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Darwinism and Google SERPs as Product: Review of How Search Works

Darwinism and Google SERPs as Product: Review of How Search Works

On Google’s July 29 Search Off the Record podcast, Gary Illyes explained how rich elements get their place in search results.

In doing so, he confirmed what he had told a room with SEO professionals in Australia in 2018, which was the basis of my article on Darwinism in search in 2019.

I wrote that article from memory in a pub a few hours after hearing Gary’s explanation and filled in the gaps – things he did not explain or which I had forgotten – with some guesswork.


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Not all my guesses were correct. But from what Gary has just shared, it looks like I was close.

This article inspired me to dig deeper and go to Seattle to interview algorithm teams from Bing (see below).

Since the Bing team is more open than Google, we gained great insight into the mechanics of how search engines work.

In that series, I suggested that since the technology, the data, the audience, and the ultimate goal are the same, what people at Bing shared with me could broadly (and helpfully) be applied to Google.

Now, of course, we cannot assume that every detail is the same.

But in the Search Off the Record podcast, Gary confirms that search engines work pretty much the same way.

Search engines work the same way

Explaining how Universal Search works and how search engines build the final search results page (SERP), Gary said:

“It’s not Google specific. Other engines do too, and because most search engines rank results in much the same way … this probably applies to all search engines … ”


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This brings the Bing series into better focus and suggests (for me at least) that reading these articles is a wise investment in your time.

How Google Search Ranking Works: Gary Illyes, Google (Darwinism in Search) How Bing Works at Bing: Frédéric Dubut, Senior Program Manager Lead, BingDiscovering, Crawling, Extracting and Indexing at Bing: Fabrice Canel Principal Program Manager, BingHow Q&A / Featured Snippet Algorithm Works: Ali Alvi, Principal Lead Program Manager AI Products, BingHow the Image and Video Algorithm Works: Meenaz Merchant, Principal Program Manager Lead, AI and Research, BingHow the Whole Page Algorithm Works: Nathan Chalmers, Program Manager, Search Relevance Team, Bing

Bing series 2

And good news – Frédéric Dubut and Fabrice Canel at Bing have, in principle, agreed on another Bing series with me in September. They are both incredibly smart and lovely people, so I can not imagine the series being anything but wonderful from all perspectives. Stick around.

There is a “SERP Anatomy” algorithm on Google

When the idea was first presented to me by Nathan Chalmers, it seemed so obvious, and I was quite ashamed of not having thought of it before.

There must be an algorithm that builds the “product”. Pure Darwinism can not work in a commercial world.

Bing and Google need to implement an algorithm to build the universal result (i.e. integrate the rich elements into the basic list of blue links). This algorithm is tasked with building the best possible product based on the candidates offered by the various verticals (blue links, videos, featured excerpts, images, related searches, ads, podcasts, etc.).

This algorithm is built solely to evaluate the pros and cons of each candidate set in relation to the user query, and the extent to which their inclusion will add value to the SERP in its ultimate goal of serving the purpose of the user’s search query.

Reminder: The basic goal of SERP is to give the user the best solution to their problem / answer to their question, as efficiently as possible.


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At Bing, they build the anatomy of the SERP with what they call “The Whole Page Algorithm.” And ironically, it has a component called Darwin.

Gary Illyes and John Mueller refer to it rather obliquely, calling it funny “Super Search Engine” (John) and “Universal Mixer” (Gary), but actually confirming its existence at Google.

I stick to the whole page algorithm, at least for now.

It is important that Gary confirms what Nathan Chalmers from Bing told me: Although clickthrough rate is not used in the algorithms that drive the ranking, they are an important component of the whole page algorithm.

Here is a quote from the Nathan Chalmers article:

At SERP, user behavior is a very, very important metric for the whole page algorithm.

The success of errors in any combination of blue links and rich elements is measured by how the user interacts with it.

So clickthrough rate does not affect placements in the ‘traditional’ sense, as we have tended to understand.

On-SERP behavior does not affect the blue link rankings or the bids submitted by the candidate sets that aim to replace them.

But they are a very big part of how the whole site is organized.

User behavior on the SERP is traced back to the algorithm (Darwin), which provides the machine with the corrective or amplifying signals it needs to improve its performance.


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So when Googlers tell us that clickthrough rate is not used in the ranking algorithm, they are telling the truth.

But the question is more nuanced than that.

It does not affect the ranking, but since the whole page algorithm is largely user behavior based, it massively affects whether a potentially rich element is displayed on page 1 or not.

At Bing, one part of the entire side algorithm has the right to promote, demote or veto any results offered by the other algorithms.

This algorithm is called Darwin.

In the podcast, it seems that Illyes attributes less veto power to the whole page algorithm in Google. Google’s entire page algorithm may be less powerful.

Because it is essentially designing the Google product and therefore has a commercial focus (see below), I think it has a similar level of power and Illyes is just boring.

But the big takeaway here is that both Google and Bing have a “Super Search Engine” that designs the SERP’s anatomy based on a wealth of user signals (including clickthrough rate) and also human feedback (think quality ratings that focus on the SERP anatomy).


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This concept of a whole page algorithm is fundamentally important to us as SEO professionals. And if we are wise, it should change our approach to SEO. It definitely changed mine when I first learned about it!

Packing your solutions so Google recommends them

I repeat this phrase to myself every morning:

“The art of SEO is to wrap your content to fit Google’s SERP product.”

In connection with the modern multimedia -SERP, this means:

Provides the best and most effective solution to the user’s problem. Delivers this solution in the most appropriate format for that user in their current context. Packaging the content to fit Google’s product (SERP).

And in that context, this approach makes sense:

I provide the solution to a problem expressed by the subset of Google users that is my audience. I ask Google to recommend my solution as the best answer for their user in this user’s current situation. What can I do to convince Google to recommend my solution over the solution offered by my competitor?

The answer to the third point is relatively simple and based on three pillars: Understanding, Credibility and Deliverability.


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Nail all three, or give up and go home.

The SERP is Google’s product

I missed the importance of one thing Nathan Chalmers mentioned in passing a year ago. His algorithm is exclusively designed to build the “Bing product” (AKA, SERP).

I had assumed it was the same with Google, and from what Gary Illyes said, that seems to be the case.

So a change in perspective is helpful. Both Google and Bing (actually all search engines) offer a freemium product: SERP.

And that changes my three pillars. Instead of understanding, credibility and delivery capability, we look at understanding, credibility and suitability.

This means that your content is suitable to be integrated into their product and is offered as a solution to the subset of their users, which is your audience.

Delivery ability is of course part of that suitability. But the concept of Viability is too narrow and does not emphasize SERP as a product.

How does Google monetize its “SERP product?”

I really want to insist here that when I say product, I am not in any way talking about Google Ads or your products / services or commercial offerings that Google and Bing show in their SERPs.


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SERP is the product of the search engine. This is what drives their revenue.

Basically, we have three approaches and three wins for Bing and Google. I’m probably missing a few tricks here, so feel free to ping me on Twitter with everything I’ve been missing:

Search users “pay” by providing Google and Bing with revenue-generating behavioral data. Advertisers pay for clicks on countless ad items. SEO, companies and other creators pay through the delivery of content that populates the SERP in hopes of appearing as one of the recommended solutions.

Google SERP as product = ads

No. And “no” again 🙂

It is incredibly important to keep in mind that the product is a freemium model. Google aims to help its users solve their problem, and they aim to make the process as efficient as possible, whether or not they get an instant financial return (ad click).

The vast majority of searches do not result in an ad click. If you look at it on a search-by-search basis, then it makes no sense.


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If you look at it from the perspective that each search result costs Google peanuts, then the calculation is simply that (these numbers are 100% invented) 2% of paid clicks on the 10% of commercial queries pay both free and paid-by- an ad-click-use.

In the context of SERP as a product, Google and Bing train the entire page algorithm to find the ideal balance that both earns the user and makes Google money.

It’s not on the basis of individual searches, but of “some keywords will pay, most will not.” It is key to ensure that the user finds their solution effectively.

A user-focused Freemium product powered by the entire page algorithm

Google Ads competes like any other rich element. If the ad can not effectively and efficiently bring users’ satisfaction with their search (intent, geo, device …), Google will not show it.

All of Google’s algorithms in the many verticals offer their best candidates (hence the term “candidate set”), but the whole page algorithm designs the freemium SERP product and has absolute veto and advertising power.


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The whole page algorithm is the keystone for Google and should therefore also be a super important focus for SEO professionals.

Whether it means looking at clickthrough rates, perceived intent, ad customization, appropriate format, device compatibility, or one of many more factors, the ultimate “suitable-for-our-product” filter can create or break even the best-optimized content. you create.

Blowing in my mind every time 🤪

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Image credits

Images in the article created by Kalicube, August 2021

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