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How Search Engines Work

How Search Engines Work
Reading Time: 4 minutes

How Search Engines Work

We’ve found that the typical reason your company isn’t leveraging digital marketing is because you don’t know how search engines work.

By merely understanding a few important details, every executive, marketer, salesperson, and business owner should know about how Google does its job; you’ll understand the importance and opportunities available to you and your business.

What are the two things every search engine must do really well?

There are many search engines. By now, undoubtedly, you already know the dominant name in search engines, Google. There’s also Bing and even smaller boutique search engines that focus on specific fields like medicine or education.

Google and other search engines have a primary job, which is to find content on the interwebs that matches the search query you’ve entered. A typical search query is a question you are asking Google.

Search Engines Have A Primary Job

For example,

  • How far is it from the earth to the moon?
  • “Is my husband”—and the first suggestion –which means it is the most popular query – is “gay”?
  • How much is my house worth?

The more accurately a search engine can match your search query with a good answer, the happier you are as a user of their search engine.

It’s plausible that you use search engines daily. Possibly, even on an hourly or per minute basis. Let’s say, for example, you are having a discussion and someone disagrees with you—so you pick up your phone and say, “I’ll Google it.”

Even with your high volume of use, have you ever wondered how the page with the answers to your questions is created? How does Google know that this content is what you’re looking for and not some other?

An Intro to Search Robots, also known as Spiders or Crawlers

This is where the search engine’s job begins.

Google and other search engines send robots to start reading a few web pages on the web. Their mission is to crawl through the words on a web page and determine what your web page is all about and then add it to its index, just like a library card catalog. These spiders then follow the links on a web page and fetch the page they point to.

From Google: Google’s spiders regularly crawl the web to rebuild our index (source).

This index is where Google will find the answer to your question. If it’s not in the index, Google can’t deliver the information to you.

The speed at which this indexing of the web is happening will blow your mind. Google states that its index is well over 100,000,000 gigabytes and that over one million computing hours went into building it.

All of the web pages gathered and provided to you are based on a ranking system; it’s not a random process. The search engine does its best to be deliberate about the results it provides to you.

How Search Engines Evaluate Content

Spiders crawl through everything on a web page to evaluate the content. The spider will seek patterns based on the words used in the headline, sub-headlines, and throughout the copy.

Is a specific word or phrase repeated? For instance, if the word jaguar is repeated, then the content might be about a feline cat.

How Search Engines Evaluate Content

Unless that is, the text is about tires and engine size. Then the content is about a Jaguar luxury car.

Basic Idea of How Search Engines Work

That is the basic idea of how search engines work.

Writing Advice if you Love Jaguars

If you want people to find your Jaguar page or blog post, we’ll need to dive in a bit deeper.

So far, we have only discussed part of the equation. Search engines find and understand what your content is about. Now, it has to determine which pages about jaguars are more relevant to potential people like you who are searching for the word “jaguars.”

Let’s assume you are interested in searching for the big cat. Let’s also say there are over 10,000 jaguar lovers with blogs dedicated to the cat. Each blog has a similar, but basic, page about the jaguar.

The next question: which of these pages about jaguars should the search engine give you, and in what order?

Not sure?

The results are listed by authority and popularity, which makes sense. You are searching for information about jaguars, so, obviously, you want the highest quality, most accurate, and most popular page and people writing on the subject.

The factors that determine this ranking order are complex and always changing.

As this is a “How Search Engines Work” article, I’ll keep it simple. If you want to go deeper down the rabbit hole, explore Moz’s search ranking factors.

To quickly touch on ranking, I’d like to explain why Wikipedia is so often high on the list of results. You can use this for your ranking efforts.

Why Wikipedia Ranks High in Search Results

Why Wikipedia Ranks High in Search Results

Let’s continue to use jaguars as our search query example. When you see the results of a Google search for jaguars, you get the following results: luxury car maker primary website, a local car dealer, and Wikipedia.

Why do you get these three results?

Do you know, or have you come up with a reason on your own?

The answer: the ranking position is determined by the authority of each website. Jaguar, the car maker, possibly has a larger reach than the big cat and is an authority website for the luxury car. The other authority is Wikipedia. This is why these sites dominate the top spots.

How did these sites come to dominate the top ranking? Here is where we see the ranking system in action. Google crawled and evaluated a page, decided what it is about, and then determined how relevant and popular it is with its topic.

How does Google determine popularity? Through links.

Why Links Are So Important to Content and Rankings

A simple way search engines determine the authority of a page is to see how many links point to the page, as well as what kind of links are they.

Get it? It’s just like your popularity in high school; it’s based on the number of people who knew you and their authority on campus.

Google sees the links from other websites pointing to your website as an indicator of people finding value in your content. An endorsement. People might have linked to your page because it explains a topic well, supports an argument in their content, or is the most extensive and highest value offering content on the subject.

Probability is high that if you have hundreds of links pointing to your web page about hunting habits of jaguars, it will rank higher than similar pages with no links.

That being said, the quality of the link matters a lot for the ranking position of your page. A single link from CNN is worth more than hundreds of small on-name bloggers.

And that, at a basic level, is how search engines work.

If you’re looking to rank higher in search results, start learning about inbound marketing and how it could be a game changer for you and your business.


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Written by

Peter Lang

CEO, Co-founder

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