Search engines are programs used to discover content over the Internet. As Internet users, we enter queries on search engines, which then return back a set of results which are supposed to be the most relevant to us. This set of results is also called as SERP (Search Engine Results Page). 

With the explosion of content created on the Internet since 2000s, it became imperative to use a tool which could help users find relevant content. This tool for content discovery is nothing but our search engines. Search engines shot to prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s. With the rise of Google in the early 2000s, Google has since become the best known search engine even till date. In India, Google has a market share of 95% as of 2021. The remaining 5% is held by other search engines like Yahoo, Bing, etc. Needless to say, Google is the search engine of choice for almost everyone, in most parts of the world and also in India. There are countries where Google is not the most dominant search engine, for e.g. in China the dominant search engine is Baidu, in Russia it is Yandex, and in South Korea it is Naver. No matter which search engine we use, their mode of working and ranking results is similar.

So, what exactly happens when we type a query on the Internet ? The steps are as below:

  1. User types a search query e.g. “Best Laptop below Rs.50000”
  2. The search engine scans its index of the Internet to find the best and most relevant content to serve this particular query.
  3. The search engine displays a list of results from which the user can choose to read.

The algorithm that every search engine uses to scan the Internet and provide results of the search query is generally known as the search algorithm. This search algorithm of every search engine is a highly kept secret. For example, Google’s search algorithm is known to take 200+ parameters into consideration before it displays its result of pages. While we do know what these 200+ parameters are, nobody knows the weightage of these parameters for the final results.

It is every webmaster’s dream to be able to rank on top of the search results (on top of Page 1) for queries relevant to their business. For e.g. If you are a laptop seller, then you would like your business to show on top of search results when anyone typed a query related to buying laptops.  It is known that the top result gets 35% of the clicks, the 2nd result gets approx.15% of the clicks, and so on. 95% of the clicks are gone to results on the 1st page of results.

So then, what can webmaster’s do to appear on top of the result list if they do not even know Google’s ranking algorithm ?  Well, while Google and other search engines do not reveal their algorithm, they do say one thing: “create unique and fresh content which the user will like to consume”. So, in very simplistic words, websites which have fresh, unique and relevant content will be shown at the top of search results.

It is important to note that the way a particular search engine works does not remain constant. The makers of the search engine have to continuously tweak the program in order to make it better. Also, many times loopholes in the algorithm could be misused by webmasters to rank their websites quickly and unethically. Google is known to update their search algorithm 500-600 times a year ! While webmasters may fret on how can they handle so many changes in a year, these changes should not have much impact if webmasters focus on creating quality content.

The next question everyone asks is how do search engine return results so quickly ? Most of the time you will see that Google can return you a whole page of results within just 0.1 second. This is possible because search engines make copies of the web-pages and store them in their index with reference to keywords. When a user types one of these keywords, the search engine then references their own index and returns the most relevant websites as a result.

We hope we have answered the basic question of what is a search engine. If there are still doubts, let us know in the comments section.