What is a Search Engine, and how do they work?

As you would imagine with SEO, knowledge of how search engines are used, the types of queries that users submit and how their algorithms work is essential. It is at this point in our guide where we start to introduce some of the more technical aspects, in this case relating most specifically to Google.

As SEO experts in Bangkok, we know what ranking factors matter the most. In this chapter, we will look closely at these factors so that you can gain a better understanding and start to know how you can incorporate them into your SEO.

A basic introduction to how search engines work

All search engines work in the same manner and follow a relatively straightforward process. Like with most automated processes, it moves from point to point using almost a binary system. Search engines have, essentially, three components and the process works through the elements in order. The process is Crawling > Indexing > Selecting relevant results. We will delve deeper into each of these processes below.


Bots (or spiders) will scan or crawl your website, meticulously going through it section by section, examining the quality of the content, your use of keywords, H1 and H2 headings, any hyperlinks, as well as any images that you have included. The bots are capable of gleaning an incredible amount of data in a matter of seconds, and it is a process which is continually updated. Hyperlinks will be checked for their relevance and that they are still actionable so, as a webmaster, you need to be confident that everything on your website is shipshape all the time.

seo spider
SEO’s often refer to crawlers as ‘spiders’


The next stage, using the information collated during the crawl is to index the data into the search engine’s library. Not surprisingly, this is a far more time-consuming process and can take anything from one day to one month. It is worth remembering that after any change you make, it will be detected by the bots, that they will send it for indexing. Until your changes have been indexed, they won’t impact on the search engine results. Patience is required at this stage and any decisions that you make based on the changes, should not be made until after indexing has been completed.

Search console index
Google Search Console will tell you if a particular page is indexed

Selecting relevant results 

The prime reason for any user’s search is to obtain relevant results. The search engine’s role is to select the most relevant results relating to the query and will do this by delving through their indexes. Although billions of websites worldwide are checked, the process takes a matter of milliseconds thanks to a variety of algorithms.

The selecting of the results is equally relevant to website developers as it is their goal to rank highly for queries connected to their website. While ranking factors are well-known and indeed the search engines often release this information along with any major updates, the formulas and calculations which are used are confidential.

What are the main ranking factors?

As we touched upon before, many factors are made known by the search engines, some are proven, some are theories. Naturally, it is best to work on facts and use white hat tactics which are known to work rather than potentially entering grey hat areas. 

As we said in chapter one, there is no requirement to know everything about SEO to be successful at it and have a positive impact on your site. One of the most essential factors which you must understand is the backlink profile. It is essentially a summary of the backlinks to a site and their quality, or more accurately, their authority and could be viewed in simplistic terms as an academic citation. While backlinks are vital, other areas should not be overlooked. Here are some critical factors, each holding a similar amount of weight.

  •   Domain history
  •   Link relevance and authority
  •   Correct use of keywords and phrases
  •   HTML Tags
  •   Topical authority
  •   UX and UI
  •   The page layout of your website and the speed that pages load
  •   HTTPS certification
Domain age

There are lots of tools which can tell you the age of a domain

As we discussed in chapter one, these factors can be divided into two groups, on-page SEO (which will also include all technical aspects) and off-page SEO, which includes link building.

How are search engines used?

The primary point to understand with SEO is that the search engines are designed to benefit the user, so satisfying their needs is the main objective of the search engine. Therefore, your SEO has to meet the needs of users first closely followed by the demands of the search engines. You can have a website that looks fantastic, is technically brilliant and is several years old. However, if no one finds it relevant or useful and interaction is low, your rankings will plummet.

The use of search engines has evolved since the 1990s, but the principle behind users’ interactions remains the same:

  •   To find information, answer to a question, or a solution to a problem
  •   Typing the query into the search engine – the query is the keyword or keyphrase and/or contains the keyword(s)
  •   Users usually select one of the top three results
  •   They will refer to more than one website on their SERP
  •   They scan read for answers and want to find them quickly
  •   The user changes the search query if they can’t find the answer they are looking for

The leading search engines and their market share 

There are around 25 search engines which are used on a regular basis around the world, but it is only the top five that have more than 1% of the market share, with Google not surprisingly, holding the lion’s share as you can see below (correct as of July 2020). It is for this reason why most people base their SEO around Google and their algorithms.

  •   Google – 70.37%
  •   Bing – 13.09%
  •   Baidu – 11.96%
  •   Yahoo – 2.96%
  •   Yandex – 1.21%

* source: Newmarketshare.com

What are the different types of search query?

As we discussed above, the role of search engines has remained the same, and that is also the case with the types of queries typed in. Very broadly, they will fit into one or sometimes more than one, of these types of query.

Navigational search queries

Navigational queries are still perhaps surprisingly the most popular and are when people search for a specific website or brand such as Google, Facebook or Nike. Although the user knows the website domain, they still type “google” or “facebook” into a search engine, and indeed the top websites and brands receive the highest amount of search queries. 

navigational query
The number 1 search on Google, is ‘Facebook’

Informational search queries

Quite simply, these are queries whereby the user is searching for information. Often these are “How to…”, “Why does…” or “Should I…” queries and ones that many of us submit almost every day.

Informational Query

Transactional search queries

One of the areas that has witnessed rapid growth in the last decade has been internet sales. Transactional queries are queries where the user is looking to purchase something. The search usually conducted using the specific product name such as “Louis Vuitton” or more generically, “designer handbags”. Often the query will be “Where can I buy…” or “… price” but it will specifically relate to a category or individual item.

It is common for informational search queries to become transactional ones with the use of a “Call to Action” (CTA) or by opening the query in an app if it is performed on a mobile device.

How often are SERP updates?

The objective of SEO is to get on the first page of Google’s organic search for popular queries that relate to your website. Ideally, you want or need to be in the top three, with the top being the pinnacle. While it may, on the face of it, appear that there can only be one winner, that isn’t necessarily the case.

SERPs are updated on a daily, even hourly basis as new websites and content is indexed, which affect the organic results. Don’t forget previous searches, location and cache can also influence SERP results. SERPs can also be affected by even minor tweaks to Google’s algorithm with major algorithm updates causing massive changes and panic in the SEO world!

Being top of the rankings one day doesn’t necessarily mean you will be in the top three the next. It is why organic SEO needs to be an ongoing process as will never be completed.

The features of the SERP

SERPs have many features that may be the layman isn’t aware of. Take the “zero position”, for example. A query can be straightforward such as “How to peel an onion” which will almost inevitably show a Google featured snippet that gives you all the answers that you need for this menial task. Other features include “Rich snippets” that influence users’ behaviour, and it has been proven that very generic search have far lower click-through rates (CTR).

Rich snippets have a broader visual appeal as well as providing all the information that you require. There are numerous rich snippets in the SERP, but here are some of the most common, which you will have seen but maybe not realised:

  •   Answer boxes
  •   The carousel of images and products at the top of the search
  •   Answer box
  •   Maps
  •   Sponsored links such as Google Ads
  •   Top stories
Featured Snippet

Featured Snippets will steal lots of traffic from the top positions

The impact that these rich snippets have shouldn’t be underestimated, so they are well worth considering and including in your SEO. The results for your endeavours may be far greater than you would imagine!

If you have any questions on your positions in the SERP, or just want to start seeing some improvements, speak to one of the team today on 02 038 5400.