For the past 20 years, the way we all used the internet has been fairly simple: We want to find something, we type it into Google, then Google uses its magic formula to serve up a bunch of relevant links and we click the one that we think is most likely to have what we were looking for.

It turns out that the way those search results are generated is not what Google has been telling us.

As long as the algorithm has existed, Google’s leaders have been actively preaching the ways we should be building our sites and optimizing them to appear in results. They’ve been just as active trying to dispel “myths” about the ways that their algorithm works.

This week there was a major leak where thousands of pages of internal data about how the algorithm actually works were apparently accidentally released. Google has since verified that the files are real, but they have warned about taking them out of context.

So, to get the right context, we turned to the experts (Mike King from and Rand Fishikin from to find out what they’ve learned from all of this new information and how it will affect businesses.

The Big Takeaway

Google cares about mentions and user behaviour more than any other technical SEO factor we can implement. That means brands that get talked about in the media, on social, and on other websites that people actively engage with will always outrank lesser-known sites.

This is a big deal, because it confirms what we’ve suspected for a long time: Big brands have a huge advantage, and it’s not a level playing field for new companies.

What else did we learn?

So What?

If you’ve been frustrated by how hard it is to get a small business website to rank in search engine results, this isn’t good news, but it should be some validation that it’s not your fault.

The surprising lesson from all of this is that PR, social media, and great content that cause people to stick around on our sites will be our best weapons in the fight for search engine rankings. That doesn’t mean we should all abandon our SEO efforts, but it does mean that on-page SEO is only going to take us so far.

Yes, you should still make sure your site loads quickly. Yes, it should work well on mobile devices, but beyond that, it certainly appears that brands focusing on telling their stories will have more success than the ones that stick to the more technical aspects of SEO.

It also means that the next time you see an article that makes a claim because “Google says X,” you should take it with a grain of salt. I don’t believe anyone at Google has been acting maliciously — in fact, in many cases I believe they were trying to prevent scammers from being able to manipulate search results — but there’s no question that we now can’t take SEO advice from Google at face value.