How Do Search Engines Work?
Most small business owners know they need SEO, but they don’t know how to improve their SEO or how search engines even work. SEO is a complex world, however, we’re going to try our best to explain how search engines work, so that you can start to optimize your websites to better help the likes of Google and Yahoo!. For purposes of this introduction, we’re going to rely heavily on Google as our example, because it is, afterall, the most popular and powerful search engine ever created.
Every time you search the internet there are thousands, if not millions, of web pages with information that could help answer your question or solve the problem you’re facing. So what happens when you type in a word, question, or phrase into Google and hit “Google Search”—or if you’re really ambitious “I’m Feeling Lucky”?
Well, actually, Google starts working long before you even type your question into the search box (and no, we’re not talking about Google listening into your conversations). The preliminary search engine processes are known as crawling and indexing.
Spiders Crawl the Interwebs
To start the search engine process, Google goes out to websites it knows—either through past crawls or from sitemaps provided by website owners. Google also crawls the websites it knows about to learn about unknown websites. Say for example Google crawls owengotimer.com and one of the pages it sees a link to is customcakesbyjill.com. If customcakesbyjill.com was previously unknown, Google would learn about it from crawling owengotimer.com then Google could go and crawl customcakesbyjill.com.
On these websites, Google renders its web pages much like a user would see them, takes notes of key elements like keywords and website freshness, and keeps track of all of that information in the Google Search Index, which it references when you’re feeling lucky.
World’s Quickest Librarian
The Google Search Index is basically a gigantic library of information, containing hundreds of billions of web pages, and it’s constantly growing. When you type in a word, phrase, or question into Google, Google immediately searches the Search Index and tries to present results to you that it believes will best help you.
When Google starts its search of web pages, it uses the infamous Google algorithm—including five key factors—to determine which results it returns to you.
1. Meaning of Your Query
If you take anything away from this blog, remember this: Google doesn’t just match keywords. Keywords are important, however, what Google does is much bigger than keyword matching. Google tries to understand the intent of your query then serves pages it believes contain the information you’re looking for. These interpretations can range from simple spelling corrections to understanding your query using the latest research in natural language processing.
2. Relevance of the Web Pages
Next, Google quickly searches the Index and determines which web pages contain information that might be relevant to what you’re looking for.
3. Quality of the Content
Google also wants you to continue to use Google, so it tries to serve you with the highest quality content it can. Google systems are designed to identify signals that can help determine which web pages demonstrate expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness on a given topic. Two of the most effective ways to demonstrate expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness are to use SSL encryption and to get other trustworthy websites to link back to your web pages.
4. Usability of the Web Pages
Next, Google evaluates the usability of the website, determining if the web pages are easy to use. There are certain elements that annoy users (like pop up forms that hide content or slow pages load speeds). Because Google wants to give its users the best user experience possible, it doesn’t want to serve pages that might cause headaches to its users.
Google also wants all its users to have access to good information, so it takes into consideration what accessibility elements are present on the website: is there good color contrast, are alt tags and skip-to-main-content links available for screen readers, are <header> tags used properly.
5. Context clues and your search settings
Finally, Google considers context clues like your past search history and location to better serve you with relevant information.
I’m Feeling Lucky
After taking into consideration the meaning of your query; the relevance, quality of content, and usability of the indexed web pages; and your previous search profile, Google presents you with the web pages it thinks will best answer your question.
For example, if you need to change your oil, you might search “how to change your oil.” From that query, Google knows you need to change your oil, and it will try to serve web pages to help you do that. One page you might expect is a YouTube tutorial showing you how to change your car’s oil. Seems pretty straightforward.
But Google knows your ultimate goal is to change your oil, so it might also present you with a list of nearby service shops. How does it know which service shops are nearby? Through a combination of your search settings and location services as well as your search history.
By presenting you with a how-to video as well as addresses of nearby service centers, Google can feel confident that it has helped you change your oil.
How Does This Help Your Business?
By understanding how search engines work, you’re able to build your web pages in ways that Google likes and ways that users will find helpful. Remember, search engines are there to help people get answers to questions, solve challenges, and learn, and there are ways you can help Google help those people.
If you’re unsure how your SEO stacks up against your competitors, let us know. We’re happy to provide you with an SEO audit. And the best part: it’s completely FREE!