A program that searches documents for keywords and returns a lists of the documents where the keywords were found. Although search engine is really a general class of programs, the term is often used to specifically describe systems like Alta Vista and Excite that enable users to search for documents on the World Wide Web and USENET newsgroups.
Typically a search engine works by sending out a spider to fetch as many documents as possible. Another program, called an indexer, then reads these documents and creates an index based on the words contained in each document. Each search engine uses a proprietary algorithm to create its indices such that, ideally, only meaningful results are returned for each query.
Also see How Web Search Engines Work in the Did You Know . . . ? section of Webopedia.
The good news about the Internet and its most visible component, the World Wide Web, is that there are hundreds of millions of pages available, waiting to present information on an amazing variety of topics. The bad news about the Internet is that there are hundreds of millions of pages available, most of them titled according to the whim of their author, almost all of them sitting on servers with cryptic names.