Understanding Search Engines: What They Do, How They Work, and Which Are the Top Ones Out There

Understanding Search Engines: What They Do, How They Work, and Which Are the Top Ones Out There

Google/To Google: Transitive Verb To use the Google search engine to obtain information about (someone or something) on the World Wide Web (Merriam Webster)

Google: Verb to type words into the search engine Google® in order to find information about someone or something (Oxford Learner’s Dictionary)

Google: (Verb) “…commonly refers to searching for information on the World Wide Web, regardless of which search engine is used.” (Wikipedia)

Just as the internet fundamentally altered and shaped the way in which we, as a society, moved forward in almost every field – from technology and communications to politics and sociology – Search Engines shaped the way in which the internet itself has developed, and the way in which we use and manage its vast amounts of content.

They have become so ubiquitous, that the very name of the most popular search engine right now, Google, has been incorporated in several languages as a verb, and with 3.5 billion queries each day it is really not surprising.

They are so vital and almost indistinguishable from what we understand from the concept of “internet” most of us keep in our heads, that entire disciplines of study and market have been developed, centered around them, namely Search Engine Optimization.

So, gaining a better understanding of how these fundamental blocks of the internet, which we used on a daily basis, and that have such a pivotal impact on how knowledge, information, and even commerce fluctuate, is not merely an academic exercise, but a powerful tool everyone can use.

From the teacher or researcher who wants to search more efficiently for pieces of information online to the marketer or entrepreneurs looking to increase their venture’s exposure and lead more attention to their projects.

To help you with that, here at OTT we’ve put together some very brief but relevant data about Search Engines. Where they came from, how they work, and provide you with a list of the best search engines out there right now. All in an easy-to-understand, concise manner so you can take the most advantage out of it.

But, before getting to that, let’s put down a nice, broad definition of what they exactly are.

What’s a Search Engine


A Web Search Engine is basically a software system, designed to search and classify information, and display it via search engine result pages (SERPs) at the user’s request.

While most people would only think of sites like Google or Bing when talking about this subject, it is essential to understand that sites like Amazon or eBay, also effective search engines, only instead of searching and classifying pages and information around the whole internet, they focus on pages listed on their ecosystem.

Regardless of the specifics of how they do it, this is basically what all Search Engines out there do.

Some search engines are better at some things than others, and a few lead the pack as far as how sophisticated and refined their systems are, thus providing more accurate, consistent, and reliable results than the rest.

We will cover all that when we compare a few of the best ones out there, and go over their strengths and weaknesses, but before we do, understanding the basics of where modern search engines come from can give you a better insight of how they work right now, an advantage that can’t be overlooked.

A Brief Look At Search Engines’ Origins:

Today, Search Engines are highly sophisticated pieces of software, operating on an amazing scale, sifting through the billions of sites that comprise the internet, to provide users with accurate results on their queries. To achieve this efficiently, massive indexes and ever more complex algorithms are continually being improved and refined with state-of-the-art technology, such as machine learning and AI.

However, in the early days, things used to work quite differently.

Early search engines – Altavista, Lycos, Dmoz – worked more like directories or curated listings of websites. If you were a web admin, you’d submit your site to these directories, and someone that worked on them would determine what category or list your site belonged to, which is dramatically different from what search engines eventually evolved into.

Now, this went on for a while until two guys, Sergey Brin and Larry Page came up with “Page rank,” which fundamentally shaped what modern search engines became.

As they researched papers for their Ph.D. Thesis, Brin and Page began paying more attention to the bibliographies at the end of each one, and how several papers referred back to some significant work in the field, thus increasing its relevance.

It works like this: Paper A talks in detail about a novel concept. Papers B and C take that concept, do some research of their own, and credit Paper A on their bibliography. Paper D expands on the findings of Paper C, and mentions in its bibliography both, Paper C and Paper A as referential sources for its content.

The more references Paper A receives (as it is used as the basis for more research and expansion on a particular field) the more relevance it has, and the more important it becomes.

After all, it means not only it has been reviewed, studied, and read by more people – thus increasing the scrutiny of its content – but by being referenced so often, it suggests its content is not only sound but very relevant for anyone else looking into that particular area of study.

What Brin and Page did, was take this concept and apply it to websites, by ranking their relevance or importance based on the number of “citations” they had on other sites. This is what eventually became “Page Rank,” and it was a method of ranking that shaped the way Search Engines would adopt from then on.

You probably know this, but it is also the foundation upon which Google was built.

Page Rankings have remained a huge part of Google’s search Algorithms to this date and are present in some shape or form in almost every other search engine out there. However, these systems have advanced so much since, that it would be a disservice to think that that’s all there’s to them.

How Search Engines Work Today

How Search Engines Work
image source via wavemakers.co

First, let’s get something straight: When you search on sites like Google or Bing, is not like the software is running your query in real-time, searching pages that match your keywords at that very moment. With billions of pages out there and hundreds of new ones popping up every minute, this approach would be unfeasible.

What modern search engines do is continuously trawl the web recording and organizing the information they find, a function we call “Indexing.” That way, when you enter a query on say, Bing, the software just needs to interpret your keywords to the best of its ability, match them with the results on its database, and display it to you in the order it considers most relevant.

The best way to visualize this, in my opinion, is the traditional example of the “web

Imagine the internet as a massive spider web that connects every page out there. These connections happen thanks to hyperlinks, which is the fancy name for those highlighted texts or images that direct you to another website on the internet when you click them.

Search engines are continually running programs we call “spiders,” whose sole function is to visit every website they find – using these hyperlinks – collecting information about their content and adding that information into its search index. Thus, having it readily available when people come searching for information that might reside on that page.

Now, when you enter a query on a search engine, the software needs to try and interpret what you want to know based on the words you provide. Otherwise, you’d receive millions upon millions of results that aren’t necessarily related to what you are after, even though it includes the words you searched for. This can be very complex, as the same word – Bow – can refer to radically different things depending on the context formed by the rest of the words you used in your search.

Once the search engines decide what it thinks you are asking, then determine which results are most likely to have what you are looking for. How they do this is myriad, since hundreds or even thousands of variables might be considered on a single search entry.

And those pieces are what we commonly refer to as “Search Algorithm” the conjunctions of variables and complex decision-making structures that ultimately determined what the Search Engine thinks you are querying about, and which are the pages most likely to contain it.

Each search engine has its own formula – its own Algorithms – that see and interpret data in different ways, assigning different values to come up with as accurate a result as it can.

Some are highly advanced and have been refined (and keep being honed) for over a decade, like Google’s, which is now employing even Artificial intelligence technology in figuring out what you want to provide the most accurate results. Some are more restricted or straightforward but work better for specific tasks working on restricted ecosystems.

For example, if I want to buy stuff, I might get better results by looking for it on Amazon’s or eBay’s search engine/ecosystem than I would in Bing’s more broad-spectrum algorithm.

This leads us to our brief comparison of the top Search Engines out there right now.

Popular Search Engines Right Now

Popular Search Engines

There are over 30 high-profile, active search engines on the internet right now, with probably a hundred others working on more limited, or targeted environments. So, the list that follows is by no means comprehensive.

Rather, what we want is to give you a concise but useful profile on a handful of the most popular ones, highlighting their strengths – what you can use them for most efficiently – and their weaknesses – things about them you might want to be aware of.




Most likely, Google sitting at the top one search engine right now doesn’t come as a surprise, it has been considered so for years.

Thanks to the world’s leading search engine technology, which is continuously being refined and improved, anyone would be hard-pressed to find a suitable alternative to this search engine. It is the most used search engine in the world, fast, accurate, and relevant.

Its major downside is that they track and record “anonymously” a bunch of user data and metrics from its users, reportedly to ensure more accurate results. So, if anonymity is a big concern, you might need to look for an alternative; otherwise, there’s no one better at the search engine business right now.


Bing Search Engine

The big contender.

As far as the best, pure, search engine tech out there right now, the fight really comes down to our last two entries in this quick top 5, and Bing is the one poised to wrestle the title out of the reigning champion. It is currently the second most popular search engine, and that’s not a happy accident.

The technology and algorithm powering the site are fantastic and have uniquely useful features such as its “suggestions” column, which comes in handy when you are doing your searches.

Bing is consistently the one I recommend to people who are looking for an alternative to our top pick.

Duck Duck Go


Minimalism, spartan, and lightweight, are all adjectives that fit DuckDuckGo perfectly. You will most likely find it referred to online as “the best Google alternative” since they share a similar aesthetic approach.

In reality, DDG offers a lot of advantages when compared to other popular search engines, but the biggest one is privacy. Unlike other major search engines that store some user data to improve results efficiency and accuracy, DDG prides on the fact that they don’t record any such information, which gives this search engine an edge as far as privacy goes.

Its algorithm is robust and has a couple of interesting features such as Ad-free search. It is definitively a viable entry to take up your primary search engine needs.


yahoo search engine

The Jack of all trades.

While other similar sites have gone the “specialization” route, focusing exclusively on being a Search Engine, Yahoo.com has remained broader in its offerings.

A search engine, news aggregator, email client, internet app, and hobbies platform, Yahoo is a site that tries and provides all of this from a single location.

If you like having a single “hub” where to manage your daily content navigation and don’t mind the clutter, Yahoo is indeed a suitable alternative to serve as your main Search engine and overall internet content portal.

Wolfram Alpha

Wolfram|Alpha Resources for Educators

Let’s start with the most unusual one. Wolfram Alpha advertises itself as a “Computational Knowledge Engine” instead of a search engine, but the underlying mechanics are the same: You input some keywords, and it returns data related to it.

The primary difference with most other Search Engines out there is that WA doesn’t index/searches websites but provides its results out of an internal database that is curated to include hard fact data. This means that, even though it probably can’t serve as your primary search engine to find things on the net, it is an especially useful place for data gathering, especially for research, academic, or fact-checking purposes.

As you can see, Search Engines have evolved dramatically over the past two decades, and with the inclusion of things like machine learning, they are becoming increasingly more accurate at navigating the enormous amounts of data residing on the internet and giving you back exactly what you are looking for.

They are the primary tools we have to interact efficiently with that data, so an understanding of how they work, and more importantly how to make them work for you, is essential for everyone, from regular users to companies wanting to rank higher and take advantage of the benefits that come with featuring prominently on sites like Google.


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