How do Search Engines Work?

Most people use search engines every day without giving it a second thought. You type a query into the search bar, hit enter, and voila – a list of relevant results appears. But have you ever stopped to wonder how those results get there? How do search engines know which websites to bring up in response to your query? 

Search engines are the backbone of the internet. They allow us to find the information we need quickly and easily, which is why it’s important to understand how they work if you’re trying to create content that you want to get found. In this blog post, we’ll be taking a high-level look at how search engines work so that you can have a better understanding of how to optimize your website for them.

By the end of this post, you’ll have a good grasp on how search engines determine which websites to show you when you perform a search.

What are Search Engines?

The first thing to understand is that there are only two main players in the search engine industry: Google and Bing. Other search engines are available, but these two companies control the vast majority of the market share, which is why it’s so important to optimize your website for them. The third site that acts as a search engine is YouTube, which gives Alphabet (the parent company of Google and YouTube) great influence over what people see on the internet.

Each search engine has its own algorithms that they use to rank websites, but they all operate on essentially the same principles.

The way a search engine works is by crawling the internet and indexing all of the websites it finds. These websites are usually added to the search engine’s crawling pattern by the site creator, although it’s not such a manual process as it once was. If you use something like WordPress, Google and other search engines will be notified when your site and any new posts are published unless you explicitly prevent it.

Once a website has been indexed, the search engine will then use its algorithms to determine where that website should rank in its search results. The algorithms take into account factors like the quality of the website’s content, how popular the website is, how many other websites are linking to it, and more – but more on that later.

How Can I Add My Site to a Search Engine?

Although it may get added automatically, this can take time. You can speed up the process by manually submitting sites to Google.

By visiting the Google Search Console (previously Webmaster Tools), you can add your site and set up analytics for visitors. This is not to be confused with Google Analytics, which shows information about how people use your site – the Search Console show search performance, so how your site and pages appear in search results, keywords you rank for, and other information.

Bing offers a similar submission system via

How do Search Engines Rank Results?

The basis of every search engine is its algorithm. An algorithm is a set of instructions that a computer follows to accomplish a task. In the case of search engines, the algorithm’s task is to rank websites in order of relevancy to a given query. 

Think about it this way – when you perform a search, you are effectively asking the search engine to answer a question. The engine then scours the internet for websites that might have the answer to your question and ranks them accordingly. The higher a website appears on the list of results, the more likely it is that the site will have the information you’re looking for. 

Of course, algorithms are much more complicated than this simple explanation. Search engines are constantly tweaking and refining their algorithms in an effort to provide users with more accurate and relevant results. However, at their core, all search algorithms work in fundamentally the same way. 

How do Search Engines Decide Which Websites to Rank?

So how does a search engine’s algorithm decide which websites are most relevant to your query? That decision is made based on two main factors: on-page factors and off-page factors. 

On-page factors are elements on a website that tell the search engine what that site is about. Examples of on-page factors include titles, headings, and meta descriptions. Meanwhile, off-page factors are aspects of a website that occur outside of its code or design. Examples of off-page factors include social media engagement and backlinks from other websites.  

Both on-page and off-page factors are important, but they don’t carry equal weight. In general, off-page factors are more important for ranking than on-page factors. This is because backlinks and social media engagement are signals of a website’s popularity and authority. A website with a lot of backlinks and social media engagement is more likely to be relevant and useful than a website with fewer of these signals.

However, on-page factors are still important, especially for certain types of searches. For example, if you search for a specific product on Amazon, the results will be largely determined by that product’s title, price, customer reviews, and other on-page factors. This is because Amazon is such a large and popular website that its off-page signals are very strong. As a result, on-page factors become much more important for ranking in search results on Amazon than they would be for ranking in general search results.


One of the most important on-page factors for SEO is keywords. Keywords are the words and phrases that people use to search for information on the internet. When a user types a query into a search engine, the engine scans websites for pages that contain those keywords. 

For example, let’s say you own an ecommerce store that sells pet supplies. A customer might search for “dog food” or “pet toys.” If your website has pages that contain those keywords, there’s a good chance those pages will appear in the search results. 

Of course, it’s not enough to simply stuff keywords onto your website. The keywords must be used in a way that is both relevant and user-friendly. This is where many website owners make mistakes with their SEO. They assume that they can simply stuff keywords onto their site and reap the benefits, but that’s not how it works. If you stuff keywords onto your website without regard for relevancy or user experience, you’re likely to be penalized by the search engine algorithms.

You can read more in our keywords article here.


Relevancy is one of the most important factors for ranking in search results. A website’s relevancy is determined by how well its content matches the user’s query. 

For example, let’s say you own a website about hiking. A user searches for “hiking trails in California.” If your website has an article about hiking trails in California, that article is relevant to the user’s query. As a result, your website is more likely to rank for that query than a website about, say, fishing. 

User experience

Search engine algorithms are designed to give users the best possible experience. This means delivering accurate and relevant results in a way that is easy to understand. 

For example, a search engine might determine that a website is relevant to a user’s query, but if the website is difficult to use or the information is presented in a confusing way, the search engine is likely to penalize that site. On the other hand, a website with relevant and well-organized information is more likely to be rewarded with a higher ranking.

Meta descriptions

A meta description is a brief description of a page’s content. Meta descriptions are not visible to users, but they appear in the search results beneath the page’s title. 

Meta descriptions are important for SEO because they give search engines more information about your website. A well-written meta description can help persuade a user to click on your website’s listing in the search results. 

Page titles

Page titles are the text that appears in the search results for a particular page. The title is also the text that appears at the top of the browser window when you visit a website. 

Page titles are important for SEO because they give search engines more information about your website. A well-written title can help persuade a user to click on your website’s listing in the search results. 


Headings are the larger, bolder text on a webpage. They usually appear at the top of a page, beneath the page title. 

Headings are important for SEO because they give search engines more information about your website. A well-written heading can help persuade a user to click on your website’s listing in the search results. 

If you want to find out more, you can download our guides about how to structure your web page and a complete website checklist.

Can You Make Search Engines Work for You?

By understanding how search engines work, you can ensure that your website is being properly indexed and ranked by these all-important algorithms. As we’ve seen, there are two types of ranking factors: on-page and off-page. Make sure you’re paying attention to both if you want your site to appear as high as possible in search results.

Understanding how search engines work is critical for any business that wants to succeed online. By optimizing your website for the major search engines, you can ensure that your website will be seen by millions of people who are searching for the products or services that you offer. If you’re not sure where to start, our team of experts can create content that will help you get started on the right foot. Contact us today!