What is a search engine algorithm?

What is a search engine algorithm?

The search engine algorithm is a term used to define a complex system of several algorithms that evaluates all the indexed pages and determines which of them should appear in the search results for a given query.

For example, the Google algorithm uses dozens of factors (many of them are well-known, while some of them are kept a secret) in several areas such as:

  • Meaning of the query (understanding what the user means by using the exact words they used, what is the search intent, etc.)
  • Page relevance (the search engine needs to find out whether the page answers the search query)
  • Content quality (the algorithms determine whether the webpages are an excellent source of information based on internal and external factors; number and quality of backlinks are important factors here)
  • Page usability (considers the quality of webpage from the technical standpoint – responsiveness, page speed, security, etc.)

What Is an Algorithm? A Recipe

If you ask Google what an algorithm is, you’ll discover that the engine itself (and pretty much everyone else) defines it as “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.”

An algorithm is not a formula.

To wrap our heads around the difference, why it’s important, and what each does, let’s consider for a moment the meal I might place on my dinner plate tonight.

We’ll go with a favorite of mine:

  • Roast beef
  • Horseradish
  • Yorkshire pudding
  • Green beans
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Gravy

(That’s right, we Canadians eat more than poutine and maple syrup, though both are awesome though probably not together.)

The roast beef needs to be seasoned and cooked perfectly.

The seasoning combined with the roast would be an example of a formula – how much of each thing is necessary to produce a product.

A second formula used would be the amount of time and at what temperature the roast should be cooked, given its weight. The same would occur for each item on the list.

At a very basic level, we would have 12 formulas (6 items x 2 – one for measurements and the other for cooking time and duration based on volume) making an algorithm set with the goal of creating one of Dave’s favorite meals.

We aren’t even including the various formulas and algorithms required to produce the ingredients themselves, such as raising a cow or growing potatoes.

Let’s add one more formula though – a formula to consider the number of different foods I would want on my plate.

So, we now have an algorithm to accomplish this very important task. Fantastic!

Now we just need to personalize that algorithm so that the rest of my family also enjoys their meal.

We need to consider that each person is different and will want different amounts of each ingredient and may want different seasonings.

So, we add a formula for each person. Alright.

An Algorithm of Algorithms

What the heck do a search algorithm and a dinner table have in common?

A lot more than you think.

Let’s look at just a few of the core characteristics of a website for comparison. (“Few” meaning nowhere near everything. Like not even close.)

  • URLs
  • Content
  • Internal links
  • External links
  • Images
  • Speed

As we witnessed with our dinner algorithm, each of these areas is divided further using different formulas and, in fact, different sub-algorithms.

It might be better if we think of it not as an algorithm, but as algorithms.

It’s also important to keep in mind that, while there are many algorithms and countless formulas at play, there is still an algorithm.

Its job is to determine how these others are weighted to produce the final results we see on the SERP.

So, it is perfectly legitimate to recognize that there is some type of algorithm at the top – the one algorithm to rule them all, so to speak – but always recognize that there are countless other algorithms and generally they’re the algorithms we think about when we’re considering how they impact search results.

Now, back to our analogy.

We have a plethora of different characteristics of a website being rated just as we have a number of food elements to end up on our dinner plate.

To produce the desired result, we have to have a large number of formulas and sub-algorithms to create each element on the plate and a master algorithm to determine the quantity and placement of each element.

When we’re thinking of “Google’s algorithm” what we’re actually referring to is a massive collection of algorithms and formulas, each set to fulfill one specific function and gathered together by a lead or, dare I say, “core” algorithm to place the results.

So, we have:

  • Algorithms like Pandato assist Google in judging, filtering, penalizing and rewarding content based on specific characteristics, and that algorithm likely included a myriad of other algorithms within in.
  • The Penguinalgorithm to judge links and address spam there. But this algorithm certainly requires data from other pre-existing algorithms that are responsible for valuing links and likely some new algorithms tasked with understanding common link spam characteristics so the larger Penguin algorithm could do its job.
  • Task-specific algorithms.
  • Organizing algorithms.
  • Algorithms responsible for collecting all the data and putting it into a context that produces the desired result, a SERP that users will find useful.

So there we have it. That’s how search algorithms work at their core.

 How Do Search Algorithms Work?

Alright, we’ve covered a lot of ground and you’re probably getting hungry. You want some takeaways.

Context Matters

It’s important to understand how algorithms function to apply context to what you’re experiencing/reading.

When you hear of an algorithm update, it’s important to know that what is being updated is likely a small piece of a very large puzzle.

Knowing this assists in interpreting which aspects of a site or the world are being adjusted in an update and how that adjustment fits into the large objective of the engine.

Entities Are Super Important

Further, it’s critical moving forward to understand that entities:

  • Play a massive role in search algorithms today.
  • Have their own algorithms.
  • Will play an ever-increasing role over time.

Knowing this will help you understand not just what content is valuable (how close are those entities you’re writing about?) but also which links are likely to be judged more favourably.

It’s All About User Intent

Search algorithms work as a large collection of other algorithms and formulas, each with its own purpose and task, to produce results a user will be satisfied with.

In fact, there are algorithms in place to monitor just this aspect of the results and make adjustments where ranking pages are deemed not to satisfy user intent based on how users interact with it.

Included in this are algorithms designed specifically to understand entities and how entities relate to each other in order to provide relevancy and context to the other algorithms.

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