Search engines are massive algorithmically driven databases that index web pages and content, allowing everyday internet users to access the vast wealth of human knowledge with the click of a button.
Whether you’re a webmaster, SEO specialist, business owner, or just trying to grow your personal brand, knowing how search engines work is vital if you want to increase your traffic. The more you know how search engines operate, the more you’ll be able to structure your website, brand, and content to ensure that you rank high in the first few pages of Google results.
Just think about it- when was the last time that you Googled something and then kept on scrolling through results past page 3 or 4? We’re willing to bet that the answer is “almost never.”
That means that your online success quite literally hinges on your ability to get your piece of digital real estate (your website) to rank within the top results for key search terms.
In this guide, we’re going to give you a crash course on search engines. We’ll explain exactly what they are and how they work. Then, we’ll explain how Google’s algorithm ranks websites and show you some useful tips and tricks for ensuring that your page gets ranked higher than your competitors’ pages.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Let’s start with a simple definition…
A search engine is an internet-based database tool that helps users find information, content, and websites.
Today, whenever you need a quick answer to a question, want to purchase a new product, or interact with like-minded groups of people, you go on Google and type your query into the search bar. Within seconds, all of the information you ever wanted will be at your fingertips.
For most people, Google is synonymous with internet searches. It’s the world’s largest and most advanced search engine. Although there are other search engines offered by Yahoo, Microsoft, etc., Google is, by far, the most popular.
Don’t believe us? Well, here’s the market share data for the world’s largest search engines:
Other Search Engines- 1.8%
As you can see, Google utterly dominates the market. So, as a webmaster or SEO specialist, you should focus on optimizing your site and content to appeal to Google’s search algorithm. This process is known as Search Engine Optimization, or SEO for short.
Search engines operate in three primary steps:
Generating results or SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages).
The last step will display the search results to everyday users. In this section, we’ll briefly go over what each step consists of, so you can better understand how search engine indexing works.
Search engine developers have created bots (or crawlers) designed to scan the internet for new websites, pages, and content. Whenever they find a new website or an update to a previously indexed page, they register the URL.
Then, the crawlers rapidly scan all of the pages associated with the URL, ensuring that each page meets the search engine’s standards (e.g., no viruses, no illegal products/services).
As the crawlers constantly scan the internet for new and updated pages, they pass on their information to the search engine’s indexing system. The easiest way to think of the indexing system is to imagine a librarian who places all of the new books on the shelves.
Using the data obtained from the crawling bots, the search engine index figures out where each web page should go. It looks at keywords, key information, site coding, and other minute details of the page and assigns categories, tags, and other important data. Then, the pages are filed away into the ever-expanding search engine database.
Once the pages are indexed, they can be displayed to Google searchers. So, when you open Google and type in, “best donut shops near me,” the search engine rapidly scans its database for any donut shops or donut-related media near your geographical location.
It sounds complicated, but all of this happens in less than a second. Pretty crazy, right?
The search engine uses search algorithms to decide which results to display to users. We’ll discuss this more in the next section.
These days, people throw out the term “algorithm” like it’s some artificial super intelligence governing life itself…
What it actually refers to are the multiple, complex algorithms that govern which results display to which users. These algorithms are constantly refined with machine learning programs and the assistance of algorithmic developers. The algorithms use all of the data they’re presented with to ensure that search engine users get the most accurate, high-quality results relating to their search.
Some of the key factors that algorithms take into account include:
The query itself - The algorithm uses contextual meaning to figure out exactly what the user means. For example, if you type in a term relating to the word “apple,” the algorithm will try to figure out whether you’re talking about the fruit, Apple phones, or The Big Apple (NYC). This way, it can present you with the most accurate results.
Context of the query - The algorithms takes other contextual factors into account, such as the user’s GPS location, previous search history, etc.
Page relevancy - Once the algorithm understands the query, it will generate pages that seem to be most relevant to the query and rank them accordingly.
Content quality - In addition to the relevancy of the page, the algorithm double-checks to ensure that the content within the page is good. This means unique/original content, good grammar, use of images/charts, and other quality control issues.
Page usability - The algorithm ensures that the pages are usable. This means that it won’t display broken links, pages with extra-slow loading times, etc.
The Google algorithm is being constantly tweaked and updated to ensure that it provides Google users with the most accurate, intuitive results possible.
Since the algorithm has machine-learning functionality, it makes many micro-updates to itself. Additionally, Google’s dev team rolls out a few core updates every year that are larger, more comprehensive updates. These core updates often significantly impact SEO tactics and may require webmasters to implement new SEO strategies to ensure their pages still rank well.
The executives at Google are smart enough to understand that algorithms need more than just computer learning and informational data to be improved. So, Google also relies on human user opinions to help refine its algorithms.
Google employs many so-called search quality raters, who help to evaluate search results and ensure that the results they’re getting in SERPs results are accurate, trustworthy, and reliable. They’re required to follow a set of guidelines, allowing them to score each result.
Search quality raters specifically pay attention to sites ranking in the YMYL category. This stands for Your Money, Your Life, and includes topics such as financial advice and medical-related topics that could potentially affect someone’s health and wealth.
Obviously, Google wants to make sure that misinformation isn’t being spread across the internet and ruining or endangering its users’ lives.
If you’re a webmaster, then your highest priority should be getting your website to rank high on SERPs results for primary keywords that you want to rank for. For example, if you own a local pizza shop, then you’ll want your restaurant’s website to be easily displayed to locals who are searching for local pizza shops. This is where SEO comes in.
Search engine optimization specialists use all of the latest data and information on Google’s algorithm to tweak your website and content and ensure that it ranks on the first couple of pages of search engine results. This means that your site will get more organic traffic and you’ll convert more sales.
The key “success factors” that help your site rank higher are areas where SEO experts work to improve your site. This could involve creating articles and posts on your site designed to rank for specific keywords, making your website faster and easier to use, adding quality references and sources, or just broadening your brand’s online presence in general.
So, with that being said, here are some of the top ranking factors that you should understand to ensure that your SEO is done correctly:
E‑A‑T: Google’s last major algorithm update focused on evaluating the Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness of a website. This means that your page’s content should contain accurate information in a well-written format, linking back to original sources and studies to back it up (especially if your site focuses on financial/medical information).
Targeted Content: Your site should have content pages that are optimized for specific keywords and related search terms. This makes it easier for the algorithm to display relevant content to Google searchers.
Unique Content: All of your site’s content should be unique. If the algorithm detects plagiarism, it will quickly down-rank your site and red-flag it as scammy.
Link Quality: Your site should have external links that lead to high-quality, external informational sources. It should also have a good internal linking structure that allows your visitors to navigate to key target pages, keeping them on your site for longer.
Easily Indexed Site: Your site should be able to be easily indexed by search engine crawlers. If it’s not indexed or has [robot.txt] programs that prevent key pages from being read, this can downgrade your SEO.
Good CTR: Your click-through rate is the percentage of search users who view your SERPs listing and actually click through to your website. To improve your CTR rate, you’ll want to use engaging titles and meta descriptions that capture viewers’ attention.
Site Speed: Most internet users are easily frustrated by slow-loading websites. This means that you’ll want to optimize your site to ensure that it has a fast loading time.
Mobile Optimized: Since an increasing majority of Google search users are searching from their phones, you’ll want to ensure that your site is optimized to display well on mobile devices such as phones and tablets.
One of the easiest ways to get a detailed snapshot of how your site is performing is to use Ranktracker’s Web Audit tool. This tool quickly and efficiently scans your site, analyzing key areas that need improvement, making notes of what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong.
The Web Audit tool grades your site on a scale of 0-100 (with 100 being the highest score) on over 100 different quality points. It scans your site’s usability, link structure, keyword performance, and how many pages you have indexed.
Most importantly, our Web Audit tool prioritizes all of the fixes you need to make so that you can make the most important improvements first!
A lot of webmasters get caught up in all of the different factors that algorithms use to rank websites. This can sometimes lead to quite a bit of confusion and frustration.
However, if you really pay close attention to most of these factors, you’ll notice that they’re all centered around one key aspect of your website: Quality Content.
Google’s algorithm is focused on providing its search users with the highest quality content and results possible. Most of the time, this just means producing really well-written content, content that’s informational and accurate, and presenting it all in a well-laid out, easy-to-read manner.
Of course, you’ll still need to work on additional factors like improving your site structure and speed, using quality links, and increasing your click-through rate. Many of these things require a bit more technical knowledge relating to web design and copywriting, though.
Creating high-quality content is something that anybody can do, regardless of your technical knowledge. As long as you understand your product, service, and brand, you should be able to convey the knowledge to your website viewers in a way that’s informational and easy to digest.
This represents the search engine algorithm’s switch to focusing on improving the user’s experience rather than grading sites based on fixed technical factors.
By now, you should have a relatively good idea of how search engines work, how they grade web pages, and the SEO tactics that you can employ to increase your SERPs ranking. The biggest thing to remember is that today, Google’s algorithm is primarily concerned with providing users with the best experience possible.
So the next time that you’re looking at your website, try to view it as an outsider. Pretend you’re trying to learn something for the first time and really look at your content. Is it easy to read? Does it make sense? Are there helpful graphs and images to give context to your content?
The good news is that you can use all of your Ranktracker tools to analyze and improve your site day-by-day. From performing advanced keyword research and analysis to real-time updates and audits of your site’s SEO metrics, our tools like the Keyword Planner, SERP Checker, and Web Audit tool will ensure that your efforts are efficient and most importantly - generate results!
Until next time, happy ranking!