What is a Search Engine and How Do They Work?

Are you looking for the answer to a question? Need to confirm the hours of a new business? Seeking inspiration for a new idea? I guess your first action with these scenarios is to open your phone or computer and type your query into a search bar. You certainly aren’t alone!

The average business reaches 67% of its target audience for the first time through an online search. Whether typing or asking questions, the reality is that finding answers through search engines is deeply integrated into our habits. Today, we’re going to dive deeper into understanding this important tool. 

What Is a Search Engine?

A search engine is a powerful tool for finding and retrieving information online. It’s a coordinated set of algorithms that searches through an extensive database for items that match user-defined criteria. By using search technology, users can quickly access the best sources for their research or business queries and obtain valuable information they might not have been able to find otherwise.

Popular Search Engine Choices:

SEO statistics reveal that one search engine dominates the field; however, there are several options you can consider. Let’s review some of the major search engines available today.

Google

Google is widely regarded as the top search engine globally, maintaining a market share of over 88% since January 2009, according to data collected by Statcounter. Google utilizes a wide array of algorithms known as “ranking systems” to deliver users with swift and precise search outcomes. It also provides well-liked services such as Google Maps, YouTube, and Gmail. Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) contain different search features, such as featured snippets, People Also Ask sections, and knowledge panels, depending on the type of search query.

Bing

Bing is a popular web search engine owned by Microsoft. It stands as Google’s most formidable competitor and has consistently grown its market share since its debut in 2009. Because of Bing’s connection to Microsoft, the search engine often capitalizes on the features of many other Microsoft products for a simple and efficient user experience. Since the introduction of ChatGPT, Microsoft reported that Bing Preview gained over a million new users, resulting in more than 100 million daily active users for the search engine. Bing has continued to see an increase in daily searches.

Bing users also have various services available within the Bing portal; they can shop, compare prices, check reviews, or even follow up on news items inside one hub. Bing’s mission statement is to “deliver experiences that are personalized just for you”—a sentiment that aligns perfectly with Microsoft’s overarching commitment to delivering world-class technologies that empower people across the globe.

Yahoo

Yahoo is an internet search engine that has existed since the dawn of the modern internet. Founded in 1995 by two Stanford Ph.D. students, Jerry Yang and David Filo, Yahoo quickly gained popularity as one of the first sites to offer web-based services. It allowed users to browse various topics, from news and sports to finance and entertainment. As the website’s popularity grew, so did its feature list. The brand eventually began offering various services, including email, IM chat, fantasy sports leagues and games, a directory system for website links, online Yellow Pages, and more. Today’s Yahoo search engine includes everything from breaking news stories to immersive toolbars and everything in between. Due to its longevity in the face of changing technology trends over the years, many view Yahoo as an untouchable pioneer in web-based tech innovation. 

DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo is a search engine that has been on the rise in recent years. The search engine algorithm prioritizes user privacy, which more people seek as online consumption increases. DuckDuckGo does not track or store personal information about its users, meaning you won’t find ads tailored to individual search history and browsing habits. Instead of using the traditional algorithm used by other search engines, DuckDuckGo searches multiple sources to compile an answer page for each query, reducing duplicate submissions and improving their searches’ overall accuracy and speed. In addition, they have features like “bang syntax” that allow you to quickly jump from one domain to another directly from their search page — all without revealing anything about your identity or activity.

Since its launch in 2008, DuckDuckGo has become increasingly popular with users who value privacy and security while browsing the web. They have also built a dedicated community of technically savvy individuals who contribute to improving their service through various open-source projects such as Instant Answers (a feature that enables non-web-based answers) and hackathons worldwide. 

How Do Search Engines Work?

Search engine operations can be broken down into three stages: crawling, indexing, and providing users with an answer. 

  • The crawling stage involves automatic programs, known as “spiders” or “crawlers,” that explore the vast World Wide Web on the hunt for new pages to index. These crawlers look for pages linked via existing web pages or have been explicitly submitted by site owners to be discovered by search engines.
  • Once a page is discovered through URL discovery or submission, each page is thoroughly examined to understand its content, known as indexing. During this stage, information such as title tags, headings, keywords, text content, and other metadata are collected for the search engine’s algorithms to decipher the contents of a webpage. Furthermore, during this process, webpages are organized into categories according to their subject matter where relevant. 
  • Finally, when a user issues a query matching information on one of these indexed pages, they can be provided with an accurate answer within microseconds!

Crawling

The process of searching the web for content is known as crawling. It involves using small pieces of executable code, referred to as spiders, traveling across the web in search of content. These spiders access and index pages by following links on a website and then moving on to the next page. Pages that are indexed are then sent back to the search engine’s central database, where they can be retrieved or served up when someone searches for a keyword or phrase related to that page.

Crawling is an essential part of how search engines work, and it helps them create a vast network of content that users can access quickly and easily. A website must first be crawled and indexed by the spidering technology used by these search engines to appear in search results. Websites are then ranked based on relevant keywords and other factors such as content quality, user engagement statistics, and more. Through this process, websites with higher relevance are ranked higher than others in their respective categories, allowing people to find what they’re looking for quickly and efficiently.

Indexing

Indexing is the process of returning all relevant data to the original repository. Essentially, the information collected is sent back home and stored in an index. This process keeps the data organized by making it easier to find what a user is looking for when navigating through a host system’s database. Instead of processing raw data, contextual understanding can be drawn from the index as its purpose is to structure information in enhanced ways.

Because it harnesses faster search operations and efficient data retrieval, indexing allows users to easily access their desired information quickly. Indexes are designed to promptly retrieve records upon request, allowing for smoother integration with other software systems that use such databases. By creating indexes within databases, individuals searching for any given item across massive amounts of data can efficiently narrow down their results using this method.

Using a site map on your website that connects with Search Console is the best way to keep your content organized for indexing.

Ranking

Ranking is a necessary process that search engines use to organize and prioritize search query results for their users. This process begins by collecting data from all the websites related to a user’s search query and then classifying that information into relevant categories. After this, the specific content of each page collected from these websites is identified using some methods such as text analysis, keyword frequency, sentiment analysis, and more.

Finally, the algorithm most search engines use organizes this data before ranking pages based on relevance according to the user’s query. It then shows the ranked list of results it believes will be most useful or relevant based on these criteria. The goal is to provide users with a website or result most closely related to their search as quickly as possible. In addition, ranking helps maintain order among pages with similar content while also enabling Web crawlers to identify and index websites in a more organized fashion.

As you can see, crawling, indexing, and ranking are algorithms that work together to provide the best user experience for searchers. Businesses that use SEO best practices will help ensure search engine bots crawl, index, and rank web pages accurately.

How Do Search Engines Rank Results?

Search engines rely on factors like query meaning and relevance to rank web pages in search engine results. As a result, two people searching for the same thing may see different results due to differences in user intent, location, and previous searches. For example, searching for “newest smartphones” might get different results than searching for “which smartphone has the best reviews.” This search example would also provide different results if the searcher adjusts the search to include a specific company or location. We know the “newest smartphones Apple” will pull different results than adding Samsung. However, users may not be aware that searching on the East Coast could result in different queries than those on the West Coast. 

Many search engines use language models to understand searcher intent. These algorithms take an input phrase from the user and determine the information the user seeks. These models are constantly learning and updating their understanding of phrases based on billions of searches that occur every day. Additionally, content keywords or tags are matched against keywords from user queries to increase the relevance and accuracy of search engine results. Through this process, search engines can accurately determine which websites will provide users with the most accurate answers or solutions.

Do All Search Engines Give the Same Results?

Search engines are complex algorithms that seek to bring relevant content to a web user. Each search engine takes different approaches when gathering and indexing data, which means different search engines can return differently ranked results and Google SEO differs slightly from Bing SEO. For example, if you’re searching for an obscure query with few results, one engine may rank the results differently than another. Moreover, specific Local SEO cues may influence the search results of your local region compared to other areas of the country or world. For example, using “near me” in a search will narrow your top results to location-based options that serve your area.

The ranking of a particular page also relies heavily on user metrics, such as how many clicks a page has received from past users searching for the same query. Metrics can add up over time and give some pages more weight in various searches than others. With each user going through their personalized journey due to their location already having its structured algorithm, no two people will likely receive the same results when they engage in an online search. Therefore, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with all types of search engines available to compare and contrast the best options for any query you have in mind.

What To Look For in a Search Engine

When people ask what is the best search engine, they often get varying opinions. The reality is that the best search engine is the one you prefer. Google is a popular choice due to its sheer ubiquity. It has become so prominent that many use “Google” as a verb when telling someone how to find answers to their questions. Microsoft’s Bing search engine is also a viable option, and many individuals use it daily. Bing and DuckDuckGo do an excellent job finding relevant information quickly and providing helpful insight into specific queries with easy-to-understand answers.

Ready to index your site? Download our free step-by-step guide.

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