Table of Contents
- What are Search Engines?
- How do Search Engines Work?
- How Search Engines Rank Results
- The Best Search Engines Around in the World
- Alternative Search Engines to Google
- Search Engines for Specific Purposes
- The Future of Search Engines
What is the first thing you do when you need to find out a specific piece of information? For most of the world’s population, the answer would be to open a search engine. These internet tools have become indispensable in the modern world — but what exactly are search engines, and how do they function beneath their simple interfaces? We’ll answer these questions and more in today’s guide to the secrets of search engines, exploring their mechanics and various options available today, including industry giants like Google and alternatives.
What are Search Engines?
Search engines are complex software systems, designed to allow users from all around the world to search for unbiased information on the World Wide Web. Without them, it would be nearly impossible to navigate the chaotic internet space, and you’d most likely need to find each URL you want to visit on your own using some sort of online directory.
When you input a query in the search bar, the search engine scans its massive database of web pages, using sophisticated algorithms to present the most relevant and trustworthy sites. This process, though seemingly instantaneous, involves a complex combination of crawling, indexing, ranking, and retrieving information — all driven by advanced technology and AI algorithms.
How do Search Engines Work?
Although the inner workings of search engines are mostly not disclosed to users, the information provided by developers and the SEO industry’s research into search engines have made it possible to distinguish three key components: crawling, indexing, and ranking.
Crawling is where the journey of each page you can find in search engines begins. Crawlers, which are automated programs that traverse the web to discover content, start from a known web page and follow links they find on it to encounter new discovered URLs. This process is performed continuously, collecting data from billions of web pages. This data includes text, images, videos, and various code elements like HTML and metadata.
Once the content is crawled, it must be organized — this is where indexing comes into play. Search engines process and store the information collected by crawlers in massive databases called indexes (or indices, if you prefer). They are designed to be highly efficient, allowing the engine to quickly retrieve relevant information when someone makes a query. The information is categorized and stored in a way that makes it easily accessible. Think of it as an incredibly detailed library catalog or internet archive that spans the entirety of the internet's content (or, at least, of what the crawlers could find).
The final, and perhaps most important step, is ranking. Whenever you perform a search, the search engine sifts through its index to provide the best answers. It uses complex algorithms to evaluate the relevance and authority of web pages based on the query. Keywords, site usability, page speed, quality of content, and backlinks all play a significant role in this process. The goal is to provide the most useful and accurate information at the top of the search engine results.
These steps — search engine crawling, indexing, and ranking — are all continuous and automated, making sure the search engine's database is always up-to-date and capable of delivering quality results. Search engines like Google or Bing have evolved these processes to a high degree of sophistication, using artificial intelligence and machine learning to enhance accuracy and user experience.
How Search Engines Rank Results
We don’t know the exact math behind deciding which results to show first, but we do know some key factors that influence web pages’ ranking on Google and similar search engines.
The main objective of search engines is to provide the most relevant results to each user’s query. Relevance is determined by how closely a web page’s content aligns with the search terms, including the presence and placement of keywords, meta attributes, relevance of outgoing links, text length, etc. However, nowadays, most search engines go beyond that, also analyzing the context and intent behind each query using advanced natural language processing and semantic search technology.
Quality of Content
Search engines prefer to promote content that is informative, well-written, and that provides actual value to the reader. They use a range of signals to assess quality, including whether your content is fresh and whether it offers a comprehensive answer to the query. Factors like user engagement (time spent on page, bounce rates, etc.) also play a role in determining content quality.
A good UX is increasingly important for high rankings. This includes how quickly your page loads, whether it’s mobile-friendly and easy to navigate, and its overall user interface efficiency. Search engines can evaluate these factors through metrics like page load speed and mobile responsiveness.
Backlinks, or links from other sites, are a critical ranking factor. They act like votes of confidence — the more high-quality sites link to your page, the more authoritative and reliable it will appear to search engines. The quality of backlinks often matters more than quantity, with links from reputable and relevant sites carrying much more weight during ranking.
Modern search engines use AI algorithms to constantly refine and improve their ranking processes. Google's RankBrain, for instance, is an AI-based system that helps process search results and provides more relevant search responses. According to Google themselves, RankBrain is the third most important ranking factor, behind content and links.
Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, aims to actively improve factors that we can directly and indirectly influence to improve our organic rankings. There are many strategies for doing so, including sponsored content marketing, finding backlink opportunities, optimizing your website, and more. Through Google Ads or alternative services in other search engines, websites can also promote their websites and boost ranking directly.
How do Search Engines Personalize Results?
Each user’s search results will also be influenced by a personalization algorithm that matches query suggestions and results to their unique preferences. One of the main ways search engines personalize content is through the user’s search history — search engines analyze past searches to gather interests and preferences of the users, tailoring the results. For example, if a user frequently searches for vegetarian recipes, the search engine might rank culinary websites or pages with vegetarian content higher in subsequent related searches.
Geographical location is another significant factor, especially influencing local search results like businesses, services, or events, where proximity plays a role.
The type of device used for searching (like a mobile phone, tablet, or desktop) and the user's browsing behavior also influence personalization. Mobile searches might yield results that are optimized for mobile viewing, while desktop searches might provide more detailed results.
The Best Search Engines Around in the World
The default search engine for most. Unquestionably, Google Search reigns supreme in both the UK and US, known for its powerful and accurate algorithms and an extensive index. The search results are highly relevant, establishing Google’s worldwide dominance — all because of constant innovation in technology. Users can expect relevant queries results, video searches, Google images functionality, and more.
As of 2023, Google continues to dominate the global search engine market, with a staggering 91.5% of all search queries worldwide. Most SEO efforts are centered around Google’s algorithm, since most other search engines base their inner workings on it as well.
Microsoft's Bing is the second most popular search engine, though it accounts for only a small fraction of the market compared to Google. Bing's market share is about 3.02%, with most searches in the United States.
The third most popular search engine globally is Russia's Yandex, with a market share of ~1.5%. Interestingly, Yandex's dominance in its home market of Russia is much more pronounced, where it enjoys a market share of 60%, significantly ahead of Google's 38% in that region. Fourth is Yahoo (approx. 1.17% share) and fifth is Chinese Baidu (approx. 1.06% share).
Best Search Engines in the UK and US
In both the UK and the US, Google remains the leader, exceeding 90% market share. Next is Microsoft’s Bing, with usage similar to global market share; however, it is appreciated for its user-friendly interface and integration with Microsoft’s products. Bing's image search and rewards program are particularly noteworthy.
Alternative Search Engines to Google
While Google may be the most popular search engine globally, there are many specialty search engines offering unique features and benefits. Let’s take a look at the best alternative search engines:
Bing stands as the second-largest search engine in many markets, and has a visually appealing interface with superior video and image search capabilities. It provides a different aesthetic and user experience compared to Google, which some users prefer. In the last few years, Bing has seen renewed interest because of their implementation of AI-powered search.
Yahoo Search is nowadays also powered by Bing’s technology and still remains one of the most significant players in the search engine space, though far behind Google. It functions both as a web portal and a search engine, integrating features like Yahoo Mail and Yahoo News and aiming to create a holistic digital experience for the uninitiated. It maintains a loyal user base, particularly among those who have been using it for years already.
One of the newer players that have already carved out a significant niche for itself is DuckDuckGo, with a strong stance on user privacy. It does not track or store personal search data, in contrast to most other search engines, which makes it appealing for users concerned about personal data privacy. The site has a simple and clean interface and is easy to use. The results, however, may be less personalized compared to other search engines due to DuckDuckGo’s private search non-tracking policy.
Originating from France, Qwant is a private search engine that prioritizes user privacy, similar to DuckDuckGo. Both Qwant and DDG use the Bing index for their results and commit to not tracking cookies. This one is especially appealing to European users, but the company has faced several controversies in the past, like sending private data to Bing Ads without informed consent of users starting in 2016, and revealing this as late as 2021.
Ecosia has an environmental mission and presents itself as “the search engine that plants trees”. Using revenue from ads, Ecosia claims to use 100% of its profits for environmental activism, funding tree planting etc. According to University College London, searching with Ecosia is supposed to remove an equivalent of 1 kg of CO2 from the air with each query, and plant one tree every 50 queries.
Search Engines for Specific Purposes
Beyond these more general search engines, there are niche platforms and alternative search engines catering to specific needs.
Google Scholar is one of the most popular specialized search engines other than Google — a widely used resource for academic and scholarly research. It provides access to a vast collection of articles, theses, books, papers, and other scholarly publications and file types, making it an invaluable tool for students and researchers. JSTOR and other similar digital libraries help in the effort to make primary sources more accessible across various disciplines and locations.
Behance is a social media / creative network, which also functions as a search engine for creative work. Artists, designers, and other creative workers can showcase their work and search for inspiration in a range of fields, including architecture, fashion, branding, illustration, and more.
Remember Flickr? Once known as an image hosting service, it now also serves as a search engine for finding high-quality images and photos, often used by photographers and visual artists.
Apart from academics and creatives, specific industries have their search engines as well. For example, Wolfram Alpha is a computational search engine for answering queries related to mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and other sciences and technical subjects. It’s a go-to for professionals and students needing precise computational answers.
There are also flight search engines (Momondo, Skyscanner), hotel search engines (KAYAK, Trivago), job search engines (Indeed, job.com), child-friendly search engines (Kiddle, KidzSearch), and many more types dedicated to specific purposes.
The Future of Search Engines
Search engines never stop evolving as technology becomes more advanced and user behaviors change. AI and machine learning already have been playing pivotal roles in search engine algorithms for more than 8 years, but they’re now becoming exponentially more sophisticated, reshaping how search engines function and how users interact with them.
In the future, we can expect search engines to provide even more relevant answers and act more intuitively. They may soon be able to understand sophisticated context and intent, processing complex queries with ease. Some, like Bing, are already integrated with AI chatbots like ChatGPT to create new ways for users to interact with the platform. Instead of sifting through pages of results, users may increasingly rely on conversational AI to obtain direct, concise answers and insights. These chatbots could act as intermediaries, making the search process more interactive and user-friendly.
Future search engines might become more predictive and proactive, anticipating user needs based on previous behaviors, patterns, and preferences. This could manifest in search engines suggesting information before a user explicitly makes a query, based on their known interests and habits.
Search engines are also becoming more personalized, and balancing this with user privacy will be crucial. The challenge lies in offering highly tailored search experiences while respecting user data privacy and security. Future developments may see more transparent and user-controlled personalization options, as worldwide regulations now dynamically change and adapt to the spread of AI technology.
As artificial intelligence and other technology continues to evolve search engines, we can expect them to become much more intuitive, interactive, relevant, and integrated into our daily lives. They will still, almost certainly, be one of the best ways to find new content online and promote your business digitally.