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How Google’s Search Engine Really Works (A Peek Under The Hood)

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Google’s search engine is technically complex.

There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of different factors taken into account so that the search engine can figure out what should go where.

It’s like a mysterious black box, and very few people know exactly what’s inside.

However, the good news is that search engines are actually pretty easy to understand.

We may not know every single factor (out of a hundred or thousand), but we also don’t need to.

I’ll bring it down to the basics with a simple method to please Google, rank higher, and bring in more website traffic.

I’ll also introduce some of the latest developments, like RankBrain, that help Google guess what you’re actually looking for (even if you don’t type it in).

First, I’m going to walk you through exactly how Google’s search engine really works so that you can see that it’s not as difficult to understand as you might think.

How Do Search Engines Crawl the Web?

Google’s first job is to ‘crawl’ the web with ‘spiders.’

These are little automated programs or bots that scour the net for any and all new information.

The spiders take notes on your website, from the titles you use to the text on each page to learn more about who you are, what you do, and who might be interested in finding you.

how search engines work nutshell spiders

That may sound simplistic on the face of it.

Which is no small feat, considering there are more than 1.8 billion websites online today — with thousands of new sites popping up every day.

The first massive challenge is to locate new data, record what it’s about, and then store that information (with some accuracy) in a database.

Google’s next job is to figure out how to best match and display the information in its database when someone types in a search query. Scaling becomes a problem, though.

Google processes over 3.5 billion searches a day, and that number increases every year.

how google works number of searches done per day

That means the information in its database needs to be categorized correctly, rearranged, and displayed in less than a second after someone expects it.

Time is of the essence here, because speed wins, according to Marissa Mayer back when she worked for Google over a decade ago.

She reported when they were able to speed up Google Maps’ home page (by cutting down on its size), traffic leaped 10 percent within seven days and 25 percent just a few weeks later.

Google won the search engine race because it’s able to:

  1. Find and record more information
  2. Deliver more accurate results
  3. Do both of those two tasks faster than any other search engine

One of the reasons Google is the front of the pack comes down to the accuracy of its results.

The information it displays is more likely to match what users are actually looking for.

Think about it this way.

When you type something into Google, you’re expecting something. It might be a simple answer, like the weather in your city, or maybe a little more complex, like “how does Google’s search engine really work?”

Google’s results, compared to other search engines, tend to answer those queries better. The information was the best of the best.

This breakthrough came from an initial theory Google’s co-founders actually worked on in college.

Why Do Links Matter to Google?

Google’s co-founders were still at Stanford in 1998 when they released a paper entitled “The PageRank Citation Ranking: Bringing Order to the Web.”

Check it out — you can read the whole thing right here!

how google words why links matter paper

The PageRank breakthrough was simple.

Academic papers were often ‘ranked’ by the number of citations a paper received. The more they received, the more authoritative they were considered on that topic.

Google co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, wanted to apply the same ‘grading’ system to the web’s information. They used backlinks as a proxy for votes. The more links a page received, the more authoritative it was perceived on that particular topic.

links are votes how google works

Of course, they didn’t just look at the number of links. They also factored in quality by considering who was doing the linking.

If you received two links, for example, from two different websites, the one with the more authority on a topic would be worth more.

They also considered relevance to better gauge the ‘quality’ of a link.

For example, if your website talks about “dog food,” links from other pages or sites that talk about things related to “dogs” or “dog food” would be worth more than one talking about “truck tires.”

External links (links from other sites) are also more valuable than internal links (links to different pages on your own site.)

how google works external vs internal links.

Before we go any further, please understand these concepts are over two decades all.

PageRank may have mattered years ago, but it’s evolved tremendously since then. So don’t worry about it explicitly today.

One of the reasons is because of newer algorithm developments, including RankBrain.

What is ‘RankBrain’ and How Does It Work?

RankBrain was first acknowledged in 2015 by Google engineer Greg Corrado:

RankBrain has become the third-most important signal contributing to the result of a search query.

Google’s been working on this technology for years to help the search engine handle the massive increases in volume without losing accuracy.

The RankBrain secret sauce is that it uses artificial intelligence to continually learn how to improve.

rankbrain diagram how google works

So the more it processes new information or new search queries for users, it actually gets more accurate.

For example, in 2010, Google’s algorithm “might have up to 10,000 variations or sub-signals,” according to Search Engine Land. That’s a lot!

As you can imagine, somehow managing all of those on the fly would be incredibly difficult (if not impossible).

That’s where RankBrain comes in.

Generally, the two most important ranking factors are:

  1. Links (and citations)
  2. Words (content and queries)

Note: this changes over time, and these aren’t the only factors that matter. Speed plays a major factor in Google ranking, as do Core Web Vitals.

RankBrain, however, is still a main component. It helps analyze or understand the connections between those links and content so Google can understand the context behind what someone’s asking. This is often called semantic search.

rankbrain semantic search difficulty 1

For example, let’s say you type in the word “engineer salaries.”

Now think about that for a moment. What type of engineer salaries are you looking for?

It could be “civil,” “electrical,” “mechanical,” or even “software.”

That’s why Google needs to use several different factors to figure out exactly what you’re asking for.

Let’s say the following events played out over the past few years:

  • You’re getting a degree in computer science.
  • Your IP address puts you on the campus of Stanford University.
  • You follow tech journalists on Twitter.
  • You read TechCrunch almost every single day.
  • You Googled “software engineer jobs” last week.

Google’s able to piece all of these random bits of data together. It’s like a bunch of puzzle pieces suddenly coming together.

So now Google knows what type of “engineer salaries” to show you, even though you never explicitly asked for “software engineer salaries.”

That’s also how Google is now answering your questions before you even ask them.

For example, do a generic search right now for anything, like “pizza.”

Now, what do you see?

how google words SERP example

You see the typical ad spaces up at the top.

However, the local results below the ads are assuming that you’re asking “where to get pizza.”

The Knowledge Graph on the far right-hand side is serving up almost every fact and figure about pizza imaginable.

RankBrain process and filters all this data to give you answers before you even ask them.

Change your search up a little (like this one for “pizza hut”) and the search engine result page (SERP) changes with new information.

how google works pizza search

Now you know how Google’s search engine really works.

While you don’t need to be an expert, understanding the basics like this can help you better figure out how to give your prospects exactly what they want (so you get better rankings and more traffic).

Here are a few of the big things to keep an eye on.

How to Rank Higher in Google: Solve People’s Problems

People type searches into Google to get an answer to whatever question they’re facing.

If they’re looking for an answer, it means they have a question.

If they have a question, it means they have a problem.

So your primary job is to solve someone’s problem.

In theory, it’s really that simple. If you solve someone’s problem better than anyone else, you’ll get better rankings and more traffic.

Let’s take a look at a few examples so you can see how this works in real life.

Someone comes home from a long day at work. All they’re looking forward to doing is grabbing something to eat fast and hanging out with their family or watching a new show on Netflix.

Before they’re able to throw a meal together, they try to run the kitchen sink and discover that it’s clogged.

Bummer.

It’s already getting late, though, so they don’t want to call a plumber. Instead, they head over to Google and start typing in “how to unclog drain” as their search query.

Then here’s what they see:

how google works SERP example for how to uncolog a sink.

See?!

Way up at the top is an ad for a plumber (just in case you want to call in a professional).

Next up is an Instant Answer box that contains step-by-step instructions that Google believes has helped other people. So you might already be able to fix your sink without ever leaving this page!

Below that are related questions that other people commonly ask (along with their answers).

So all of this begs the question: How do you create something that can help solve a user’s problem?

I’ll answer that in one second, but here’s what you don’t do for the record:

how google works example of keyword stuffing

“Keyword density” used to be an old-school tactic that was once relevant when Google’s algorithm was dumb and static. With RankBrain, Google has become a borderline genius.

So keyword stuffing like it’s 1999 will hurt you in the long run. As you can see, this is a terrible “answer” or “solution” to someone’s problem.

After saying that, there are a few places on a page that you want to pay special attention to.

For example, the Title Tag and Meta Description are used by Google to provide an official answer for what this page is about.

Those are the two elements that will also show up on a SERP when someone types in their query.

It only makes sense, then, that you should use the main topic in those areas so that everyone knows exactly what your page is discussing.

how google works title tag and meta description

Do you want to see where that text is getting pulled from?

Simply right-click on a website to view the source code. For example, my homepage looks something like this:

where meta text is how google works

You can see the title tag and meta description at the top of the code.

I’m also using Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin to help add these extra fields on the backside of WordPress.

That way, all you have to do is write out the specific title and description in plain text (as opposed to getting your hands dirty with code).

Otherwise, the actual page content should be written for humans (as opposed to keyword stuffing to tricks or fool the search engines).

Instead, here’s how your page content should look:

how google works example of good content

I wrote an in-depth response to help someone figure out a solution to a complex problem (keyword research).

Even though it’s a complex subject, I was trying to give them a simple, step-by-step solution so they could fix that problem ASAP.

Google even takes website usage data into account now to determine how helpful your content is.

For example, let’s say that someone clicks on your website from Google and is turned off by the poor design or hard-to-read content. So they ‘bounce back’ to Google immediately to find a different result.

That’s a bad sign! Google determines you weren’t a happy searcher. So maybe Google will try to find a few other results to swap out with that one to hopefully make everyone happy.

That’s why I also break up the paragraphs and include a lot of images. The goal is to help people quickly find what they’re looking for.

I want them to read the page faster and digest the information more easily so that they’ll stick around longer instead of bouncing away.

That’s the key to ranking well in search engines. Give the people what they want, keep them around or coming back for more, and Google will be happier as a result.

Let’s go back to our clogged drain example to see how this works in another context.

how google works example.

Those are all pretty good results!

In each case, the person who crafted each page provided a detailed answer to a common problem.

Let’s zero in on that second SERP result, “7 Brilliant Ways to Unclog a Drain (Photos)” from Yahoo, to discover what they’re doing so well to hit number two on a big, popular search query like that.

how google works drain example

This seems like it might be a good result because it gives us multiple methods to try, along with photos so we can see exactly what’s happening.

Let’s click on that to see what they provide.

how google works good content example: include images and easy to read text

Pretty good overall!

It provides the user with good, quality content to help solve a problem. The better your content does that, the more links or ‘upvotes’ it will receive when other people find it useful, too.

Links and other citations or social signals help alert Google. They tell the search engine that your page is on the rise and to start paying attention to your website for these topics.

Your page will get better treatment, move up in the rankings, be exposed to more people, get more links or votes as a result, and continue that upward trend.

That’s where the genius of Google’s process comes into play.

It makes people happy by giving them exactly what they’re looking for. When you do it right, it gives you compounding benefits that can take off all of a sudden, expanding your website traffic as a result.

How Google Search Engine Works: Conclusion

Google’s search engine is one of the most complex technologies in the world.

It crunches a mind-numbing amount of data at lightning speeds to give people exactly what they’re looking for in seconds.

When you boil it down to the basics, search engines are actually pretty easy to understand.

They want to help people find what they’re looking for.

People use Google to find answers and solutions. They have something on their minds, and they want to find an answer that helps them clear the issue to move on with their day.

How Google finds and delivers that information is the building blocks of SEO, making it crucial to growing your business online.

Now that you know how Google works, how are you going to use this information?

See How My Agency Can Drive Massive Amounts of Traffic to Your Website

  • SEO – unlock massive amounts of SEO traffic. See real results.
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Google to pay $391.5 million settlement over location tracking, state AGs say

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Google to pay $391.5 million settlement over location tracking, state AGs say

Google has agreed to pay a $391.5 million settlement to 40 states to resolve accusations that it tracked people’s locations in violation of state laws, including snooping on consumers’ whereabouts even after they told the tech behemoth to bug off.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said it is time for Big Tech to recognize state laws that limit data collection efforts.

“I have been ringing the alarm bell on big tech for years, and this is why,” Mr. Landry, a Republican, said in a statement Monday. “Citizens must be able to make informed decisions about what information they release to big tech.”

The attorneys general said the investigation resulted in the largest-ever multistate privacy settlement. Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, a Democrat, said Google’s penalty is a “historic win for consumers.”

“Location data is among the most sensitive and valuable personal information Google collects, and there are so many reasons why a consumer may opt out of tracking,” Mr. Tong said. “Our investigation found that Google continued to collect this personal information even after consumers told them not to. That is an unacceptable invasion of consumer privacy, and a violation of state law.”

Location tracking can help tech companies sell digital ads to marketers looking to connect with consumers within their vicinity. It’s another tool in a data-gathering toolkit that generates more than $200 billion in annual ad revenue for Google, accounting for most of the profits pouring into the coffers of its corporate parent, Alphabet, which has a market value of $1.2 trillion.

The settlement is part of a series of legal challenges to Big Tech in the U.S. and around the world, which include consumer protection and antitrust lawsuits.

Though Google, based in Mountain View, California, said it fixed the problems several years ago, the company’s critics remained skeptical. State attorneys general who also have tussled with Google have questioned whether the tech company will follow through on its commitments.

The states aren’t dialing back their scrutiny of Google’s empire.

Last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he was filing a lawsuit over reports that Google unlawfully collected millions of Texans’ biometric data such as “voiceprints and records of face geometry.”

The states began investigating Google’s location tracking after The Associated Press reported in 2018 that Android devices and iPhones were storing location data despite the activation of privacy settings intended to prevent the company from following along.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich went after the company in May 2020. The state’s lawsuit charged that the company had defrauded its users by misleading them into believing they could keep their whereabouts private by turning off location tracking in the settings of their software.

Arizona settled its case with Google for $85 million last month. By then, attorneys general in several other states and the District of Columbia had pounced with their own lawsuits seeking to hold Google accountable.

Along with the hefty penalty, the state attorneys general said, Google must not hide key information about location tracking, must give users detailed information about the types of location tracking information Google collects, and must show additional information to people when users turn location-related account settings to “off.”

States will receive differing sums from the settlement. Mr. Landry’s office said Louisiana would receive more than $12.7 million, and Mr. Tong’s office said Connecticut would collect more than $6.5 million.

The financial penalty will not cripple Google’s business. The company raked in $69 billion in revenue for the third quarter of 2022, according to reports, yielding about $13.9 billion in profit.

Google downplayed its location-tracking tools Monday and said it changed the products at issue long ago.

“Consistent with improvements we’ve made in recent years, we have settled this investigation which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago,” Google spokesman Jose Castaneda said in a statement.

Google product managers Marlo McGriff and David Monsees defended their company’s Search and Maps products’ usage of location information.

“Location information lets us offer you a more helpful experience when you use our products,” the two men wrote on Google’s blog. “From Google Maps’ driving directions that show you how to avoid traffic to Google Search surfacing local restaurants and letting you know how busy they are, location information helps connect experiences across Google to what’s most relevant and useful.”

The blog post touted transparency tools and auto-delete controls that Google has developed in recent years and said the private browsing Incognito mode prevents Google Maps from saving an account’s search history.

Mr. McGriff and Mr. Monsees said Google would make changes to its products as part of the settlement. The changes include simplifying the process for deleting location data, updating the method to set up an account and revamping information hubs.

“We’ll provide a new control that allows users to easily turn off their Location History and Web & App Activity settings and delete their past data in one simple flow,” Mr. McGriff and Mr. Monsees wrote. “We’ll also continue deleting Location History data for users who have not recently contributed new Location History data to their account.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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5 Tips to Boost Your Holiday Search Strategy

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Student writing on computer

With the global economic downturn, inflation, ongoing supply chain challenges, and uncertainty due to the Ukraine war, this year’s holiday shopping season promises to be very challenging. Will people be in the mood to spend despite the gloom? Or will they rein in their enthusiasm and save for the year ahead?

With these issues in mind, here are five considerations to support your search engine optimization strategy this holiday shopping season:

1. Start early.

Rising prices are likely to mean shoppers will start researching their holiday spending earlier than ever to nab the best bargains. Therefore, retailers must roll out their holiday product and category pages — and launch any promotions — sooner to ensure their pages get crawled and indexed by search engines in good time.

Some e-commerce stores manage to get their pages ranking early by updating and reusing the same section of the website for holiday content and promotions, rotating between content for Christmas, Mother’s Day, Valentine gifts, Fourth of July sales, etc. This approach can help you retain the momentum, links and authority you build up with Google and get your holiday pages visible and ranking quickly.

2. Make research an even bigger priority.

With all the uncertainty this year, it’s vital to use SEO research to identify the trending seasonal keywords and search phrases in your retail vertical — and then optimize content accordingly.

With tools such as Google Trends you can extract helpful insights based on the types of searches people are making. For example, with many fashion retailers now charging for product returns, will prioritizing keywords such as “free returns” get more search traction? And with money being tighter, will consumers stick with brands they trust rather than anything new — meaning brand searches might be higher?

3. Make greater use of Google Shopping.

To get the most out of their holiday spending, consumers are more likely to turn to online marketplaces such as Google Shopping as they make it easier to compare products, features and prices, as well as to identify the best deals both online and in nearby stores.

Therefore, take a combined approach which includes listing in Google Shopping and at the same time optimizing product detail pages on your e-commerce site to ensure they’re unique and provide more value than competitors’ pages. Be precise with product names on Google Shopping (e.g., do the names contain the words people are searching for?); ensure you provide all the must-have information Google requires; and set a price that’s not too far from the competition. 

4. Give other search sources the attention they deserve.

Earlier this year Google itself acknowledged that consumers — especially younger consumers — are starting to use TikTok, Instagram and other social media sites for search. In fact, research suggests 11 percent of product searches now start on TikTok and 15 percent on Instagram. Younger consumers in particular are more engaged by visual content, which may explain why they’re embracing visually focused social sites for search. So, as part of your search strategy, create and share content on popular social media sites that your target customers visit.

Similarly, with people starting their shopping searches on marketplaces such as Amazon.com, optimizing any listings you have on the site should be part of your strategy. And thankfully, the better optimized your product detail pages are for Amazon (with unique, useful content), the better they will rank on Google as well!

5. Hold paid budget for late opportunities.

The greater uncertainty and volatility this holiday season mean you must keep a close eye on shopper behavior and be ready to embrace opportunities that emerge later on. Getting high organic rankings for late promotions is always more challenging, so hold some paid search budget back to help drive traffic to those pages — via Google Ads, for example. Important keywords to include in late season search ad campaigns include “delivery before Christmas” and “same-day-delivery.” For locally targeted search ads, consider “pick up any time before Christmas.”

The prospect of a tough, unpredictable holiday shopping season means search teams must roll out seasonal SEO plans early, closely track shoppers’ behavior, and be ready to adapt as things change.

Marcus Pentzek is chief SEO consultant at Searchmetrics, the global provider of search data, software and consulting solutions.

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Google Home App Gets an Overhaul, Rolling Out Soon

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Google Home app

Google refreshes its Home app with a slew of new features after launching a new Nest gear. This makes it faster and easier to pair smart devices with Matter, adds customization and personalization options, an enhanced Nest camera experience, and better intercommunication between devices.

This revamped Home app utilizes Google’s Matter smart home standard – launching later this year – especially the Fast Pair functionality. On an Android phone, it will instantly recognize a Matter device and allow you to easily set it up, bypassing the current procedure that is often slow and difficult. Google is also updating its Nest speakers, displays, and routers – to control Matter devices better.

Google Home App New Features

  • Spaces: This feature allows you to control multiple devices in different rooms. Google has listed a few things by room: kitchen, bedroom, living room, etc., although it’s pretty limited right now. Spaces let you organize devices how you see fit. For instance, you can set up a baby monitor in one room and set a different room’s camera to focus on an area the baby often plays. With Spaces, you can categorize these two devices into one Space category called ‘Baby.’

Google Home app Spaces

  • Favorites: This one is pretty self-explanatory. It allows you to make certain gears as a favorite that you frequently use. Doing so will bring those devices into the limelight within the Google Home app for easier access. 

Google Home app

  • Media: Google adds a new media widget at the bottom of your Home feed. This will automatically determine what media is playing in your home and provide you with the appropriate controls as and when needed. There will be song controls if you listen to music on your speakers. There will be television remote controls if you’re watching TV. 

Google probably won’t roll out this Home app makeover anytime soon. But you can try it for yourself in the coming week by enrolling in the public preview, available in select areas.

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