SEO 101: How Search Engines Work

A big question most new website owners ask is what they need to do to start showing up in search engines, particularly the big three: Google, Yahoo, and Bing (formally Microsoft Live). The process of making a site more visible to search engines – at least by natural means – is called Search Engine Optimization, or SEO for short.

SEO: How Search Engines Work

One can also purchase search engine placement through Pay-Per-Click (PPC) programs like Google AdWords; this is an often expensive and time consuming process. This is referred to as Search Engine Marketing, or SEM, and is beyond the scope of this series.

While SEO can be a very involved and technical process, the basics are very simple to pick up and good for anyone with a website to be knowledgeable of. An important place to start is understanding how search engines work on a fundamental level.

How Search Engines Work:

Search engines use programs calls “spiders” or “bots” to find content on the internet. These spiders simply go through websites, following links to new pages/sites and reading the content of every page they find. Search engines can only read written content; they cannot understand what an image is showing, and they have limited ability to read content embedded into other programs like Flash.

When a spider finds your website it begins to read through all the content from top to bottom, this is called “indexing”. Every time the spider finds a link, either to another page on your site or to a completely different site, another spider is created to follow the link and indexes the content on that page/site.

The search engines take the content their spiders index and use it to figure out what that site/page is about. It does this using a complicated equation, called an algorithm, that reads the content and prioritizes it based on a number of factors, such as how frequently certain keywords (words and phrases related to a specific subject, like “Chinese Food” or “Automotive Insurance”)  are used, how they are used (regular text, navigation, bold, headlines, etc.), and where they appear in relation to other content on the site.

Search engines also rank your site based on the number of other sites that link to you, how highly those sites are rated, and how similar the content is between the two sites. For instance, if you have a website for your lawn service, a link from a landscaping advice website would be much more valuable than a link from a dry cleaner.

How this Helps:

Knowing how search engines work gives you a lot of valuable insight on the basics of SEO. Because the spiders crawl through content, you know that well written, relevant content is essential to performing well. Since spiders navigate throughout your site by following links, you know that you need to provide a clear way for spiders to traverse between the pages on your site, and that every page needs to be connected to at least one other (preferably more) to ensure that it gets found. And because spiders find new sites by following links, you know that getting other sites to link to you will help search engines find your site and return frequently to capture new information.

You can use this information to build a solid foundation for a Search Engine Optimized website. With well-written content, a reliable system of inter-linked pages, and incoming links from related websites, you’ll be well on your way to better performance in Google and other engines.

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