Back to Reference
Search everything, get answers anywhere with Guru.
Watch a demoTake a product tour
April 19, 2024
XX min read

What is a Search Engine? From Basics to AI Enhancements

Search engines are our gateways to the internet, helping us navigate the vast expanse of information using only a keyboard. They help us find everything from the nearest coffee shop to in-depth research papers on quantum physics. But what exactly are they? In this article, we'll explore the definition, function, and technology behind search engines, plus provide examples.

Search engine definition

A search engine is a type of software designed to help you find specific information online. It does this by methodically searching through web content based on the specific keywords a user enters into the search box. Search results typically appear on what are commonly known as search engine results pages (SERPs). These pages may display a variety of content including web pages, images, videos, and other file types.

Additionally, some search engines extract information from databases or open directories. In contrast to web directories, which rely solely on human editors, search engines update information in real-time using algorithms that operate through web crawlers.

The basics of search engines


Search engines perform three critical tasks: crawling to discover content, indexing to track and store content, and querying to fetch relevant information quickly. These systems are the backbone of finding information on the internet.

How search engines crawl the web

Crawling is the first step in finding what users need. Search engines use web crawlers, or spiders, which are programs that visit websites across the internet to collect information that will later be indexed.

Indexing process

After a page is crawled, the information on it is processed and stored in a database called an index. When a query is made, the search engine looks through this index to provide the most relevant information.

(The querying process, also called a search, is where the magic happens. When you enter search terms, the engine sifts through the indexed data to return relevant results. This step is crucial for delivering the precise information users seek quickly and efficiently.)

How search engines rank results

Introduction to algorithms

Search engines use formulas called algorithms to decide how important a website or page is. They do this by looking at data collected while crawling the web.

Role of keywords

Keywords are terms that users enter into search engines and are critical to the algorithms for matching a user's search with relevant webpages.

PageRank and link analysis

PageRank is a system for ranking web pages developed by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Stanford University. It assigns a score to each page based on the number and quality of links to determine how important the website is​​.

Search intent and content relevance

Understanding the user's intent is crucial for delivering the most relevant and useful search results. Search engines analyze the nuances of the keywords used to improve the match against their indexed information.

Advanced search engine features

Semantic search capabilities

Semantic search capabilities help search engines understand the context behind your keywords, not just the words themselves. This advanced understanding means you get results that are more relevant and finely tuned to what you're actually looking for. It's like having a conversation where the search engine reads between the lines, delivering information that hits closer to home.

Local SEO and personalization

Local SEO (search engine optimization) is all about customizing search results to fit the user's specific location along with their search history and device type. This personalized approach ensures that the information provided is relevant and matches the user's location. This makes the search experience tailored to their specific needs.

The impact of AI on search engines

Artificial intelligence, particularly through machine learning algorithms, has revolutionized the capabilities of search engines by boosting both their efficiency and accuracy. These technologies help search engines analyze large amounts of data. This helps them improve their algorithms.

As a result, they can better understand user intent. This leads to more accurate search results for users. Additionally, AI helps create new features like predictive search and voice recognition, making it easier for users to interact with technology.

Examples of Different search engines


Undoubtedly the most popular search engine globally, known for its powerful algorithms and broad data indexing. (There's a good change you performed a Google search to reach this page.)

Good for: Virtually everyone; it’s the most comprehensive search engine with robust search capabilities across text, images, videos, and scholarly articles. Google's vast index and sophisticated algorithms make it ideal for both general and highly specific searches.

Source: Google


Microsoft's answer to Google, Bing is integrated with other Microsoft services and offers rewards for using its search services.

Good for: Users deeply embedded in the Microsoft ecosystem (Windows, Office); Bing is integrated with Microsoft's products and rewards users with points for searches that can be redeemed for gift cards and other rewards.

Source: Bing


Once a dominant name in digital services, Yahoo! Search is known for its web portal and variety of other services like Yahoo! Finance and Yahoo! News.

Good for: Users looking for a blend of search results and topical news. Yahoo’s integration with services like Yahoo Mail, Finance, and News provides a well-rounded user experience.

Source: Yahoo


Popular for those concerned with privacy, DuckDuckGo promises to not track its users' search activity.

Good for: Privacy-conscious users who prefer not to have their search or browsing history tracked. DuckDuckGo does not profile its users or tailor search results based on past behavior.

Source: DuckDuckGo

Niche search engines

Engines like Wolfram Alpha provide computational intelligence and data, offering a different type of resource compared to traditional search engines.

Good for: Students, researchers, and professionals needing answers to computational or mathematical questions. Wolfram Alpha is ideal for data analysis, statistics, and generating reports.

Source: Wolfram Alpha

Challenges in search engine technology

Handling of new content

Keeping up with the exponentially increasing amount of new online content poses a significant challenge for search engines.

Accuracy and misinformation

Ensuring the accuracy of information retrieved and combating misinformation are ongoing challenges for search engines.

Privacy concerns

Balancing the personalization of search results with the user's privacy preferences is a delicate task that search engines strive to manage effectively.

The future of search engines

As search engines evolve, they’re becoming even sharper, using AI to tailor results to fit our exact needs. The role of voice searches and the Internet of Things (IoT) are also set to redefine the way we interact with search engines.

Whatever the future holds, one thing is for sure: learning how these digital powerhouses work allows us to tap into the world's vast resources with just a few keystrokes.

Key takeaways 🔑🥡🍕

How does a search engine work?

A search engine operates by performing three main tasks: crawling, indexing, and querying. It starts by using crawlers, or spiders, to scan the internet and collect data from web pages, which it then stores in an organized database known as an index. When a user types a query, the search engine sifts through this index using complex algorithms to retrieve and display the most relevant and useful results.

What is an example of a search engine?

There are many different examples of search engines. Google is the most widely recognized and used search engine globally, celebrated for its sophisticated algorithms and extensive indexing capabilities. Bing, Microsoft's search engine, offers similar services with unique features like rewards for searches and integration with Microsoft products. Additionally, DuckDuckGo is gaining popularity for its privacy-focused searching that doesn’t track user activity, providing an alternative for those concerned with digital privacy.

What is a search engine used for?

A search engine is used primarily to search the internet for specific information based on keywords entered by a user. It helps locate various types of digital content including web pages, images, videos, and news articles, making it essential for research, entertainment, shopping, and navigating the web in general. This tool significantly enhances efficiency and accessibility by organizing and retrieving vast amounts of information in seconds, facilitating easy access to a global repository of knowledge.

Written by
Alexa Krzyzanowski
Search everything, get answers anywhere with Guru.

Learn more tools and terminology re: workplace knowledge