Search Engine Basics

Learn about the search engine basics with Search Hustle.

search engine basics

Back in the early 1990s, the internet was a smaller place. There were no real algorithms to filter out high-quality sites from spammy ones. If you wanted to outrank another site in the first place, you simply stuffed more keywords onto a page.

Then, Google became the powerhouse that it is today and introduced revolutionary PageRank algorithms and web crawlers that help with information retrieval. Google uses both on-page and off-page factors to determine ranking in the SERPs (search engine results pages).

If you’re looking to learn about SEO, then there are some search engine basics you need to know.

What Is SEO?

SEO is an acronym for search engine optimization.

What this means is that SEO is the process of using different practices to help a site rank as high as possible in the search results of a web browser (like Google). The higher a site ranks in the SERPs, then the more brand visibility, traffic, and sales a business can get.

What Is the Difference Between On-Page SEO and Off-Page SEO?

Search engines like Google use a combination of both on-page and off-page SEO factors to help determine SERPs ranking.

When you make changes to a website to optimize content for both users and search engines, that is known as on-page SEO. Examples on on-page SEO include optimizing title tags, H1/H2s, content, internal links, and URLs.

Off-page SEO deals with optimizing for signals that occur off of the website. An example of this would include securing authoritative, high-quality backlinks.

how do search engines work

How Do Search Engines Work?

Search engines like Google use algorithms and various factors to rank sites. During this process, search engines carry out three primary functions:

  • Crawling – The process by which search engines scour the internet for new content. They analyze the code and content for every URL they come across.
  • Indexing – Search engines store and organize the content of all web pages during the crawling process. After a page is in the index, it then has the opportunity to be shown in the search results to relevant queries.
  • Ranking – SEO primarily focuses on this area of search engines. Search engines use algorithms to evaluate the content and determine which best answer a searcher’s query. This means that search engines position (rank) results to the searcher by most relevant to least relevant.


The machine learning component that is part of Google’s core algorithm, RankBrain is what helps to determine where a site is displayed on the results pages.

RankBrain is always improving its predictions via new observations and training data. Since RankBrain is always learning, that means the search results are always improving.

If RankBrain notices that a lower ranking URL is able to provide a better, more relevant result to a user’s query over a higher ranking URL, then RankBrain will edit those results. It will move the more relevant result higher up on the results page and, in turn, demote the other less relevant pages.

how users interact with search engines

How Users Interact With Search Engines

There are numerous aspects to the search engine that a user interacts with. Each of these aspects has its own term attached.

Search Query Box

All search engines have a search query box. This is the field in which a user enters their query in the form of either a single term or an entire phrase. Users can edit or re-enter a new query into the search query box located on the search results page.

Google has an autocomplete feature on its search query box. This is a powerful tool for keyword research

Located near the search query box, you can also find links to an advanced search page, voice search (microphone icon), image search, and video search.

Vertical Navigation 1

Vertical Navigation

As mentioned above, vertical navigation encompasses the links to search different verticals like images, news, video, or maps. If you follow these links, you will get results to the query with a more limited but specific index.

Results Information

This is metadata that gives you information about each result that you see. It will give an estimate of the number of results that are relevant to the query.

For example, typing “cat toys” into Google’s search query box returns the results information: “About 628,000,000 results (0.68 seconds).


This includes the title and lines of text that are shown on the search results page. The purpose of metadata is to tell the user what they can expect if they click on a page link. Think of metadata as a brief summary description beneath the title tag of the site page.

Query Refinement Suggestions

Google offers query refinement suggestions in the form of “Related searches” located at the very bottom of the results page. This helps users search with a more specific and possibly more relevant query that will satisfy the searcher’s intent.

For example, by entering “cat toys” into the search query box and then scrolling to the bottom, “Related searches” displays the following: cat toys for bored cats, interactive cat toys, cat toys amazon, chewy cat toys, etc. The terms bolded by Google are meant to help give users further refinement suggestions.

However, this can also be a manual process by a user to narrow down the results of a query. A user can display results only for a specific website by inputting the phrase “site:”, then the domain name (e.g. “”)

Organic Results

Sometimes referred to as “natural search”, organic search consists of unpaid search results. It is the link listings that appear on the results page in response to a user’s query due to relevance to the entered search term. The practice of SEO primarily deals with improving a site’s ranking in the organic search results.

PPC (Paid Search)

PPC stands for pay-per-click. These are ads purchased by companies that use Google Ads. The results that a user will see are ordered by a variety of factors, including relevance and bid amount. Most PPC ads will typically appear at the top of the search results, ahead of any organic results.

To put it simply, PPC is a model of internet marketing where a business is able to buy visits to its site, instead of earning those clicks through organic visits.

recent search engine developments

Recent Search Engine Developments

Search engines like Google are constantly evolving how they determine the ranking and display of search results. It used to be that Google determined the most relevant site pages based on the content alone and how other sites referred to them. Any user searching a specific keyword would pull up the same results as everyone else searching that same phrase within the same country.

Nowadays, there is a huge shift toward personalized search. Personalized search helps to give different results based on various factors:

  • Search history
  • Location/IP address
  • The device used during the search process
  • Whether a user is logged into their Google account
  • Social media engagement
  • Search settings

Google shifted toward personalized search to help provide the most relevant and useful content possible based on a user’s search. By utilizing advanced machine learning and user data, Google is always pushing to find new ways to give the best results for a specific query.

Some of the newest Google features include:

Featured Snippets

Sometimes called “answer boxes”, featured snippets strive to give users an instant answer to their search query without the need to venture onto a website. Google shows these snippets above the regular organic search results, but below any paid ads. Featured snippets come in several different types, such as paragraph, list, table, video, rich answer, tool or calculator, etc.

Featured Snippet

Multitask United Model

Otherwise known as MUM, this is Google’s new Natural Language Processing Model. It is more powerful than BERT by 1000 times and can multitask to analyze video, images, and text within 75 languages. This next level of artificial intelligence is able to give users answers to increasingly complex search queries. This is still in the testing phase but is expected to be rolled out in the near future.

Passage Indexing

An algorithm update from Google, the search engine will use the natural language processing feature during the process of indexing web pages. The search engine will then try to understand the meaning of passages on a site page. This means that a specific section (passage) of a page’s content can now show up in the search results for relevant search queries.

Core Web Vitals

This is an update to the Page Experience Algorithm since May 2021. Core Web Vitals consists of three key page experience metrics: Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID), and Cumulative Layout Shift (CIS). To put it simply, Core Web Vitals is a set of user-focused metrics that are meant to help measure a page’s “health” to provide a better user experience.

Core Web Vitals

Search Engines Are Always Improving

If you were to take a break from using the internet or learning about SEO for about a year, and then came back to it with fresh eyes, you would likely notice some huge changes. You might even feel a bit lost or behind the times. That is because search engines, especially Google, are constantly updating how they operate in an effort to improve the user experience and better provide results to a searcher’s query.

Learning about search engines and SEO requires continual commitment of time and effort. Just as search engines are always changing how they operate, so too do SEO experts need to learn to roll with the punches and update best practices.

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