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In: Search

Search Marketing in 2016: How Does a Search Engine Work?

by Lyndsay Peters - Jan 26, 2016
Large old Dutch library in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

If you’ve ever started an online business, chances are you’ve heard about SEO, the process of making your website friendly to search engines. It can be hard to figure out who is right and who is wrong without understanding how a search engine operates the way it does. With these basics in mind, however, you’ll be better able to evaluate your website and any SEO advice you’re given in the future.

Read the Search Marketing in 2016 Series
How Does a Search Engine Work?
Search Engine Special Features
Introduction to Search Console
Keyword Analysis in Google Search Console
How Does Google See Your Site?


What is a Search Engine?

A search engine's goal is to be your friendly-local-internet-librarian robot. Really, that’s what the goal is – to be the place to go when you need to know what you should be reading on a given subject. That’s the top mission of search engines.
Many businesses are struggling to understand search, now that it has become such an important way for businesses to reach new customers and readers. Many people have found themselves trying to optimize a website for search without having a solid understanding of what a search engine really is, and how a search engine makes decisions.

Search engines have a few basic components:

1. Spiders. Search engine spiders do what’s called “crawling” websites. A spider is actually just a program that’s run by the search engine company, and it visits different web pages in order to learn as much as it can about them.
2. An Index. The Index is where a search engine keeps all of the information it has collected about websites with its spiders. Just like books in a library, your search engine has tagged and filed away information from as many websites as possible, in order to provide that information to you just when you need it.
3. An Algorithm. You’ve likely heard this word before, in search engine related blog posts or math class. A search engine uses an algorithm to decide what websites are most relevant and important to a given search term. An algorithm is a very complex equation that weighs hundreds of different factors about a website in order for the search engine to judge whether to provide it as a search result.
4. Results Pages. Once you put in a search term and hit enter, you are taken to the Search Engine Results Page. This is where you scroll through information and decide what websites you’d like to click and read more about. Your behavior on this page can actually influence the algorithm’s decisions for future searchers (no pressure!).

Index, Rank, and Content All Work Together.

Results pages feature links to websites that have different rankings (also called positions). The algorithm is ranking these pages by how relevant they think the page is to the phrase that you put in the search box. The page title and description you see on this page was crawled by a spider and stored by the search engine in its Index, so that it could be delivered to you quickly.

How to Catch a Spider

So how can your website play nice with search engines to ensure that you show up in searches? You want to learn all of the things that send the right message. Start by learning the features of your website that search engines use to document your information.
To follow the steps provided below, you will need a Google Search Console account. This is easy to set up, and requires uploading an HTML file to verify that you own your website.
1. Help the spiders find you. Use a WordPress plugin like Yoast to automatically generate an XML sitemap. Log into Google Search Console and submit your sitemap. Here’s how.
2. Be easy to index. Provide descriptive page titles, URLs, and page descriptions in order for search engines to easily discover what your website is about, and what information is on each of your pages. Find out how many of your sites have been indexed by visiting this page.
3. Be friendly to the algorithm. This is generally where your marketing company comes in – my job at ATAK is to pay close attention to the algorithm, and there’s still more for me to learn about it all of the time.
However, there are a few easy things you can do: Be clear and descriptive in your writing, make it easy for people to use your website, and provide links and logical paths for your readers (and for search spiders!). Learn how to see the search terms bringing people to your site here.
4. Make your results appealing. Search engines count how often your site is clicked on in search results pages, so you have to make it count. On your website, the title and page description you want to show up in a search engine results page is called your “Meta Title” and “Meta Description”. These should clearly describe your website and give the reader a reason to be interested in you.
Yoast and other WordPress plugins provide very easy ways for you to make these descriptions interesting. You only get 150 characters, so make sure you draw the reader in and make your website look extra appealing! If you use Yoast, a preview of your search results will appear below all of your pages and posts when editing.
Of course, there is a lot more to this – using Google Analytics to track your traffic, and Search Console to learn what searchers do on your site, then analyzing what pages are being visited and which content is turning users off. However, setting up these basic tools will make it much easier and faster for Google to index your website, so that you can show up in search engines.
Before you dig into tools like Google Analytics and get really technical with your tracking, make sure that your website is packed full of good, useful content that people want to read. If your website is getting clicked and read, you’re going to get ahead much faster than if you make endless technical changes to your code and let your writing suffer.
View the next post in the Search Marketing for 2016 series: Search Engine Special Features.
If you need some help putting this in perspective and into practice for your website, the team at ATAK is ready to help. Get in touch with us for a quote, or come join us for a meeting in our Downtown LA office.

Lyndsay Peters

Lyndsay Peters is Director of Search Marketing at ATAK Interactive. She's also the one who brings a dog to work to keep everything around the office just a little more human.

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