Google’s Reasonable Surfer Patent Updated


Systems and methods consistent with the principles of the invention may provide a reasonable surfer model that indicates that when a surfer accesses a document with a set of links, the surfer will follow some of the links with higher probability than others. This reasonable surfer model reflects the fact that not all of the links associated with a document are equally likely to be followed. Examples of unlikely followed links may include “Terms of Service” links, banner advertisements, and links unrelated to the document.

Google’s original PageRank algorithm is based upon what its inventor referred to as the Random Surfer model, where it ranked pages on the Web based upon a probability that a person following links at random on the Web might end up upon a particular page:

The rank of a page can be interpreted as the probability that a surfer will be at the page after following a large number of forward links. The constant α in the formula is interpreted as the probability that the web surfer will jump randomly to any web page instead of following a forward link.

Years later, some search engineers at Google came out with a newer patent based upon something referred to as the Reasonable Surfer model, which looked at different probabilities involving the likelihood that a person might click upon certain links, and that those probabilities could determine how likely it might be that someone might click upon links to specific pages on the web, and end up at one of those pages.

I wrote about this patent in a post from 2010 which I titled, Google’s Reasonable Surfer: How The Value Of A Link May Differ Based Upon Link And Document Features And User Data

Patents do sometimes get updated by the people who originally file them. These updates often take the shape of changes to the claims within the patents.

These changes may reflect a change in the way that the processes described within the patent operate.

It’s the claims section that is changed when one of these continuation patents is filed, because patent examiners from the patent office look at the claims, and compare those to claims from other patents to make sure that the new claims don’t copy other granted patents, and could be said to infringe those patents.

A continuation patent is called that because it “continues” the protection given by the original version of the patent and is given a date of coverage that begins with the original filing date of the original version of the patent.

The continuation patent is:

Ranking documents based on user behavior and/or feature data
Inventors: Jeffrey A. Dean, Corin Anderson, and Alexis Battle
Assigned to: Google
US Patent 9,305,099
Granted April 5, 2016
Filed: January 10, 2012


A system generates a model based on feature data relating to different features of a link from a linking document to a linked document and user behavior data relating to navigational actions associated with the link. The system also assigns a rank to a document based on the model.

As I pointed out in my original post about the Reasonable Surfer patent, it changes the amount of PageRank that might flow through a link based upon different features associated with a link. If a link is in the main content area of a page, uses a font and color that might make it stand out, and uses text that may make it something likely that someone might click upon it, then it could pass along a fair amount of PageRank. On the otherhand, if it combines features that make it less likely to be clicked upon, such as being in the footer of a page, in the same color text as the rest of the text on that page, and the same font type, and uses anchor text that doesn’t interest people, it may not pass along a lot of PageRank.

So, how has the Claims for this patent changed, changing the Reasonable surfer model?

I’m seeing it refer to anchor text in those claims more frequently, and how much weight might be passed along based upon the probability that people might click upon a link. Here is some language that stands out to me, from the first new claim in the patent:

… a rank for a particular document, generating the rank including: determining particular feature data associated with a link to the particular document, the particular feature data identifying one or more attributes of the link, determining a weight indicating a probability of the link being selected, the weight being determined based on the particular feature data and selection data, the selection data identifying user behavior relating to links to other documents …the weight indicating a higher probability of the link being selected when the particular feature data corresponds to feature data associated with the one or more links than when the particular feature data corresponds to feature data associated with the one or more other links…words in anchor text associated with the links, and a quantity of the words in the anchor text

The claims in the original version of Ranking documents based on user behavior and/or feature data are different, and these newer claims seem to emphasize more that the weight that is passed along by links seems to be based upon the probability that people will click upon a link found upon a page.

It’s no longer a “random” probability, but now seems to be even more “reasonable” than it was even in the first version of the reasonable surfer patent.

33 thoughts on “Google’s Reasonable Surfer Patent Updated”

  1. The fact that Google still works on this patent tells me that links are an important factor for ranking documents. This is strange because a badly linked page can still be relevant if liked by thousands of people on Facebook. If Google can not weigh in such social factors how much of a ranking can it calculate?

  2. Hi Bill,

    I don’t want to open a can of worms, but what do you make of the reference to “user behavior data relating to navigational actions associated with the link”? Do you think they mean what’s generally understood about user behavior, or could it be data specific to a given link or page, that could only be known with access to traffic data?

  3. Hi Bob,

    Good question. I think they are considering calculating probabilities that a link may be clicked upon based upon different features of that link and the more likely a link may be clicked (compared to other links on the same page), the more weight that link might pass along to the page it links to. There is a paper listed in the citations for this patent that is about using log file information to help with ranking pages (I checked on the papers cited, and many of those look interesting, and worth taking a closer look at, if you have time to do so.

  4. Hi Andreas,

    This version of the patent was filed in 2012; and yes, it signals to me that Google published it because they still saw value in links, and might for a while after it was published as well.

    I don’t see Google adopting social endorsements (from any other source than Google+, since they have little information about those endorsements. We someone “Plusses” a page on Google+, Google knows whether or not the person providing that like was logged in, and they have an idea of the location of the person providing that endorsement, and any potential anomalies that might be associated with that account (like simultaneous logins from great distances) or other signals that might indicate attempted manipulations of social signals. Google doesn’t have access to meta data like that about Facebook logins that could help them police bad actors if necesssary.

  5. As an SEO and marketer does this imply the algorithm is, in a way, link-sculpting for us? If not, will nofollw tags still grant some control? I haven’t recently thought that internal linking change is a particularly effective tactic – but it seems like effective on-site changes SEOs can still make to differentiate themselves are dwindling.

    Interesting stuff – thanks, Bill!


  6. Hi Matt,

    This isn’t link sculpting as some people have been trying to do it with nofollow tags; however, it has some similarities. It tells us in the patent that most people aren’t very concerned with a link that has the anchor text “terms of service”, so it’s probably not going to funnel a lot of PageRank through that link. It is doing link sculpting of its own. We probably aren’t helping ourselves any by doing link sculpting; and it’s probably not a good tactic for SEOs to attempt to engage in.

  7. Hey Bill,

    I came for the comments and wasn’t disappointed. I think you should clarify that the probabilities for clicking on a link aren’t determined by Google Analytics data nor benchmarked using GA data. People love to misquote things and then put it out of context.

  8. Have I missed the point here but are Google now implying that good use of effective anchor text is good practice and would help the link pass more weight if it is more relevant compared to other links on the same page? If so surley this will just get abused again and end up a useless tactic?

  9. Hi Victor,

    Good point. When Google states that they might attempt to calculate a probability that someone might click upon one link over another based upon features related to links, such as font sizes, font colors, number of words in anchor text, use of specific anchor text, and so on, they don’t imply in any way that they are looking at Google Analytics data from particular websites to do that, and the patent isn’t implying that in any way. I didn’t not say that because if someone clicks through and reads the patent, there’s no where that is even implied in any way. I agree that people love to misquote and put things out of context. I have to rely upon them to try to be diligent, and to read things and talk about those things responsibly. Thank you.

  10. Thanks Bill. I always come here for updates on Google patents as it’s probably the best place on the web for it. I’m not sure I’ve really understood what they have changed with this though. I thought everyone assumed that they already looked at factors that would affect the probability of a link being clicked on.

  11. Hi Daniel.

    Before the original reasonable surfer patent came out, making an assumption that Google looked at factors that would affect the probability of a link being clicked upon wasn’t the case, and the original reasonable surfer patent steered us in that direction. What this continuation patent does is that it adds to that assumption by stressing that point even more. There are plenty of people who don’t seem to understand that point at all like people who post comments that are completely unrelated to a blog post, and include links within those that most viewers will likely never ever click upon, and the people posting those are making an assumption that if those comments get published that those links will add value to the thing they linked to, when they likely won’t. People are wasting their efforts posting comments like those anyway. 🙁

  12. Hi Bertuah,

    How Google operates to rank web pages isn’t supposed to be easily understood. If you provide answers to questions that your audience might have about the services that you provide or the products that you sell, you’re likely headed in the right direction towards satisfying Google, and the people who visit your site.

  13. Hi Daniel,

    I think it’s a good practice to question things that you don’t quite get – it’s how you learn; so no problems. The whole patent continuation process is a little confusing, especially if you aren’t following rally closely or spent the time comparing really closely the different versions of the claims (which I read over more than a couple of times for this patent.)

  14. Hi Mark,

    Sometimes the algorithms that Google uses go through some changes. We don’t know for certain if Google is using the reasonable surfer model, but they could be. And if they are, then backlinks are still important for ranking in Google. But not all backlinks.

  15. Thanks for sharing a good and worthy knowledgeable post , this post actually ping me that where i am standing in the field of SEO. Thank you for updating my knowledge.

  16. Hi Hubert,

    You’re welcome. The evolution of PageRank over the years is interesting, and it’s difficult to tell with any certainty how exactly it is working; but this seems to point to Google estimating user behavior related to links found on a page that might be used to calculate a probability that someone might click on a link, as a way to determine a weight for that link and how much PageRank it might pass along.

  17. Hi Gaurav,

    That is why I spend time looking at patents – it is possible that how Google works exactly is something that changes a good deal over time. We’ve seen statements from Google spokespeople that Google’s ranking algorithms go through around 600 changes a year, which seems to be a lot, to keep up with.

  18. Once again I would like to point out that the Blog is absolutely fabulous!

  19. Hi Bill, does this mean that with regards to backlinks any anchor text we choose should be really relevant to the contents of the page (assuming that the page content is of interest in the first page), or have I completely missed the point here?

  20. Hi Ben,

    It makes sense for you to choose anchor text that is relevant to what you are linking to – it informs people what they might see if they were to click upon a link to another page; if it didn’t, people might be less likely to click upon links they find on a site.

  21. Hi Bill,

    I find it particularly interesting that you mention uninteresting anchor text as one of the factors that can influence the likelihood of a link being clicked. If indeed this were or is a factor being used to determine the amount of pagerank flow, the challenge would be in determining what renders any anchor text as being interesting. I have noticed that some of the top blogs in the SEO industry often use bland, one word anchor text within their content, but those links can still be found of high interest to the reader because of the words surrounding the link – and indeed the fullness of the meaning of the content presented. I, therefore, am of the opinion that this finding of the lasting significance of deep linking can serve as proof of the importance of producing and/or publishing great content to SEO.

  22. Hi Elisa,

    Interesting thoughts – thanks. The patent itself refers to anchor text used in links, content around links, and the amount of text within anchor text in links as being meaningful in determinations of how much weight might be given to a link pointed to another page. The probability of a link being clicked is what the continuation version of the patent says determines the weight that a link might pass along as PageRank.

    That assessment of anchor text being bland and one-word is one that I’m seeing from you – I’m not sure why you are raising that point unless you are maybe trying to inspire SEO bloggers to choose better anchor text to use to link with. My post wasn’t intended as a critique of how other bloggers in the SEO industry are linking; but it might be something for people writing content to think about when they do link – how likely is it that people will click upon the link that you just inserted into your content? The more likely that people will, the more PageRank that link may pass along.

  23. Hi Bill,

    Although it is true that SEO bloggers should consider the anchor text they use carefully, my point is more for those looking to gain the benefit of the link; it is for those who seek backlinks. As I understand it, Google has updated a patent for ranking pages according to, as indeed you say, anchor text, the content that surrounds it, and the resulting likelihood that a user will click on that link. This is information I find highly useful.

    Of course, earning natural backlinks is an important goal in SEO, but it remains that actively engaging in backlink creation continues to be a key task for anyone looking to boost as web page’s rank in search. To that end, it is up to the person doing SEO to decide from which websites they will seek to get their links.

    My conclusion from your helpful post is that a vital element of deciding where to hammer a digital stake is in considering the logic and skill the writer demonstrates when placing anchor text within the content. For a while now, the cry that “content is king” and that only top-notch quality writing will do has echoed across the digital world in the SEO and online marketing industries.

    And I am suggesting that the traditional definition of “quality content”, that it be relevant, grammatically correct, and reader friendly is insufficient in light of the presented news. Content continues to remain an important cornerstone of search optimization. The modern and most effective SEO writer is therefore one that can take factors like anchor text link engagement probability into consideration and thoughtfully place each link within their writing. He or she must have the talent to write in such a manner as to compel the reader to the link in a most tasteful way – such a content creator ought to be considered in high demand.

    Well, this is my take on the story. After all, I’m reading your post not only as one who works to increase search engine visibility of web pages, but through the eyes of a writer. And moving forward, when I create posts for my own blog or write marketing articles for clients seeking content for backlinks, then I will focus not only on all the usual points of creating quality SEO content, but also on writing in such a manner as to be even more compelling in getting readers to click on the placed in-text link.

    My word to SEO professionals: when hiring a writer to produce off-site or linkwheel content or seeking a blogger to feature a link within one of their posts, be sure to take note of how well that person uses anchor text.

    And as for my mention of the one-word anchor text, I only wanted to point out that it must be quite an interesting method Google uses to determine if the link is compelling enough. After all, one hyperlinked word can be extremely alluring depending on the message that precedes and surrounds it. Taken alone, however, even considering the entire sentence in which it is featured, that text might not seem all that attractive to click on.

    Thanks Bill. Now I’ll be looking forward to your take on it.

  24. Hi Elisa,

    It’s been my experience that people will often link to something you’ve written and use the title you’ve given content as the anchor text pointed to that content; so I would urge people to try to create titles that can also act as strong (and attractive) links to that content. So, create titles that aren’t just relevant, but are also engaging and persuasive. You often have no control over the choice of anchor text that someone might use to link to something you’ve written (or the text that surrounds it.)

    It’s somewhat of a challenge to try to craft titles that can also act as effective links, but it’s worth the effort.

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