Overview of How Search Engines Work

Internet Search Engines
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How do search engines work?

This guide will show you the basics of how to run a search engine optimisation / marketing campaign for yourself at little or no cost. It also gives a good overview of how search engines work.

General information
This guide is broken down into the following sections

How do search engines work?
How the Google search engine works
Submitting your site to search engines
Optimising your site for search engines
Improving your ranking
How do search engines work?
Search engines have a vast database of web pages (they do not really search the actual web when you use them ? they search an old copy of it in their own database). They do not contain every web page on the internet (although they do contain billions of pages ? Google claims in excess of 4 billion). When you use a search engine you enter a "search term" and all pages containing this "search term" are retrieved and listed for you. That's it, pretty simple really.

How do search engines compile and update this vast database of web pages? Search engines use a piece of software called a "crawler" (sometimes known as a "robot" or a "spider"). Sounds intriguing doesn't it? It's not complicated - a "crawler" just spends its time reading web pages (and logging their content in the database) then following the links on the page and going off and reading those pages. They are called "crawlers" because you can imagine them going off and "crawling" round the web. In reality they are small software programs running on the search engine companies computers, in fact the search engine will be running hundreds (if not thousands or more) of them simultaneously on vast banks of computers.

The key factors to remember with a search engine are.

How do I get my site in the database? - In other words how do I get the spider to come and visit me?
How do I get my site at the top of the list for certain "search terms"?
You will be pleased to know that getting your site in the database in the first place is fairly easy, most of the larger search engines have a place to submit sites (and it's usually free) or just get a link on a page that is already in the database and the next time the crawler comes round it will start crawling your site from this link. Some search engines won't crawl the web looking for your site and the only way to get into their database is to submit to them. Others may find you without needing to submit directly to them (typically if their crawler finds a link to your site from elsewhere on the internet). Once you have submitted your site to a search engine it can take a while before it will appear in the index. This is because there is sometimes a delay between submission and crawling (sometimes this can be weeks or occasionally a month or more).

The second question (How do I get my site at the top of the list for certain "search terms"?) is a little trickier ? well a lot trickier actually. First you have to decide on what search terms you think people looking for your site will use, lets use an example, suppose you are a florist, you want to sell your flowers over the internet. You have to decide what "search terms" a prospective customer would use if they were looking to buy flowers over the internet, I will suggest a few

"online florist"
"send flowers online"
And so on, you get the idea. Now when your prospect / customer types those search terms into the search engine they are going to get a list of web pages that contain those terms. Now you have already got your site in the database, and if any of the pages on your site contain those search terms then they will be somewhere in the list returned to the user. Well done you might say, but bear in mind that if they are not on the first few (maybe even the first) page of results the prospect will never see them (think about how you use search engines do you go through all the pages to get to page 10, or 20).

The key thing here is how does a search engine decide to rank its list of results? It is difficult to say for sure as many search engines consider this a trade secret, you see from the search engines perspective the goal is to provide the search engine user the most relevant results at the top of the list, it is to help the search engine user to find what they are looking for. From your perspective your goal is to get the search engine user to find your site (you are not completely at odds with each other as you also want relevance ? if you are selling flowers you don't want visitors to your site who are looking to buy a car ? that would be a waste of everyone's time and resource). You need to convince the search engine that your site is more "relevant" for your keywords.

How does a search engine define your sites relevance? Most search engines use a combination of the following (although this list is not exhaustive and may differ especially with more minor search engines).

Search term frequency (how often search terms occur in a page in relationship to other text)
Location of search terms in the document (are they in the page title? are they in headings? are they near the top of the page? are they in bold?)
The site's design (does it use frames? how fast does it load? Has it changed recently?)
How many pages in the site contain the search terms?
Link popularity - Pages with more links pointing to them are more relevant.
The last entry on this list "Link popularity" is interesting, I will explain further in the section below "The Google search engine" as link popularity applies specifically to Google. To give you an idea of Google's importance to you just look at the following figures showing the 4 largest search engines on the web are.

Google 56.1%
Yahoo 21.5%
MSN Search 9.4%
AOL Search 3.7%
These figures may be slightly out of date and are constantly changing but they give a general idea.

Although these figures may be a little out of date they show a major sway to Google and it's easy to find more convincing figures of Google's overwhelming popularity recently. As you can see over 56% of search engine users use Google ? its dominance is clear, it remains to be seen whether this trend will continue or whether the competition fights back. Either way you cannot afford to ignore Google.

How the Google search engine works
I will cover "link popularity" and the Google search engine here in its own section simply because (as you can see above) it is important to you to rank well on Google.

Google is a relative newcomer to the search engine scene but has achieved massive market share in just a few years. The reason for this is that Google ranks its results differently than other search engines, and users seem to think that it gives a better indication of relevance.

The system Google uses is called PageRank? and is based on a number of factors (although its exact formula is a "company secret"); the key factor is "link popularity". Put simply the more people that link to a website the more relevant Google considers it to be. It doesn't just stop there, its not just about links, its about "quality links" if Google considers the page carrying the link to be very relevant then this will up the linked sites relevance (or PageRank) even more.

You can find Google's own explanation of PageRank at http://www.google.com/technology/.

This can be quite confusing at first but when you think about it, it does make sense (although arguably it's not perfect and many criticisms can be made of it ? but I will leave those to another day as they are outside the scope of this document). The principle behind it is that every time a page on the internet links to another page it is "voting" for that page, a vote is cast presumably because the person responsible for the page thinks that the linked page is relevant, it follows those pages with lots of "votes" must carry relevant content. All Google is really doing is counting these votes then using them to sort its search results.

Now you understand all this I will demonstrate how to submit your site, optimize your site for the search engines and improve your ranking (include your Google PageRank?) in the next sections.

Submitting your site to search engines
So know you have decided to submit your site you want to know how to go about it. Well your choices are quite simple you could either go to each search engine manually or use an automatic submission service. One thing to remember about an automatic submission service is that it will submit your site to lots of smaller search engines you haven't heard of (as well as the top ones listed above). This is fine but you need to remember that due to the smaller volume of users for these smaller search engines you will receive less traffic from them. It's still worthwhile but you might prefer to use the automatic search for the smaller engines and then take a little more time doing some manual submissions for the larger ones.

Submitting to a search engine is fairly simple, first you have to find the link to submit a site then you usually have to fill in a page of details about your site. Some sites will want to charge you for this service, Yahoo for example only accepts paid submissions for certain types of site and category and you will have to decide if it's worth the cost ? you can use the list of the most used search engines above to help you decide. If you are considering paying for inclusion, be careful as your money may be better spent on starting a pay-per-click advertising campaign (see below).

Optimising your site for search engines
Now this is an interesting section, lets start with a few basic rules; it used to be quite easy to fool the search engines. People used to use lots of tricks to get their sites up the rankings. Its much more difficult now, techniques used to fool the search engine and to artificially improve rankings are frowned upon by the search engines, and they may in some cases result in your site being removed from the search engine index (database).

Techniques such as

"Invisible" or "hidden" text that only the search engine spiders can read but not readable by a human (this is done by making text white on a white background or hiding it a long way down the page, off the screen, and then disabling the browser scroll bars so the user cannot scroll to the text). You can cram this text with lots of keywords and other content that the search engine spider will read
Another favourite technique is called link spamming or farming (this is done by having sites called link farms whose only purpose is to try and artificially increase your Google PageRank)
Putting misleading keywords in your metatags (using metatag keywords that don't correspond to the actual content of your page)
There are many more similar techniques that for one reason or another no longer work and may even lower your search engine ranking. I mention them here as a warning not to go down this route, and if it is suggested to you by someone (a friend or search engine specialist perhaps) be very careful.

What can you do? Here is a list of things you can do to make your site more "search engine friendly"

Have good quality, well written content
Make sure that you use your keywords in the text, don't over use keywords as this will have a negative effect and make sure the keywords always form parts of human readable sentences (don't whatever you do just list all your keywords somewhere on the page)
Don't overuse flash or images, especially flash, unless you are clever and have some alternative text based site. A 100% flash website will not be found by the search engine spiders ? they just can't read the content on the site and will ignore it completely. You need to have lots of words for the spiders to read
Make sure your pages are fast loading, this does make a difference and is obviously good sense anyway
Make sure you have a good network of links from all the pages of your site (this is again good sense and any site with a good navigation system will have this anyway) the spiders follow links, so make sure you have plenty for them to follow
Think about your page titles (the text that shows in the title bar of your browser) it is considered more important that other text, make sure you use it (some people forget) and make sure it contains keywords (it should always be relevant to the content on the page)
Here is a nice tip, look at your competitor's website (or those sites appearing top on the keywords you want to be top on) and examine their sites to see what they have done. Also Google has a nice feature that shows you what pages carry links back to your site (the all important votes). You can check who links to your and then do the same for your competitors, this will help you understand why you are where you are in the rankings. A couple of points here, not all links are shown (only "important" ones ? pages with a high PageRank). It's easy to do, for example for our website we would type "link:http://www.easywebstore.co.uk/" into the search box and click search. There is also a quick way to find all web pages that contain your URL, again for our site we would type "@http://www.easywebstore.co.uk/" into the search box and click search.

Improving your ranking
Basic home truth (unless you are prepared to invest in a pay-per-click advertising)

The best way to get good placements in search engines today is to have good quality relevant content on your site and lots of good quality links (backlinks) into your site. This will get you high up in position and lots of hits from search engines users.

One way to get the most from the backlinks you have (or are going to get) is to concentrate on the actual text of the hyperlink (this is usually the bit highlighted and underlined in blue) - the actual text that a user clicks on. Google places very high importance on the link text so make sure it's relevant and contains the search terms you are aiming for. One thing to remember when doing this is that Google will expect to see somewhere on the linked page the text that appeared in the link. If it does not it will not count the backlink

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