How Search Engines Work For You

Search Engines

The History of Search Engines

When the internet was first developed, navigating your way around was somewhat cumbersome. If you knew the website you wanted to get to, then you were good to go. But if you were searching for a website, and didn’t know the address, things got difficult. Along came the search engine. Search engines are web applications that sort, rank and store a catalog of internet webpages. Early search engines were very simple, and didn’t always produce the results you were looking for. Some search engines required you to enter complex commands, while others allowed natural language to be entered. Either way, the results were nothing like what we have today.

The first relevant search engine came about in 1990, and was called “Archie” (as a play on the word Archive). Archie didn’t display results like we see today, instead it produced a list of site addresses you could download. A few other search engines followed, but the next major step was when AltaVista arrived in 1994. AltaVista allowed you to use something called “natural language queries”. Natural language queries can recognize verbs and phrases in a search. For example, entering a question such as “how many people live in Maine” would trigger a typical search engine to use only keywords like “people” and “Maine”. The results would not be what you were looking for. Natural language capabilities provided the ability for search engines to process this as a question and provide relevant results. This was a real breakthrough and improved search technology greatly.

Search Engine Science

Search engines today are very complex and sophisticated. Large search engine providers have thousands of computer servers (servers are powerful computer systems designed to perform large data processing tasks) that work together to build a catalog of the internet. This is mainly done by using something called a “spider” or “crawler”. These are programs that scan the internet, then read the text on a website. After reading the site, the information collected is stored and used to return search results. When you use a search engine, the results returned to you are listed by “rank” based on how relevant they might be. Search engines use different technologies to rank pages, and they all compete to produce results that they believe are the best. You may have noticed that a search performed on doesn’t produce the same results as or That’s because each company is using their own flavor for ranking, based on a variety of characteristics.

Factors that affect ranking vary from search engine to search engine. Some might include how fresh or new the page content is, how many other webpages have links to it, its “authority” (how many legitimate websites link to it), a webpages social media presence, even spelling and grammar have been known to play a role. Google has over 200 search engine ranking qualities that affect where a web page will appear in search results. Today, people often hire companies to perform Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, to improve their company’s website rank so they show up in a search at the top of the list.

Search Engines and Optimization

SEO is a series of techniques and practices that work to improve where your website shows up in someone’s search results. Since there are so many webpages out there, many of which are advertising the same or similar products, SEO is important to keep your site at the top of the list. As a simple example, let’s say you sell apples. When you search for apples, you gets LOTS of webpages. But maybe your webpage only mentions apples a couple times, so it isn’t at the top. By optimizing your site and adding the word apple a few more times, on different sections of the website, the search engine “spider” will see this the next time it visits your page – and now ranks you higher based on the number of times you have apple on your page!

So what’s the best search engine out there? There really is no best search engine, but there are some that work better for certain searches. Google is very well known and widely regarded as “the best” for general web searches. However, recent investments in Yahoo and Bing have increased their relevance in the search engine community. Dogpile (, Wow ( and WebCrawler ( collect and aggregates results from both Google, Yahoo and other search engines to provide a unique results list. This is useful if you are having trouble finding the results you are looking for.

Search engine technology has changed over the years, but the purpose remains the same – find the most relevant web content based on the text you entered for your search. As the internet continues to grow, search engines will need to evolve so that they continue to display the results that are most relevant. And the next time you have a question you can’t answer, let me Google that for you!

Matt Rice, CTO

Matt is a graduate of Central Maine Technical College. He has been with Burgess since 2001, acting as Service Manager, then General Manager, before becoming an owner. Matt focuses on developing and delivering technologies that fit best with customer needs.

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