How do people find things on the web? Search engines.
Google, as you probably know, is the dominate search name. There’s also this thing called Bing. Then smaller boutique search engines that specialize in narrow fields. Academic, medical.
The job of a search engine like Google is to find content that matches your query (the question you are asking):
- How far is the earth from the sun?
- Who is the leader singer of Led Zeppelin?
- What is a freemason?
The better it can match your question to a good answer, the better the user experience.
You probably use search engines on a daily basis. If not an hourly basis. More likely a per minute basis. You and your friends are discussing a subject — someone disputes you — and so you slide out your phone and say, “Let’s end this right now.”
But have you ever wondered how that page which confirms you are right and they are wrong ever gets there? How does Google know this content and not some other?
A short introduction to the cute little search robots known as crawlers
This is how it works.
Search engines send out these little robots that travel along links — these robots — called spiders or crawlers crawl through your words on the page and make a judgment about what your page is all about and then stick it in this library card catalog where the librarian (Google) retrieves the information for you.
Now this crawling and indexing happens fast. So fast it is mind boggling. Do you remember back in the day when Google used to publish how many pages they indexed on their home screen?
They can’t do that anymore because the number would be meaningless to us.
All these pages they gather and then deliver to us is based on a ranking system. They just don’t grab random pages and shove them your way. They are very deliberate about what they give you.
The conversation search bots have with each other while they crawl over your content
These little robots are crawling over your content and looking for patterns.
Do you keep repeating the word “jaguar”? Then you are probably writing about the large feline cat, panthera onca. But not so fast. You talked about rubber tires and a windshield and engine size. Then you are talking about the luxury car.
This is the basic idea of how search engines work.
Writing advice to people who LOVE jaguars
But that’s only part of the equation. They have to figure out which pages about jaguars are more relevant than others.
Let’s imagine we are talking about the large feline cat. And let’s say there are over 1,000 very enthusiastic lovers of jaguars. And they all blog. And each of them has a page — a very basic page — about the jaguar.
So the question is: which one of these pages should they give you … and in what order?
They do this through popularity and authority.
Wikipedia’s secret to ranking high in search results (a secret you can easily copy)
Now here’s the cool thing. If you searched for jaguars on Google, the results will basically come in like this: the website for the luxury car maker, Wikipedia entry on the panthera onca, and in third place the Wikipedia entry on the luxury car.
Why these three?
It is because of the authority behind each website. Jaguar the car maker is an authority on the luxury car. Wikipedia is also an authority. But how did it come to dominate two of the top three spots?
And this is where we get to the ranking system behind Google. So Google evaluates a page. Decides what it is about. Then it decides how relevant and popular it is.
Why links are so precious to online content
One way they used to evaluate the authority of a page is to say “how many links are pointing to this page?” And what kind of links are pointing to it?
See, Google figured links from other websites pointing to your website indicate people find value in your page. It’s sort of a vote of confidence for your page. People might link to you because they like how you explained something.
So if you have one hundred links pointing to a page about the nursing habits of jaguars, it’s probably going to be ranked higher than a similar page with no links.
However, the quality of the link matters. One link from CNN is worth one hundred from no-name bloggers. And it’s what those links say that matter and help Google evaluate and rank pages.