Seniors ask: What controls the way articles appear when you do an online search?

Picture this: you go to your computer or tablet and search for a new spaghetti squash recipe to shake up your at-home menu routine. Within seconds, you get results for “how to cook spaghetti squash,” “85 best healthy spaghetti squash recipes” and “easy roasted spaghetti squash recipe,” in that order. You decide to click on the third option, and proceed to follow the recipe. Easy peasy, right? 

But have you ever wondered what made those particular results show up in that order? For those that didn’t grow up during the internet age, the nuts and bolts of how search engines work may be a bit of a mystery. Here’s what’s going on behind the scenes to bring you those online search results. 

What happens during an online search?

When you type a word or phrase into the search bar and hit “enter,” a complex algorithm processes your request in less than a second. The web has literally millions, if not billions of pages, so getting back the most relevant results is an awesome task. At the most basic level, the search engine uses a ‘spider’ (also known as a bot) to “crawl” the web, nearly instantaneously, to find the exact word or phrase that you typed.

Search definitions to know:

  • Crawling – the process of scanning websites’ information to find the most relevant pages. 
  • Spider – a software program that scans, or crawls, the World Wide Web to find, organize, and index websites. 

So, how does a spider do its job? The spider takes the search term, say “spaghetti squash recipes,” which is the search term from our example above, and looks for that phrase on the most popular webpages. But the spider software program isn’t just tracking down the number of repeated uses of the word. It’s also looking for related words and phrases, often called keywords. Plus, the spider is simultaneously cataloging the links to and from any given webpage.

What affects the order of the search results displayed?

The answer to what really gets a website to the coveted top spots of a search result is a complicated one. There is a whole science behind search engine optimization (SEO), leading many people to wonder if search results are shown in order of the most popular articles, the number of clicks, alphabetical order or some other way. 

How does Google search work? 

Google keeps the exact search equation a secret, so that no person or group can manipulate the algorithm to get ranked higher. Bottom line, there are a myriad of factors that influence Google search results. Here are some of the known elements that Google uses to calculate, score and rank a website: 

  • Keywords, especially in titles and subheadings  
  • Links to and from the page
  • How long a site has existed
  • The domain name, i.e., the part of the web address that connects a group of websites, such as Allconnect.com 

There are also a few lesser-known elements that can influence the results you see, such as your:

Google collects a lot of data about its users, and uses this info to “personalize” your future queries. An easy way to avoid this? Open an “incognito” window to carry out your web browsing, clear your web history and avoid cookies when possible. 

Companies and individuals also make sure that their website stays in the limelight by making sure the information is valid and timely. This typically works in the consumer’s favor by keeping the newest and most accurate information at the top of any search inquiry. 

What controls the results I see when I search the internet?

Odds are you are probably using Google as your primary search method. According to 99 Firms, “Google has a 95.65% share of mobile search traffic worldwide,” and its “share of desktop/laptop search traffic is slightly lower, at 87.35%.” In short, a vast majority of web searches are being filtered through the Google algorithm. If you are one of the million or so Googlers, then essentially, Google is in control of the search results and the order in which they are displayed. 

Are Google search results fair? 

Google’s market share of the search engine ecosystem naturally leads to the next question — are these search results fair and impartial? Well, since the exact collection of algorithms that Google uses is a closely-guarded industry secret, the answer to that question depends on who you ask. 

According to a Google blog post, Google asserts a level of fairness because they “do not use human curation to collect or arrange the results on a page. Rather, we have automated systems that are able to quickly find content in our index.” However, Google also readily admits, “as with any automated system, our search algorithms aren’t perfect.”

What else can affect the search results you see? 

Try using other search engines such as Brave or DuckDuckGo, or even using a different browser. Search the exact same phrase in Google using Google Chrome vs. Internet Explorer or Safari. They use different, but similar algorithms, so you may get slightly different results, or get the same results but in a different order on the page. 

How to search more efficiently

Want to get more accurate search results the first time? Try using these guidelines to get the information that is most relevant to what you are looking for.

  • Be specific in your search.
  • Phrases will often net you more specific results than just a word. You can even ask a question, such as “How do I replace the water filter on my refrigerator?” to find articles and videos.
  • Want more tips and tricks on how to use Google? Check out these hacks on how to improve your Google searches

How to avoid Google Ads

Companies pay Google to get their webpages listed at the top, so be aware that the first several results may be paid search results, also known as ads. While you won’t necessarily see ads with every search, if you search a term like “running shoes” or “what are the most comfortable sneakers” you undoubtedly will see ads taking up the top one to four search results spots.

However, it’s easy to avoid advertisements because Google and other search engines must designate these spots as ads. So if you are are looking for a more unbiased view, make sure to scroll down past the results labeled “Ad.”

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