A Simple Explanation for a Complex Question
But First, a Search Scenario
You’re watching TV and see an ad for a new gadget. Within 10 seconds, you’ve become amazed by this revolutionary product. You wonder how you lived without it for all these years. But you’re no sucker; you’re certain you can find a better deal online than the one the commercial is offering. You pull out your phone and head to everyone’s favorite search engine: Google. Within the top three search results, you find exactly the gadget you’re looking for (but the commercial’s deal did turn out to be better than the online version).
It’s like magic: Translate your thought into a written form, hit the search button and get relevant results; it’s as if you’ve thrown your inquiry into the universe and some higher power gave you back just the right answer, instantaneously. But have you ever wondered: How does Google work? And beyond Google, how do search engines work?
For the fact that you’re reading this blog, we think it’s safe to say you’re at least a little curious. We can help you understand the broad strokes of how search engines work—we won’t get into the nitty-gritty, but after reading this blog, you’ll have a better grasp of the wizardry of search engines.
How Google Works in Three Simply Explained Steps
1.) Crawling (Finding Web Pages)
Crawling is the first step Google takes in determining relevant search results for searchers around the world. In the crawling process, Google catalogs all web pages on the internet. That’s right—ALL PAGES ON THE INTERNET (that’s a lot of pages). After all, how can it give searchers the best result to their inquiry if it doesn’t know what pages exist to direct users to?
Right about now, you might be asking, “Wait, why does Google catalog all pages on the internet? Isn’t there some type of organization or authority—some type of web page registry that keeps track of that?” The answer: No, there is no dedicated organization, government or otherwise, tasked with cataloging what web pages are on the internet. Google and other search engines compile this data by constantly scanning the internet for newly created pages and then adding them to their repository of known web pages.
2.) Indexing (Determining What Those Web Pages are About)
When Google has found new web pages while crawling, the search engine’s next step is determining and understanding what each new web page is about. This process is called indexing. To determine what each web page is about, Google analyzes the content of each web page, then catalogues the content (which includes text, images and video files embedded on each web page) in the Google Index—a huge database stored within what Google describes as “many, many (many!) computers.” (Imagine tens of thousands of processing units in an underground warehouse somewhere beneath the sands of the Sahara Desert. That’s probably not where Google’s database is stored, but we like to flex our imagination as often as possible 😉.)
3.) Serving and Ranking Web Pages (Determining Which Results Best Suit Search Inquiries, Then Displaying Those Results)
And finally, we’ve made it to the magic behind the search results page, and how Google determines the order in which those search results appear after an inquiry has been made. By analyzing content on indexed web pages, Google tries to determine the best answer for the query that’s been entered into its system. How? By cross-referencing information about the searcher—such as location, language and device used to make the inquiry—and the web pages, more specifically the content on those web pages, which is contained in the Google Index. (There are many more factors which Google considers aside from site content when determining search rankings and a web page’s relevance to a searcher, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Now that we’ve shed some light on the magic of search engines and their wizardly ways, we hope you have a better understanding of just how search engines work. Maybe you’ve just become the resident search engine expert in your social circle, telling your family around the dinner table, your half-drunk friends at the bar or your dog (because dogs almost always listen, even though your significant other probably won’t want to) just how Google gives you the results that you’re looking for.