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How Do Search Engines Work?

One of the biggest reasons why many organizations are not doing even simple things to help people find their websites in search engines is they simply don’t understand how search engines work. This article is intended to explain the basics of how search engines work and in the course of doing so shatter some search engine myths and help you understand what you can do to help people find your website in search engines.

What is a search engine?

The first to step to understanding how search engines work is to understand what a search engine is. The simplest explanation is that search engine is a tool for finding things online. There are many different types of search engines but they can be put into two major categories…

Human-Powered Directories
The first “search engines” were not actually search engines as we think of them today, but searchable directories of websites organized by hierarchical categories. A site is added to a directory when the website owner fills out a submission form on the directory’s website requesting their site be included in the directory and include their website’s title, description, URL (web address), and category. A moderator later reviews the site and if it meets the directory’s criteria a listing for that site is added or activated. The original Yahoo was originally a human-powered directory, and directories like Open Directory Project continue on today.

The downside of the human-powered search engine is that it only includes websites that have been submitted to it, which means you may not find what you’re looking for especially if it’s a new web page. The other downside from the directories’ point of view is that reviewing every site submitted is very labor-intensive and costly. I know because my company’s “search engine”, OurChurch.Com’s Directory of Christian Websites, like almost all church/Christian “search engines”, is a human-powered directory.

Crawler/Spider-Powered Search Engines
The next generation of search engines has programs which actively seek out new sites and read them into their indexes. These programs are called crawlers, spiders, robots, or bots. All of largest and most popular search engines today are of this type, including Google, Yahoo, MSN, and Ask.

The rest of this article is focused on how these crawler/spider-powered search engines work because more than 99% of searches are done on this type of search engine.

The Crawler
As mentioned above, the first part of a search engine is the crawler (AKA spider, robot, and bot). The crawler reads pages into the search engine raw database of every page the search engine crawler has read. Some important things to know about crawlers…

1) Search bots periodically reread every web page in their database. Why does this matter?

• You don’t have to do anything when you change your site. If your site is already listed in a search engine and you make changes to your website, search engines will eventually update their information.
• You do have to be patient. The frequency of re-crawling varies depending on the search engine, the importance of your site (as determined by the search engines), and how often you update it. It could take a day or it could take more than a week.

2) Search bots follow links on the pages that have already been crawled in order to find new pages. Why does this matter?

• If you add a new page to your website or create a new website, it’s important to add a link to it on a web page that is already in the search engines.
• If a web page that is already in the search engines has a link to your new page or new website, you do not need to submit a request to the search engines to crawl the new page or website, though it may still be worth doing just to be sure your website will be found quickly.

3) Some search engines have forms you can submit to request a website be crawled. Why does this matter?

• If you have a new website and no sites link to it, search bots will not be able to find it. In this case, submitting a form to the search engine requesting your site be listed or indexed can get it into search engines.
• Because human-powered directories do not have search bots/crawlers, to be listed in them you must submit a request form.

The Ranking Algorithm
Some time after a web page has been crawled by the search bot or crawler, the search engine then processes or indexes the page to determine what search words and phrases the page is relevant to as well as how relevant that page is compared with other web pages for those phrases. During this processing the search engine looks at many different factors including how many times each word and phrase occurs on the page, which words are in headings or bold, the domain name of the site, filename of the page, the pages that link to the page, and many more.

Exactly which factors a search engine looks at and how they’re weighted is called the search engine’s search ranking algorithm. It’s like the search engine’s “secret sauce.” Each search engine’s algorithm is different and each is a heavily guarded secret.

Why does this matter?

• There is time between when your site is crawled (or recrawled) and when it is processed or indexed. So, it can take as little as a few hours to many days or weeks before changes to your website may produce changes in its search rankings.
• Because each search engine’s ranking algorithm is different, a web page can be #1 in Google but #20 in Yahoo for a particular phrase.
• Because each search algorithm is a heavily guarded secret nobody outside of a few select engineers at each search engine knows exactly how much each particular factor weighs into the rankings of each search engine. But, people who spend their professional lives helping sites rank better in search engines have gained very good idea as to what factors matter most.
• Because the search ranking algorithms look at text, headings, and other elements on a web page, changing things on the web page can change where that web page appears in the search results.
• Search ranking algorithms look at factors outside of a web page, such as the age of a website and links to the web page. So, there are other factors which you may have less influence over.

The goal of every search engine is to display to the user the information or websites the user is looking for. In other words every search engine wants to provide the best, most relevant results. As a result, search engines are constantly improving their algorithms and including new factors which they think will produce better search results. Why does this matter? As search algorithms change, so will your website’s search engine rankings.

The Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs)
The crawling of websites and indexing of web pages are constantly going on even when no one is searching. The last part in the search process is part that you’re probably most familiar with – the actual search. You type in a word, short phrase, or question, and the search engine displays a list of websites.

That list of websites is called the search engine results page and sometimes referred to as the SERPs.

If you do a search and look at the SERP, you’ll notice two columns. Above the right column it says “Sponsored Links.” These are paid advertisements. The companies and organizations listed here pay a fee to Google for each person who clicks their ad, so they’re often referred to as Pay-Per-Click or PPC ads.

In the left column are the unpaid search results also sometimes called the organic results or natural results. These are the websites the search engine believes are most relevant to the search phrase that was queried. Sometimes search engines also display sponsored links in the left column above the natural results or will even place a block of pay-per-click ads in the middle of the natural results. Sponsored links are always labeled, though not always very clearly.

Why does this matter?

From the searcher’s perspective, there is nothing wrong with clicking on a paid link. You may find what you’re looking for there. But it’s important to be aware of which websites paid to be in the results and which are there naturally.

From the web administrator’s perspective, it’s important to understand there are two opportunities to get to the top of the search engine rankings, through natural results and by purchasing pay-per-click advertising.

Help the Search Engines
With a better understanding how search engines work, you can make better decisions about the marketing of your website though search engines. Search engines need your help to find your website and to know what words and phrases it’s relevant for. Give them the help they need. That’s where search engine optimization comes in, but I’ll get to that on another day.

About Emma G.

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

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