Privacy glossary

Search engine

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

What is a search engine?

A search engine is a service, accessible over the Web, that finds information on the Web in response to your queries. The most widely used search engine, by far, is Google Search, usually just called “Google.” Google Search is so ubiquitous that “to google” has become a verb meaning “to search the Internet.” Some large sites, like YouTube, have search functionality that only finds items on that site (videos and channels, in YouTube’s case). That’s sometimes called a search engine too.

Why are search engines important?

Search engines are a very common way for people to find what they’re looking for on the Web. Whatever comes up on the first page of search results for a given query is, for all practical purposes, the Internet’s answer to that query.

If you run a business, your position in search results can make or break your business. If a company sells running shoes, and the company’s website doesn’t appear on the first page of results when someone searches for “running shoes,” the company will miss out on a lot of business.

Search engines also offer valuable ad space. The search results page for the query “running shoes” is a great place to buy ads for your running-shoe company, because those ads will be seen by people who have explicitly shown interest in buying shoes.

How do search engines find things?

Search engines are constantly “crawling” and “indexing” the Web: They run software that reads webpages and catalogs the information it finds there, then follows links to other pages to repeat the process. It organizes all this information into an “index.”

When you enter a query, the search engine consults its index to quickly return you a list of URLs where it saw relevant information while crawling. Sophisticated search engines also try to pick out a concise answer for some queries, and show that above the list of results. For example, if you search for “capital of France,” you might see a box that simply says “Paris” above all the search results.

Search engines usually have complex systems for determining what order the results appear in, called “ranking.” Ranking systems are usually treated as trade secrets, both because good ranking is a competitive advantage for a search engine, and to try to prevent websites from “gaming” the rankings by making specific changes to appear near the top of results.

What is search engine optimization (SEO)?

Search engine optimization is the practice of adapting a website so that it appears high up in the search results for relevant queries.

Many SEO practices are aligned with generally good Web design practices, such as making sure a site has a clear navigation structure and no broken links. However, good SEO doesn’t necessarily require a site to have high-quality content. There are plenty of low-quality sites that appear high in search rankings solely because of good SEO.

SEO is now so common that unless a site does good SEO, it can be pushed far down in rankings, even if it has high-quality content. It’s so important for business that there is a whole SEO consulting industry.

Search engines and privacy

Search engine companies can see what you’re searching for, and which results you click on. Some of them use this information to personalize search results to you, showing you results that they think you’ll be more interested in. Some use this information to target ads.

If you want to avoid being tracked like this, you can use a search engine like Brave Search, which doesn’t track users. You can change any browser settings to use Brave Search when you type a query in the address bar.

Is a browser the same as a search engine?

Browsers and search engines aren’t the same. A search engine is a website like any other. The confusion arises because browsers let you enter either a URL or a search query into the address bar. When you put something in the address bar, the browser figures out whether it’s a URL or a search query. If it’s a URL, the browser goes to that webpage directly, and if it’s a search query, the browser sends you to a search engine’s site with that query already filled in. Browsers let you choose which search engine you want to use for queries from the address bar.

Another point of confusion is that several companies that make browsers also offer search engines. The most obvious example is Google, which has Chrome (the browser) and Google Search (the search engine, often referred to as just “Google”). Microsoft has Edge (a browser) and Bing (a search engine). Brave likewise has Brave (a browser) and Brave Search (a privacy-protective search engine).

You can use any search engine in any browser. Not only can you go to any search engine by typing its URL in your browser (such as google.com), but you can change your browser’s settings to use your preferred search engine for queries from the address bar.

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