September 8, 2015

Customer Question of the Month: What is a Search Algorithm?

A talk bubble with the text "Customer question of the month" surrounded by a bunch of other, colorful talk bubbles.
By Megan G.

Happy Tuesday, Tekkies!  

This month’s customer question brings us back to basics.  While the jargon of search engine optimization (SEO) may be familiar to experts like the members of the Tek Team, the average business owner may not be familiar with terms like Panda, Penguin, and Pirate… 

Well, they might be, but not in the right context.  We’re not talking about adorable animals or seafaring brigands with feathered hats.  We’re talking about algorithms.

This month’s customer query is, simply:  What is a search algorithm?  

For such a simple question, a man deserves a simple answer.  

A still from Game of Thrones, Season 2, with actors playing Jaqen H'ghar and Arya Stark.
A man must understand SEO.  Image from Hielo y Fuego Wiki.

Let’s dive into the subject with a definition of search algorithms and then some examples of the most recent Google Algorithms to wriggle out of the woodworks. 

Search Algorithms Defined

Google describes search algorithms as “computer programs that look for clues to give you back exactly what you want”—whatever you want in Search, anyway.  I like to think of algorithms as the genies behind the search engine magic. 

A still of Genie from the film Aladdin.
For searching in Google, you’ve never had a friend like me!  Image from the Disney Wiki.

For a more in-depth answer, consider search algorithms as formulas whose end results are the answers to your online queries.  These formulas have rules, just like every other mathematical or scientific problem, that must be followed in order to be solved correctly and successfully. 

If a website follows the rules of a search algorithm, and of the search engine as a whole, it then qualifies as a relevant site and shall be ranked higher in Search.

A snippet of Google Search results, featuring Robin Williams.
IMDb is considered the most relevant website to answer my query. 
Snippet from Google

The primary difference between a math problem and a search algorithm is that there may be more than one answer derived from the algorithms’ efforts.  Those answers are ranked in order of relevance, which gives us search engine results. 

Algorithms filter through the trillions of available websites on the Internet, hopefully giving web users exactly what they’re searching for.

Some Algorithm Examples

With Tek Shouts! being a Google-focused blog, I’ll refer to three of the most recent Google Search Algorithms.  All of Google’s algos are focused on improving user experience by providing better content in their search engine results pages (SERPs). 

1) Panda 4.2, the result of a data refresh for the Panda algorithm

A still of Kung Fu Panda with "Google" written across his belly.
Image from Veom Infotech
The original Panda formula rolled out in 2011, and its goal was—and still is—to filter out websites with low quality, “shallow” content. 

An example of a shallow website would be one that pumps their website full of unnecessary keywords solely for ranking purposes.  That is considered a dirty, sneaky, black hat SEO move, and not something favored by search engines.

The oh-so-popular phrase “Content is King,” which means websites must have high quality and unique content, may be attributed to the Panda search algorithm. 

2) The Quality Update was a subtle update released this past May.

A graphic of a red, "quality" stamp, as seen on products.
Image from Rocket News 24.
This change affected how Google’s core ranking algorithm assessed “quality signals.” 

A quality website can be described as trustworthy, written by an expert, grammatically sound, etc.  

Basically, “quality signals” tell Google Search Algorithms how valuable a website is to web users.  If your site is a spam-filled, PageRank-hungry, error-filled mess, then the Quality Update would push your site down in Search. 

3) Mobilegeddon, officially known as the Mobile Update.

A smartphone crashing against the ground with the text "mobilegeddon" in front of it.
Image from past post in Tek Shouts!
This update influenced the rankings of mobile-friendly (and not-so-mobile-friendly) websites in mobile search.  Google set up a mobile-friendly test so website managers could test out their sites before the rollout. 

If your website is optimized for a mobile experience, you—allegedly—appear higher in Search. However, this particular algorithm, with the Internet’s overdramatic dubbing of the update as an online Armageddon, had an ironically quiet fallout.  

Wrapping It Up

A search algorithm may sound like an intimidating concept to grasp, but they are simply the tools that search engines use to give back web users the best possible answers to their search queries.  They reward high quality, content-rich websites with higher search rankings. 

While many website managers loathe or dread algorithm updates from Google (like in the case of Mobilegeddon), the ultimate goal of these formulas is to offer the best experience possible to every online searcher. 

Did this post help your understanding of search algorithms?  What other questions do you have for the Tek Team?  Let us know in the comment section below! 


  1. This is a great read! Simple, easy to understand, and funny.

    1. Good afternoon, Jessamyn,

      We're glad you enjoyed this Customer Question post! Search algorithms can be a tricky thing to explain, so we're glad you found our post easy to follow and understand. Have you noticed any search algorithm updates affecting your website's performance in search?

      Thanks for engaging with us,

      The Tek Team

  2. This gave in depth information about the search algorithms with clear explanation. Thanks a lot.