How Search Works

Google is a fully automated search engine that uses software known as “web crawlers” that explore the web on a regular basis to find sites to add to our index. In fact, the vast majority of sites listed in our results aren’t manually submitted for inclusion but are found and added automatically when our web crawlers crawl the web.

Google Search works in essentially three stages:

Crawling: Google searches the web with automated programs called crawlers, looking for pages that are new or updated. Google stores those page addresses (or page URLs) in a big list to look at later. We find pages by many different methods, but the main method is following links from pages that we already know about.

Indexing: Google visits the pages that it has learned about by crawling, and tries to analyze what each page is about. Google analyzes the content, images, and video files in the page, trying to understand what the page is about. This information is stored in the Google index, a huge database that is stored on many computers.

Serving search results: When a user performs a Google search, Google tries to determine the highest quality results. The “best” results have many factors, including things such as the user’s location, language, device (desktop or phone), and previous queries. For example, searching for “bicycle repair shops” would show different answers to a user in Paris than it would to a user in Hong Kong. Google doesn’t accept payment to rank pages higher, and ranking is done algorithmically.

Google has updated its ‘How Search Works’ website which contains information on how Google organizes, ranks, and tests search results. The website was launched in 2016 and explains the inner workings of Google’s search engine in a way that even non-SEOs can understand.

It’s an ideal resource to send to clients who know little to nothing about search. As a reader of Search Engine Journal, on the other hand, you may find the information a little basic. One thing that does make the site worth checking out is the annual updates on search changes. The How Search Works site is updated every year with the latest data on Google’s tests and evaluations of search results.

The site currently includes data about 2020, a year when Google ran:

  • 4,887 launches in search results
  • 17,323 live traffic experiments
  • 383,605 search quality tests
  • 62,937 side-by-side experiments

If you’ve checked out Google’s How Search Works Site before, he’s what’s changed since you last saw it.

What’s New?
Google says it’s launching a “fully-redesigned” How Search Works website. Cosmetically speaking, that appears to be true.

I spent some time combing through the redesigned site and comparing it side-by-side with a cached version. After trying to find some useful new insights to pull from the new version, I couldn’t uncover any changes to the content itself.

To be sure, the content was edited and the wording was tweaked, but there’s nothing new to learn from it. The updated site contains all the same information, it’s just presented in a different way. To Google’s credit, however, the changes in the presentation do come with usability improvements.

There’s a lot less clicking around in the redesigned How Search Works. Take the old page on search features, for example. This is what it looked like before :

As a visitor you would have to click on each one of those individually to learn about them, then hit the back button on your browser and click another one until you went through them all.

Google’s new page on search features allows you to consume all the content seamlessly by scrolling down the page. No clicking is necessary.

In fairness, while I couldn’t find any new information on the updated site, what was already there was plenty sufficient

After writing a whole post announcing the redesign, Google’s Danny Sullivan got the news out on Twitter as well which made this feel like a major change.

If you looked at the site thinking, “what’s new?” The answer is: not a lot! This is the kind of update that probably would have gone unnoticed had Google not said anything about it. You can judge for yourself by perusing the updates to the How Search Works site.

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