So you want more visitors to your website to read your content or to purchase a product: welcome to SEO. One of the first steps to optimizing your website is understanding how search engines work — What is the goal of a search engine? How do search engines rank pages? And, most importantly, how does Google find your website?
By understanding how Google’s search engine works, you’ll be better able to get your website to rank and get more visitors through great content, whether that’s an article on a blog of a product listing.
What is the purpose of a search engine, like Google?
You can think of Google as a massive digital library. Google’s goal is to discover all the ‘books’ that exist on the internet and create the best experience for browsing their digital library. The same is true for other search engines like Yahoo, Bing, and DuckDuckGo.
You can think of books as individual webpages, not websites, so if your website has 8 million pages then chances are you’d want Google to index all those that are relevant to your visitors. When a user enters words, which SEOs call keywords, into the search box, Google tries to retrieve the most relevant and authoritative content.
How does Google find pages on the web?
It’d be too time consuming for Google to manually discover all the content on the web. In fact, right now Google has 60 trillion webpages in its index, which is continually growing.
To find pages on the web, Google uses software programs called spiders. The spider is an automated robot known as the Googlebot, which travels from website to website identifying, reading, and storing information about the content on those pages.
Spiders start by visiting a few web pages and then follow the links on the page to discover new pages. You can think of a link as a bridge that helps connect webpages together. The more bridges that are built to your webpage or website, the better you’ll rank in search. Googlebot visits and stores information about the next page and so on and so forth until there are trillions of pages in the index.
The process of visiting each page is known as crawling and storing the information in a massive library is known as indexing.
When you perform a Google search, you aren’t searching the whole web, rather you’re searching Google’s library of the web. So, if your website is not in Google’s library then people aren’t able to find your site.
How does Google decide which pages to return for a user’s search?
Performing a simple search query, you’ll find that there are thousands (if not millions) of results. Google uses more than 200 characteristics of your website to determine where it should rank.
All of these characteristics can be bundled into three categories that SEOs like to call ranking factors: topicality, authority, and user metrics. These aren’t static; in fact, Google is constantly fine-tuning the mathematical equations, known as algorithms, which rank pages on the web.
The goal of Google’s programs and formulas is to deliver the best results possible for a user’s query. If you search ‘skateboard shop near me’ then it’s Google’s job to find you the closest, potentially highest rate, shop near you. Google also serves different types of results, like the knowledge graph, snippets, news stories, images, videos, and answers directly to searchers so they don’t have to visit another site. These are known as rich results and can have a positive impact on your site traffic in some cases.
These ranking factors are continuously being updated by the search team. In fact, there are thousands of tests and hundreds of deployments each year. Here are Google’s stated estimates of the number of tests and updates:
- 40,000 precision evaluations through manual testing
- 9,000 side-by-side experiments
- 7,000 traffic experiments
- 500 search improvements in a typical year
How does Google maintain the quality of their search results?
Google’s web spam team is constantly on the lookout for websites that violate their webmaster guidelines. If you’re trying to get your site to rank in search, then you’ll want to make sure that you follow these guidelines and monitor that health of your website with Google Search Console.
If you decide to do something spammy, then Google will five you an opportunity to fix your ways.
Now you know how Google works through indexing and crawling, you’re ready to learn about how to get your site to rank in search.
I find that the next best place to start is keyword research: identifying which keywords will attract people to your site. Check out this post about my keyword research process and how to identify which keywords to target on your webpages.