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How do search engines use inverted indexes?

Published 12 October, 2023
– Last updated 12 October, 2023

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Have you ever wondered how search engines and libraries like Lucene, Solr and Elasticsearch work?

They use inverted indexes which are faster and more efficient than forward indexes since the document database doesn’t need to perform a full table scan.

Indexation works in a few steps :

  1. The data received is tokenized : it simplifies each word of the document (ex: removes the plural, verbs to infinitives, etc).
  2. The data is added to the inverted index and is composed of three columns :
    • The dictionary column contains one of every token from the documents, one per row.
    • Frequency column corresponds to the number of times a specific token appears in total in the documents.
    • Postings list column maps a specific token to all the documents in which it appears.

Almost every software that does Information Retrieval uses some kind of inverted index since you don’t go through a list of documents to find the match, you go through a list of documents that you already know contains the match.

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