The Search Engine Rankings Formula Revealed… Sort Of

Unless you have an advanced mathematics degree, figuring out how Google and other search engines rank websites is a mystery. This blog post can help you figure it out.

I must confess: I don’t know the secret algorithms that control search engine rankings. Nobody does, except for the engineers who maintain them. More importantly, the ranking algorithms are undoubtedly so complex that it would be futile for someone without an advanced degree in mathematics to understand them even if they were sitting right in front of us.

If you listen to SEO circles long enough, however, all of the noise eventually forms a pattern. A general model, if you will, of how rankings are computed. The best part of all is that, compared to the impossible complexity of the real thing, all you need in order to understand this search engine rankings formula is a basic understanding of algebra.

  • Ranking(Term) = Authority(Term) x Relevance(Term)

Simple, right? How well you rank for a given term depends on your authority for that term times your relevance for it. Take a moment to digest that. It’s simple… elegant even. At the same time, to understand rankings, you have to understand authority and relevance.


Your authority for a given term depends on several factors. The number and quality of inbound links to your site are among the most important. The more of these you have, and the better their quality, the higher your site’s authority. This isn’t just a matter of “juice,” though. The best links for your site will be links from websites that are topically relevant to the term in question. That is to say, your authority for one term will be higher than your authority for another depending on who’s linking to you and how they’re doing it.


If you’ve ever heard people talk about meta tags and keyword density, you’ve gotten a taste of what it means to be relevant in SEO. Making sure to use the right terms in the right places on your site helps search engines figure out the subject matter for which your site is relevant. That means putting keywords in your title tags, meta tags, header tags, link text, body copy, etc. that accurately reflect the information being presented.


You may have missed it. Take a look at the formula again and notice that the relationship between authority and relevance on rankings isn’t additive… it’s multiplicative. That is to say, improving either side of the equation helps you rank, but improving both is geometrically more effective.

Consider what you see in search results on a day-to-day basis. You may see a big news site ranking highly on a search related to one of its articles. The article is only somewhat relevant, but the site as a whole has a great deal of authority. Right next to it, you may see a small niche site that is highly relevant for your search. It doesn’t have much authority, but it still ranks next to the news article.

If you check the top results for the search, you’ll often find the best of both worlds, sites that are both authoritative and relevant. A site like this may not be as authoritative as the news site, or as relevant as the niche site, but it will often have enough authority and relevance to outrank them both. Let’s consider why with the following (vastly oversimplified) example.

  • News Site = 10 (Authority) x 2 (Relevance) = 20
  • Niche Site = 2 (Authority) x 10 (Relevance) = 20
  • Your Site = 5 (Authority) x 5 (Relevance) = 25

See what happened? Your site is half as authoritative as the news site and half as relevant as the niche site, but you still come out ahead.

Balancing the Equation

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that neither authority nor relevance are king when it comes to search rankings. You can focus on one or the other and get mediocre results, or you can improve both and achieve outstanding results. If you would like help sorting out any part of this exercise the SEO specialists at TheeDigital can help.


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