Web Design, Mobile Apps, SEM, SEO, SES

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The Beginner’s Guide to SEO: Chapter 1 – How Search Engines Work

Search engines have four functions – crawling, building an index, calculating relevancy & rankings and serving results.

  • Crawling and IndexingCrawling and indexing the billions of documents, pages, files, news, videos and media on the world wide web.
  • Providing AnswersProviding answers to user queries, most frequently through lists of relevant pages through retrieval and rankings.
  • Imagine the World Wide Web as a network of stops in a big city subway system.

    Each stop is its own unique document (usually a web page, but sometimes a PDF, JPG or other file). The search engines need a way to “crawl” the entire city and find all the stops along the way, so they use the best path available – links.

    “The link structure of the web serves to bind together all of the pages in existence.”

    (Or, at least, all those that the engines can access.) Through links, search engines’ automated robots, called “crawlers,” or “spiders” can reach the many billions of interconnected documents.

    Once the engines find these pages, their next job is to parse the code from them and store selected pieces of the pages in massive hard drives, to be recalled when needed in a query. To accomplish the monumental task of holding billions of pages that can be accessed in a fraction of a second, the search engines have constructed massive datacenters in cities all over the world.

    These monstrous storage facilities hold thousands of machines processing unimaginably large quantities of information. After all, when a person performs a search at any of the major engines, they demand results instantaneously – even a 3 or 4 second delay can cause dissatisfaction, so the engines work hard to provide answers as fast as possible.

    When a person searches for something online, it requires the search engines to scour their corpus of billions of documents and do two things – first, return only those results that are relevant or useful to the searcher’s query, and second, rank those results in order of perceived value (or importance). It is both “relevance” and “importance” that the process of search engine optimization is meant to influence.

    To the search engines, relevance means more than simply having a page with the words you searched for prominently displayed. In the early days of the web, search engines didn’t go much further than this simplistic step, and found that their results suffered as a consequence. Thus, through iterative evolution, smart engineers at the various engines devised better ways to find valuable results that searchers would appreciate and enjoy. Today, hundreds of factors influence relevance, many of which we’ll discuss throughout this guide.

    Importance is an equally tough concept to quantify, but search engines must do their best.

    Currently, the major engines typically interpret importance as popularity – the more popular a site, page or document, the more valuable the information contained therein must be. This assumption has proven fairly successful in practice, as the engines have continued to increase users’ satisfaction by using metrics that interpret popularity.

    Popularity and relevance aren’t determined manually (and thank goodness, because those trillions of man-hours would require earth’s entire population as a workforce). Instead, the engines craft careful, mathematical equations – algorithms – to sort the wheat from the chaff and to then rank the wheat in order of tastiness (or however it is that farmers determine wheat’s value). These algorithms are often comprised of hundreds of components. In the search marketing field, we often refer to them as “ranking factors” For those who are particularly interested, Indian Creek Web Design crafted a resource specifically on this subject – Search Engine Ranking Factors.

    So How Do I Get Some Success Rolling In? How Search Marketers Study & Learn How to Succeed in the Engines

    The complicated algorithms of search engines may appear at first glance to be impenetrable, and the engines themselves provide little insight into how to achieve better results or garner more traffic. What little information on optimization and best practices that the engines themselves do provide is listed below:

    SEO Information from Yahoo! – Webmaster Guidelines

    Many factors influence whether a particular web site appears in Web Search results and where it falls in the ranking.

    These factors can include:

    • The number of other sites linking to it
    • The content of the pages
    • The updates made to indicies
    • The testing of new product versions
    • The discovery of additional sites
    • Changes to the search algorithm – and other factors

    SEO Information from Bing – Webmaster Guidelines

    Bing engineers at Microsoft recommend the following to get better rankings in their search engine:

    • In the visible page text, include words users might choose as search query terms to find the information on your site.
    • Limit all pages to a reasonable size. We recommend one topic per page. An HTML page with no pictures should be under 150 kb.
    • Make sure that each page is accessible by at least one static text link.
    • Don’t put the text that you want indexed inside images. For example, if you want your company name or address to be indexed, make sure it is not displayed inside a company logo

    SEO Information from Google – Webmaster Guidelines

    Googlers recommend the following to get better rankings in their search engine:

    • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines. Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as cloaking.
    • Make a site with a clear hierarchy and text links. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link.
    • Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content. Make sure that your <title> elements and ALT attributes are descriptive and accurate.
    • Keep the links on a given page to a reasonable number (fewer than 100).

    Over the 12 plus years that web search has existed, search marketers have found methodologies to extract information about how the search engines rank pages and use that data to help their sites and their clients achieve better positioning.

    So what you’re telling me is that this is just the tip of the search marketing iceberg and there’s a ton more? YES!

    Surprisingly, the engines do support many of these efforts, though the public visibility is frequently low. Conferences on search marketing, such as the Search Marketing Expo, WebMasterWorld, Search Engine Strategies, & Indian Creek Web Design’s SEO Training Seminars attract engineers and representatives from all of the major engines. Search representatives also assist webmasters by occasionally participating online in blogs, forums & groups.

    Time for an Experiment!

    There is perhaps no greater tool available to webmasters researching the activities of the engines than the freedom to use the search engines to perform experiments, test theories and form opinions. It is through this iterative, sometimes painstaking process, that a considerable amount of knowledge about the functions of the engines has been gleaned.

    1. Register a new website with nonsense keywords (e.g. ishkabibbell.com)
    2. Create multiple pages on that website, all targeting a similarly ludicrous term (e.g. yoogewgally)
    3. Test the use of different placement of text, formatting, use of keywords, link structures, etc by making the pages as uniform as possible with only a singular difference
    4. Point links at the domain from indexed, well-spidered pages on other domains
    1. Record the search engines’ activities and the rankings of the pages
    2. Make small alterations to the identically targeting pages to determine what factors might push a result up or down against its peers
    3. Record any results that appear to be effective and re-test on other domains or with other terms – if several tests consistently return the same results, chances are you’ve discovered a pattern that is used by the search engines.


    An Example Test We Whipped Up

    In this test, we started with the hypothesis that a link higher up in a page’s code would carry more weight than a page lower down in the code. We tested this by creating a nonsense domain linking out to three pages, all carrying the same nonsense word exactly once. After the engines spidered the pages, we found that the page linked to from the highest link on the home page ranked first and continued our iterations of testing.

    This process is certainly not alone in helping to educate search marketers.

    Competitive intelligence about signals the engines might use and how they might order results is also available through patent applications made by the major engines to the United States Patent Office. Perhaps the most famous among these is the system that spawned Google’s genesis in the Stanford dormitories during the late 1990’s – PageRank – documented as Patent #6285999 – Method for node ranking in a linked database. The original paper on the subject – Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine – has also been the subject of considerable study and edification. To those whose comfort level with complex mathematics falls short, never fear. Although the actual equations can be academically interesting, complete understanding evades many of the most talented and successful search marketers – remedial calculus isn’t required to practice search engine optimization.

    Through methods like patent analysis, experiments, and live testing and tweaking, search marketers as a community have come to understand many of the basic operations of search engines and the critical components of creating websites and pages that garner high rankings and significant traffic.

    The rest of this guide is devoted to explaining these practices clearly and concisely. Enjoy!

    Written By Brent C. Johns of Indian Creek Web Design – 208.703.2392