“Let me Google it,” as a phrase has become so ubiquitous that the mechanics behind the service websites like Google provide has become obscured.
Many of you reading this article remember a time before Google—when sites like Altavista, DogPile, and AskJeeves all competed to provide search results to content hungry users. Many others of you reading this article have no idea what any of those companies were—which shows the power and associated market share that Google now commands. With Google and its CEO, Sundar Pichai, in the news of late, it’s a good time to revisit what it is that Google does, and just how they reached the status of verb.
The basic methodology that search engines use to provide results has remained somewhat unchanged since their inception. These websites use programs to index websites. The indexed websites are, in turn, associated with specific key words. When a user types keywords into a search bar, the search engine provides resulting webpages that match the search criteria. Sounds simple right? What made Google revolutionary was the relevance of results. There might be 20,000 websites that contain the words “shrimp,” “cocktail,” and “recipe;” but what Google provides you is the most relevant answer to the query you input: “best shrimp cocktail recipe.” The next question then is, how does Google determine what search results are the most relevant? That is the 700 billion dollar question.
In order to determine the relevance of a search result, Google uses sophisticated and proprietary algorithms. An algorithm is essentially a set of rules that a computer follows to determine the results of an equation. You can think of this along the lines of the instructions that come with flat pack furniture. The input for the equation are your materials, wood and screws. The output is a bookshelf.
If you want to ensure that you receive the same output every time, you must include instructions—otherwise your bookshelf may end up vaguely resembling a table. Computers use algorithms to complete a wide variety of tasks, but in the case of a search engine, they are primarily used to determine the relevancy of information on a particular web-page. Google does this by tracking a number of the web-page’s characteristics—how many times it is linked to from other places, how many visits it receives, how closely it matches your search query, etc. The problem, however, comes from trying to describe the exact manner in which Google’s algorithm works—because no one outside of the company knows for sure.
Google’s search algorithm is what’s known as a black box. Input goes in one side, and output comes out the other, but there’s no transparent view of the internal workings that allows a member of the public to determine how the output was achieved. Trying to influence search results from Google and other search providers is actually its own industry, known as Search Engine Optimization, or SEO. Providers of this service purport to be able to influence the ranking that a particular business achieves in a Google search by making modifications to their online presence, be they changes to their website, news articles, blog posts, etc. B
ecause search engine algorithms are proprietary, however, companies that provide this type of service are working based on their own research, rather than first-hand knowledge. SEO, rather than being a magic wand that instantly increases your company’s online visibility, is instead akin to other marketing practices that can slowly and surely increase brand recognition.
Now it’s up to you to decide how much time and money you want to invest in it.