When you go online and navigate to a search engine to find something that you’ve been looking for, have you ever wondered how it brought you those listings? Have you ever scratched your head at some of the results that have been displayed? Or are you just curious as to how a search engine works in general so you can have a better experience? Then look no further! We’ll help to solve some of the mysteries of the search engine here for you now, and the information in this article should help you to better use search engines, as well as better understand and sort the results offered by them.
When I asked Annette Bernardino, a Service Desk Manager at a local-based search engine named Citysearch about whether or not she thought search engines were truly efficient, she said “if you equate efficiency to the speed in which information is delivered to someone after they request it, I’d say they’re very efficient. It’s definitely quicker than getting into your car and driving to the local library, only to take the chance that they’re closed.” But like any other tool, it all depends on how it is used.
To begin, we should first understand that there are different types of search engines, and that they meet our needs in different ways. Some search engines use what’s called “human-powered” directories. This means that an actual human being will submit a description of the entire site and have it entered into the search engine’s directory. When a search is performed, it looks through these descriptions to find a possible match for our query or search term, and then display any related pages. The actual content of the Web page has no real effect on the search results, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good if there’s a very clear and thorough description of the site, but if the description is not that precise or accurate, then we may not find the right page we need.
The second and more common type of search engine is called a “crawler-based” search engine, which is a little more complex. A crawler-based search engine works in three major steps. The first step is the “web-crawler,” also known as a “spider,” for the way it crawls the world-wide web. The crawler travels the entire web and goes to every URL it finds, visiting every page on that Website. It then analyzes the contents of every page and collects all the main keywords and data into an index, which is like a database where all the information that is found gets stored and categorized. This is much more dynamic than the human-based search engine, because it can be updated more frequently along with changes to a Website. Normally, web crawlers will visit a page maybe once a month, or every two months.
For example, when we type in something like, let’s say, “ferret tracking device,” the search engine will usually break down the query into its separate parts, and look through the index to find web pages that have content related to each of these. So for our “ferret tracking device” example, it will find anything related to “ferret,” or “tracking device.” It may find results like a car GPS tracking system, or an article about how doctors implanted a ferret with a pacemaker. But how does it sort through all of the results and order them on our screen?
Usually there’s a ranking system, which will attempt to put the matches it finds to be more relevant, popular, or reliable towards the top of your results. This way, we might find a website where we can purchase a tracking device for our pets closer to the top of the results page. Most search engines will see how often the search term appears on the web page, as well as the location of where they appear. If our query is in the title, it is more likely an integral part of the web page, and should be a good result to display.
One thing we should also point out here is that although most search engines employ these same basic techniques, almost every company uses its own variations to fine tune its results. There are many sites that make a majority of their income from allowing businesses to pay for better ranking in search results. This may skew the results towards a more commercial or retail direction than desired. We may see an ad for a Ferret brand tracking device included in our results from earlier, for example. Companies bet on the chance that you may want to actually purchase something that you a re looking for, and as stated by Stephanie Brewer, who is a member of the Executive Services team at Yahoo! Search Marketing, “a lot of work goes into making a profitable [search marketing] campaign.” These paid results are called sponsored results, while the results that are not paid for are called “natural” results. Brewer reminds us, though, that sometimes “the sponsored results have better quality checks than the natural results.” We just need to keep this in mind when sorting through the multitude of results that are offered by the search engine for our queries.
At this point, all that’s left is for the search engine software to bring those results up on our computer screen. Now we can look through the results to find what is best suited for our needs. Sometimes we may need to look a little bit harder than other times. Although the programs that are used to pull, rank, and display your results, which are called algorithms, are usually very helpful and quite intuitive, we may sometimes find results which might make us laugh, be confused, or sometimes even cringe. As long as we understand that there are millions of sites out there that have to be sorted though, we can better know why we see the results that we see, and get right to what we need.
Search engines can be a very resourceful tool for finding information, or just looking up anything we might be curious about at any particular moment. There are many different options for where and how to search, though. We can search using one word or an entire phrase. There are search engines more geared towards question based queries, and search engines that are based on your geographical location. There are so many choices to choose from in that world-wide web. We just have to be realistic about the results. It’s still not a perfected science. Annette Bernardino says that one of the biggest misconceptions about search engines is that “they have the best information. I believe that there are many reliable sources out there on the internet, and search engines are used as vehicles that bring those sources to me, as a user/searcher/consumer. But like anything else in the world, they are only as good as the foundation upon which they’re built.”