Searching for answers

As far as locating Web content goes, the “big three” search engines are Google, Yahoo! and MSN. While Google powers almost 70 percent of all Internet searches, recent changes in the way each of the three popular Web sites direct users to Internet information have irked some and pleased others.

Frequent Web surfers know that different search engines give different results for the same search, not because a site is more or less popular, but because of the different search algorithms used by each engine.

An entire industry has emerged based on search engine optimization (SEO), and companies sometimes pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars for the secrets to getting listed higher in search results.

Most search engines prioritize Web sites based on the number of pages that link to them – the more pages that link to a site, the higher the ranking it gets. Programs called “spiders” crawl the Web daily looking for new pages and new links. However, some companies, in an attempt to get a higher search engine listing, will create pages with hundreds of links to their page (called “link farms”) just to increase their ranking.

For years, Yahoo! ruled the Internet as the preferred search engine. Smaller searchers like AltaVista and DogPile tried and failed to unseat the industry leader, and its twenty-something inventors became some of the youngest millionaires in the world. That was in the golden age of the software and Internet boom.

Yahoo! teamed up with Google in late 1999, as the search engine industry was changing from prioritizing sites based on popularity to being founded on advertising dollars. Google had just developed AdWords, an advertising service known as “pay-per-click,” allowing advertisers to post banners on web sites, and each time a user clicked on the banner, the advertiser would receive a small fee. As part of their new partnership, Yahoo! posted the phrase “Powered by Google” just under their logo, and listed results obtained by using Google’s search algorithm alongside theirs.

In the late ’90s Yahoo! purchased Inktomi, an independent search engine, as well as pay-per-click pioneer Overture. At the time, Yahoo’s method was unique, prioritizing sites by the number links and listing them hierarchically.

However, despite the complicated history, search engines have continued to evolve. In February, Google made a major change in its search algorithm to thwart both spammers and companies trying to exploit their ranking system. The changes irked companies that have held spots in the top ten for years, and now don’t appear at all.

Yahoo has also spent the past year or so working with its engineers to create a search engine algorithm that would rival Google, and recently stopped including the competitor’s results with their own.

In addition to issues of efficiency, search engines have also been plagued with spam issues. Because of link farms, if a user looking for information on “women’s studies” searched for the word “women,” they might get hundreds of links to pornography sites that simply mentioned the word more times.

Both Yahoo! and Google hope their new closely-guarded search algorithms will draw both more users and revenue.

For more information about search engine algorithms, their functions and SEO, go to any search engine and type the keywords “search engine optimization.”