How Do Search Engines Work?

It wasn’t that long ago that the yellow pages were the go-to search method for finding products and services. 

Folks used to buy multi-volume encyclopedias to stay informed. 

But we’ve left those hefty books in the past, and the internet took their place.

We now use the web to learn languages, discover destinations, and organize major life events, with search engines guiding our way. 

For most people, using a search engine is second-nature. Whether it’s on a mobile device, desktop computer, or with voice recognition, it’s how we find out about the world.

But many of us still don’t know exactly how search engines work, and for digital marketers, this should be a fundamental part of their knowledge base.

Let’s examine the inner workings of the modern online search engine, and figure out exactly what happens behind the scenes to bring us the products, services, and information that dictates the biggest economic and personal decisions of our lives.

What is a Search Engine

Let’s first define what a search engine is at its core.

In computing, a search engine is a program that allows users to search for items in a database according to the terms they specify in a query.

These programs can be used to find books in a library database, health records on a hospital server, or most commonly, web pages and resources on the World Wide Web.

It’s a simple concept. Type in keywords or ask a question, and get the best answer available based on the information you’ve provided.

But as you’ve probably realized, a simple idea can have infinite implications, and that’s exactly where we find ourselves with modern web search engines.

How Search Began

Computer scientists have been seeking ways to search large databases of information since the 1940s, and it’s assumed that government agencies were the first to adopt the technology.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, was the testing grounds for the first overarching system connected diverse computation resources in one language.

When the Web was officially indexed in 1993, it began to expand rapidly with new servers cropping up across the globe. 

It wasn’t long before there was too much content to browse manually, and CERN made the technology available to the public soon after.

Originally, programs like Archie were used to search the fast-growing databases around the world, but soon the private sector was competing for web search dominance.

Remember America Online, AltaVista, and NetScape? These were the pioneers of the digital wild west who sought to capitalize on search functionality for the masses.

Results were mixed, and most faded away, but they laid the groundwork for what we now take for granted as a supercharged search engine that puts the world at our fingertips.

How Search Evolved

What began as a basic keyword-based search in the ‘90s became more complex as the stakes got higher. 

Companies quickly realized that the higher they ranked on the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPS), the more traffic they saw and the bigger their sales.

So began the great SEO gold rush, as marketers around the world dedicated their careers to cracking the code of the search rankings that were hidden from the public eye.

The original search engines are now seen as pretty rudimentary in their ranking criteria.

Marketers did anything and everything to rise in the ranks, basically shooting from the hip to figure out how the algorithm would respond to their sites.

If you hopped in a time machine to see what search looked like back in the day, you’d probably be appalled at how messy and disorganized the SERPs appeared.

Search engines have made it their mission to organize results based on factors that matter to real human beings, rather than mindless robots that only pick up on basic data points.

How it Works Now

Gone are the days of spamming, stuffing, and back-alley backlink buying.

Modern search engines place way more weight on the quality of the content you publish, and the network of links you build across other credible sites in your niche.

That’s why marketers need to let go of the ‘90s dream that they will rise to the top of the ranks just by publishing massive libraries of content.

Strategies now need to account for keywords, data structuring, and other nuanced concepts that combine data science with content development and traditional marketing tactics.

Google Dominance

While Yahoo and AOL had some time in the sun, Google pulled ahead in the mid-2000s as the most trusted search engine, and it hasn’t faced much competition since.

Nowadays, over 90 percent of web searches happen through Google, via mobile, desktop, or voice recognition search.

What allowed Google to pull ahead of the pack so early on was its unique approach to ranking based on links, or the relationships between websites.

While other search engines ranked information by the sheer volume of results for specific inquiries, Google was the first to adopt a true quality over quantity approach.

Understanding the Algorithm

Now that we’ve had over two decades to analyze how Google ranks sites, there’s an established consensus on how this search engine works.

The first function of modern search is known as crawling.

  • Engines deploy a team of robots or “spiders” to crawl the web and discover new content, as well as take note of recent updates.
  • Content can be written text, but also images, videos, PDFs, etc.

Once these bots have crawled a page and added the relevant URL, they follow the paths laid out by links to other sites and continue to index new sites.

  • The current Google index is called Caffeine, which stores all the relevant URLs and prepares them to be displayed when queries are made.
  • Tags, metatags, and other technical aspects are what SEO experts focus on to maximize the visibility and availability of web pages in the index.

Finally, there’s the ranking process, which most marketers focus on.

It was a challenge at first to determine why certain pages ranked higher than others, despite having a higher volume of content or flashier appearance.

But it became apparent over time that authority and relevance were the main factors that Google prioritized in rankings, and it’s been further illuminated since. 

Anatomy of a Search

So what exactly happens when you enter a question or a query into Google?

This is where keywords, discovered in the web page’s title or content, matter most. Unique, significant words (bicycles, barbeque, Barbados) are used to search a massive index of pages.

Again, multimedia assets like video and images can be indexed as well, which is why proper tagging of these resources is crucial.

When you hit that enter key, the keywords in the query determine the bulk of the results.

On top of that, it’s important how recently the pages were updated (stale content lever lasts long) and the level of user engagement with those pages.

Your search results will also depend on your real geographical location. A basic search for movie theaters will bring up a different set of pages in Boston than in Austin.

Google also now does a great job of using your previous search history to give you results that are more in line with your interests and intentions.

The goal of the modern search is to create a personalized experience for the user, providing them with pages that will answer their questions and solve problems faster than ever.

SEO: Today and Tomorrow

Even the most brilliant minds in the SEO industry admit they rely on trial-and-error methods to determine their optimization strategies.

But instead of grasping at straws, they have advanced tools that help them detect patterns in the algorithm that they can then use to their advantage.

Google Analytics is a perfect example of an intuitive toolset that lets you see exactly how visitors are responding to your web pages on several different metrics.

GA is only the beginning. Most marketers use upwards of three additional tools to determine how their sites are performing in search and make adjustments to their strategies daily based on the information they gather.

Content, Backlinks, and More

I’ll preach the importance of quality content forever since it appears to be the single common thread that determines positive outcomes in search over time.

Don’t believe me? Just look at some of the latest statistics on content marketing from the best in the business. Over 75% of marketers use organic traffic as a measure of content quality.

In other words, content marketing is inseparable from SEO

If your brand isn’t publishing killer content on-site and across the web, it’s only a matter of time before you lag in the SERPs, and take the hit on revenue.

I suggest that every marketer take a closer look at backlinking strategy and figure out ways to earn quality links to their site from authoritative sources.

Guest posting, HARO, and influencer marketing are just a few of the successful avenues I’ve used to help clients develop strong backlink catalogs and rise in the ranks as a result.

The basic function of search engines may not change drastically in the years to come, but the way your pages are indexed and ranked definitely will evolve. 

Do your best to stay on top of key trends in the space and you’ll benefit from better rankings, more traffic, and ultimately, big returns in the long run.


Smart Insights