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How Does A Search Engine Work?

April 14th, 2021
smartphone showing Google site

Search engines have been around since the early 90s. But how does a search engine work? Organising the Internet and helping people find what they are looking for has been seen as a useful and helpful thing to do since the dawn of the Internet. And the day after the search engine was invented, SEO was invented!

But when I go to gatherings (not in the past year!) and wind up inevitably talking about what I do, there seems to be a general misconception about how search engines work. And I can’t seem to get through a dinner party or social gathering without explaining to somebody how search engines work.

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So many people seem to think that search results are ranked by which gets the most hits. The technological implications of this don’t seem to be considered, nor does the flaw of feedback loop: the #1 ranked site for any search term always gets the most hits (approximately 70%), thus once a site gets that spot, it could never be outranked if hits was all it took to keep the position.

In a nutshell, search engines, including Google, work by counting links. Every time a web page publishes a hyperlink (like this) to another web page, search engines count that as a vote from the linker for the linkee. A vote for what exactly? A vote that the linkee page is relevant and useful for whatever anchor text the link uses. So the link in this paragraph is helping the target page rank for the term “like this”.

That is a very simplified nut shell, but that is basically how a search engine works. Of course, the above explanation quickly produces lots of questions:

Are all links treated equally? Are all pages treated equally? Is it simply volume of links that wins? Does linking to a page with the same anchor text over and over again look suspicious?

Each search engine will answer these and many dozens of other questions in different ways. And that is why the search results for the same search query on different search engines can be wildly different.

Search algorithms change regularly in response to new forces on the Internet. For example, when social media became a dominant thing, Google started using social signals as part of their ranking algorithm.

Additionally, ranking algorithms have become all the more complex as they aim to generate relevant results to search queries despite webmasters employing SEO companies to try and essentially game their way to the top.

SEO – search engine optimisation – is a perfectly legal and ethical practise of doing things, both on your website and off your website, to make Google rank it highly for the keyword terms you want.

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