SEOSearch Engine Basic Concepts

Search Engine Basic Concepts

Baffled by search engines and how they work? Not technical in orientation? Here's a layman's level explanation of the basics of search engines – including the critical concepts of relevance, popularity, segmentation, diversity, trust, and quality.

Baffled by search engines and how they work? Not technical in orientation? Unfortunately, this make you susceptible to bad SEO advice, or sets you up to potentially be taken by a bad SEO firm.

This post will provide a layman’s level explanation of the basics of search engines. Let’s dig in.

The Basic Three Search Engine Concepts


This is the basic first question that a search engine has to deal with when looking at any web page. What’s it about? Search engines want to know this because it helps them respond to user search queries with pages that are relevant to that query.

There are many signals that can be used to determine the relevance of a given page. Some of these include:

  1. The title tag of the web page. As you would expect, the title for any document should be a leading indicator its contents.
  2. Semantic analysis of the content. This is not tied as much as it used to be to specific keyword phrases, but the general relevance of a page is analyzed based on the words and phrases used.
  3. Anchor text used in links to the page. The text you click on in a link also acts as a label for what you would expect to find once you get to that page.
  4. Topic matter of third party web pages containing links to the page. If lots of pages about automobile topics link to your page selling a used Ford Mustang, that’s a good thing.
  5. Topic matter of the site on which the page resides. Your page about selling a used Ford Mustang will do better on a site about used cars then it will on a site about water parks.
  6. How users respond to the content in the search engine results pages (SERPs). If everyone that clicks on a link immediately jumps back to the SERPs and clicks on something else, that could be a bad sign.

Irrelevance Cartoon

There are other potential signals that you can think up without too much trouble, but by now, you should get the idea.

Impact of Relevance

You simply can’t rank on given search terms if you don’t have a page relevant to that search query.

Learn what types of search queries are used by people who are looking for products or services like yours. Make sure you have pages for each major variant of these, but don’t over do it. You can read more about how to think about that in 3 Golden Rules of Title Tags.

In addition, make sure the content on those pages in consistent with the title tag and create strong content to support it.


Search engines also try to determine how important each of the pages relevant to a particular search query are. This is how they determine which page should rank first, which one to rank second, and so forth.

Historically, the main driver of this factor has been inbound links. There are many who believe that social signals are a big player here, but I’m not one of them. Personally, I think that links remain the primary driver of importance calculations.

Important Document

Impact of Importance

Creating great products or great content is incredibly valuable for many reasons. For one thing, people with web sites may choose to link to yours if they believe it to be important.

However, it isn’t enough to simply create fantastic stuff, you do have to tell the world about it. Basic PR and content marketing techniques are very valuable in getting the word out, and can lead to people engaging with and sharing your content.


For certain types of queries, importance isn’t as interesting to determine as popularity. For example, for a search query such as [hottest movies], it’s a clear request for something that is the most popular.

Popularity is also be a powerful factor for trending topics, such as breaking news. This is a place where social media signals could be an important factor, as lots of social shares of a particular news article is something that the search engines might pick up on and use.

As with relevance, user SERP behavior could be a strong indicator as well. A search engine could try ranking news articles in a particular order and based on user click patterns adjust that order.

Rock Star Popular

Impact of Popularity

There are many things that can cause something to become popular, but one of the best ways to do this is to develop content that will create an emotional reaction in the viewer.

If you can create images that “tell a story,” that by itself can help make a page on your site more popular.

Videos can also be quite effective.

Creating popular content is an art form, so you will need to have a strong creative bent to succeed at this, and even then, you will need to test many different things and evolve over time to find a winning formula.

Additional Search Engine Concepts


This is the concept of changing the results based on what is known about the user.

For example, a searcher in Egypt will likely want different results for [wildlife] than one in Singapore would. Or, a user in Boston probably wants different results for the query [pizza] than one in Austin.

This is the concept of localization, and it is one of many ways to segment users into groups. Here are some others:

  1. Personalization: If a search engine knows that you have been to a particular page before (in particular, recently), it could use that to promote the page to a higher spot in the search results.
  2. Google+ connections: Google uses connections in Google+ as a way to alter rankings. If someone you follow shares or +1s something, its ranking can be promoted for you when you enter a related search query.
  3. Time of day: Certain queries can mean different things based on the time of day. A search for restaurant at 8 a.m. is probably looking for a breakfast place, and the same query at 5 p.m. is more likely to be for a place to eat dinner.
  4. Time of year: The same is true based on the time of year, or season. For example, clothing-related searches in November might be looking for something a bit warmer to wear.
  5. Other recent search queries: If you searched for [hotels] and the search you did right before that was [Rome], the search engine could include some results about [Rome hotels] for you.

Impact of Segmentation

Tailor your content to your target audience.

If you’re running a restaurant in Winchester, Virginia, make sure to include your address information on your website. If you serve Italian food for lunch and dinner, make sure that information is readily available on the site as well.

Make sure that the things that make your business unique are clearly called out on your website. These types of segmentation clues are a powerful way to get search engines to understand how to match you up with people most likely to become your customers.


Search engines like to diversify their results. Even if the relevance and importance signals suggest that a given web page should rank third in the search results, if the page is very similar to the first and second results, the search engine may choose to show a different result in the third spot instead. Why?

If a searcher doesn’t like the first and second results, and the third result says basically the same thing, they aren’t going to want to see the same stuff yet a third time. This is sometimes referred to as Query Deserves Diversity, and you can read more about it here: The Demand for Extreme Differentiation in Your Content Strategy.

Impact of Diversity

Your website needs to stand out and be different in some way.

For example, a local law firm would need to find ways to differentiate from other law firms covering the same market. Research what other sites are doing and produce content or promote yourself in ways that they don’t.

The challenges are greater for national or international business, but the need for differentiation remains. Establishing a thought leadership position can be one great approach to this, though that is also very challenging to do.


A search engine may find that a page on a site is relevant and important or popular, but it may still not be a quality page. For that reason, search engines have algorithms to measure the quality of a page. An example of this is Google’s Panda algorithm, which can demote the rankings of pages on a web site based on quality measurements of those pages.

Impact of Quality

Invest the time to include lots of compelling information on your web site. Make sure its useful, accurate, and check the spelling and grammar thoroughly. Have others read it and give you feedback on whether they understand what it says, and if it delivers your message effectively.

Create content that is good enough that others will want to talk about it. If people naturally link to it or share it on social media, then this is a strong indicator to you that you published something of good or better quality.


You can have a site that is relevant and authoritative, but there are valid reasons to not trust their motives.

For example, if a website regularly uses practices in violation of a search engine’s guidelines for behavior, such as selling links from their website, the search engine may choose to demote the ranking of the pages on that site.

Impact of Trust

Read the Google Webmaster Guidlines and make sure you understand what they consider valid practices. This will help you build a more trustworthy site, and also help you lower your risk of being algorithmically downgraded or manually penalized by the search engines in the future.

Have others review your site and ask them how they feel about the site. A great question to ask them is whether they would feel giving credit card information to the site. Another great idea that may help is developing close relationships with other people in your market space that are seen as authoritative and trusted.


Know someone who is having trouble understanding SEO? Share this article to help them get a better feel for how the world of search engines works!


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