How Search Engines Work and Why It Matters to You!
Search engines are incredibly useful because they can answer questions quickly and efficiently by delivering pages that contain relevant information. But how do search engines work to determine which sites appear in the search results?
On this page, we’ll cover the three phases search engines go through to place your page in search, and why it matters to your business.
Read on to learn how search engines work and why it matters for you!
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What are search engines?
Search engines are the primary tool people use to access websites and pages from the Internet. Without search engines, you could only find web pages by following a hyperlink or knowing the exact URL.
With search engines, discovering the answer to “What is EVOO?” is as simple as typing the question (it’s an acronym for extra virgin olive oil, by the way).
The five most popular search engines today are:
These search engines all work in similar ways, but we’ll focus mainly on the most popular search engine, Google, for this page.
How search engines work
Search engines work by gathering and categorizing information about web pages through crawling, indexing, and ranking. These search engines then return the most relevant pages in response to a user’s search query based on the information gathered through crawling webpages.
Let’s look at these three phrases more in-depth:
Search engines use programs called web crawlers (also called bots or spiders) to find public web pages.
Web crawlers work by doing two things:
Find pages: Crawlers first find and download web pages. They use links to discover new pages, much like users do. When a spider comes across a new link, it leads to a new page it can crawl.
Scrape the pages for information: When spiders land on a page, they make a copy of the page. They then look through the content and HTML to identify keywords and phrases that can help determine the context of the page.
The web crawlers use that information to decide whether to add that page to the search engine. They also list all the links on the page and queue the pages associated with them for crawling.
Web crawlers don’t just crawl a page one time, either.
Instead, web crawlers work non-stop to crawl and recrawl the uncountable number of web pages that are on the Internet. Doing so allows search engines like Google to have the most up-to-date versions of the pages.
Additionally, spiders have crawl budgets.
A crawl budget, simply put, is the number of pages on your site spiders crawl through and index before leaving, as well as which pages get crawled.
Crawl budgets take into account the limit Google sets on how often to crawl your site (based in large part on how frequently it’s updated and its popularity).
Google puts a limit on the number of pages crawled in one sitting to lighten the load on servers. If spiders scrape your site too fast or too often, it can bog down your servers, especially if your site contains thousands of pages.
Strategies for getting Google to crawl your site
Having your site crawled is the ticket to Internet visibility. With crawling, you want to make sure that spiders can easily access your site because your site needs to get crawled before it can ever appear in search.
It’s as simple as:
No crawling on your site = no appearance in search results
If you have a new website (or even a new page on your site), there are a few tricks you can do to get Google to crawl your site quickly.
Submit your URL to Google’s Search Console
You can request a crawl from Google by submitting your URL in the Google Search Console. Providing your URL allows Google to find your site faster.
You can submit your URL by heading to the URL Inspection tab in your Search Console account. You can then select the “Test Live URL” option and click “Request Indexing” if the test shows your URL hasn’t already been indexed.
Include internal links in your new page to older content (and vice versa)
Internals links are hyperlinks you place on your pages that link to other pages on your site with relevant information.
Internal links help spiders crawl your site by allowing them to travel from page to page more quickly. When internal links link to relevant content on your website, it can help Google better understand the context of your content.
In the same way, internal links also help your visitors navigate your page and find additional content.
Create an XML sitemap
Your XML sitemap contains information for Google on how often it should crawl individual pages on your site.
For example, let’s say you have a page for your blog and a page for FAQs. Your FAQs don’t change much, but your blog gets updated daily. Within your sitemap, you can tell Google that you want it to give your blog priority over your FAQ page.
Sitemaps also help spiders find and understand the level of importance you give the new pages you publish. You can request a crawl of your site by submitting your sitemap to Google’s Search Console, as well.
You aren’t limited to one sitemap, either. You can have multiple, such as a central sitemap and a sitemap for your blog.
Create a robots.txt file
Your robots.txt file is a list outlining suggested crawling instructions for Google and other crawlers, but it’s not set in stone. It doesn’t control what or how search engines index, it just lets Google know you’re preferences towards crawling individual pages on your site.
There may be some cases that you would want to suggest an opt-out on having particular pages on your site crawled.
For instance, if you run an online store, you probably wouldn’t want Google to crawl the accounts of your customers. Or, if you happen to have multiple URLs for the same page on your site, you want Google crawling the page only once.
Limiting the pages that get crawled also helps your site manage which pages count towards your crawl budget.
On your robots.txt, you can choose which pages on your site allow or disallow crawling, though search engines can still index your pages if someone else linked to your page.
You can even limit crawling by identity. So, if you didn’t want Bing to crawl a page, but wanted Google to have access still, you would put it in your robots.txt file.
You can check how your robots.txt file looks by typing it after your domain name like this:
After the web crawlers work to read a page, they process and submit the information into an extensive database called a search index.
Search engines each create their own index of online pages. The index works similar to a library catalog. It’s a massive list of categorized entries that include all the information that crawlers scraped from the web.
Each page gets its own entry so search engine algorithms have easy access to its contextual information. Using their massive indices, search engines like Google quickly and accurately locate pages with relevant information.
Strategies for search engine indexing
Having your pages indexed is a requirement for Google to rank them in search results. If your pages aren’t indexed, they won’t do you very much good since people won’t be able to find them. Your pages won’t pull in any traffic.
If you do not see your page on search, you can check out these simple search engine indexing strategies.
Check if your page is indexed using the “site:” operator
You can check all the pages that Google has indexed by conducting a “site:” search for your URL. Just type in “site:[your site domain name].com” into Google’s search bar and it will pull up all the pages that Google has on your site.
You can also perform a “site:” search to find content on your site that matches specific keywords, which is useful when looking to see if Google has indexed a particular page. The format goes “site:exampleurl.com example keyword.”
Crawling and indexing generally take a few days, so don’t be too worried if your recently published page doesn’t immediately show up in search.
Check your page’s status in Google Search Console
If it’s been a while and you’re still not seeing your pages using the “site:” search operator, it’s likely that your site is not in the search engines index and probably hasn’t gotten crawled yet.
You can double-check the status of your page using the “Test Live URL” option under the URL Inspection tab in your Search Console account. If your page hasn’t gotten crawled yet, you can request indexing. This may also take a few days to accomplish.
Also, check to see if there is a reason that Google isn’t indexing your content. Some problems that could prevent indexing include:
- You have crawl errors you need to fix on your site that prevent Google from crawling your page
- You have duplicate content on your site (Google won’t know which to rank)
- You’re using black hat optimizing practices
Check if you’re directing Google to not index
Like with crawling, you can direct Google to not index pages on your site, such as admin pages and internal search.
To do so, you can either include a “noindex” tag in your robots.txt like this:
Or include the “noindex” tag in the HTML of your page like this:
< meta name="robots" content="noindex" />
In some cases, these specifications could be what is causing your page not to be indexed when you want it to be, so be sure to double-check.
After the indexing phase comes ranking.
The purpose of search engines is to show results to users when they search, but search engines can’t show all the pages it has in its index.
Instead, it must choose not only which pages to place in results but the order in which these listings appear.
Search engines must then use the information within the index to accurately pull search pages with relevant information to show in searches. They also must determine how those pages rank according to relevance.
This problematic and very arbitrary task is made easier with strict factors defined by search engine companies. These factors help search engines determine page relevancy.
These algorithms determine relevance by looking at:
Keywords: Keywords are the phrases that users search for on search engines. Search engines look for the exact and related keywords when crawling online pages. Based on keywords and the content on your page, search engines will use that information to determine where your page ranks.
Backlinks: Whenever another site on the web links to your page in their content, it’s called a backlink. Search engines like Google will use backlinks as a way to determine the relevance of your page based on what pages link to your content. Google’s algorithm, PageRank, looks at the quality and quantity of backlinks to determine your rank.
Ranking involves more than just keyword selection and backlinks. Other factors focus on user experience, which strongly impacts how Google ranks search results. These factors include:
Google takes all these factors into account when ranking your site. Google’s algorithms use incredibly advanced artificial intelligence, which is adept at identifying what people want to see when searching.
Google BERT, for example, was an algorithm update Google performed late last year. The update focused on improving the algorithm’s ability to understand what people mean when they enter search queries.
Through machine learning and natural language processing, BERT can better understand the context of all the words in a search query. With the update, Google can more easily understand things like synonyms and misspellings.
Strategies for search engine ranking
By ranking pages, Google helps people find the information they’re looking to find.
Search engine ranking means a couple of things to online sites.
Your rank in search is a huge determiner for how much visibility your content gets. Take a look at these three stats:
- The first page of search receives 95% of search traffic.
- The number one spot in search gets 33% of internet traffic.
- The top three search results get 75% of all clicks.
Which means, if your page doesn’t rank on the first page, you’re getting slim pickings for search traffic. Not having a high rank in search doesn’t just lower the traffic you get, it decreases your ability to drive sales and conversions.
Rank also indicates to your audience your brand’s authenticity. The more you rank for various keywords, the more authentic people will view you.
Here are some strategies to improve your site’s rank in search results.
Perform keyword research
Keyword research allows you to provide the most relevant content to your users, which helps you rank higher in searches.
Take some time to study what users mean when they enter keywords into search engines. You can do that by researching what content currently ranks for the keywords you are targeting because Google’s algorithms do a good job of understanding what people want to know.
When performing keyword research, make sure to target long-tail keywords. Long-tail keywords are longer phrases, often three words or more. They can include locational keywords like “near me,” question keywords like “what is” or “how,” and conversational keywords from voice search.
Long-tail keywords work well for ranking in search results because they’re less competitive to rank for than short-tail keywords while still generating most of your site’s traffic.
Building a link building strategy
Your link building strategy involves techniques that encourage other sites to link to your site. Much of your link building strategy will center around producing content that your readers find valuable. If you create good content, people will be more willing to link to it.
Other link building techniques include:
- Creating tools like industry calculators that your users can use to provide relevant insight
- Asking prevalent people in your industry to link to your content
- Write guest content for other sites
- Spread awareness of your content on social media
Make your content user-friendly
You want your audience to enjoy the time they spend on your website. User-friendly content acts as a significant factor in the definition of valuable content. Google ranks search results with user-friendly content higher, and users will spend more time on your site.
Make your content user-friendly by:
- Answering the questions quickly, clearly, and concisely
- Use relevant headings to organize topics
- Break up your paragraphs into two to three sentences, so they’re easier to read
- Utilize bulleted and numbered lists to users and search engines can find valuable information
- Place images, videos, and infographics to improve your content’s engagement levels
Why is knowing how search engines work important?
Knowing how search engines work can help you maximize your website’s presence online.
Every search engine focuses on delivering content that answers a searcher’s query. If you want your content to appear in relevant queries, you need to understand how to get your website in those search results.
When you know how search engines work, you know what kind of content to create to help your business appear in the results. You can optimize your site to appear in relevant queries.
If you know how search engines work, you can improve your crawlability and indexability to help you reach people looking for information you have on your site.
With search engine optimization (SEO), you can help improve your site’s ranking and appear in more relevant search results.
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