How Google Works

The Google Search Engine

Google search
The Google search engine remains the cornerstone of just about everything the company does. Carsten Koall/Getty Images

As large as Google has grown, as many changes as it has seen, its primary purpose is still clear: To help users find what they want on the internet. And that's where Google's search engine shines.

Pandu Nayak has been with the company for more than 14 years and is now the vice president for search.


"One kind of primary thing that has not changed, in those 14 years, which I value tremendously, is this idea that we built search for users, we built search because people come to Google for things that matter in their lives," Nayak says. "[It] is our deep, deep responsibility to give them great results, great answers great experiences, and help them go about their lives more effectively.

"This focus, which really goes back to the mission statement ... is still one that drives us through all of these changes."

Google's search engine is a powerful tool, but the internet is a big place. It's sometimes hard to find what you're looking for. Nayak and many others throughout the company work with the idea that getting you what you're after — figuring out what you want — is their responsibility, no matter what you type into the search bar. They study language and intent, incorporate machine learning and artificial intelligence and note every search that is undertaken, all in an effort to make it easier on the user.

It started years ago, and continues today, as the Google search engine has learned the difference between, say, Penélope Cruz and the Chevy Cruze, as it's figured out that in some cases, people use the word "change" and "convert" for the same action.

Nayak has gone through the implementation of spell correction, and the synonym finder, and universal search, which gives users not only web pages that they may be looking for, but photos, videos and more.

When he joined the company, he (like many others) thought Google worked astoundingly well. But as expectations for the search engine — and the company — have grown, expectations have changed. Or converted.

"Nobody, absolutely nobody comes and tells me that, 'Oh, you know the other day, I did a search and, you know, it worked really well,'" Nayak says with a laugh. "No one says that.

"Our endeavor is that you don't need any special expertise in searching. We want to be able to find ways to understand what it is you're looking for ..."

All that said, Google can help narrow down what you're looking for with specialized searches. You can browse through different categories that pertain to your keywords, including:

  • Images
  • Maps
  • News articles or video footage
  • Products or services you can purchase online
  • Content in books
  • Videos
  • Scholarly papers

For example, if you search for the term "Planet Earth" in the news category, the results will include only news articles that contain those keywords. The results will look very different from Google's normal SERP.

Like all search engines, Google uses a special algorithm to determine its search results. While Google shares some facts about its algorithm, the specifics are a company secret. This helps Google remain competitive with other search engines and reduces the chance of someone finding out how to abuse the system.

Google uses automated programs called spiders or crawlers, just like most search engines, to help generate its search results. Google has a large index of keywords that help determine search results. What sets Google apart is how it ranks its results, which determines the order Google displays results on its search engine results pages. Google uses a trademarked algorithm called PageRank, which assigns each Web page a relevancy score.

A Web page's PageRank depends on a few factors:

  • The frequency and location of keywords within the Web page: If the keyword appears only once within the body of a page, it will receive a low score for that keyword.
  • How long the Web page has existed: People create new Web pages every day, and not all of them stick around for long. Google places more value on pages with an established history.
  • The number of other Web pages that link to the page in question: Google looks at how many Web pages link to a particular site to determine its relevance.

Out of these three factors, the third is the most important. Because Google looks at links to a Web page as a vote, it's not easy to cheat the system. The best way to make sure your Web page is high on Google's search results is to provide great content so that other sites will link to your page. The more links your page gets, the higher its PageRank score will be. If you attract the attention of sites with a high PageRank score, your score will grow faster.