How search engines work

Search engines: we use them constantly, almost without thinking, to answer every question we could possibly think of. But have you ever stopped to wonder exactly how search engines work?

We covered the fundamentals of SEO in our last blog, so now we’re moving on to the specifics.

As the name suggests, search engines (there are a few, but we really only care about Google) are a vital part of search engine optimisation (SEO), so it’s important that you understand how they work before embarking on any SEO work.

This blog explains the main functions of search engines and what you can do to make sure your website keeps them happy.  

What are search engines for?

Search engines have three basic functions:

  • Crawling

Search engines send out ‘crawlers’ or ‘spiders’ (both of which sound quite creepy!).
These are virtual robots that scour the web for URLs, exploring their content.

It’s through this process that search engines know which websites are relevant to specific search terms.

  • Indexing

Indexing is the storing and organising of the content found by the crawlers – once indexed, your page is in the running to be displayed as a search result.

  • Ranking

Ranking is the final step, where a search engine will display content relevant to a search query, ranked from the most to the least relevant.

Prove that your site is relevant to what users are searching for, and you should be able to climb to the top of the rankings.

Why isn’t my website appearing in the top search engine rankings?

There are many reasons that your site might not rank highly in search results. Some are fairly innocent – for example, your site might simply be new and not yet have been crawled. There can also be more sinister reasons, like your site being penalised by Google for using spamming tactics.

Here are a few more reasons that your website might not appear amongst the first search results.

Back Links

They say that no man is an island and the same is true for websites. Is your site linked to from reputable, high ranking external sites? If not, your own site will be less visible and deemed less authoritative by Google. Even if you do have backlinks from other sites, these may not improve your ranking if these sites aren’t reputable.

Crawling problems

Another reason may be that your site’s navigation is making it harder for Google’s spiders to crawl it. These robots (and your users) love a well-structured, clearly designed website – if yours is all over the place with pages linking to random or unrelated pages, they’re not going to be happy.


Search engines cannot see content that is hidden behind login forms or surveys that must be filled out before you can access a page.

Old or low-quality content

Additionally, Google often dislikes certain website traits, for example old URLs with low quality content or test pages. This old or low-quality content isn’t reflective of your amazing current content, so consider having a spring clean and deleting these kinds of pages.

What can I do to make my site rank higher?

Luckily, there are lots of things you can do to help Google’s crawlers out and boost your rankings.

Focus on quality backlinks

One of the most important is securing high-quality backlinks. Backlinks work similarly to word of mouth recommendations in the real world – the more you have, the higher your own authority will be. The more credible the person giving the recommendation, the more credible you become. Simple stuff, really.

Follow a user-friendly structure

Your site’s information architecture (the way it has been structured) is also crucial. Having a clean, organised information architecture will involve clearly labelling your content so that Google and your users can easily navigate their way around the site. A distinct path of links should guide your user from A to B and beyond.

Keep your content in plain sight

Avoid hiding valuable information behind log-in pages that the crawlers can’t access – there’s no point in creating fabulous content if it’s invisible to Google. If your site uses non-text media forms, such as images, GIFs and videos, be sure to also use written content too, as the crawlers can’t always analyse other media forms.

Satisfy your audience

As always, the focus of any SEO initiative should be on user intent. ‘User intent’ just means the type of content the search engine user had in mind when they typed in a search term.

All of your content, be it video, images or text, must match your target audience’s query intent and aim to satisfy that query. Don’t base your content around a search term that will differ to the user intent behind that search term. Google’s algorithms now prioritise websites that fulfil their user’s intent more than ever before, promoting the content it deems to best satisfy its users.

Now that you know how search engines work, it’s time to start doing your research. Find out all about keyword research and how it will help your website climb up the rankings in our next blog for SEO beginners.

New to SEO or simply need a helping hand with your SEO strategy? Represent can help – we are experts in creating effective SEO strategies that will make a real difference to your business – contact us today.

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