

With over 200 ranking factors, consistent updates being made to the algorithms themselves, and significant secrecy around certain algorithm aspects and updates, identifying what Google takes into account to determine a page’s rank in search results is a bit of a guessing game. That said, Google has identified certain factors as key to ranking well:

  • Intent and relevance: the intent of both the search query and the on-page content goes a long way toward ranking well. If your page is not relevant to what the person is searching for, or what the intent behind their search is getting at, it’s likely you won’t see your website populating in results. An obvious example of this is that you won’t see any news about the NBA finals when you’re searching for a recipe for lemon bars. But this can get more nuanced, meaning that the context and tone of your content can determine whether or not your website shows up for a query.
  • Quality content: the quality of the content on your page has a significant and growing impact on where you rank in search results. Content that is fluffy, repetitive, or spammy will not rank well in search results. Google prioritizes content that is unique, informative, and provides value to the user.
  • User experience: this refers to the experience a user has once they click on your page, and encapsulates elements of technical SEO such as page speed (how long it takes a page to load), layout and accessibility of your site, pop-ups, etc.

These are just a few of the key factors that Google’s algorithm takes into account when determining how to rank results in search but can provide context not only to those trying to rank their websites in search, but also to those doing the searching.

Why all the change?

Google updates its algorithm several times a year and can be quite secretive sometimes about what those changes entail. There are three primary reasons for this:

  1. Without secrecy, Google would struggle to maintain its position. Google is the world’s most popular search engine by a landslide, with over 90% of the market share. If the specifics of Google algorithms were made public, there wouldn’t be much keeping Google competitors from implementing key aspects of the Google algorithm into their own.
  2. Algorithms often require consistent updating and maintenance to become more efficient, nuanced, and sophisticated. The central goal of Google search is to provide users with valuable results relevant to their queries. To achieve this goal, Google’s algorithms have to take in several factors related to both web pages, user behavior, and technological trends, requiring Google to update its algorithms regularly.
  3. The more people know, the easier it is to game the system. While SEO is expected and encouraged by Google, too much information about what specifically goes into Google’s algorithm could lead people to inorganically manipulate where pages rank in results, potentially thwarting Google’s goal of providing users with the best, most relevant information possible.

Social Media Algorithms

If you’re on social media, you have also inevitably interacted with algorithms. Algorithms on social media impact the ads you see, the accounts you’re encouraged to follow, and the posts that show up in your feed.

When it comes to social media, the focus of the algorithms is to show you posts or content in an organized and customized way to keep you on the platform as long as possible. While social media algorithms can screen low-quality content, much like Google’s algorithm, what constitutes high- and low-quality can be determined more by what you engage with than the inherent quality or relevance of the content. Social media platforms do have factors that impact where certain posts appear or to who they are recommended, but these factors are not the same as Google’s ranking factors and even differ between social media platforms.

When TikTok, for example, shows you a new video that it thinks you may like, it has taken into account what videos you have watched and liked before, how popular certain videos are, similar or matching video tags to previous videos you have watched, and other relevant factors such as your country location or preferred language.

As with Google, there is some secrecy around social media algorithms, but you can identify over time the factors that seem to be influential.

Why does it matter to know about algorithms?

If you know how someone is thinking through a problem, you better know how to get to the answer. Whether you want to understand how to help your business rank better in search results, or you want to understand why social media shows you certain posts over others, understanding algorithms and the role they play is vital.

For marketers and those trying to improve their company’s online reputation and presence, knowing what Google and social media platforms prioritize and look for when it comes to their algorithms can help you identify where you need to improve your own website to better establish yourself online.

For individuals, understanding algorithms can make you a more empowered online user. As more of our lives move online, how much access algorithms have to our data, and how they use them, is becoming more personal. Knowing why you are seeing something in your feed can help you understand the context and value of why it’s there in the first place, helping you be a more educated consumer online.

The best way to operate in a system is to understand how the system works. Algorithms are only going to get more complicated as time goes on, and learning the basics can be a valuable first step in understanding why you see what you see online.

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