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Anatomy Of An Internet Search Engine

For some unfortunate souls SEO is simply the learning of tricks
and techniques that, according to their understanding, should
propel their site into the top rankings on the major search
engines. This understanding of the way SEO works can be
effective for a time however it contains one basic flaw … the
rules change. Search engines are in a constant state of
evolution in order to keep up with the SEO’s in much the same
way that Norton, McAfee, AVG or any of the other anti-virus
software companies are constantly trying to keep up with the
virus writers.

Basing your entire websites future on one simple set of rules
(read: tricks) about how the search engines will rank your site
contains an additional flaw, there are more factors being
considered than any SEO is aware of and can confirm. That’s
right, I will freely admit that there are factors at work that I
may not be aware of and even those that I am aware of I cannot
with 100% accuracy give you the exact weight they are given in
the overall algorithm. Even if I could, the algorithm would
change a few weeks later and what’s more, hold your hats for
this one; there is more than one search engine.

So if we cannot base our optimization on a set of hard-and-fast
rules what can we do? The key my friends, is not to understand
the tricks but rather what they accomplish. Reflecting back on
my high school math teach Mr. Barry Nicholl I recall a silly
story that had a great impact. One weekend he had the entire
class watch Dumbo The Flying Elephant (there was actually going
to be a question about it on our test). Why? The lesson we were
to get from it is that formulas (like tricks) are the feather in
the story. They are unnecessary and yet we hold on to them in
the false belief that it is the feather that works and not the
logic. Indeed, the tricks and techniques are not what works but
rather the logic they follow and that is their shortcoming.

And So What Is Necessary?

To rank a website highly and keep it ranking over time one must
optimize it with one primary understanding, that a search engine
is a living thing. Obviously this is not to say that search
engines have brains, I will leave those tales to Orson Scott
Card and other science fiction writers, however their very
nature results in a lifelike being with far more storage

If we consider for a moment how a search engine functions; it
goes out into the world, follows the road signs and paths to get
where it’s going, and collects all of the information in its
path. From this point, the information is sent back to a group
of servers where algorithms are applied in order to determine
the importance of specific documents. How are these algorithms
generated? They are created by human beings who have a great
deal of experience in understanding the fundamentals of the
Internet and the documents it contains and who also have the
capacity to learn from their mistakes, and update the algorithms
accordingly. Essentially we have an entity that collects data,
stores it, and then sorts through it to determine what’s
important which it’s happy to share with others and what’s
unimportant which it keeps tucked away.

So Let’s Break It Down …

To gain a true understanding of what a search engine is, it’s
simple enough to compare it to the human anatomy as, though not
breathing, it contains many of the same core functions required
for life. And these are:

The Lungs & Other Vital Organs – The
lungs of a search engine and indeed the vast majority of vital
organs are contained within the datacenters in which they are
housed. Be it in the form of power, Internet connectivity, etc.
As with the human body, we do not generally consider these
important in defining who we are, however we’re certainly
grateful to have them and need them all to function properly.

The Arms & Legs – Think of the links
from the engine itself as the arms and legs. These are the
vehicles by which we get where we need to go and retrieve what
needs to be accessed. While we don’t commonly think of these as
functions when we’re considering SEO these are the purpose of
the entire thing. Much as the human body is designed primarily
to keep you mobile and able to access other things, so too is
the entire search engine designed primarily to access the
outside world.

The Eyes – The eyes of the search
engine are the spiders (AKA robots or crawlers). These are the
1s and 0s that the search engines send out over the Internet to
retrieve documents. In the case of all the major search engines
the spiders crawl from one page to another following the links,
as you would look down various paths along your way. Fortunately
for the spiders they are traveling mainly over fiber optic
connections and so their ability to travel at light speed
enables them to visit all the paths they come across whereas we
as mere humans have to be a bit more selective.

The Brain – The brain of a search
engine, like the human brain, is the most complex of its
functions and components. The brain must have instinct, must
know, and must learn in order to function properly. A search
engine (and by search engine we mean the natural listings of the
major engines) must also include these critical three components
in order to survive.

The Instinct – The instinct of a
search engines is defined in it’s core functions, that is the
crawling of sites and either the inability to read specific
types of data, or the programmed response to ignore files
meeting a specific criteria. Even the programmed responses
become automated by the engines and thus fall under the category
of instinct much the same as the westernized human instinct to
jump from a large spider is learned. An infant would probably
watch the spider or even eat it meaning this is not an automatic
human reaction.

The instinct of a search engines is important to understand
however once one understands what can and cannot be read and how
the spiders will crawl a site this will become instinct for you
too and can then safely be stored in the “autopilot” part of
your brain.

The Knowing – Search
engines know by crawling. What they know goes far beyond what is
commonly perceived by most users, webmasters and SEOs. While the
vast storehouse we call the Internet provides billions upon
billions of pages of data for the search engines to know they
also pick up more than that. Search engines know a number of
different methods for storing data, presenting data,
prioritizing data and of course, way of tricking the engines

While the search engine spiders are crawling the web they are
grabbing the stores of data that exist and sending it back to
the datacenters, where that information is processed through
existing algorithms and sp@m filters where it will attain a
ranking based on the engine’s current understanding of the way
the Internet and the documents contained within it work.

Similar to the way we process an article from a newspaper based
on our current understanding of the world, the search engines
process and rank documents based on what they understand to be
true in the way documents are organized on the Internet.

The Learning – Once it is understood
that search engines rank documents based on a specific
understanding of the way the Internet functions, it then follows
that in order to insure that new document types and technologies
are able to be read and that the algorithm be changed as new
understandings of the functionality of the Internet are
uncovered a search engine must have the ability to “learn”.

Aside from a search engine needing the ability to properly
spider documents stored in newer technologies, search engines
must also have the ability to detect and accurately penalize
sp@m and as well as accurately rank websites based on new
understandings of the way documents are organized and links
arranged. Examples of areas where search engines must learn in
an ongoing basis include but are most certainly not limited

Understanding the relevancy of the content
between sites where a link is found Attaining the
ability to view the content on documents contained within new
technologies such as database types, Flash, etc.
Understanding the various methods used to hide text, links, etc.
in order to penalize sites engaging in these tactics
Learning from current results and any shortcoming in them, what
tweaks to current algorithms or what additional considerations
must be taken into account to improve the relevancy of the
results in the future.

The learning of a search engine generally comes from the
uber-geeks hired by and the users of the search engines. Once a
factor is taken into account and programmed into the algorithm
it them moves into the “knowing” category until the next round
of updates.

How This Helps in SEO

This is the point at which you may be asking yourself, “This is
all well-and-good but exactly how does this help ME?” An
understanding of how search engines function, how they learn,
and how they live is one of the most important understandings
you can have in optimizing a website. This understanding will
insure that you don’t simply apply random tricks in hopes that
you’ve listened to the right person in the forums that day but
rather that you consider what is the search engine trying to do
and does this tactic fit with the long term goals of the engine.

For a while keyword density sp@mming was all the rage among the
less ethical SEOs as was building networks of websites to link
together in order to boost link popularity. Neither of these
tactics work today and why? They do not fit with the long-term
goals of the search engine. Search engines, like humans, want to
survive. If the results they provide are poor then the engine
will die a slow but steady death and so they evolve.

When considering any tactic you must consider, does this fit
with the long-term goals of the engine? Does this tactic in
general serve to provide better results for the largest number
of searches? If the answer is yes then the tactic is sound.

For example, the overall relevancy of your website (i.e. does
the majority of your content focus on a single subject) has
become more important over the past year or so. Does this help
the searcher? The searcher will find more content on the subject
they have searched on larger sites with larger amounts of
related content and thus this shift does help the searcher
overall. A tactic that includes the addition of more content to
your site is thus a solid one as it helps build the overall
relevancy of your website and gives the visitor more and updated
information at their disposal once they get there.

Another example would be in link building. Reciprocal links are
becoming less relevant and reciprocal-links between unrelated
sites are virtually irrelevant. If you are engaging in
reciprocal link building insure that the sites you link to are
related to your site’s content. As a search engine I would want
to know that a site in my results also provided links to other
related sites thus increasing the chance that the searcher was
going to find the information that they are looking for one way
or another without having to switch to a different search

In Short

In short, think ahead. Understand that search engines are
organic beings that will continue to evolve. Help feed them when
they visit your site and they will return often and reward your
efforts. Use unethical tactics and you may hold a good position
for a while but in the end, if you do not use tactics that
provide for good overall results, you will not hold your
position for long. They will learn.

About Emma Gilbert

Working in the marketing industry since 2002. This blog is one of my hobbies.

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