5-Minute SEO School: How Does a Search Engine Work?

There’s a lot of talk about how to get your page ranking in the search engines. We use search engines daily—whether we’re trying to find the best new restaurant or we need to take a quick trip to a reliable car mechanic, search engines are the heart of local, organic search.

So, you know what search results are. And you know how to type (or speak) a query into a search engine. But how does the search engine actually work? In this bite-size guide, we’ll go over a few of the key elements that make search engines function.

Disclaimer: search algorithms are much more complicated than indicated here; however, this is intended to give you a comprehensive overview so that you can understand the foundation of a search engine.


When you first publish a website, that means other people can visit it online. Search engines “crawl” the internet and find new content, then “index” it accordingly.

The index is enormous—think like a telephone book, except with billions of listings. Included are discovered URLs and any initial information the search engine finds relevant. For example:

  • Keywords: What is the page all about?

  • Date: When was the page published? Is the content new? Is it relevant?

  • Content: How much content is there, and what type of information does it include? For example, does the page include microdata such as schema? (Meaning information embedded within the code that helps the search engine decipher crucial information about the content of the page.)

  • Bounce Rate and User Engagement: As we discussed, user experience is essential to a page’s ranking. The “bounce rate” refers to how quickly people navigate away from a page. If someone is visiting your page and immediately hitting “back”, then the search engines see that as a poor user experience with low engagement, and they are less likely to rank your page highly, because people aren’t finding what they need there. Conversely, if people are spending a lot of time navigating your site and engaging with your content, the search engines see this as a positive experience, so they are more likely to deem your site relevant.

Creepin’ and Crawlin’

As mentioned above, search engines “crawl” so that they can index. There are a few reasons your site might be crawled, but not indexed:

  • Robots.txt exlusions: Files are included with your site that tell search engines whether they should go ahead and index or move right along. If you have a robots.txt file exclusion, the search engine knows it shouldn’t visit your site anymore, and it moves along without indexing the URL.

  • Canonical and Noindex/Nofollow Tags: If you have a rel=canonical tag in your site, it tells search engines that page is canonical (the original) and they should rank it. If you have pages with duplicate or highly similar content and the canonical tag exists on the preferred page, those pages will NOT be indexed. Or, you can cut right to the chase and put a “noindex” tag in the code—this just tells the search engine not to index the site. A “nofollow” tells tells the crawler not to follow any links on the page.

  • 404 Errors: You’ve seen them before. It’s that “404 Page Not Found” response. Search engines take one look at that and get rid of that broken URL.


The last element we’ll discuss is backlinks. Google loves backlinks from high-quality sources. This simply means that another site has linked to yours. If the site is a reliable one, Google looks upon that favorably. It makes sense: If someone is linking to a site, they must want their visitors to click that link and see what the site has to offer. Sites with high numbers of backlinks have higher rankings than those that sort of exist on their own little island with no backlinks.

People have attempted to spoof the search engines in the past by buying domains and just directing links at their preferred site. These links had no equity or quality, and the search engine algorithms quickly corrected for this, punishing the site owners who attempted to cheat their way to the top. So make sure you’re earning those backlinks honestly, and NEVER attempt to game the system.

This concludes our quick SEO lesson! There is so much to learn about how search engines work, but these are a few of the most important elements to understand.

If you’re interested in working with us to get the most out of your website, we’d be happy to help! Just get in touch!

#5minuteseoschool #searchresults #localseo #locallistings

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