How search engines work: updates and visibility

By Jeroen, 1 August 2023

Search Engine Optimisation

In the ever-evolving world of digital marketing, search engines play a pivotal role in determining the online success of businesses. As an agency offering Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) services, it is essential to grasp the inner workings of search engines and how they update their algorithms. In this article, we will explore the timing of search engine updates, their potential effects on your website, and what is currently known about these powerful digital gatekeepers.

Understanding search engines

A search engine is fully automated software that explores the web for billions and billions of pages. Let’s explore ourselves, how does a search engine work in 3 simple steps:

Step 1: crawling of websites

Out of all those billions of pages, most of them are discovered by crawlers rather than being manually submitted. This process is called crawling and is carried out by crawlers. These crawlers navigate the internet from link to link, from page to page, gathering valuable data to be stored in the search engine index (see Step 2). During crawling, the crawlers follow the paths of internal and external links on web pages. Whenever they encounter a new link, they jump to another page, and this process continues until they reach an endpoint or a predetermined number of pages. Crawling is a continuous process that enables search engines to constantly discover and update new content in their database.

Step 2: storing of website information (indexing)

After crawling vast quantities of websites, it’s time for the next crucial step: indexing. During crawling, the crawlers have gathered valuable data from various web pages, including text, images, videos, and other media content. This collected information is stored in a massive database, commonly known as the search engine’s index.

Step 3: serving the most relevant pages to a search query

Having completed the first two steps, it’s now time for the next and most essential step: serving the most relevant pages to the user who entered a search query. This step is the heart of the search process and aims to deliver the most valuable information to the user to meet their needs.

When a user enters a search query into a search engine, the search engine scans its vast index to find pages that are relevant to that specific search query. The goal is to present results that align with the user’s search intent. This means that the search engine not only looks at the exact keywords entered but also considers the context, meaning, and purpose behind the search query.

These steps together are known as an algorithm. In order to serve the best content for their users, search engines keep their algorithm up-to-date with – you guessed it – frequent updates. Overall, search engine updates are a vital aspect of the dynamic digital landscape, and understanding them is crucial for agencies offering SEO services and companies using SEO to ensure their (clients’) websites are optimized for improved visibility, organic traffic, and online success.

The dynamic nature of search engine updates

Search engines, such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo, continually update their algorithms to deliver the most relevant and high-quality search results to their users. These updates aim to improve user experience, combat spam, and adapt to changing trends and user behavior. However, search engine updates are not scheduled on specific dates, and their frequency and magnitude can vary. In other words, usually we don’t know when a search engine is updating their algorithm and we find out afterwards since there will be changes that are noticed.

Historically, major algorithm updates like Google’s Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird have caused seismic shifts in search engine rankings. These updates were significant and had a substantial impact on website visibility. However, over time, search engines have transitioned towards more frequent and subtle updates that take place continuously, often referred to as “rolling updates.”

The impact on your website

When search engines update their algorithms, they can have both positive and negative effects on your website’s visibility. Let’s explore how these updates can influence your online presence:

Positive impact

Improved rankings: If your website adheres to the updated ranking factors, it can experience a boost in search engine rankings, resulting in increased visibility and organic traffic.

Enhanced user experience: Updates often prioritize websites that provide a seamless and user-friendly experience. Optimizing your website accordingly can lead to better engagement and higher conversions.

Negative impact

Decreased rankings: If your website’s content or structure no longer aligns with the updated algorithms, it may experience a drop in rankings, leading to decreased visibility and organic traffic.

Penalty risk: Certain updates target spammy or manipulative tactics. Engaging in unethical SEO practices, such as keyword stuffing or buying links, can trigger penalties and result in severe ranking declines or even website removal from search engine indexes.

What is known about search engine updates

While search engines are often tight-lipped about the specifics of their updates, the SEO community conducts extensive research and analysis to understand their impact. Here are some key insights that have been gleaned:

Content quality and relevance

High-quality content: Search engines prioritize websites that provide valuable, well-researched, and original content that meets users’ needs.

Relevance: The importance of relevancy cannot be overstated. Aligning your content with users’ search intent and optimizing it around relevant keywords improves your chances of ranking higher.

User experience and technical SEO

Page speed: Fast-loading websites have an advantage in search engine rankings as they provide a better user experience.

Mobile-friendliness: With the increasing use of mobile devices, search engines favor mobile-friendly websites that adapt to different screen sizes.

Structured data: Using structured data markup can enhance the appearance of your website in search results, providing more context to search engines.

Backlinks and authority

High-quality backlinks: Earning backlinks from reputable and relevant websites is a strong signal of your website’s authority and can positively impact your rankings.

Link quality over quantity: Search engines now prioritize the quality of backlinks rather than the sheer number. Focus on building organic and natural links.

Social signals and engagement

Social media presence: While the direct impact of social signals on rankings is debated, a strong social media presence can increase brand visibility, drive traffic, and indirectly influence SEO.

Integral part of the digital landscape

Search engine updates are an integral part of the ever-evolving digital landscape, shaping the visibility and success of websites. Understanding these updates and their potential impact is vital for agencies offering SEO services. By staying informed about the latest trends and best practices, you can ensure your clients’ websites are optimized to meet the evolving demands of search engines, improving their visibility, organic traffic, and ultimately, their online success.

Read more about the sequel to this blog: how SEO works.

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