How Do Search Engines Work?

In this blog post, I included a training deck that you can access directly through SlideShare or just blow up the widget below and view it on this site.

The deck covers the Introduction to SEO beginner-level material. Over the next of couple weeks I will be uploading more training decks in the series of the SEO Decoded training program that begins today. Subscribe to our email newsletter and/or follow us on SlideShare to get updates on the upcoming training modules.

In this training module you will learn:

  • What is SEO?
  • Why is SEO Important?
  • Understanding SERP (Search Engine Result Pages)
  • Key Ranking Factors

Introduction to SEO

Below I included a summary of each section and expended the content from the training deck.

What is SEO?

There are plenty of definitions of SEO, but the one I particularly like to use myself is: SEO is about showing up. Your online assets exist to show up; that is why you built them and the role of SEO is to optimize this process.

woody allen showing up is 80% of life

Woody Alen once said: “Showing Up is 80% of Life.” I think he was spot on – both in terms of life and SEO. Why? Because 80% of consumers search for a product before purchasing it and so you need to show up to be in their consideration set!

I included couple SEO statistics below that demonstrate the value of showing up for businesses:

value of seo stats

The role of SEO is crucial in the new consumer journey, well laid out by Jim Lecinski (@JimLecinski) in Google’s influential e-book, Zero Moment of Truth. The Internet has fundamentally changed the way people find, discover, share, shop and connect with brands. The decisions today are made on search engines, social media sites, and review sites… way before a prospect visits your website or walks into your store. You need to show up and engage at the Zero Moment of Truth or your business will become irrelevant.

zero moment of truth

Source: ZMOT (

Do you have a website monetization strategy? SEO can be the best performing channel in your marketing portfolio. According to MerchantCircle survey the majority of small business owners identified SEO as the marketing channel they would invest all their budget if they had to pick only one. However, you need to make sure you have a website monetization strategy and track the right events on your website, such as subscriptions or business leads, so that you can align your SEO activities to support your site’s business objectives. Otherwise, your SEO will be disjointed from your business goals and thus ineffective. Check out the blog post I wrote on 5 website monetization model here.

In broader terms, Search marketing is a form of Internet marketing that involves the promotion of digital assets by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) through organic optimization (SEO) as well as through paid advertising (SEM/PPC).

Organic vs. Paid Search. It is important that you understand the difference between organic and paid search upfront. Keep in mind that organic search portion of search pulls only about 70% of search results, and paid search has a unique place in your overall search marketing strategy to complement your SEO tactics. Check out my post on PB Smart Essentials blog that covers how paid and organic search should complement each other here.

organic vs paid search

Rank Matters. Ranking 11 or 12 will not get you far because only a tiny percent of Google searchers click through to second page on SERP. You need be top 10 – the higher you are, the better your CTR (click through rate) will be. According to Optify Study, the top 3 organic results receive over 50% of clicks. If you are below 5th position in Google, you are looking at less than 5% CTR.

optify ctr study

Optify Study

Universal search. It is an important concept in SEO circles, and it means that you need to optimize all of your digital assets (websites, blogs, macrosites, social media profiles – such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, etc – images, vidoes, press releases, Google+ Local, and other indexible content that can rank on keywords) to maximize visibility in SERP. The visualization below shows how multi-media driven and diverse Google’s SERP has become.

universal search

 Understand how search engines work

In simple terms, search engines use software programs (called spiders, bots, crawlers) that “crawl” the web using hyperlinks. In essence, search engines do just three vital things:

1. Crawl the Web: search engines navigate from site to site using links to learn about the their content

2. Index Content: search engines take a “screen shot” of the content that spiders can see and understand and store it a massive database

3. Retrieve Information: search engines match indexed content to users’s search queries (aka keywords) and retrieve the most relevant and authoritative information from their indices

Needless to say, you need to make sure that search engine spiders can easily access and understand content on your site. I included an image below that can help you visualize the process.

how do search engine work

Backlinks are importantPageRank is what Google uses to determine the importance (aka authority) of a web page relative to other sites on the Web. It’s one of many factors used to determine which pages appear prominently in search results. There are a couple different factors that are taken into account by Google (like domain age and etc) to assess the authority of your site, but the major component that drives PageRank is the quality and quantity of backlinks to your site. You can check the PageRank and authority of your website using free tools, such as Open Site Explorer, or browser plug-ins, such as SEOQuake.

If you are a small business, you also need to think of citations, which serve as backlinks to optimize your business name and address in local directories, such as Yelp or CitySearch. Here is a video on Local SEO for Small Business if you want to learn more about that aspect of SEO.

Key Ranking Factors

There are a couple of ranking factors search engines use to determine when and where your digital assets can appear in SERP:

ranking factors

  • Authority – How authoritative your site is:  measured by quality and number of backlinks, social mentions, PageRank, citations, and more.
  • Relevance – How relevant your content is to the search query: including on-site content, page title, images, videos and etc.
  • Place – Where you are and where the searchers are: including Local Search, Google Maps, and Local Directories like Yelp.
  • Behavior – Previous searchers’ behavior and history of interaction with your brand online: site visits, Google+, and more.
  • Time – When you publish your content: including blogging, news search and press releases.
  • Friends – Who you know: including the social mentions, social engagement, rel=authorship, commenting and etc.

SEO Myths. Lastly don’t fall into a trap of any of the SEO myths that many businesses fall a victim to. SEO has evolved drastically over the last couple years and with Google releasing their new Panda and Penguin updates, marketers are striving to better adapt to these new algorithms and get up to date with the latest trends. Check out the top 5 2013 SEO myths to get on top of your game.

Hope you enjoyed the first training module of our SEO Decoded training series. We will take a deeper dive into the key components of SEO next.

Sign up for our email newsletter below, or follow Search Decoder on Twitter and SlideShare to get notified when the new SEO training modules are added.

2 replies
  1. Amy
    Amy says:

    This is a very well-explained and basic explanation of what search engines are and how they work, especially how the Key Ranking Factors. I wonder however, since there are new changes and this area is dynamic, do you think that Ranking Factors will change much in the future? Are there things that people should be considering now?

    • Matthew Capala
      Matthew Capala says:

      Hi Amy – great point – absolutely the ranking factors will continue to evolve as Google is looking for more and more signals to more accurately assess sites’ relevance and authority – we are seeing more social search and things like authorship getting into search algorithms


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *