What Are Search Engines and How Do They Work?

What Are Search Engines and How Do They Work?

Imagine what it would be like if every time you wanted to know an answer, you had to scour through a library or seek out a learned scholar in a distant village.  Sounds a bit like a plot from a movie, right?  Admittedly, life would be quite difficult.  Lucky for us, we’ve lucked out in the modern era thanks to search engines.  We can now easily find all the answers we seek to our hearts’ fulfillment and satisfaction.  We even have the liberty to overdo it at times.  For instance, how else would we self-diagnose ourselves and be driven to panic by dramatic search results that declare that the diagnosis is cancer when in reality we are merely being plagued by a minor flu?  But perhaps that is going a bit overboard.  However, it all traces back to search engines.  But what are search engines and how do they work?

Search engines are tools used to hone in website content results to queries made by users like us.  A query is just a fancy word used for whatever you type in as an internet search.  There are a variety of search engines that exist.  However, the most popular one and most likely the very first one to pop into your mind is Google.

Other search engines include: Yahoo, Bing, Baidu, Ask.com, and more!  Although they differ in some regards, the core concepts and fundamentals that they all revolve around are the same.  What are search engines? How do they work? Without further ado, let’s break them down into a little more detail.

The Not So Creepy Crawlers Of the World Wide Web

First off, every search engine utilizes bots known as “crawlers” (Kortis, 2018).  The name “crawlers” probably isn’t the most ideal or appealing for those with arachnophobia or fear of crawling creatures in general.  However, have no fear.  These “crawlers” are staying confined to the world wide web.

The purpose of crawlers is to essentially do the scouring through “distant villages” metaphorically speaking.  By “distant villages”, we are referring to website content.  The crawlers basically use pre-existing websites to pinpoint newer websites (Kortis, 2018).  They are constantly searching for new website content.  With that said, chances are that if you’ve launched a website, your website has been visited by these not so creepy “crawlers”.

Congratulations, You Have Been Indexed?

This brings us to the next step: “indexing”.  As we have already covered, the crawlers’ jobs are to find new website content.  Once they’ve pinpointed a new website, they send it off for more in depth analysis.  As the new sites are being indexed, the website content is being scanned and organized (Kortis, 2018).

To put it in simpler terms, indexing is basically the part where the search engine is figuring out what to do with the new website and where it fits into the database.  Remember how I mentioned a library?

As it turns out, we do scour through libraries in search of our answers, just not necessarily the brick and mortar version of the term with actual paper books.  The database is essentially a massive, extensive library.  The magnitude of it is precisely why the indexing step is so crucial in that it is a major part of the organization that goes behind what appears on the search results page when you do online research or make an internet search.

In fact, in order for anything to even be featured on the search results page, it would have had to have been indexed prior (Kortis, 2018).  So if your website content has made it successfully to the search results page, congratulations, you have been indexed.

Making it to the Top Ranks

Next off and conclusively, we have “ranking” which is subsequent to “indexing” in that it takes the organization done with indexing to a more meticulous and specified degree.  As the term “ranking” suggests, it is where results are essentially being ranked in order of what is most compatible with your internet search to what is less relevant (How Search Engines Work: Crawling, Indexing, and Ranking | Beginner’s Guide to SEO, 2021).

This is precisely how your internet search results are tailored to what you are looking for instead of pulling up random and irrelevant results.  This is also where distinguishing between “apple”, the fruit, and “Apple”, the tech giant, for example, come into play.  Ranking has a lot to do with how the search engine knows which one you are looking for and what to pull up for you in response to your internet search (Techquickie, 2015).

Ranking also has a lot to do with why the first results you see on a search results page are usually the most relevant to your internet search.  This also makes it a heck of a lot less of a hassle as it would be quite cumbersome to have to browse through many pages to finally land on some relevant website content for your online research.

In other words, if the first results on your search results page made the cut to your query, the search engine is doing its job!  Although ranking is the last core part of a search engine’s function, it can be broken down a bit further.

Sweet Lady Algorithm (Sometimes not-so-sweet)

Anyone who is or has looked into making it big on the internet via website content or digital media or marketing for example, has most definitely become acquainted with Lady Algorithm.

Okay, perhaps not in those very terms, but the word “algorithm” most likely rings a bell.  But let’s face it, the term “algorithm” is a bit ambiguous.  It almost comes off sounding like some kind of invisible force you need to appease in order to enter the gates of digital success.

Although the concept of it can be seemingly daunting, it is essential especially when it comes to ranking.  In fact, that is how ranking works.

So how exactly does one go about winning the heart and favor of sweet Lady Algorithm?  If this was the Hunger Games, how can we ensure that the odds will work ever in our favor?  The “odds” end of it is that algorithms do not exactly work in one set or specific way.  They can in fact be programmed in a mysterious plethora of ways.

However, it is not all shrouded in secrecy.  More favorably, algorithms also operate along basic concepts like figuring out what is meant by the internet search or query and what results pulled up from the index or database will be relevant (Kortis, 2018).

It also works around other factors, such as specific keywords, average time spent on webpages, page speeds, website content quality, security, and more (Kortis, 2018).  Another method in which algorithms work is perhaps a bit more of a head turner: using user data (Techquickie, 2015).

That’s right — search engines collect information on you, me, all of us… to pinpoint what is most relevant to pull up for just for us.  This doesn’t just work in the sense of what results are displayed in response to your internet search, but it also works in the sense of what advertisements to show you as well (Techquickie, 2015).

If you have ever wondered why the ads you are being shown look so eerily familiar, this is why.  It’s no coincidence that the pair of shoes you were eyeing on Amazon for example, are showing up along the sidelines of your Google search as well.

The Organic “Produce” of the Internet: Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Apart, but also within the intertwining operations and workings of algorithms, is another aspect known as “search engine optimization” or SEO.  Appearing on the search engine results page can come in one of two ways: inorganic or organic. And no, we are not referring to edible produce.

By inorganic, we are referring to website content that are essentially ads, in that they are featured as a result of having paid to be displayed there (Search Engine Optimization, 2021).  The latter, organic, refers to website content that shows up as a result of candid relevancy (Search Engine Optimization, 2021).

In other words, it just naturally makes sense to be there because it is most befitting to your internet search or query.  The concept of search engine optimization revolves around the latter: search engine results that appear organically (Search Engine Optimization, 2021).

It is undoubtedly a great advantage to have website content featured in this manner.  It can serve as both a money saver and potentially a money maker considering that it is free because you’re not paying for it. Additionally, the higher up it appears on the search results page, the more traffic it is likely to attract, which can potentially translate to higher sales.

As the term “search engine optimization” suggests, it has to do with making your website content most optimal and efficient in the sense that it will be likely to show up in the upper results displayed by the search engine.  This can be done and accomplished through a variety of methods such as: incorporating specific keywords and backlinks, level of ease in readability, and also the general structuring of the page (Search Engine Optimization, 2021).

Search engine optimization is in some ways an art, and when done effectively, can make the search engine work for you instead of the other way around.

70,000 per Second…

Chances are, you’ve used a search engine at least once today.  And as it turns out, you and I are not the only ones.  It is estimated that the search engine and tech giant, Google, gets an average of about 70,000 internet searches processed through it per second (99Content, 2021).

This means that search engines pretty much make a part of the daily lives of many if not the majority of people.  However, it is one thing to use a search engine and it is another to know the answer to: what are search engines and how do they actually work?  You can now safely say that you are one of the lucky ones that do know what goes on behind the scenes.


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How Search Engines Work: Crawling, Indexing, and Ranking | Beginner’s Guide to SEO

(2021). Moz; Moz Inc. https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo/how-search-engines-operate

Kortis, M. (2018, November 6). What Are Search Engines And How Do They Work? . Mangools; Mangools. https://mangools.com/blog/seopedia/search-engines/

Search Engine Optimization. (2021). Optimizely; Optimizely. https://www.optimizely.com/optimization-glossary/search-engine-optimization/

Techquickie. (2015, April 23). Search Engines As Fast As Possible [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/ADvI44Sap3g