XOVI Experts

SEO Knowledge: How search engines work

Kevin Jackowski | March 16, 2017

SEO Wissen

Most webmasters and online shop owners are familiar with the term “search engine optimization” but the topic is nevertheless still not always given the attention it deserves. This is largely to do with the fact that SEO is still considered a theoretical pursuit.

Yet search engine optimization remains a powerful online marketing tool when it comes to attracting customers to your website via Google & co in the medium to long term. At first glance, SEO might appear to be based on a lot of theoretical factors but it is still possible to create and structure content in such a way so as to increase your chances of attracting high quality, organic search engine traffic to your domain.

Webmasters who understand how search engines find and interpret content to generate search results have already taken the first step to profiting from SEO.

How search engines work

In order to attract traffic via organic searches in search engines, it’s important that your website and its content can be found and processed by search engines in the first place. Think of search engine “crawlers” as spiders, who search for new content by following (hyper)links from online document to online document. When they find new content, they interpret and evaluate it before finally adding it to the search engine’s index.

The whole process can be explained as follows:


This example features a domain (exampledomain1), a directory (directory) and an article (“this-is-an-examplearticle”). For Google, the article (“this-is-an-examplearticle”) is a document. When a user conducts a search (a query), all the documents contained in Google’s index are compared in order to present the user with the most relevant document.

The order in which the documents are displayed (sorted by relevance) is reflected in the search results on the search engine results page (SERPs). The aim of search engine optimization is therefore to produce and structure your own content in such a way that Google displays it as high up the page as possible (page one, position one) for those search queries which have the highest search volumes. The more noticeable your internet presence is, the more likely users are to click on it.

To sum up:

  • Step 1: Search engine crawlers search for new documents to add to the search engine index and compare new material with existing material. (Have there been changes made to an existing document, for instance?)
  • Step 2: The search engine builds up its own search engine index – a library consisting of documents which its crawlers have found and processed.
  • Step 3: A user has a need and asks the search engine a question (a query).
  • Step 4: The search engine compares and contrasts all the documents stored in its index and aims to identity the perfect document which provides the user with exactly what he or she needs.
  • Step 5: Production of search engine results. Based on relevance to the query, a list of online documents is generated in the form of search results.

How to support the search engine

When producing content, webmasters should ensure that they are making it as easy as possible for Google to find them. This means making sure that content is tailored to concrete demands and keywords with high search volumes – only in this way are you guaranteed to reach your target audience long term.

In order for the search engine to be able to identify which documents are best suited to which queries, it is important that webmasters optimize content for the relevant searches. Decide in advance what search query an article or webpage is supposed to answer and target the relevant keywords – this process is called Keyword Focus.

If multiple documents within a single domain are optimized for a specific keyword, this can be a result of keyword fluctuations since the search engine can’t identify exactly for which keyword the document should be displayed.

The following on-page factors can help the search engine identify the correct document:

  • Relevant keyword in title
  • Relevant keyword in description
  • Relevant keyword in the URL (use ‘talking’ URLs)
  • Internal links
  • Relevant keywords in sub-headings
  • Use of relevant keywords and suitable synonyms in body of text

Among other things, these on-page factors help the search engine to identify the thematic focus of the document, enabling it to find it more quickly in future when a user conducts the relevant search query. The more precise the document is able to respond to a query (or, in other words, a user’s needs), the higher the chance the search engine will categorize it as relevant and rank it higher.

How to avoid common SEO mistakes

Search engines place a particular emphasis on efficiency – they aim to expend as little energy as possible when finding and processing new content for their index. Webmasters should therefore ensure that they are sending the right signals to the search engine crawlers. Status codes, for example, can help Google recognize whether documents are accessible or, in the case where they’ve already been added to the index, where to find them – particularly if they’ve been redirected to another URL.

When creating content, webmasters should always focus on the requirements of the user – which more often than not correspond to the needs of the search engine.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do all my documents have a clear keyword focus?
  • Is there a sufficiently high demand (search volume) for my content?
  • Have I taken into account all the relevant SEO factors in order to tell Google which user queries my document provides an answer to?
  • Do all my documents provide additional value for the search engine’s index? Or should I consider excluding lower quality documents from the index?
  • Are my documents accessible? Can the crawlers reach, process and interpret them?
  • Does my content offer additional value for the user to the extent that Google recognizes it as highly relevant and worthy of high rankings in SERPs?
  • Does my domain contain documents which are overly similar? If so, how does the search engine know which one is most relevant to the right search query?
  • Does my domain feature enough internal linking so as to enable the crawlers access to documents which are located deeper down the chain?
  • Does my content offer so much additional value that it is recommended by other web users in the form of valuable backlinks?
  • Is the search engine able to easily add my most relevant documents to its index?

Quality backlinks help Google recognize relevance

When it comes to search engine optimization, backlinks still play an important role – even if this role has been slightly reduced over the years. The basic idea is as follows: a backlink to a website suggests that another human being has recommended your content, and so the search engine should probably do the same. If the backlink is a follow-link with a readable anchor text, this informs the search engine that the content at this address is highly relevant to a particular search query and should be ranked as high as possible. The trick is therefore to generate genuinely valuable content which other users and webmasters are happy and willing to link, share and recommend. Such backlinks send a powerful signal to search engines.


Search engine optimization remains theoretical in many respects but webmasters can exert a lot of influence when it comes to ensuring that content responds to user and search engine requirements. On-page and off-page SEO measures should be used in conjunction with the Google Search Console in order to support the search engine in its indexing and reap the rewards in the long term.