How Do Search Engines Work and What Is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

By the Fancy Comma, LLC Team

This post is part 1 of our three-part series on Search Engine Optimization. Check out our other posts in this series about SEO best practices and worst practices.

“If I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost. That is how I look at it – keep going, keep going come what may.” — Vincent van Gogh

Have you heard of Search Engine Optimization or #SEO?  While it is a very long and complicated-sounding term, the truth is that it is very simple. #MarketingTwitter #DigitalStrategy

Quick Navigation (skip to a section):
What Does the Phrase “Search Engine Optimization” Mean?
An Introduction to Search Engine Results Pages
So, How Do Search Engines Work?
Search Engine Step #1: Crawling
Search Engine Step #2: Indexing
Search Engine Step #3: Ranking

What Does the Phrase “Search Engine Optimization” Mean?

Search Engine Optimization refers to the ways you can make your web content stand out in Google search results pages.  While SEO technically deals with all search engines, we will only talk about Google Search in this article because it is the most popular search engine used worldwide.  SEO deals both with the placement of your website in search engine results and the amount of internet traffic that this placement can generate.

SEO skills are a must-have for anyone who writes web pages, blog posts, articles, or other internet-based content.  Increasingly, SEO is not only used in web writing but also may be used in other forms of media such as YouTube videos and, it is thought, other social media platforms such as Facebook.

To understand SEO, first you have to know a few things about how search engines themselves work.  Here’s a short primer to everything you need to know about search engines.

We hope this guide to search engines and SEO will help you navigate this realm which is often discussed, but rarely defined in specific terms.

SEO primarily concerns the placement of search results on search engine results pages.  We will talk about search engine results pages in the next section.

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An Introduction to Search Engine Results Pages

Understanding search engine results pages, also known as SERPs, is foundational to mastering SEO.  That’s because the purpose of SEO is to give your content the highest search engine ranking possible so more people can see your content.

So, what is a search engine results page?

Stated simply, it is the page that appears on Google after you type in your desired search terms.  These pages can be useful or not so useful. Search results that are more relevant to your query are more likely to be placed at the top of the list on the first few pages, while less relevant content is sorted in the back.

We will talk a lot about search engine results in these posts, so let’s get into some concrete examples.

Example 1: Sometimes, Search Engine Results Pages Can Be Really Useful

Let’s say you are a total space nerd and want to read about what astronauts are doing at NASA.  So, you go to the Google website and type in “NASA astronauts.”  Here’s an example of what you might see on the search engine results page:

In this example, all three top results are from NASA’s website,  That’s good, because that’s exactly what you are looking for!

Your page’s rank on SERPs is one way of measuring the relative importance of web pages.  The rankings may change over time due to a number of factors.

Notice that the first result, NASA’s Astronaut website, has the #1 spot or ranking on this Google search.  In this case, it is also the best and most authoritative source on NASA astronauts.

Example 2: Sometimes, Search Engine Results Pages are Much Less Useful

Sometimes, search engine results pages may not be as useful.  Let’s say you were out shopping and saw a pretty turquoise and red polka dot dress that had pockets, but can’t remember what brand it was.  You may type the details of the dress into Google to see if you can hunt it down.

Here is the search engine results page for “turquoise and red polka dot dress with pockets.”  Unfortunately, in this case, the search results are not as helpful as in the previous example, and do not turn up any turquoise and red polka dot dresses:

screenshot of a google search

What is the point of discussing search engine results pages?  They are foundational to understanding both search engines and SEO.   The goal of SEO is to get more pageviews and web traffic to your site.  More highly ranked pages will get the most attention on Google because that is what people will see first.  So placement on SERPs is critical in the process to get more visibility for your website.

Useful search engine results pages can drive traffic to your site, even if it is not highly ranked.  People may want to click through search results and see what is out there.  Less useful search engine results pages, though, may not have much of an impact on site traffic.  Even if by some stroke of luck you have landed at the top of the list on an unhelpful search results page, it is unlikely that the person would click on your website link, because it is still not what they are looking for.

One thing to notice in our examples between the dress search result and the NASA astronaut search result is the specificity of what we typed in. Google and other search engines use a system of keywords to analyze what was typed into the search bar and match it with best possible results. More specific searches containing very specific words or terms, such as NASA, are more likely to deliver relevant results. Oh the other hand, a wide variety of manufacturers could have sold a turquoise and red polka dot dress with pockets, resulting in a more vague search engine result.

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So, How Do Search Engines Work?

As you saw in the above examples, sometimes search engines serve up exactly what you were looking for — other times, not so much.

In the case of the polka dot dress, the dress may be online on a web page somewhere, but it may be listed by its brand (which, conveniently, you forgot – better take a photo next time!) rather than by attributes such as color and whether it has pockets or not.

In the case of the NASA astronaut example, you were looking for NASA astronauts, and Google automatically served up the NASA web site.  That is how search engines are supposed to work, and it’s all due to the complicated search engine algorithms at work doing the hard stuff so we can find information easily.

Regardless, search engines are pretty useful. You may wonder to yourself, “How does Google work so well sometimes”?

Learning about the finer details of how Google works can help you create the best website possible.  

Let’s go through all the steps that a search engine takes to create the search engine results page.  There are three main steps: crawling, indexing, and ranking.  As we have talked about, the website Google is the most popular search engine around the world.  So, let’s discuss how Google does all of these steps.

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Search Engine Step #1: Crawling

There is no comprehensive list of all of the webpages on the internet, so Google must create its own directory.  That’s why the first step in creating search results is literally “crawling” the web to see what’s out there.  Google’s crawler is named GoogleBot.

In the crawling process, GoogleBot looks for only webpages but also other files, like PDFs, Microsoft Word Files, and other documents that have been posted to the internet.

Google accomplishes this by sending the GoogleBot robot to crawl or browse through the internet and reporting back to Google on what is found.  If GoogleBot finds a page that has many different links, it follows each link, where it may discover new linked pages.  These reports become the basis of the Google search results pages.

Google maintains an index of all crawled pages via a system called Caffeine.  

Crawling is a process that occurs on a regular basis, but it does not happen immediately or even nightly.  That means that if you make changes to a webpage, it may take a while — days to a few weeks — to show up in Google search results.  You can ask Google to recrawl your pages manually, but we won’t discuss that here. 

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Search Engine Step #2: Indexing

The second step is indexing all of the pages the crawler found.  After Google discovers a page in the crawling process, Google tries to figure out what the page is about and stores this information — including images and video files linked to on the page — in the Google index. The Google search index is a massive archive of websites, images, videos, and other content.  You can think of the Google index as the internet’s rolodex or phone book.

Google offers many tips to improve your site’s indexing on their homepage.  These tips are mainly related to how the indexing process works.  Google recommends that netizens do the following:

  • Keep page titles short, yet meaningful, to avoid confusing the indexing robots.  Less is more when it comes to page titles.
  • Use page headings – these will help tell readers (and crawling robots) what the page is about.
  • Use text, rather than pictures or video, as the primary medium.  That doesn’t mean you should not add video or pictures to your web content, but make sure to annotate all embedded video and pictures with alt-text and captions.  Closed captioning can also improve SEO for videos.

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Search Engine Step #3: Ranking

The last step, and the step which is most relevant to SEO, is ranking.  Ranking is the process by which the search engine prioritizes and serves up search results.  The ranking step is the most interesting for bloggers, because they want their articles to show up earlier on results pages. Once your page ranking for a website or blog article is high enough, it may even appear on the first page of search results!

Google’s ranking system is actually made of a series of different algorithms that do different things but work together.  Many have tried to obtain the recipe to this ‘secret sauce’ of the internet, but Google keeps it under wraps. Much of the entry-level advice that is given on SEO is about extrapolating how certain actions (e.g., using keywords) affect your website’s Google search results, and either promoting or discouraging certain practices.

The main goal of Google’s ranking algorithms is to figure out what content is most useful to users doing a Google search, and to serve up that content first, so that Google can remain a useful service.

The only tried-and-true way to improve your page ranking is to offer authoritative content.  Other ways to boost page ranking include doing a keyword analysis and adding specific keywords, and being linked to from a very reputable (i.e., high page ranking) site.

Going back to the NASA example discussed above, if you are a space nerd with a webpage who is trying to get a higher page ranking, it is very unlikely for you to outrank the NASA website, even using keyword analysis.  However, if NASA linked directly to your page, not only would you get more web traffic, but your page ranking would also increase.

Many people looking for content writing are concerned about their Google page ranking.  Others feel that hiring an SEO “expert” is a necessity.  The truth is that it is possible to boost your page ranking with the help of experienced SEO analysts, but, as the Google website states, a bad SEO analyst can actually make your SEO worse.  

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This is the first post in a three-part series on Search Engines and SEO. Check out our entire Search Engine and SEO guide here.


9 thoughts on “How Do Search Engines Work and What Is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

      1. Many such statistics are completely absurd — most do not define what they refer to as “search engines”. Which other search engines did you consider, and have you, yourself come up with a reliable definition of the term “search engine”?

        Liked by 1 person

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