Driving Traffic to Your Website (Part 1)

June 1st, 2000

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Originally published in Building Online Business

Part one of a two-part series

Originally published in Building Online Business magazine, June 2000

Last updated March 25, 2002.

A company’s website should not be a well-kept secret. What’s the
point of spending money on a great website if no one visits it? In part
one of this two-part series, the basics are covered: making the most of
domain names, directory listings, and search engine rankings to improve
a website’s traffic.

The first step in improving traffic is to secure intuitive, easy-to-remember domain names. Countless major companies have obscure website addresses — who would ever guess that Deloitte & Touche’s
website is at www.dttus.com? Not
only is a memorable, guessable domain name a must, but there should
also be more than one. Hewlett-Packard, for example, has secured both
hewlett-packard.com and hp.com (but, unfortunately for them, not
hewlettpackard.com). After covering the relevant company-specific
domains, product-specific domains should be considered (e.g.
laserjet.com), as should domains that are industry-specific (e.g.
laserprinters.com), image-specific (e.g. bestprinters.com), and
geography-specific (e.g. paloalto.com). These domain names could also
come in handy for hallway pages (defined next month). Domain names can
be registered with Network Solutions (www.networksolutions.com) or, better yet, by BulkRegister (www.bulkregister.com), which will register domains at a fraction of the price.

The second step is to create a network of sites that link to one
or more of the domains. First, submit a listing for your website to the
major directories such as Yahoo!, Open Directory (www.dmoz.org), and LookSmart (www.looksmart.com).
Also request that niche sites and vertical portals in your industry
link to the site. Sites that already link to competitors are good
targets. Many of these sites can be found quickly by looking for
“backward links” from sites that link to a competitor’s site. Most
major search engines support backward link searches. For example, check
Google and AltaVista for backward links by entering
“link:www.competitor.com” as the search query. Avoid automated
submission bots that promise submissions to hundreds of search engines
and directories — why pay for submissions to dozens of defunct or
completely irrelevant websites? Within a reasonable website promotion
budget, consider using Eric Ward of NetPost (www.netpost.com) to announce the site to the relevant directories, search engines, portals, and niche sites.

Directories are easily (and understandably) confused with search
engines: Search engines are adding directory features, and directories
are adding search engine features. Directories group websites into
categories and provide short site descriptions, sometimes including
editorial comments. Search engines periodically explore all the pages
of a website and add the text on those pages into a large
user-searchable database. With a directory, picking the right category
and composing a keyword-rich description will ensure maximum
visibility. With a search engine, publishing webpages that incorporate
relevant keywords prominently positioned in specific ways is the key.

The next step is to try for a top position in the major search
engines. Expect that a website’s traffic will be directly proportional
to its position in the major search engines. It’s not uncommon for the
major search engines to account for more than half of a highly ranked
website’s traffic. If the site doesn’t appear on the first or second
page of search results, it might as well not be in there at all. Few
people look further than a page or two of search results on a regular
basis. It’s not enough to merely submit a site to the search engines.
Its ranking must be optimized.

What makes or breaks positioning in a search engine? The
simple answer is content. Consider how a search engine works: The
search engine user enters keywords into the “search” box and hopes to
be directed to relevant websites. If those keywords do not appear
within your Web pages, there is almost no chance that your website will
be displayed.

The most important step in the process of search engine
optimization is to choose the key words or phrases that are most
relevant and popular with the target audience. Stick to two- or
three-word phrases rather than individual words. Because of the
staggering number of Web pages that are indexed by the major search
engines, competing for a spot on the first or second page of search
results using a single keyword is a losing proposition. Thousands of
websites vie for that top position. Further, Internet users eventually
learn to refine their searches in order to get more efficient results.
Someone searching for “discount furniture Toledo” instead of
“furniture” will get a smaller but more useful amount of search
results. Fortunately, achieving a top ten position for a search phrase
such as “discount furniture Toledo” is a much more attainable goal, and
will yield a much more qualified prospect.

There are a number of resources today to assist in identifying
the most popular relevant keywords, one of the best being GoTo.com (http://inventory.overture.com/d/searchinventory/suggestion/).
This resource from Overture (formerly GoTo.com), known as the “Search
Term Suggestion Tool.” lists how many times a particular key word or
phrase was used for a search in the past month. Consequently, a car
manufacturer or dealer will discover that “car” is more than five times
as popular as the keyword “auto.”

Once effective keywords that best suit a website are chosen,
the quantity and quality of their appearances within the web pages must
be ensured. Avoid the use of splash pages and the excessive use of
graphics in lieu of text, tables, frames, and dynamic pages that
contain a question mark in the URL — these foil the search engines in
their quest for keyword-rich content on specific sites.

The website element arguably most critical to search engine
position is the title tag. The title tag sits inconspicuously on the
perimeter at the top of the browser window, and is often overlooked by
users and webmasters alike. The majority of web page titles don’t
contain the most important keywords. These keywords should be placed
near or at the beginning of the title, to increase the keyword’s
prominence and, consequently, its relevance. Don’t repeat the keyword
more than once in the title (although there are exceptions to this rule
depending on the search engine). This tactic will be misconstrued as
“spamdexing” by the search engines, and the search engine may issue a
penalty in the form of a lower position or, even worse, complete
removal from the search engine.

The second most important location for keywords is in the body
of the document. Placing the keyword higher on the page increases its
prominence, and repetition of the keyword throughout the document
increases the “keyword density.” Careful though — too high a keyword
density could flag the site to the search engine as a spamdexer.
Keywords within hyperlinks, H1 heading tags, and an image’s “ALT” text
will further enhance the ranking, though.

Finally, the most important keywords should also be included
in the meta keyword tag, which is hidden behind the page, out of view
of Internet users. Meta keywords tags are overrated — they are not
magic bullets, and won’t make up for poor content. It certainly
wouldn’t hurt to include a meta keywords tag on the Web pages, but be
aware that Google and FAST (which powers Alltheweb.com and Lycos)
completely ignore meta keywords. Don’t go overboard with a meta keyword
tag that’s hundreds of words long or that repeats keywords; there may
be penalties by certain search engines.

The meta description tag provides an opportunity to override
how a website is described in the search results of some of the biggest
search engines. The most effective meta description is a call to action
that compels the user to click through, yet it also provides a brief,
meaningful, and keyword-rich description of the website to which it
belongs. Inktomi (which powers MSN Search, AOL Search, and HotBot) and
AltaVista both support the meta description tag. If it’s not defined,
the search engine defaults to using the first dozen or so words on the
page. Everyone has seen poor machine-generated descriptions such as
“Home | Search | About Us | What’s New | Customer Service Copyright
2000 All Rights Reserved” — a missed opportunity that is easily
corrected.

When optimizing web pages for high rankings, focus on no more
than the eight or ten most popular search engines. Disregard all the
bit players. The most popular search engines according to Media Metrix
(Feb 2002) are MSN Search, Yahoo!, Google, AOL Search, Ask Jeeves, and
LookSmart. Not all search engines are created equal: Each search engine
uses its own proprietary algorithm to determine relevancy (and thus
rankings) for search results, and these rules are subject to change
without notice.

Empirical evidence is the only way to uncover the basis for
rankings on a given search engine. Fortunately, there are some
invaluable newsletters (e.g. Searchenginewatch.com and
Marketposition.com), software packages (e.g. WebPosition Gold,
available from www.webposition.com), and books (e.g. Secrets to a Top
Ten Position, bundled with the WebPosition software) containing the
latest on the constantly changing rules, tips, and guidelines of each
search engine.

Search engine optimization is a significant and ongoing
challenge, but one that can produce huge rewards in the form of
increased website traffic. Part One merely scratches the surface, so
stay tuned — Part Two will cover advanced tactics for search engine
placement, including doorway pages, hallway pages, positioning
software, re-submission and “deep submission,” RealNames (Internet
keywords), and some meta tag tricks.

Part II continued…

About the Author

Stephan Spencer is the founder and president of Netconcepts, a website development company. He is a frequent speaker at Internet conferences worldwide. He may be reached via e-mail at sspencer@netconcepts.com.