How Do Search Engines See the Web

Search engines have developed a lot of sophisticated techniques for weighting and valuing pages on the Web. But they all come down to basically two categories:

  • What does your Web page say?
    The actual text content of your Web page and HTML code. What content does your site convey to the user?
  • Who is linking to you?
    What sort of other Web pages are linking to yours? Do they have the same topic or a related topic?

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When you look at a Web page, you see the page displayed on your computer screen. You can read the text, look at the images, and figure out what that page is about.

Search engines don’t see Web pages the same way a person does. In fact, search engines cannot actually see at all, at least not visually. Instead, they read the HTML code of the Web page, and the actual text that it contains.

All the search engines can read is text. They also can look at the HTML code (which is also text) of the site to try and get some clues about what that text means or which text is most important.

Search engines can sometimes use the HTML code to get some clues about other elements on the page, such as images and animation. For example, search engines can look at an image tag and read the alt text attribute, if the page author supplied it, to get an idea of what the image is.

img src="cowpicture.jpg" alt="Picture of a cow"
However, this is not a replacement for actual text content.


Web links from other sites are also important clues that search engines use to figure out what your page is about, or how important your page is for a particular search query. In a search engine’s view, a link from one page to another is basically a “vote” for that page.

If you have a page about cows, and a local farmer’s Web page links to your page from their website for more information on the topic of cows, that is an extra vote for your page.

More links = more votes.

Not all votes are equal votes, however. Most important is how relevant the link is. For example, a link from a page about video poker software doesn’t have much to do with dairy products or cows, so a link from that page to your website about cows does not count for very much at all, if anything.

Some Web page owners put a lot of time and effort into chasing down links from other Web page authors, swapping links or trying to get listed on directories or have articles posted to sites like Digg or Reddit. This can be helpful for your site, but you have to remember to focus on your own page content first. If your Web page doesn’t have much value to other site authors, they are unlikely to link to it.

How Do Search Engines Read My Page Content?

Search engines do not see Web pages like you do. They cannot process images, and translate them into content. Search engines crawl your website by reading the code created with HTML, ASP, PHP and other code languages. A page made up mostly of images displays mostly blank to a search engine.

Sometimes, what you see as text on a page isn’t really text. Some people create Web page designs in an image editor program and instead of recreating the design as code, they simply post their image to look like HTML.

The problem is, a picture of text isn’t actual text, it is just a picture. And it isn’t visible to the search engine. All a search engine can see is a blank spot where the image is. Here’s how a search engine might see your site:

A similar problem exists for audio and video, as well as Flash® animations. (Flash is a plugin that runs animated content in a website that users can often interact with.) Some highly interactive pages that are completely created in Flash can be practically invisible to search engines.

Having a page on your site with lots of images, or with a lot of flash animations, can be fine depending on your target customer. Image gallery sites obviously want to showcase their images, for example. However, it is not search-engine friendly. So if your business model depends on being found by the search engines, you should think about including a few pages with descriptive text (such as “about” pages or even adding a business weblog to your site). This makes it much easier for the search engines to find and rank your site. Adding text descriptions to images (using alt text attribute) for such sites helps as well.