What is Google’s NavBoost Algorithm?

Dec 12, 2023It Depends - An SEO Podcast, SEO

The SEO world recently was rocked with an answer to a controversial question. Does Google use behavioral metrics in its calculation of rank? The answer is an unequivocal “yes” thanks to recent testimony from Pandu Nayak in Alphabet’s antitrust hearings in the United States. What does this mean? Is this new information? What was actually new here? We’ll dive in.

What is NavBoost?

First of all, it has nothing to do with turn-by-turn directions. NavBoost is a core Google algorithm that uses a 13 month historical view of what users click on in SERPs in order to influence rankings of pages for future queries. It’s essentially boosting rankings based on which links users navigate to. 

The wording of that explanation is important as NavBoost only applies once results have click data. And the 13 month window is theoretically long enough to account for seasonal shifts as well as minimize efforts by SEOs to influence rankings with artificial click behavior. 

Is NavBoost New?

NavBoost is far from new. Nayak noted that this algorithm dates back to 2005. While it’s gone through some iterations, it’s been a core part of Google’s ranking system for the entire time.

Why Didn’t We Know About NavBoost Before?

Well, this is complicated. As mentioned, this was a controversial topic in the SEO world. A number of prominent figures in the SEO community have long declared that user signals (like clicks/bounces/etc) do not influence rankings. Largely this argument is based on the fact that Google publicly stated this to be the case. Unfortunately some folks have been too eager to take Google’s statements at face value.

If CTR were what drove search rankings, the results would be all click-bait. I don’t see that happening.

— 🧀 John 🧀 (@JohnMu) November 4, 2021

The counter-argument supporting the idea often goes back to a test published by Rand Fishkin in 2015 that argues clicks do indeed influence rankings. There’s some pretty convincing data that Rand details, but not enough to convince many people in the SEO community.

But we didn’t need to trust Rand’s data. We really just needed to pay attention to what Google has said whenever they were compelled to tell the truth. 

The NavBoost Breadcrumbs from Google’s past

One of the earliest documented mentions of NavBoost comes from another instance of Google and the US Government getting into a dispute. In a 2012 FTC case against Google, we again see Google representatives telling everyone, under oath, that user signals influence rankings. Summary documents from this case contain the following excerpt: 

“ In addition, click data (the website links on which a user actually clicks) is important for evaluating the quality of the search results page. As Google’s former chief of search quality Udi Manber testified:

“The ranking itself is affected by the click data. If we discover that, for a particular query, hypothetically, 80 percent of people click on Result No. 2 and only 10 percent click on Result No. 1, after a while we figure out, well, probably Result 2 is the one people want. So we’ll switch it.” 

Footnotes from this case even mention the name “NavBoost”. This is the first public mention of the NavBoost name that I’m aware of. 

SEOs that caught this nugget of information may have assumed NavBoost was retired as Google introduced more sophisticated algorithms throughout the past decade plus. But that’s not the case. 

More recent developments

In 2019, Google was in the news again at the center of some leaks by a self-proclaimed whistleblower who was trying to expose political bias in Google’s ranking systems. While all things political got most of the attention, the documents mention that Google needed to implement new systems of identifying and ranking current new events, because breaking news stories did not have NavBoost data to help rank them. [note: because of the controversial nature of the way these documents were made public, we’re not citing our sources here. We hate to say “trust us bro, do your own research”, but it’s the cleanest way to handle this sort of thing in our minds]. 

That’s NavBoost, what about Glue and Slices?

In the same 2023 testimony, the concept of “Glue” arose. If we’re interpreting Nayak’s statements correctly, Glue is a part of the NavBoost algorithm that was likely added more recently to account for different ways people interact with search results. Glue looks beyond just clicks to also track swipes, hovers/mouseovers and scrolls. 

“Slices” is another concept that is part of NavBoost, which accounts for different characteristics of a search query, such as location or device type, which may influence how NavBoost is applied from one instance of a query to another.

NavBoost Exists. We Can’t Deny it. Now What?

Since NavBoost doesn’t apply until after a result starts collecting clicks, the most important thing you can do is try to get clicks (or interactions in SERPs, broadly). 

The goal is not just to rank high, but to get the attention of searchers. Which should always have been your goal. Now there’s validation of the additional feedback loops of improved rankings that will come with that attention.

Here’s some things you can do to try and improve the frequency of those user signals, once you’re ranking high enough:

  • Test page titles against clickthrough rate. Track things like CTAs, word order, etc across large sets of pages to understand what consistently gets the most attention relative to your position in SERPs.
  • Track which search features appear for your target keywords and consider optimizing content to fit what is shown in those snippets/answers/etc. This can help take advantage of those Glue interactions beyond just clicks.
  • Build your brand. If people recognize your brand name when searching, they may be more likely to click to your site compared to someone else that ranks ahead of you.

There are certainly more possibilities to try and drive higher clickthrough/interaction rates, but these are likely the most common options in the SEO world. 

Hear us Discuss NavBoost via our Podcast

We did a podcast episode about this topic where we get into a bit more of the history and give some more perspective on the importance of verifying that NavBoost exists. Take a listen below!

It Depends – Episode 8

In this episode, Jay and Racheal discuss Google’s NavBoost algorithm, which has recently gained attention. They explain that NavBoost is a core algorithm trained on user signals, particularly clicks on search results. They also discuss the concepts of slices and glue within NavBoost. The controversy around clicks impacting rankings is explored, with Google denying it while some SEO experts believe otherwise. The hosts highlight the historical mentions of NavBoost and its importance for search result quality. They provide tips for SEOs to use NavBoost signals to improve rankings, such as building brand recognition and optimizing titles and descriptions. The episode concludes with a reminder not to blindly trust Google’s statements.

Transcript

Jay (00:05.461)

Hello everybody, this is the It Depends SEO podcast. I am Jay as usual. We’ve got a new host with us today. Lindsey is out sick or something. So wanna say hello to Racheal. Say hi, Racheal.

 

Racheal (00:22.358)

Hi Racheal. Oh wait, no. Hi everyone. Ha ha ha.

 

Jay (00:26.353)

How you doing, Racheal?

 

Racheal (00:28.074)

I’m doing well, how are you, Jay?

 

Jay (00:30.177)

pretty good. So Racheal is normally in the land of PPC, so I want to say thanks for coming over to the evil side of SEO, or maybe you’re on the evil side. There’s got to be an evil side in this either way. Thanks for helping out today and joining in. So we’re gonna talk about what, Google’s NAV boost algorithm I guess?

 

Racheal (00:56.386)

That’s what I hear and I’m really excited to learn more about what’s going on in Google land with Nav Boost.

 

Jay (01:04.433)

Alright, cool. Let’s get into it. Where should we start?

 

Racheal (01:08.022)

Well, let’s go ahead and get the background. So what is NavBoost and how did we even learn about it?

 

Jay (01:17.217)

Sure. So this is, if you follow a lot of the SEO news, this has probably popped up on your radar recently. Recently being, we’re recording this in December of 2023. That’s probably important. And Google is going through some antitrust trial in the US and part of the discovery or deposition process, I forget all the legal terminology. Either way, someone from Google is talking to Congress and

 

in going through how their systems work and stuff like that, they brought up the idea of NavBoost being a core algorithm, one that’s been around since 2005, and it is trained on user signals, which they define, and I think it’s pretty easy to interpret, largely means what are people clicking on when they search for stuff and see a Google result page. So it’s this algorithm that

 

impacts rankings once stuff gets clicks and it looks at apparently the last 13 months of activity on whatever that search is.

 

Racheal (02:23.682)

Gotcha. Okay, so sometimes Nav Boost is revered to as glue, right? So what about slices and glue and how do any of those things fit in?

 

Jay (02:35.805)

Yeah, this came up in the talks with Congress, and so slices are apparently like features of NavBoost. So if you think of searching for pizza near me, and the things that Google is gonna rank for that search. If you’re in the Milwaukee area like I am, you’d probably wanna see local pizza places, and whatever’s more popular is gonna get impacted by NavBoost more. If you’re on the other side of the planet,

 

Milwaukee pizza restaurants aren’t gonna be very useful to you. So slices are like these individual characteristics of a query based on like location device type, and there might be more. We could probably guess at what some of those might be. That was the examples they gave. And then glue is kind of funny because they say at one point that navboost is also referred to as glue, but glue is also different than navboost in that.

 

It sounds like Navboost just looks at clicks and Glue is looking at more user data and it’s also incorporating stuff other than just the traditional search results, so SERP features and things like that. So it’s looking at scroll behavior, hovering, you know, mouse over stuff like that, and that factors in as well. So I guess you could probably interpret, like people also ask, that doesn’t necessarily lead to a click, you’re clicking to expanding.

 

but maybe not going to a website and that kind of behavior factors in with, I guess, the glue part of Navboos.

 

Racheal (04:12.014)

All right, okay, well my head’s already spinning, but let’s go ahead and dive in deeper, I guess, because there’s some controversy about the idea of clicks impacting rankings, right?

 

Jay (04:24.805)

Yeah, if you look at any article or social media post prior to October, November of this year, you’re very likely to find people in the SEO world that are very firm in their belief that clicks and user behavior do not impact rankings whatsoever. I can think of a couple, I won’t name names, but some much more prominent SEO folks than I that will actually like go looking for anyone.

 

posting on LinkedIn or Twitter about clicks being a ranking factor and then just getting their mentions yelling at them about how this isn’t true. So the big thing is like Google has denied that this is the case and it’s probably some really funny language on Google’s part where it’s like we don’t look at bounce rate for example because they’re not looking at your web analytics but what you click on

 

and if you go back to the search results and click on something else, that’s effectively bounce rate and they’re measuring that and using it for rankings. So you know you can argue over the words and whatever. But either way, Google has denied this and a lot of folks in the SEO world have said, well Google denies it, we can’t prove it’s true, so it must not be true. There’s some stuff over the years like Rand Fishkin who

 

I think it was called SEO Moz at the time, but either way, formerly of Moz, he did an article in Whiteboard Friday about a big study where they did tests on click-through rate and said that it does impact rankings. This was back in 2015. I think the tricky part about all this is, Google said that they look at 13 months of data. So you can imagine some clever SEOs trying to

 

really influence this by having bots click on a bunch of search results, but if that’s over a short period of time, you’ve got like this additional history factored in, and it’s going to be harder to influence rankings based on just like a short burst of clicks over a couple days.

 

Racheal (06:37.45)

Gotcha. Okay, so if this is such a major algorithm, how has this not been talked about before?

 

Jay (06:46.597)

Yeah, this part is kind of funny, because as I was digging into it, so like one, I’ve definitely heard lots of people claim that clicks and user behavior impact rankings. And it’s just, you know, some folks say it doesn’t, some folks say it does, it’s kind of hard to tell. But like Navboost specifically, if you dig in, you can find mentions to this well before this latest antitrust hearing. So.

 

One was in 2019, there was some pretty famous Google leaks from a insider. This was dealing with like political stuff and how they were responding to fake news and controversies and kind of like urgent stuff, how Google is like an event happened, maybe something tragic, how do we adjust our search results in almost real time? But if you dig into the documents that were leaked, there was stuff about

 

nav boost and how they were using nav boost to kind of detect you know this might be a current event where we need to prioritize what we’re ranking and historical information doesn’t matter you know like if something terrible happened in san francisco you know and people are searching for san francisco and just trying to figure out what it is like clicks on a news article about whatever was unfolding are

 

going to be weighed more heavily in the moment because of a current event, that sort of thing. But even further back if you dig into there was a 2012 FTC case against Google and I’m just gonna pull out a quote from like the FTC summary. So in their documents it says, in addition click data, the website links on which a user actually clicks.

 

is important for evaluating the quality of search result page. As Google’s former chief of search quality, Udi Manber, and I apologize, I probably got your name wrong, but Udi testified, the ranking itself is affected by click data. If we discover that for a particular query, hypothetically 80% of people click on result number two, and only 10% click on result number one. After we’ve done that, we can go back

 

Jay (09:04.713)

while we figure that out, well probably result number two is the one people want, so we’ll switch it. So in like the footnotes of that where the FTC was like digging for deeper information stuff, they actually mentioned navboost by name back in 2012. This was like a popular case summary that you can find PDFs of in a lot of places, but the actual like Google is measuring and changing

 

Jay (09:33.877)

that kind of just got lost in the shuffle and it’s, I couldn’t find people talking about it other than the like one-off really obscure forum comment or something like that didn’t get much attention.

 

Racheal (09:51.106)

Well, little did we know, we just had to look at the footnotes of all these trial documents to find it, right?

 

Jay (09:58.77)

Yeah, no kidding. And I guess the one thing I’ll say is like maybe the SEO community, at least the folks that are on team clicks don’t matter. Maybe they just assume that this could have been a thing back in the early days and now Google is much smarter and doesn’t use this stuff and kind of put that algorithm out of commission. But yeah, back in that 2012 case, they actually, there’s mention that

 

Google disabled NavBoost on a wide scale experiment, and they saw the quality of search results drop significantly. So this was more than 10 years ago, but this was Google admitting that this was really important for the quality of search results.

 

Racheal (10:45.286)

Okay, so how can SEOs use the nav boost signals to improve rankings?

 

Jay (10:52.249)

had the important stuff. So we know this exists, now what? And I mentioned, you know, there’s this long look back window, 13 months, so you, I guess you probably could come up with ways to influence that over time if you want to be spammy, but we usually try and focus on things that, you know, won’t get you in trouble. So one is your brand can definitely be powerful. So if you have a brand that people recognize for like a generic

 

query of a product or service or whatever it may be, they recognize your name, even if you don’t rank number one, that might get you some additional clicks. So I think that’s, you know, on your side, Racheal, good for brand advertising, awareness building, prospecting campaigns, all of those things, like do more display, get more money to Google. But, you know, probably looking at when we increase our brand awareness type advertising.

 

Racheal (11:42.574)

I’m going to go ahead and close the video.

 

Jay (11:50.557)

what do we see in terms of organic click-through rate, brand search volume, all that stuff. Hopefully there’s some positive correlation there. I know I’ve seen that stuff in the past with large-scale display campaigns, TV campaigns, that kind of stuff. So I think that’s one thing, just building your brand name is important. It’s always been important. Here’s just another reason why. I think working on your titles and descriptions is a big deal, especially

 

Experienced SEOs, we like to just pretend that meta descriptions don’t even exist. But if you can use them to increase click through rate, then you can get improved rankings over time. So doing wide scale testing with like calls to action and including different search terms, testing out which terms you’re including and building like a list of best practices. You know, I think

 

A lot of folks have guidelines for just general copywriting and brand tone and that sort of thing, but doing that for titles and descriptions of what works and what doesn’t, probably a good practice to build. Next thing you can do is just look at past results. So Google Search Console is going to be your friend here and say like of the keywords where we rank in the top five or so.

 

which ones have better than average click-through rates? And is that something where you can focus on improving those keywords even more, rank higher and get even just more positive results feeding back? Or can you do something with like evaluating what it is about those pages, like the title and description compared to the query, or just how your service offering is presented in search results? Just something to like try and replicate that.

 

but look for those terms where your click-through rate is beating just your overall average based on where you rank. I think that’s a good thing to dig into and see what you can do. And then, this is always a best practice, but don’t just blindly trust what Google says. Even just not trying to be cynical, like Google’s trying to make money, they’re trying to protect their trade secrets. So if they say like,

 

Jay (14:12.969)

thing is not a ranking factor, but we have evidence that it is. I mean, go with the evidence, go with your gut.

 

Racheal (14:23.734)

Always a good call.

 

Jay (14:25.777)

Yeah, you see plenty of this on the advertising side. There’s a lot of things that, I mean, we love our advertising partner at Google. They’re great. Don’t stop helping us, Google. But yeah, they’ve been known to push some things that maybe are good for spending more ad dollars and not necessarily good for getting clients more revenue or customers.

 

Racheal (14:38.887)

Please don’t.

 

Jay (14:52.489)

Yeah, so I think that’s it. I mean, NavBoost, we have like testimony under oath. It is a thing. Clicks matter for rankings. They have for a long time. This is not something new. You know, it’s evolved over the years apparently, but this has been an important algorithm for almost 20 years at this point. Google has emphasized over the years that this is one of their more important

 

Racheal (14:52.904)

sure.

 

Jay (15:22.065)

you know, we talk about like they rolled out core web vitals and how much you need to panic over that, and maybe a little bit, but I think we’ve seen that it’s not like the most important thing in the world in terms of your actual rankings, but I don’t know, I’m not going to put a guess out that this is like top three or something in terms of ranking factors, but it seems like it’s up there, and it seems like there’s some, you know, tests that

 

folks in the SEO community have done that support that, and we just kind of largely minimized the importance of those tests. So navboost is, I don’t know, it’s not here, it’s been here, it’s a thing. So focus on what you can do to increase click-through rate, and you know, maybe don’t get so aggressive about claiming that certain things are or are not ranking factors.

 

Racheal (16:22.894)

There you go.

 

Jay (16:24.029)

All right, let’s wrap it up. I don’t, if you’re listening to these things as they come out, I don’t know if you’re going to get another podcast in before the holidays come. So Racheal, I’ll talk to you, but happy holidays and happy holidays. Everyone else. Thanks for filling in again. We’ll talk to you all soon.

 

Racheal (16:37.322)

Happy Holidays Day!

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