Think back to a time when you desperately needed to know something — George Clooney’s net worth, for example, or how to make pesto. Wasn’t it just this morning that you wanted to compare safety ratings for SUVs or check the current exchange rate for Canadian dollars? The point is, when you need to know something, chances are you do what everybody does: You type a word or phrase — “pesto recipe,” for example — into a search engine like Google or Bing.
Instantaneously you get 14,200,000 results, or “hits.” At the top of the list of hits you find a simple and reliable recipe for pesto, complete with mouth-watering photos, courtesy of Food Network Kitchen. Ten minutes later your kitchen is filled with the deliciously pungent aroma of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese blended in delectable harmony with just the right amount of extra virgin olive oil. Now all you need for a perfect summer dinner is some fresh fettuccini and a loaf of crusty Italian bread. But we digress.
Where did those search results come from? How did Food Network Kitchen’s recipe rise to the very top of the first page of search results, while Wikipedia’s article on pesto appeared in the middle of page 13? More importantly, how can your content be found by someone looking for an interior designer, an investment planner, or an orthodontist?
The answer is simple: It’s complicated.
Crawlers, and Spiders, and Bots, Oh My!
To help users find what they’re looking for online, search engines deploy armies of automated internet bots — also known as spiders — to crawl the World Wide Web around the clock. Foraging in cyberspace, these bots feed on hundreds of millions of pages of information per day, digesting billions of words to regurgitate later in the form of search results.
[If this sounds like a cross between a horror movie and science fiction, welcome to the future – also known as the “new present.”]
Hunting and gathering in the 21st century
As internet spiders crawl through websites consuming words, they keep track of certain things they notice about them: where particular words appear on the page, how often these words show up, what other words they tend to appear in combination with, and so on. Spiders also follow links to other sites to learn more about the key words and phrases, and they keep track of links from other web pages to the page they’re crawling.
For their part, website owners can guide the work of the spiders by attaching meta tags to their pages – i.e., snippets of text that describe the contents of the page. So, if you owned a website and wanted spiders to crawl that site and take away your tastiest morsels, you might leave these meta tag tidbits as a metaphorical plate of cookies (or flies, if you’re a stickler for consistency in metaphors). To be sure you were on the up-and-up and not just planting likely meta tags to lure unwitting searchers to your site, your visiting spiders would check to see whether your meta tags actually match the contents of your website.
As they crawl, the automated spiders create an index of words and phrases, along with the URLs where they can be found. The indexed information goes into storage for future retrieval by users who may be searching for those very words and phrases. The crawling and indexing process also allows search engines to rank sites for certain words and phrases according to their own elaborate algorithms to determine how interesting, authoritative, and trustworthy a given website is. This explains why your Google search for SUV safety rankings may turn up different results than the same search in Bing or Yahoo. Try it and you’ll see what we mean.
Search Engine Optimization
What does any of this have to do with getting prospective customers to visit your website? Search engine optimization (SEO) is the name of the game. SEO refers to what a website owner does to improve search engine rankings in order to attract more visitors to the website and, ultimately, to cultivate new customers. When you optimize your website for search engines, people will be able to find you online. It’s as simple – and as complicated – as that.
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