A Simple Explanation for a Complex Question 

But First, A Search Scenario

You’re watching TV and see an ad for a new gadget. Within 10 seconds, you’ve become amazed by this revolutionary product. You wonder how you lived without it for all these years. But you’re no sucker; you’re certain you can find a better deal online than the one the infomercial is offering. You pull out your phone and head to everyone’s favorite search engine: Google. Within the top three search results, you find exactly the gadget you’re looking for (but the infomercial deal did turn out to be better than the online version).

It’s like magic: translate your thought into a written form, hit the search button, and get relevant results; it’s as if you’ve thrown your inquiry into the heavens and God himself gave you back just the right answer instantaneously. But have you ever wondered: how does Google work? Thinking beyond Google, how do search engines work? If you find yourself reading these words, then it’s safe to say you’re at least a little curious. Let me help you understand the broad strokes of how search engines work. We won’t get into the nitty-gritty, but, after reading this blog, you’ll have a better understanding of the wizardry of search engines.

But first, I want to take a moment to express my appreciation for the capabilities search engines enable us with. Thanks to search engines, we can get answers with nearly the same rapidity that we can ask a question. In days of old, finding that information might take weeks of reading various books on a topic until you find that nugget of information that you were truly in search of. The internet is our modern-day equivalent to the ancient Library of Alexandria (and don’t tell Plato, but our modern-day version is even better, although it certainly lacks the aroma that must have filled the great library), and search engines act as that library’s Dewey Decimal System, enabling users to find exactly what they’re looking for amongst the infinitesimal contents of the internet.

“That’s all well and good Eric, but we didn’t come to this blog to hear you squak on and on about how great the internet and search engines are. We aren’t here to read your historically relevant comparisons to long lost places revered for their ability to store and make assessable the knowledge of the ages (no matter how good the comparison may have been). We’re all here because we have the same question: how does google work???” -Readers Everywhere

Alright, alright! I’m getting to it! Just this once, Readers Everywhere, can you cut me a break? It’s not my fault I’m a total search engine nerd!

How Google Works in Three Simply Explained Steps

1.) Crawling (Finding Web Pages)

We all know the saying: you have to learn to crawl before you learn to walk. What’s walking got to do with the price of tea in China? Well, it’s not so much the walking part as it is the crawling part that has relevance to our knowledge quest, Readers Everywhere. Crawling is the first step Google takes in determining relevant search results for searchers around the world. In the crawling process, Google catalogs all web pages on the internet. That’s right ALL PAGES ON THE INTERNET (that’s a lot of pages). After all, how can it give searchers the best result to their inquiry if it doesn’t know what pages exist to direct users to?

Right about now, I imagine your asking “Wait, why does Google catalog all pages on the internet? Isn’t there some type of organization or authority—some type of web page registry that keeps track of that?”. The answer: no, there is no dedicated organization, government or otherwise, tasked with cataloging what web pages are on the internet. Google and other search engines compile this data by constantly scanning the internet for newly created pages, then, they add them to their repository of known web pages.

2.) Indexing (Determining What Those Web Pages are About)

When Google has found new web pages while crawling, the search engines next step is determining and understanding what each new web page is about. This process is called indexing. To determine what each web page is about, Google analyzes the content of each web page, then catalogues the content (which includes text, images, and video files embedded on each web page) in the Google Index—a huge database stored within what Google describes as “many, many (many!) computers”. I imagine tens of thousands of processing units in an underground warehouse somewhere beneath the sands of the Sahara Desert, but I’ve always been a romantic.

3.) Serving and Ranking Web Pages (Determining Which Results Best Suit Searchers Inquiries, Then, Displaying Those Results)   

And finally, we’ve made it to the search results page, and how Google determines the order in which those search results appear after an inquiry has been made. By analyzing content on indexed webpages, Google tries to determine the best answer for the query that’s been searched. How does Google determine which web pages will best answer the search query? By cross-referencing information about the searcher—such as location, language, and device used to make the inquiry—and the web pages, more specifically the content on those web pages, which are in the Google Index. There are many more factors which Google considers aside from site content when determining search rankings and a web pages relevance to a searcher, but that’s a topic for another day.


In Closing

Now that I’ve shed some light on the magic of search engines and their wizardly ways, I hope you have a better understanding of just how search engines work. Hopefully, you’ve just become the resident search engine expert in your social circle, telling your family around the dinner table, your half-drunk friends at the bar, or your dog (because dogs almost always listen, even though your significant other probably won’t want to), just how Google gives you the results that you’re looking for. Until next time, Readers Everywhere, this is Eric Troy, signing off.


✌️ 🖋️ 📖

-Eric Troy


Eric Troy

A master at bending plywood to his will, Eric is also a fledgling writer. Stick around so that you don’t miss the moment when his ideas take flight.