Search Engine Basics

Image of web browser with search engine on blue background.

Before you dive into how to gain customers through SEO, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of what search engines are. In this post, we’ll cover the basics of search engines and how they work to give you a stronger foundation of knowledge to help you move forward with building a web presence. 

What is a search engine?

In today’s world, everyone knows what a search engine is, chances are that you even used one to end up on this blog. Let’s start the conversation with the definition of what a search engine is:

search engine noun

“​a computer program that searches the internet for information, especially by looking for documents containing a particular word or group of words.”


Ok, great! So what does that actually mean? And how do search engines direct users to the websites they are looking for?

Search engines are designed to provide users with relevant results by using a set of algorithms that determine what sites to show you. What is an algorithm, you may ask?

algorithm noun

“a set of rules that must be followed when solving a particular problem.”


These search algorithms are adjusted hundreds of times per year in order to direct users to what it believes is the most relevant sites in the context of a user’s search query.

Why do search engine algorithms change so much?

In reality there are many reasons for the constant updates and changes that search engine algorithms go through. For the purpose of trying to be concise, we’ll try to refine it down to these two major reasons: Improving Relevance and User Experience.

Teams working on these search algorithms are constantly finding ways to improve the relevance of search results to better the user experience. Most of the algorithm adjustments happening are relatively small. The teams working to improve them are merely trying to connect people with even more relevant content than before even when it means making small iterations towards improvement.

Fighting Black Hat SEO

People are constantly finding ways to exploit search engine algorithms for higher ranking without improving relevance or quality to the end-users.

Search engines are combating and trying to prevent these black hat SEO practices. Although the majority of website owners/content managers attempt to adhere to good SEO practices, there are many people that don’t.

For now, it’s safe to say that search engines will continue changing as the teams working on them will continue to find ways to improve them, and there will always be people looking for ways to exploit search engines for short term gains.

How do search engine algorithms determine your site ranking?

There’s an extensive list of factors that these algorithms take into account to determine your site’s ranking. Here are just a few of the top factors that can have a huge impact on your website’s ranking:

  • Content quality on your website
  • Link quality (internal/external) from your website
  • Backlink quality going to your website
  • Indexability of your website
  • Proper implementation of technical SEO factors
  • Speed/performance
  • Accessibility

How have search engines transformed businesses?

Search engines have become such an integral part of the way that we operate as a society. According to ahrefs, as of 2020 the #1 visited website on the internet is YouTube – a search engine (Google comes in at #26). Let’s take a look at some reasons why search engines have fundamentally changed the way businesses operate:

From Brick & Mortar to a Virtual Marketplace

With search engines and the internet, businesses are no longer limited by proximity to consumers. There’s now a virtual market place and it can be accessed through a search engine on your phone from the couch binging Netflix. This benefits both businesses and consumers alike:

Business benefit – increase the visibility of your brand’s products or services to the large pool of search engine users.

Consumer benefit – quickly connects consumers with the right products/services that meet their specific, unique needs.

Thankfully, because of this, your market doesn’t have to be limited just to the nearby local area, but rather now opens it to the entire globe.

Convenience for users

Search engines in a lot of ways made things more convenient for end-users to find what they need.

Before the internet and search engines, information was not easily available. Here are the two tracks for finding and buying your desired product from the pre-search engine era and post-search engine era:

Buying Products (Pre- Search Engine Era)

  1. Drive 30 minutes to the mall
  2. Find parking
  3. Find the directory inside the mall
  4. Determine which stores MIGHT be carrying your product
  5. Visit each store
  6. Find the right department inside that store
  7. Find the right product (or similar product) and take note of any pertinent information (price, look, available colors, etc)
  8. Go back to the store with the right product
  9. Purchase the product
  10. Find your car
  11. Drive 30 minutes back home

Buying Products (Post- Search Engine Era)

  1. Go to your favorite search engine (via laptop, mobile phone, etc)
  2. Enter the search term for the product you’re trying to find
  3. Review the search engine results page (SERP) to ensure the listings are relevant enough to what you were hoping to find.
  4. If the results aren’t relevant enough, refine or retype your search term so it is.
  5. Review as many websites as you want to find the right product
  6. Find the right product (or similar product) and take note of any pertinent information (price, look, available colors, etc)
  7. Make a buying decision
  8. Receive your product in the mail days later

While physically going into a store may provide the luxury of testing/handling products before purchasing, it’s far less scalable in terms of the time and effort needed for searching/comparing products online with search engines.

Lower costs for operating in the virtual market

Companies both large and small take advantage of the opportunity to go virtual, saving tons in overhead costs in the process.

For a great example of this principle, let’s take a look at the Verizon Wireless subsidiary: Visible Wireless.

Visible is a Verizon owned company on the exact same network as Verizon Wireless that is owned by Verizon. It’s priced extremely affordably at $40 per month for an unlimited plan.

Why the drastic difference in cost between Visible and Verizon?

Visible wireless has NO store fronts and NO on-site employees. They also save on things like utilities, workplace injuries and theft/robbery.

The fact that Visible doesn’t have anywhere near the overhead as its brick and mortar counterparts means that they can offer the same services at a large discount to consumers.

So what does this mean for you?

Consider the benefits of entering the virtual marketplace. When you factor in the lower startup and operating cost, it may be the option that suits your business best!

Summing it all up…

Today, more users and more businesses are finding each other than ever through search engines. If you’re not competing in the digital marketplace to get found by your ideal customers, then you may be working at a huge disadvantage to your competitors. Understanding how to use search engines as a way to find and win better business is critical for succeeding in today’s market.

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