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Google algorithm leak: What it means for your B2B SEO strategy

On May 27, 2024, SEO experts Mike King and Rand Fishkin, among others, revealed that Google’s search ranking API documentation had leaked. An automated system published the documentation to a public code repository under an open source license in March. Although the leak has since been removed, copies of it have been distributed around the internet.

The leaked content is dense, highly technical, and limited in important ways. While we have more visibility on which factors Google uses to determine search rankings—some of which are surprising—we don’t know the weighting of these factors. It’s like having a recipe that lists every ingredient but doesn’t provide the quantities or method to complete the dish.

Nonetheless, we’ve gained new and unexpected insight into Google’s ranking system. Let’s look at some of the more surprising insights gleaned from this leak, and how they might impact your B2B SEO strategy going forward.

Clicks and sessions inform performance: user behaviour as a primary ranking signal

It’s long been suspected that clicks impact search rankings. It’s something of a feedback loop that can cement top results. A website ranks highly, gets clicked on, the number of “good clicks” improves their performance, it ranks higher, it gets more clicks…

This leak (as well information exposed during the ongoing Google antitrust case) proved that clicks aren’t just a signal, but a major one.

I’ll reiterate that we don’t know the precise weighting of clicks, but clicks, users, and sessions come up a lot in the docs. We can infer that the number of references to these topics mean they’re particularly important when it comes to assigning rankings.

Insights from the leak

  • Clicks definitely get used to evaluate search rankings, despite some official statements from Google to the contrary
  • Not all clicks are created equal. Google’s docs show ranking factors such as “bad clicks,” “good clicks,” and mysterious “Unicorn clicks.” We can guess that bad clicks hurt rankings, while good and “Unicorn” clicks likely help them.
  • What users do after the click matters as well. SEOs have claimed that metrics like “dwell time”—how long users actually spend on-page after clicking a result—may be a factor in ranking. While dwell time isn’t explicitly described in the report, other factors related to session duration are.

Our analysis

This is something of a worst-kept secret in SEO, but getting confirmation is always good. What intrigues us most is the way clicks get defined. What entails a bad click? A “Unicorn” click?

Bad clicks might be easier to define. If a user clicks your listing but immediately bounces, it suggests they didn’t get what they wanted. That might be a bad click. Given that Google also appears to define good, bad, and Unicorn users, it could be that “badness” follows you around the internet like a bad odour. For instance, known bots and malicious users might be permanently designated as “bad” to prevent them from manipulating search results.

Unicorns are more intriguing. In sales, a unicorn is a prospect that checks off every single box. They’re best-fit clients that are so rare, they’re unicorns. What makes for a unicorn user?

At this point this is just idle speculation, but what if a unicorn user is one that “plays ball” with Google to the greatest extent possible? Someone who never uses an ad blocker, always stays signed in, and otherwise acts as a model citizen within Google’s tracking ecosystem?

This user would provide Google with the most complete picture of their online behaviour. Perhaps this is what Google means by unicorns?

Next steps for B2B SEO

Confirming the importance of clicks and on-page behaviour might refocus your SEO strategy away from content creation and toward experience optimization. SEO should never be about producing low-value content—we’ve always wanted to engage and delight audiences. Sometimes this user-first focus gets lost in the mix of content calendars and technical tweaks. In a click-focused SEO paradigm, we need to grab users with effective headlines, then convince them to stick around once they’ve clicked. For some SEOs, this might be an inverted way of thinking about the challenge.

Browser-based user tracking and Privacy Sandbox: Chrome is king?

Google Chrome is the number one (desktop) web browser in the world. In fact, its underlying framework—Chromium—powers most competing browsers, from Edge to Opera.

It’s a good thing for Google that they have such browser supremacy. As we approach the death of third-party trackers in 2025, the Google-led Privacy Sandbox initiative aims to provide advertisers with tools to target users in a more privacy-friendly way, such as the “Topics API.” Some of these methods depend on tracking tools embedded in Google Chrome. A user in a different browser may not be assigned any topics based on their browsing behaviour, making them less visible to advertisers reliant on the new Topics API.

Within the leaked documents, we see reference to Chrome-specific signals like the total number of views for a page from Chrome users. It’s unclear what the significance of Chrome usage is, but in the context of Privacy Sandbox, it seems like Chrome users may provide higher-quality data to Google. Is it possible that a Chrome user is worth more to your website than users from other browsers, all else being equal?

Insights from the leak

  • Google explicitly analyzes Chrome users differently than they do users on other browsers.
  • The emerging Privacy Sandbox initiative depends on Chrome usage for some tracking and targeting features.
  • Chrome users may therefore be perceived as higher-value from Google’s perspective as they have a clearer picture of their behaviour and interests.

Our analysis

Privacy Sandbox will strictly limit the amount of cross-site tracking that advertisers are capable of. Given Google’s interest in user behaviour when assigning organic rankings and their separate tracking of Chrome users, it raises questions about the importance of Chrome users across all forms of search marketing.

Are Chrome users weighted more heavily? It seems plausible. The separation of Chrome users from others suggests there’s something important about them from Google’s point of view, and I doubt it’s pure brand vanity.

When we discussed user quality in the previous segment, it may be the case that user behaviour across sessions informs their quality. On-device processing like the Topics API is one of the methods Google proposes to balance privacy and trackability, but it only works if browsers support it.

So the question becomes, which browsers will support it and why? Microsoft and smaller browser publishers like Mozilla really don’t have a reason to add Google’s tracking tools to their software. For many, not having these trackers might be a reason to switch! Apple and its Safari browser may have some incentive, as Google pays Apple billions to ensure it’s the default web search for Apple devices.

Watch for a flare-up in the browser wars in 2025. Google will push hard for Chrome usage, while other browsers may push back, suggesting a higher degree of privacy and security as a major selling feature.

Next steps for B2B SEO

Consider exploring browser and device splits. At this point we simply don’t know enough to verify whether there’s something different about Chrome traffic and its impact on SEO. We also can’t really assign particular behaviours or user attributes to Chrome users specifically, making it hard to optimize content and experiences for Chrome. However, knowing is always half the battle. As Chrome usage becomes more significant for digital marketers in the year ahead, tracking Chrome usage is a good first step to understanding what’s to come.

All pages are equal, but some are more equal than others

Fairness, or at least perceived fairness, is crucial to the SEO industry. We want to know that if we do better work than another company in our niche, we’ll reap the reward. Equally, we want to know that others can’t cheat their way to the top and expect to stay there. The whole idea of a search engine is merit-based. The cream must rise to the top!

In practice, it doesn’t work that way. It’s not a completely rigged system, but there are thumbs pressing on scales. Google doesn’t weight every page according to the same rules.

For example, homepages are exceptional in Google’s eyes. They see a homepage as a logical “front door” to your website, a declaration of precisely what you are. Google appears to temporarily apply its ranking score for website homepages to newly published pages on the website until the page ranks on its own merit.

There are also broader content classifications that get handled differently. You may be familiar with “YMYL,” or “Your Money or Your Life.” Google attempts to identify particularly sensitive or risky content, like content that advises on medical treatments or financial advice, handling it with more care and attention than general informational or entertainment content.

YMYL pages (as identified by Google) get subjected to more scrutiny. It’s an attempt to prevent Google from serving dangerous information—a problem they’re dealing with right now as their AI results have been telling users to eat glue and jump off bridges.

In bygone eras, SEOs harped about content and title lengths as though they were legitimate ranking signals. What we see in this leak is that longer content gets truncated, prioritizing the first few paragraphs of an article. Shorter content gets evaluated for uniqueness. Even elements like font size and weight may be ranking factors, albeit likely minor ones.

The leak shows that Google has quite a number of specific categories that contribute to their rankings. Small personal websites are one such category, but we don’t know to what end. Is Google punishing small websites in favour of big and noteworthy brands? Are they trying to make it easier for small websites to grow, creating a more dynamic results page? Whatever the case may be, they track these websites in a separate category. They’re treating pages differently according to each page’s context. That’s meaningful.

Insights from the leak

  • Google prioritizes your homepage. Your homepage’s score appears to be a stand-in for newly published content until it ranks on its own merit.
  • Small websites, websites featuring “risky” content, and other specialized website categories get classified separately. It is not known how these categories affect rankings.
  • Google summarizes long pages, using the first segment of the page to determine its topic.

Next steps for B2B SEO

Work on your homepage. Make sure it’s a great entry point for your website, imbued with relevant context. Consider how you can grow brand awareness—and try to track the SEO impact of any new brand awareness campaigns you try.

When producing long-form content, focus on your introduction. Make sure the first paragraph or three provide enough context for Google to understand your article, because after that it stops reading!

It may be a good idea to classify your own website and frame future competitive analysis by website category, knowing how distinctly Google views each type of website.

Our analysis

Homepages seem to serve as something like a benchmark for your overall search visibility. It’s interesting to consider the implications of the high value of clicks and on-page behaviour combined with the high volume of branded search clicks received by homepages. Clicks seem to matter quite a lot to page rankings, and homepage rankings matter quite a lot to overall visibility.

If we connect the dots, it puts branding and brand awareness front-and-centre. Brand keywords have high CTR and tend to have good engagement. We see the potential for other marketing disciplines to contribute meaningfully to SEO performance by boosting brand awareness.

If you’re looking for a focus area to work on, consider improving your homepage experience. Ensure it’s perfectly relevant to your niche. Create easy-to-navigate pathways from your homepage to key converting content so that users and search engine crawlers alike understand what your site is and how to navigate it.

Long articles are great, but SEOs can’t afford to bury the lede. Consider blog and article formats that up-front useful information so both Google and your users can quickly verify what it’s about.

Content freshness and author profiles

Another finding from the leak is the likely importance of content freshness and author attribution. Both are considered best practice for SEO anyway, but the scope of their import became clearer.

For instance, an article’s date property gets inspected in three ways, comparing the returned value for each. Google checks for a date value in the article, compares it against date values in the URL, and derives further date information from metadata and other sources. This could mean that ensuring alignment across all potential date values will impact page rank.

SEOs are well familiar with a concept Google calls E-E-A-T: Expertise, Experience, Authority, Trust. Until now, it’s been unclear how such a thing could be gleaned. With insights from the leak, it seems that Google really does care about authorship and may use author metadata as a major E-E-A-T signal.

Insights from the leak

  • Dates seem to matter quite a lot, as Google verifies article dates via three separate techniques.
  • Authorship is a tracked signal, pointing to the importance of maintaining good attribution and schema

Our analysis

We don’t really know how deep this authorship and content freshness rabbit hole goes. If properly structured, authorship attribution might be able to follow you around the internet. Can Google understand that your social media posts are part of your E-E-A-T profile, contributing to the value of your authorship page? It’s an intriguing thought.

To be frank, authorship and content freshness are signals we’ve been lazy about, and we plan to change that. It’s easy to become complacent about tagging and structured data that often feels ineffective in terms of moving the meter. If nothing else, this report shows that at least some of that schema directly impacts search rankings.

Next steps for B2B

If you aren’t already, get serious about author schema, author pages, and attribution. Move from publishing articles by [Company Name] or “Contributed” and toward publishing articles by thought leaders at your business, tagged in such a way that Google and your users both know who wrote what. As with any SEO update, take note of what upgrades you made and when. Compare YoY and month-over-month data to see whether it’s made an impact.

Conclusion: SEO is all around us

If we learn anything more about SEO from this huge leak, it will be through the hard work of the industry’s leading analysts and thinkers. Given that we’re missing so much context, all we have today is a list of what-ifs and maybes. In time, and with a commitment to research and testing, the industry may be able to uncover novel, specific, and prescriptive methods for growing search visibility.

For now, we’re left with questions. Leading questions, but questions nonetheless.

One truth that seems evident already is that Google’s ranking factors go well beyond what they’ve publicly disclosed in the past. The official line from Google has always been—and continues to be—to produce good content and the results will follow. Bear in mind that most of the exposed metrics involve identifying quality content. Factors like authorship, content relevance when compared to the rest of your website, and user engagement all speak to better quality making for better SEO results.

As of writing, our leading hypothesis—and our suggested advice to fellow B2B SEOs—is that SEO happens everywhere. It’s not just your website, your backlink profile, and the thoroughness of your content. Offline brand awareness ought to improve SEO performance. In the near future, events that occur in your users’ browser might inform your results, independent of anything you can control directly from your WordPress admin dashboard.

So listen, watch, test, and analyze. Wait for Google’s response to the leak, then take their words with a massive grain of salt. If this API documentation has indeed exposed Google’s “secret sauce,” the SEO world ought to get very interesting through the remainder of 2024.

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