Understanding how search engines work allows you to tactically and strategically focus on search engine optimization (SEO) when building your website and creating webpage content. Below, we’ll walk you through the basics of how search engines function and how you can improve your visibility in search engine results.
How Does a Search Engine Work?
The primary function of a search engine is to provide the best and most relevant results for a user’s search query. It does this through three major components: a search index, a search algorithm, and a search engine results page (SERP). The index is a library of stored information culled from webpages; the algorithm is what determines how search engines pull that information whenever a search query is submitted; and the SERP is how the information is ordered and displayed within the results for a submitted search query.
To find information, store it, and present it whenever a user submits a search query, the search engine must crawl, index, and rank all webpage content—with the exception of content set to “noindex.”
Crawling is the discovery process search engines use to find new or updated webpage content for the search index. Some of the ways that Google discovers webpage content are through sitemaps, URL submissions, backlinks, and more. Once site crawlers—also called web crawlers or search engine spiders—have discovered a webpage, they follow links from that page to continue mapping out available content.
Indexing refers to how search engines understand crawled webpages and file away information for later use. Google analyzes page content to determine what the content is, how it’s formatted, what keywords and phrases it uses, when it was last updated, how users typically engage with it, and more. This information is then stored so that the algorithm can reference it when serving results for related search queries.
Ranking is what happens when Google’s algorithm pulls information from its index and orders it from most relevant to least relevant in SERPs whenever a user submits a search query. In determining search engine rank, Google serves results based on search intent, relevance of webpages, content quality, user experience, and local factors, such as where the user is, what device they’re using, and previous search history.
How to Improve Search Engine Visibility
Now that you know how crawling, indexing, and ranking works with Google’s search engine, you can employ SEO tactics and strategies that can help you improve your overall visibility in search results.
Help Search Engines Crawl Your Content
Having clear website navigation can help Googlebots crawl your website and discover new content. When designing your website, make sure you have a visible menu featuring your top-level pages, as well as internal linking (like breadcrumbs) that provides pathways to all of your webpages. You can also submit a sitemap to Google Search Console to help lead page crawlers to your content.
Keep in mind that Google has a crawl budget—that is, a maximum amount of pages it will crawl before it leaves your website. Large websites should practice crawl budget optimization to prioritize what pages are the most important for crawling, and then organize the site accordingly. At the same time, there may be pages you don’t want crawled—like old pages with thin content, duplicate URLs, special promo code pages, or staging/test pages. You can use a robots.txt file to direct Google away from these pages.
Ensure Your Webpages Get Indexed
For Google to understand the content on your webpages, your content should follow SEO best practices. Be sure to fill out metadata for each webpage, format content with header tags, and include valuable keywords throughout the page. You might also consider adding schema markup. All of these things make it easier for the search engine to index your content and reference it later in search engine results for relevant queries.
If you’ve followed all of the technical advice for how to get your site indexed by Google and still aren’t seeing results, your content or web design may need some adjustments. Remember, Google prefers high-quality content and pages with good user experience, so if your webpages are lacking in these areas, they may not show up in SERPs. You can check which pages have been indexed by using Google Search Console.
Focus on Building Authority for Search Rank
Even if your online content has been crawled and indexed, that doesn’t mean it will automatically appear at the top of search engine results. There are several search engine ranking factors that can impact how and where you’re found in SERPs, including mobile-friendliness, topical authority, and backlinks.
Part of Google’s algorithm, PageRank, estimates the importance of a webpage based on the quality and quantity of links pointing to it. You’re more likely to achieve a high SERP position by building a quality backlink profile. Backlinks provide a positive signal to Google that demonstrates your credibility and trustworthiness as an online resource, which can help you appear in more searches.