Did You Know — How Web Search Engines Work

By SmallBusinessComputing.com Staff | Posted December 23, 2004
Search engines are the key to finding specific information on the vast expanse of the World Wide Web. Without the use of sophisticated search engines, it would be virtually impossible to locate anything on the Web without knowing a specific URL, especially as the Internet grows exponentially every day. But do you know how search engines work? And do you know what makes some search engines more effective than others?

There are basically three types of search engines: Those that are powered by crawlers, or spiders; those that are powered by human submissions; and those that are a combination of the two.

  • Crawler-based engines send crawlers, or spiders, out into cyberspace. These crawlers visit a Web site, read the information on the actual site, read the site's meta tags and also follow the links that the site connects to. The crawler returns all that information back to a central depository where the data is indexed. The crawler will periodically return to the sites to check for any information that has changed, and the frequency with which this happens is determined by the administrators of the search engine.

  • Human-powered search engines rely on humans to submit information that is subsequently indexed and catalogued. Only information that is submitted is put into the index.

In both cases, when you query a search engine to locate information, you are actually searching through the index that the search engine has created; you are not actually searching the Web. These indices are giant databases of information that is collected and stored and subsequently searched.

This explains why sometimes a search on a commercial search engine, such as Yahoo! or Google, will return results that are in fact dead links. Since the search results are based on the index, if the index hasn't been updated since a Web page became invalid the search engine treats the page as still an active link even though it no longer is. It will remain that way until the index is updated.

So why will the same search on different search engines produce different results? Part of the answer to that is because not all indices are going to be exactly the same. It depends on what the spiders find or what the humans submitted. But more important, not every search engine uses the same algorithm to search through the indices. The algorithm is what the search engines use to determine the relevance of the information in the index to what the user is searching for.

One of the elements that a search engine algorithm scans for is the frequency and location of keywords on a Web page. Those with higher frequency are typically considered more relevant. But search engine technology is becoming sophisticated in its attempt to discourage what is known as keyword stuffing, or spamdexing.

Another common element that algorithms analyze is the way that pages link to other pages in the Web. By analyzing how pages link to each other, an engine can both determine what a page is about (if the keywords of the linked pages are similar to the keywords on the original page) and whether that page is considered "important" and deserving of a boost in ranking. Just as the technology is becoming sophisticated enough to ignore keyword stuffing, it is also becoming savvier to Web masters who build artificial links into their sites in order to build an artificial ranking.

For more information:

Adapted from webopedia.com.

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