library: when in doubt, google it - understanding web search and seo
the easy way to get the answer to whatever the question might be
Author : Paul M. Allen

As software and website developers, we are always trying the find out how to do something, what the solution to a problem might be, or how to deal with an error that has cropped up somewhere. At the same time, in providing technical support for the software we build, we are the first people our users call when they have a question or have a problem.

Nobody has all the answers.

The Internet has become our most valuable resource. We use it as a source of needed information on a daily basis. What surprises us is that not everybody does. We sometimes wonder why.

Finding answers hasn't always been easy. In the past, we had to rely on a bookshelf full of reference materials, find what we were looking for on Compuserve (an online service that predated the Internet), or, worst case, go to the library to look things up.

Now, it's all on the Internet, just a few keystrokes and clicks of our mouse away.

the "big three" search engines

There is so much information on the Internet that finding anything without assistance would be almost impossible. That's where search engines come in. They are the software packages behind websites like Google that scour the web to see what's out there and store what they discover in searchable databases.

The search engines don't store the information they find, just references that point to the websites and web pages that hold the information. And, they don't necessarily catalog everything they find - just what they can identify as useful and relevant. In addition, website developers can place notations on pages requesting that the pages not appear in search results.

Each search website is different and is likely to return similar but somewhat different results for any given search.

It's also important to keep in mind that no search engine can ever be completely up-to-date. Search engines can't visit every website in the world 24 hours a day to see if anything has been added or changed.

The biggest and most popular (but not the only - there are lots of them) search websites are:

Google (

Google is the biggest and best known of the leading sites. Its owners claim that, world-wide, the site processes over one billion queries daily. In addition to search, Google offers a variety of other products and services including it's own web browser, Google Chrome.

Yahoo (

Yahoo provides search capabilities and serves as a news/information portal offering links to news and information on other sites as well its own proprietary content.

Bing (

Bing is Microsoft's search engine. Like the Google site, the Bing website focuses on searches, not news or other original content.

other search engines

According to one source, there are nearly 300 search engines to choose from, each offering the user something slightly different. Included among them are specialized search engines that focus on a single area of interest such as medicine. To find a search engine that meets your unique needs, go to one of the sites above and submit a query such as "Internet medical search engine".

Frequently website developers will include a search engine that looks for information on their sites only and/or will include an add-on to allow searching the Internet using one of the above search engines. 

how to search

Search engines couldn't be easier to use. All you need to do is to type one or more words in a search text box and click your mouse on the button or image to the right of the text box to initiate the search. The results will be returned in the form of a list of web pages that satisfy your search criteria.

Search engine users quickly discover that how they word their searches will determine how useful the resulting list will be. Frequently, changing the wording slightly will turn a search that didn't produce a useful list of web pages into one that returns exactly what the user is looking for.

If, for instance, you searched the word "president" on Google, Google would assume that you were thinking about the President of the United States and return an endless list of pages on which the word "president" appeared.

If you changed the wording to "president obama", the result would include only pages that mentioned President Obama.

If you searched "obama" you would get a list of pages that mentioned President Obama in many different contexts and would include pages relating to other people named Obama somewhere down the list.

if you revised the search to "obama speeches", only pages dealing with Obama's speeches would be returned.

The more words you include in your search, the more restrictive the search will be and the more useful the resulting list will be. In the case of the "obama speeches example", changing it to "obama speeches healthcare" would return a list of Obama healthcare speech-related pages.

Sometimes just changing the order of the words will produce significantly different results.

The best approach is to keep adjusting the wording of the search until you get exactly what you're looking for while keeping in mind that the words you use to reference something may not be the words someone else might choose to use.

In their quest to become more user-friendly, an increasing number of search engines will produce interesting results if you write your query in the form of a question.

In the case of Google, "how old is president obama", for instance will return his age (52 when this was written) along with a list of pages relating to his age as well as other pages found by the individual that include words in the query. In such cases, you would NOT include a question mark (?) at the end of the query.

"Why is water blue" would return a list of pages that attempt to answer that question.

how search engines work

When a search engine performs a search, it simply attempts to match the words in a query to words that appear on the pages it catalogs. The more words that match, the higher a page found is likely to be ranked in terms of its possible relevance.

To facilitate searches, the author of a web page will normally include a title identifying the document, a description of what is included on the page, and a listing of keywords. In the case of our Obama examples, the list of keywords would include "barrack obama, president", and other words that identified the page's content.

Better search engines will also scan the content of the document for words included in the query to more accurately assess the document's relevance.

When the search engine returns the results to the user, the pages found will be listed in order of relevance with the pages believed to be the most relevant at the top of the list.

always question the source

The purpose of performing a search is to find a web page that includes exactly the information the user is looking for. The problem is that the information on a given page may not be accurate.

Anybody can post anything they want on the web, any time they want. There is no editorial control beyond what the creator of a web page and the owner of a website might provide. Search engines don't necessarily make judgments as to the accuracy or merit of the pages they list.

The credibility of the website on which the page is posted is the best indicator of the how accurate the information provided is likely to be. It would be reasonable to assume, for instance, that the specifications on the Ford Motor Company website for a particular Ford vehicle would be correct.

When in doubt, the best strategy is to check multiple sources to verify the accuracy of any information found.

about wikipedia

Wikipedia ( is a popular online encyclopedia and will frequently appear at or near the top of the list when a search is performed.

It can be a valuable source of information but because its content is generated by its users and nearly anyone can submit an entry or edit existing Wikipedia content, there are no assurances that its information will be entirely accurate.

Wikipedia citations in research papers tend to be frowned upon in the academic world.

An entry in Wikipedia itself explains the situation and provides guidance as to how information appearing on the site (or any other site for that matter) should be viewed. Go to to learn more.

search engine optimization (seo)

When a search is performed, virtually all website owners want relevant pages on their sites included in any results, preferably at the top of the list. Fine tuning a website and its pages to achieve that objective is called search engine optimization (SEO). An impressive number self-anointed SEO experts have emerged to help the website owner make that happen - for a price.

The problem is that there are no experts, or, at least, very few real ones.

One of the reasons is that the companies that provide search engine services go to great lengths to prevent outsiders from knowing exactly how their search engines work and how they establish their page rankings. They do not want their credibility compromised by developers or SEO specialists who might try to "game" the system to achieve a high ranking.

They also constantly change and fine tune the search algorithms they use, creating a moving target for anyone who might hope to crack the code.

One way to gain a degree of insight into the workings of a brand name search engine is through endless experimentation - submitting pages constructed in different ways to determine which design produces the best results.

Because search engine optimization is a function of website and web page design, the most productive approach to getting the highest rankings can be to build and maintain sites and pages that follow the guidelines provided by the companies that supply the search engines. Those guidelines are posted on the different search engine company websites.

Searching for web pages that offer SEO guidelines and tips can also be useful but, as with all things on the Internet, you can't always believe everything you might read on somebody's website.

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