How Search Engines Work: Beyond Bots

How Search Engines Work

The way search engines operate has undergone significant changes over the last decade, and even over the last handful of years.

Think you know how search engines work?

You might need to think again.

Though search engines are constantly evolving and adapting to remain relevant and provide accurate results for users, there are several processes they follow that can help us understand the science behind search engines.

And, crucially, understanding this process can be the difference for website owners and developers between a visible site and a site that disappears into the abyss of the internet.

In a nutshell, search engines work by crawling, indexing, using algorithms, and query processing, all with the aim of providing the user performing the search with the most relevant and high-quality results.

Now, let’s delve a little deeper into the mysterious mind of a search engine.

Lots of Bots

The worker ants of the search engine world are known as bots or spiders, and their purpose is to continually crawl the vast expanse of the internet, creating an index as they go.

For Google, the crawler software is affectionately known as Googlebot.

Googlebot works tirelessly day and night, much like Santa and his elves throughout the month of December, to find new and updated web pages, and add them to its existing database.

However, not all sites that get crawled will be indexed.

This is one of the key reasons why having an understanding of how Google search works will impact how successful and visible your website is.

For example, if the crawlers determine that a webpage features duplicate information, has low-quality content, or minimal content, then it may not index the page, making it significantly more difficult to get found in a search.

Inside Indexing

Once the crawlers have identified a new or updated page, they automatically index it.

A newly indexed addition will include the web page URL, along with essential information that will help the search engine determine if this page is relevant to future searches. This will include keywords that have been found on the page, to decipher what topic the page is predominantly about.

The index entry will also note what type of content was included on the page, and how recently it was updated.

Finally, the index entry will include information about user engagement; notably, how people have interacted with the page.

Search engine indexes are constantly being updated to reflect changes made to any given website or webpage, ensuring that search results continue to remain current.

Appreciating Algorithms

Algorithms come into play when a search is performed by a search engine.

The complex algorithm works in conjunction with the index to determine which pages on the internet will be most useful to the person executing the search, and these will then be ranked in order.

A number of factors are considered by the search engine algorithm to decide which pages are included in the results, and what order they will be ranked in.

These factors include:

An important point to remember is that each search engine will use a different algorithm, and so the same search words in a Google search and a Bing search may produce entirely different results.

Though we know in a broad sense what an algorithm is looking for in order to provide users with the most relevant and high-quality information in response to their queries, the specific details of search engine ranking criteria are a secret guarded as closely as the elusive eleven herbs and spices used by Colonel Sanders to produce his finger licking’ chicken.

It’s also worth noting that algorithms are not set in stone.

They are continually changing to refine search results, aided by feedback mechanisms such as user clicks and engagement metrics.

Query Processing

When a user enters a search query, the search engine processes the query against its index to identify relevant pages.

This involves, among other things, matching the keywords in the query with the indexed pages. It will also take into account the language and location of the user to ascertain the most relevant results, as well as consider the previous search history of the user to help determine exactly what they are looking for.

The device the search was performed on can also impact which results are returned by the search engine, for example, if a user executes a search on a mobile device, then websites that have been optimized for a mobile experience are much more likely to rank well.

Bearing all of these factors in its metaphorical mind, the search engine then hierarchically ranks the pages based on their relevance to the query.

The most relevant and high-quality pages are subsequently displayed on the search engine results page.

As a website owner or developer, getting ranked among the top search results for your niche is the holy grail, since the majority of users won’t look beyond the first page of the search engine results in any given search.

The How and the Why

So now we have an understanding of how search engines work, but why do we need to know this?

Well, anyone who is engaging in any form of SEO is essentially optimizing their website to perform well in a search engine. And, trying to optimize anything that you don’t know the basics behind is never going to go well.

If previous attempts to optimize your website have proved fruitless, you may need to go back to the drawing board.

In Essence

The reality is that the way search engines work is extremely complex, but understanding the basic principles of how a search engine works will be immeasurably helpful for anyone running a website.

If understand it, you can position your website in a way that encourages search engines to find it and use it in search results, which is exactly how you’re going to get in front of your customers or followers.

Looking for help with your SEO? Contact us to find out how we can improve your website and make it more visible online.

Karli Edmondson-Matthews
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