What are search algorithms?

by Ray Larson
  |  March 1, 2016  |  
March 1, 2016

by Ray Larson

As a business owner you need to possess an understanding of how your business is found on line. Knowing how search algorithms work is a core knowledge piece. Why? Whether you like it or not your online strategy is your business strategy. With consumers reaching to the internet before they purchase, it’s necessary to understand how and why your business is found online. You need to know how search engines do their job.

Let’s start with the basics.

What is an algorithm?

An algorithm is a procedure or formula used for solving a problem. In search the “problem” that requires solving is returning the best response to a user’s query. Algorithms create the mathematical scale upon which billions of pages of information can be organized, indexed and made useful to the world. Search engines collect web pages, organize the information, and make it easy to search, employing complicated algorithms to solve this problem.

A search algorithm is simply a complex set of mathematical equations that looks for clues to return what is wanted amongst a set of items.

How does this happen?

Here’s the 10,000 ft. view.

A user types a query into a browser (like Google, Bing, Firefox, etc.) that is then sent to a server. This server returns almost instantaneously a list of links and snippets of text. These links and snippets comprise the search engine results page (SERPs). Sounds simple, huh?

All the heavy lifting takes place on the server side. In order to return a SERP in response to a query the server creates a list of pages that contain the word or words (including synonyms) and since the Hummingbird algorithm update of Oct 2013, semantically related concepts of the query, sorts them into an order of relevance, and sends them back in the form of wraps of the page in HTML.

Every time a user types a query, the index is combed for relevant pages, returning a list that commonly numbers in the hundreds of thousands, or millions. The trickiest part, though, is the ranking process — determining which of those pages belong at the top of the list.

Remember that Google, Bing, et al, are in the business of making money. They need to keep your eyeballs and attention on their search browser, not a competitor’s. Thus it is imperative that they serve up the most accurate, relevant, and useful results in the shortest amount of time. A good search engine does not attempt to return the pages that best match the input query (aka keywords). Rather, it attempts to understand the underlying question.

The SERP you receive in response to a query represents the search engine’s algorithmic determination of the best possible responses.

It’s always about trust, subject authority, and reputation

This algorithmic determination is based upon a mathematical judgment of a website’s trust, subject authority, and reputation. The algorithm searches for inputs and signals from web content to make this judgment. These signals are generally known, in aggregate, by the Search Engine Optimization community (referred to as SEOs). It’s the specific mix of inputs into the algorithm that remain a great mystery. What exactly constitutes this mix has given rise to an entire SEO industry dedicated to testing, guessing, advising, and opining what exactly constitutes Google and other search engines algorithms.

Google continuously updates their search algorithm, sometimes daily, in order to protect and grow its market dominance. These updates serve two purposes. First they insure users continue to receive the most relevant results to their searches by leveraging the latest technological advances, including artificial intelligence facilitated by machine learning. Second, these updates insure the SERPs are not polluted by nonsensical results from unscrupulous SEOs and marketers intent on gaming the system. This occurred with frightening regularity until Google began to release a series of major algorithm updates over the last five years. Google’s algorithm has evolved so much in terms of sophistication that it’s now more expensive to game it rather than play by their rules.

These regular/daily Google algorithm updates cause panic in some business owners. It shouldn’t. If you’ve not fallen for the SEO equivalent of “get rich quickly”, (“We guarantee you #1 in the SERPs for your keywords”), you will never have anything to fear.

It is important to keep abreast of algorithm changes, however. For example, a recent Google algorithm update awarded preference to mobile optimized websites in the SERPs. By either staying abreast of SEO news or delegating a staff member to do so, you won’t be caught by surprise. In this case you would have known that Google planned well in advance (and announced) the imminent dominance of mobile in the SERPs.

Keep in mind that the search engine algorithms are designed to maximize user experience (and protect Google’s key business). When you ponder major website changes, let the question, “will it make the user experience better” guide you. A mere algorithm change will never adversely effect your business.

In our next Essential SEO: What business owners need to know post we’ll discuss what links are and why they are still important.

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