How Does Google Work?

We use it every single day for everything from shopping to finding out what the weather's doing but have you ever wondered how Google and other search engines actually work? Swann Digital distils the jargon.

The concept is very simple. Open up an Internet browser such as FireFox, Chrome or Safari, go to the Google homepage, type in a question and in a fraction of a second a list of answers appears making life oh so much easier than it used to be (remember libraries, encyclopaedias and conversation?). But how on earth does a white screen with a search box and some fancy colourful letters know so much about apparently everything?

What Is A Website?

Before we go digging around under Google's bonnet (that's the Queen's for 'hood' for any of our US friends reading this) let's start with a quick run down of what websites are and how they relate to that other big question, 'what is the World Wide Web?'. This will help us to understand what it is that Google does and how it works the way it works.

In a nutshell, a website is just a series of documents (files and folders) held together under a common name, known as a domain name, for example www.bbc.co.uk. Domain names are the user-friendly, 'customer-facing' end of something called an Internet Protocol (IP) address, which is a unique space on a given server. In turn servers sit in banks with other servers in (hopefully) secure buildings all over the world.

The World Wide Web is the name given to the 'space' where interlinking domains, files and folders (websites) hang together connected via hyperlinks. Note that this is not to be confused with The Internet, which is the system by which we access the Web.

But enough of all that. How does Google work?

The Three Stages Of Google Search

1. Crawl

'Crawling' is the process whereby Google (or Bing etc.) visit a site and take note of all of its content, both on the front-end (what the user sees) and the back-end (the code and structure), taking in as many pages (folders) as it can easily find.

Back in the old days Google used to crawl everything on the Internet every 30 days. This was soon seen to be hugely inefficient both on the part of Google's resources and on the accuracy and relevancy of listings in results pages since they might have been 30 days out of date by the end of the crawl.

Nowadays Google's algorithms (there are several key algorithms which contribute to the overall search part of the product) know when to search a site based on its size and activity - that is, if a site remains dormant for a period of time it will be crawled less frequently. In contrast, a site with frequently updated news and features will be visited by Google's 'bots' more often.

2. Index

The second stage of the search engine process is perhaps the meatiest and most contested of the three. It's here where websites are made or broken by the clinical, unsympathetic, pragmatic hand of Google's algorithm, which uses over 200 ranking factors to sift the proverbial wheat from the chaff.

Some of the Factors which Influence Search Results

In no particular order here are some of the major factors - both on page and off page - which influence how Google (or Bing...) determines the quality and relevancy of a website, and ultimately where it ends up in the search engine results pages (SERPs):

  • Age and History - How old is the domain name and does it have good or bad history?
  • Links - Strong inbound and internal linking structures really help with search.
  • Content - Navigation, site structure, quality of copy, is meta data included in images and videos?
  • Page Rank - A number out of 10 devised by Google CEO, Lawrence 'Larry' Page to denote the 'trust' level in a site.
  • Site Speed - Server location, page load speeds, server up-time.

You may have heard of something called Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) - if you haven't you can read more about it in our article What is SEO and Why Should I Care? SEO is the process by which websites are optimised and improved by monitoring and improving key metrics both within and outside of a website. It is the job of the 'SEO-er' to improve the ranking of a website.

3. Serve

The final stage of the process is the first thing that users see having submitted a search term to Google. This is where all of the crawling, processing and filtering comes to fruition, and if you've done your homework you ought to see your website performing at least relatively well in the SERPs. Bear in mind that competition for any given keyword or phrase varies greatly and some markets are far harder to crack than others.

Google's unofficial slogan for their search product is 'fast and happy'. Their aim as a service is to deliver the absolute most relevant content to you as quickly as possible. As such you'll notice a load speed indicated at the top of the search engine results page (SERP) which will say something along the lines of 'About 131,000,000 results (0.44 seconds)'.

What Next For SEO?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of SEO goodness and extra research is encouraged into each area in order to make the most of your website's potential in SERPs. If you're sitting and wondering 'how can I improve my website?' we're always on the end of the phone or email. Please get in touch any time.

SEOJames SwannGoogle