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Search Engine Algorithms
How the Major Search Engines Rank Websites

Understanding how major search engines determine website ranking is important information that all web developers need to know. This article will provide you with a glimpse into how search engines work, how they rank web pages, and how to improve your web pages. The top search engines will be identified, briefly explained, and you will learn some tips for “search engine optimization”.

Every search engine wants to provide relevant and accurate search results and this is primarily accomplished by using something called an algorithm. An algorithm is a set of mathematical rules which assign values to specific factors like keyword density, page title, meta tags, link popularity, emphasized text and whatever else the search engine determines important. For each search, web page values are totaled and scores are used to rank the web page for search query relevancy. The exact algorithms used by search engines are kept secret, and they are frequently changed to improve the search results. Keeping them a secret helps to prevent unwanted manipulation of websites, which may lead to poor or irrelevant search results.

There are dozens of search engines on the Internet, but just a few that are considered major search engines, and they are; Google, Overture, Inktomi, Teoma, and Looksmart. The top five search engines provide search results for many other companies including; Yahoo, MSN, AOL Search, AltaVista, Lycos and Ask Jeeves. Internet searches in the United States and around the world are dominated by search results from the top five major search engines. Since these search engines are so important, your goal should always be to design and create web pages that are optimized for the major search engines. Optimizing will make it easier for the search engine to read and rank your pages.

Google, is consider by many to be the top search engine because it provides search results for Yahoo, AOL Search, and Netscape, as well as having a huge number of searches coming directly from their own website. It is a deep crawling search engine, which means, every page that is found gets indexed. Also, web pages will score higher points if other websites link to them. This is called “Page Rank” and it is very important to Google’s algorithm. Google also looks at: Page Title, Meta Description, Heading Tags, Alt Tags, Link Popularity, and Keyword Density to determine search results.

Overture, is the next biggest search engine and it currently powers the websites of AllTheWeb and AltaVista. They are also a deep crawling search engine with over three billion web pages indexed. On October 7, 2003, they became a Wholly-Owned Subsidiary of Yahoo! Because of this new ownership and the importance of Yahoo, they have become very important. Their algorithm looks at: Page Title, Page Description, and Link Popularity for search results. AltaVista will also look at Alt Tags.

Inktomi, powers HotBot, Excite, and, plus many small search engines and corporate search engines. Their algorithm looks at: Page Title, Page Description, Page Content, HTML Comments, and Meta Keywords. If your site is well linked, it will most likely be found and included in the Inktomi index. However, it is advised that new sites use the “Paid Inclusion Program” which will cost $39 for the first URL and $25 for each additional URL.

The final two major search engines are Teoma, which powers the Ask Jeeves websiteand Looksmart, which currently powers the MSN search engine. MSN recently announced they will not be renewing their contract with Looksmart. Both search engines use a “Paid Inclusion Program” and it’s a requirement for getting indexed. Teoma is one of the few search engines that still looks at Meta Keywords and they look at Alt Tags.

If you want your web pages to be found by the search engines here are a few tips to increase your chances. Content is KING. Each web page should have a theme and be focused on a specific topic or subject. Always include HTML text on your web pages and have keywords and keyword phrases included in the text. Location and frequency of keywords is very important. Carefully identify and know what your target keywords are. When placing keywords on your pages, be sure to include them in your headlines, keep them close to the top of the page by mixing them into the first two paragraphs, and repeat them several times. It is also a good idea to include links to other websites and ask them to link back to your site. Networking with other sites is important and it’s what got the Internet started. Submit your pages to the search engines and resubmit them any time you make significant changes to your pages. Finally, search engines are important and provide a valuable service to the Internet, so learn as much as you can about them.
By Dan Fear
Spring 2004

Other Information on Creating Websites

  1. Creating a Website - Getting Started
  2. Web Graphics and Scanning
  3. Web Maintenance and Site Tune-Ups
  4. Marketing and Promoting Your Website
  5. Designing Your Website
  6. Books on Web Development and Computing


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