Search engines work by crawling hundreds of billions of pages using their own web crawlers. These web crawlers are commonly referred to as search engine bots or spiders.
A search engine navigates the web by downloading web pages and following links on these pages to discover new pages that have been made available.
How Do Search Engines work?
A “search engine” is several interlinked mechanisms that work together to identify pieces of web content — images, videos, website pages, based on the words you type into a search bar. Site owners use Search Engine Optimization to improve the chances that content on their site will show up in search results.
To be effective, search engines need to understand exactly what kind of information is available and present it to users logically. The way they accomplish this is through three fundamental actions: crawling, indexing, and ranking.
Through these actions, they discover newly published content, store the information on their servers, and organize it for your consumption. Let’s break down what happens during each of these actions:
- Crawl: Search engines send out web crawlers, also known as bots or spiders, to review website content. Paying close attention to new websites and to existing content that has recently been changed, web crawlers look at data such as URLs, sitemaps, and code to discover the types of content being displayed.
- Index: Once a website has been crawled, the search engines need to decide how to organize the information. The indexing process is when they review website data for positive or negative ranking signals and store it in the correct location on their servers.
- Rank: During the indexing process, search engines start making decisions on where to display specific content on the search engine results page (SERP). Ranking is accomplished by assessing a number of different factors based on an end user’s query for quality and relevancy.
What is a search engine algorithm?
Discovering and indexing content is merely the first part of the puzzle. Search engines also need a way to rank matching results when a user performs a search. This is the job of search engine algorithms.
Each search engine has unique algorithms for ranking web pages. But as Google is by far the most widely used search engine (at least in the western world), that’s the one we’re going to focus on throughout the remainder of this guide.
What is The Aim of a Search Engine Algorithm?
The aim of the search engine algorithm is to present a relevant set of high quality search results that will fulfil the user’s query/question as quickly as possible.
The user then selects an option from the list of search results and this action, along with subsequent activity, then feeds into future learnings which can affect search engine rankings going forward.
What happens when a search is performed?
Let’s walk through how search engines answer queries step-by-step, from the moment you type a term in the search bar.
1. Search Engines Parse Intent
Google knows that people perform searches for a reason, and that understanding this reason helps them return better search results and creates more satisfied users.
To return relevant results, search engines have to “understand” the search intent behind a term. They use sophisticated language models to do that, breaking down your query into chunks of keywords and parsing meaning.
Search results also use “freshness” algorithms to understand searcher intent. These algorithms identify trending keywords and return newer pages. You’ll see this for terms such as “election results,” which return radically different SERP results during election time and non-election time.
2. Search Engines Match Pages to Query Intent
Once the search engine understands what kind of result you want to see, it needs to find matching pages. A series of factors help the search engine decide which pages are best, including:
- Title/content relevance
- Types of content
- Content quality
- Site quality and freshness
- Page popularity
- Language of query
Depending on the search intent, search engines may also show enriched results such as the knowledge graph or image carousel.
Google knows that the freshness of results matters more for some searches than others.
For example, a query like “what’s new on Netflix” requires super-fresh results because searchers want to know about movies and TV shows that were recently added to the video-streaming platform. As a result, Google prioritizes search results that were published or updated super recently.
4. Search Engines Apply ‘Localized’ Factors
A number of individual factors come into play when search engines decide which results you see. You may see different results for “best frozen cheese pizza” than a friend who lives in another state thanks to a combination of individual factors.
- Location: Some searches, like “restaurants near me,” are obviously location-dependent. But Google will rank results for local factors even in non-location-specific searches.
- Search settings: Search settings are also an important indicator of which results you’re likely to find useful, such as if you set a preferred language or opted into SafeSearch (a tool that helps filter out explicit results).
- Search history: A user’s search history also influences the results they see.
Google wants to rank web pages that make their users happy, and that goes beyond returning relevant results. The content also needs to be accessible and easy to consume.
There are a couple of confirmed ranking factors that help with that.
And, since July 2019, mobile-friendliness is also a ranking factor for desktop searches thanks to Google’s switch to “mobile-first indexing.” This means that Google “predominantly uses the mobile ve
Why should you care how Google works?
Knowing how Google finds and ranks content improves your ability to create pages that show up in the search results. If you go in blind without any understanding of what Google values, or even how they discover content, your chances of ranking are slim to none.
SEO is a priority for lots of businesses because:
- Traffic is “free” from SEO efforts;
- Traffic is consistent month after month (as long as you can maintain rankings);
- It provides the ability to reach a big audience in some cases.
Google’s search engine is one of the most complex technologies in the world.
It crunches a mind-numbing amount of data at lightning speeds to give people exactly what they’re looking for and when they want it.
Many people chase search engine algorithms, continually looking for loopholes that allow them to rank with relative ease. While this sometimes works for a short while, it rarely works long term and can even result in a dreaded Google penalty.
Google does that better than anyone else by pulling data from all sorts of places to determine exactly what you, specifically, are looking for — even if you don’t type it in that way!
The key to ranking long-term is to focus on creating content that delivers the best information for the target keyword, and the best user experience.
In other words, create content primarily for users, not search engines.