How Do Different Search Engines Work?

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Author: Alex Jacobsen

The Internet is big. To give an example, 3 exabytes (one exabyte is 1,073,741,824 gigabytes) of data are generated every day. Recent estimates of the total amount of data in the world put it at 300 or so exabytes in 2007. From this we can conclude that every year the world generates more information than had existed in the entirety of history up to 2007. That’s quite a lot. It’s the biggest haystack in the world, and everything we want to know is a needle.

How do you find something on the Internet? Well, most of the time you would use a search engine, which is an intricate combination of computers, software, and math that helps you find what you’re looking for. There are a lot of search engines to choose from, some of the more famous being Google, Bing, and Yahoo. What makes them different? Well, that’s a secret. They have computer programs called algorithms that they use to search the web and give you the thing you’re looking for, or at least what they think you’re looking for. These algorithms are what make each search engine special, and these companies don’t like to tell people how they work. Despite this, you can still try to figure out what makes these search engines different by comparing what they give you when you search for something.

The main thing that determines the usefulness of a search engine is the relevance of the results, meaning, how close are the results to what it is that you wanted to find? What we are interested in is how well search engines take what they know about the internet and direct you to what you’re looking for. This is actually a very hard problem, and many people spend a lot of time working out better ways to solve it.

You have something in your head you want to see or learn more about. So, you type some words to try to communicate that to the search engine. These are called search terms. Inevitably, you have experienced a time when the search engine offered results that weren’t what you wanted. Sometimes the thing you’re looking for is referred to in different terms. Or maybe the word you use has many meanings and contexts, but you only want one of them. Search engines have look at these nuances and possibilities and use them as a reference to sift through exabytes of data to find sites containing the specific thing you’re seeking.

Now, search engine technology has become very sophisticated, and most of the easy searches, like “cat,” will likely get you exactly what you’re looking for. An easy search term won’t help you figure out how the search engines are different. To find the differences between search engines, you want to try to think of more complicated search terms that could refer to multiple different things. You can try searching for your friends, that one movie you saw with that guy, your favorite spot in the city where you live, etc.

Problem: What makes search engines different?


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