The Search is On…

June 1st, 2002

by

Originally published in Catalog Age

Van Dyke’s Restorers is pretty happy with the results of its site redesign. With a 450% increase in traffic within three months and a 500% leap in revenue, why wouldn’t the Woonsocket, SD-based cataloger be happy? What’s more, the redesign didn’t involve major changes to the Website offering. All that the marketer of woodworking and furniture restoration supplies had to do was optimize the site so that the company could take advantage of one of the most frequently missed emarketing opportunities: search engine marketing.

Search engine marketing is the ultimate targeted, low-cost, high-return weapon in the i.merchant’s promotional arsenal. Search engines offer unrivalled exposure to the broader Web audience and allow businesses to reach people who are seeking the products and services they offer. And search engine listings are a more effective space for promoting your business to those people, who are six times more likely to click on a search engine listing than on a banner ad.

Yet most marketers know much more about banner advertising than about what’s needed to do to make their Website search-engine-friendly.

Key phrases are key

The first step in developing a search-engine-friendly site is choosing the right focus for your Web pages. You need to identify the keywords and phrases most relevant to and popular with your target audience, and then incorporate them into your site.

Search engines index a staggering number of Web pages. To generate a meaningful amount of traffic you need to be listed on the first or second page of search results. And achieving this for a one-word search will be next to impossible. You will just be one of thousands of sites vying for those top positions.

At the same time, Internet users learn over time to refine their searches to get more-relevant results. Someone searching for “digital camera reviews” instead of “cameras” will get a fraction of the search results, and those results will be much more useful to them.

For those reasons, you should focus on two or three key phrases rather than individual words. Achieving a top-10 position for a search phrase such as “digital camera reviews” is a more attainable goal than gaining the equivalent position for “cameras” – and it will yield much more qualified traffic.

A number of resources can assist you in identifying the most popular of relevant keywords and phrases. For instance, search engine listings provider Overture.com offers a “search term suggestion tool” that will tell you how many times a particular word or phrase was searched for by its users during the past month. A car dealer would discover that the keyword “car” is more than five times as popular as the keyword “auto.” And a clothing retailer would find that “clothing” is 30% more popular than “clothes” and nearly twice as popular as “apparel.”

If you have a single keyword in mind, you can use the free Overture tool to suggest good key phrases to target, ranked in order of popularity. For example, enter “clothing” and you’ll be presented with related key phrases such as “baby clothing,” “kids clothing,” and “plus-size clothing.”

Be aware that Overture’s suggestion tool has shortcomings. First, because Overture auctions off keywords on its site to marketers, the results are skewed by the number of times keyword buyers check their rankings to adjust their bids. Furthermore, Overture combines singular and plural forms together, along with popular misspellings, then displays the aggregate number alongside only the singular form.

Using the Overturn tool in conjunction with others like WordTracker allows you to go even further in your keyword research to uncover relative popularities between singular and plural forms and misspellings. A subscription service that costs about $200 a year, WordTracker bases its results on data collected from the meta-search engines MetaCrawler and Dogpile. Using WordTracker, the owner of a bed-and-breakfast would learn that “accommodation” is more than five times as popular as “accommodations” and that the misspelling “accomodation” is nearly as popular as the correct spelling.

Beyond the mere presence of the appropriate words on your site’s Web pages, where on the pages those words appear is critical as well. The higher up on the page, the more weight the keyword receives. This makes intuitive sense, as a page that leads off with “Maori art” is much more likely to be relevant to the topic of Maori art than a page that displays “Maori art” in the last paragraph.

But appearances can be deceiving. Often the keyword-rich body copy appears to the user to be at the top of the page, when in actuality Javascripts, tables, and image maps may be pushing the copy quite far down in the HTML source code, which is what the search engines read. A search-engine-savvy HTML programmer can strip out unnecessary code and reorganize the code that remains so that your body copy is more prominent.

“Every page has a song,” says search engine marketing guru Danny Sullivan, meaning that every page has a unique composition that can be fine-tuned. Don’t try to cram every keyword and phrase imaginable onto your home page. Instead, make each page of your site “sing” for its unique topic.

An online music store, for instance, would do much better to optimize its “jazz” page, its “Craig David” page, and so on than to try to incorporate all the artists whose music it sells as keywords on its home page.

Weave a web of links

Key phrases aren’t the sole determinant of search engine prominence. Links matter too. A network of sites that link to your site will not only drive traffic in their own right, but they will also increase your “link popularity.” Search engines use link popularity to indicate the worth of a site’s content. They consider sites with many links from other sites more likely to be relevant to a search and therefore rank those sites higher.

Industry heavyweight Google uses its proprietary PageRank system to place the most emphasis on links from sites that it considers “important.” In other words, links from sites possessing better PageRank scores will be given more weight and have a greater positive effect on your position in the search results. You can check your PageRank rating with the Google Toolbar.

To boost your link popularity, submit listings for your Website with major directories such as Yahoo!, Open Directory, and LookSmart. Also request that niche sites and vertical portals in your industry link to your site.

Sites that link to your competitors are also good targets. You can find many of these sites quickly using MarketLeap’s link popularity checker.

Stay away from automated submission bots that promise submissions to thousands of search engines and directories. You will be paying for submissions to totally irrelevant or defunct Websites. And reputable search engines tend to ignore or penalize bulk submissions.

Likewise, resist the temptation to boost your link popularity by submitting to “free for all” links pages. These are simply pages that are full of links – you submit your Web address and are automatically added. Search engines discount these pages too. (In fact, some search engines, such as Google, are known to “punish” sites for associating with them.)

It is far better to spend time establishing reciprocal links with sites that offer content complementary to yours. Alternatively, developing an affiliate program, in which you reward sites that link to yours, can improve your site’s link popularity.

HTML to warm a search engine’s heart

Okay, you’ve identified the key phrases you need to focus on and made them prominent in your Website copy. You’ve made your site Miss Popularity in terms of links with other sites. Now what? Time to make sure that the HTML code that makes up your pages includes search-engine-friendly elements:

Title tag

This is the most critical HTML element on your Web page for search engine rankings. A good page title is 5-13 words long with important keywords placed near or at the beginning. The title tag serves a dual purpose: Compelling wording makes it a call to action on the search results page and it acts as a heading for the page in browser windows and bookmarks listings.

Heading tags (H1 and H2)

Search engines consider text in heading tags a good indicator of what a page is about and the searches for which it will be relevant. Say you have a page selling men’s apparel and accessories. Instead of an H1 headline that reads “Select an item below for further details,” you’d be better off with a headline that says “Men’s apparel and accessories.”

Alt tags

Only Google and AltaVista support them, but alt tags are a key element in creating an accessible site. Search engines can’t “read” images, including navigation elements, and streaming media. Alt tags serve as alternate, readable text for the search engines.

Hyperlink text

Google considers link text to be highly relevant to the linked page. Changing all your “click here” links within your site to keyword-rich phrases will boost your rankings for those keywords. For instance, instead of “For corporate gift baskets, click here,” with the link embedded in “click here,” consider “Explore our selection of corporate gift baskets” with “corporate gift baskets” as the hyperlink text.

Meta-tags

Most of the major search engines now ignore them, but Inktomi (which provides secondary results for MSN Search), AltaVista, and SearchNZ will still index meta-descriptions and/or meta-keywords. Make sure they reflect the page content, or you may be accused of “spamming.”
Design that works

The truly optimized Website does not merely incorporate search-engine friendliness as an add-on; such friendliness is built in from the ground up. Certain design elements make every page of your site accessible to search engine spiders (the software that search engines use to explore and download sites). Your site should offer:

  • access to every important page on your site via simple text links from the spider’s starting point

    – typically your home page. Search engines have difficulty following links that rely on Flash or Javascript.

  • a site map that uses text links.
  • no “stop characters” (?, &, +, =, %, cgi-bin) in URLs.

    Stop characters are rampant on “dynamic” sites that are connected to databases. Search engines have difficulty indexing and following links from these pages.

  • flat directory structure.

    Many spiders seldom go beyond the third or fourth level of your site, or more than three or four subdirectories deep.

  • file names and directory names that include good keywords.

Now, about those worst practices

Even top catalogers can fall victim to worst practices when it comes to search engine optimization. These practices can be broken down into two categories: technology use and misuse, and sneaky practices or “spam.” We’ll start with poor technology choices:

Navigation uses dropdown boxes

Search engines cannot fill out forms. So pages available only through a dropdown menu will not be indexed.

Frames

Most search engines support frames, but only, as Google says in its FAQ section, “to the extent that [we] can.” Searchers clicking through to a framed page from search results will often find an “orphaned page” – a frame without the content it framed, or content without the associated navigation links in the frame it was intended to display with. Often they will simply find an error page.

Splash pages and other contentless pages

Search engines by and large consider your home page the most important page on your site. Without keyword-rich content on this page, your home page won’t rank well. A home page displaying nothing more than “Choose our Flash-enhanced or HTML site” is a wasted opportunity.

The same title tags on all pages

Far too many Websites use a single title tag for the entire site. Some of the worst offenders are sites where hundreds or even thousands of products are offered. Nearly one in three people will search for a product name on a search engine; if your product page titles include product names, your chances of being found increase dramatically.

Superfluous text in title tags

A title that starts with “Welcome to” is a wasted opportunity. How about starting off with some good keywords instead?

Pop-up windows

Pop-up windows use Javascript, which search engines ignore.

Home page redirect

This occurs when the home page refers the user to another URL instead of having the home page content on the home page URL. An example (soon to be fixed) from the Catalog Age site: A user types in “www.catalogagemag.com”; immediately the URL changes to “www.industryclick.com/etcetera.” Search engines may not follow that redirect to the new URL. What’s more, the true home page that everyone links to (and that therefore has a high PageRank) isn’t being used.

The above are innocent mistakes. Attempts to fool search engines by supplying spiders with misleading content to artificially achieve high rankings fall under the “sneaky practices” heading. Avoid practices that search engines consider spam unless you want to risk being banned.

What sort of practices do we mean?

Cloaking and automated redirects

An unscrupulous merchant could design his site so that when a search engine spider visits, it gets a page on which the words “gift baskets” are repeated 100 times so that the page ranks well for that search term. Of course, such a page would be a turnoff to a human visitor, so the merchant would serve up a different page to him. The gibberish page, which is sometimes called Spamglish, is therefore “cloaked,” or hidden from the shopper. Fortunately for scrupulous marketers, when content intended for the spiders differs markedly from content delivered to human visitors, search engines consider it a bait-and-switch.

Hidden or small text

Text that is too small for humans to see or the same color as the page background.

Doorway pages

Engines are suspicious of pages not linked on your site that bear little relevance to your site content. Don’t submit pages to the search engines that aren’t carefully designed and thought out to provide valuable content in their own right.

Keyword stuffing

Repeating keywords excessively or adding a meta-tag that is hundreds of words long. A description tag should be no more than one or two sentences. A keywords tag should include no more than a couple of dozen words.
Embedding others’ trademarks in meta-tags

This tactic can put you at the wrong end of a lawsuit.

Machine-generated pages

These pages are usually devoid of meaningful content. Don’t use software tools that purport to auto-generate doorway or bridge pageswhich are pages created solely to boost a site’s search engine ranking. Google, in particular, is working to identify and exclude machine-generated doorway pages.
Duplicated pages with minimal or no changes

Google can already spot offenders.

Pagejacking

Also called hijacking, this is simply stealing high-ranking pages from other sites and placing them on your site with few or no changes. Often this tactic is combined with cloaking so as to hide the victimized site’s content from human visitors.

Obviously irrelevant keywords in HTML tags

Placing popular but totally off-topic search keywords in meta-tags, alt tags, and the like.

Resubmitting, automated submitting, and deep submitting

That is, simultaneously submitting multiple pages from deep within your site using an automated tool. Submit your site to a search engine only after you ensure it’s not already in the search engine’s index, and then submit your home page only once – manually.

Not only should you play by the rules, but you also need to keep your affiliates in check, as they can do your brand damage with their spamming tactics.

Keep on keeping on

Improving your rankings among search engines is an ongoing process. Just as a Website is never finished, neither is your search engine optimization.

But don’t obsess trying to create the elusive “perfect” page. Search engines don’t release “how to rank well” manuals or data on such things as optimal keyword density. All search engine marketing is based on educated guesses. Numbers and tactics can change as quickly as they are ascertained.

Instead, concentrate on creating great, keyword-rich content; refining it; establishing more links to your pages from relevant sites; and ethically using the tactics presented above. You can’t go wrong (standard disclaimers apply), and you might just find yourself enjoying a big increase in traffic to your Website.

What Exactly Is a Search Engine, Anyway?

It’s easy to confuse Internet directories with search engines. Search engines are adding directory features, and directories are adding search engine features.

Add pay-per-click options, which allow people to bid for prominence in sponsored listings on engines and directories alike, to the mix, and the issue becomes even cloudier.

Search engines periodically explore all the pages of a Website and add the text on those pages into a large database that users can then search. With a search engine, publishing Web pages that incorporate relevant key phrases, prominently positioned in particular ways, is critical.

With Internet directories, human editors group Websites into categories and provide descriptions or edit short descriptions of the sites submitted to them. With a directory, picking the right category and composing a description rich in key phrases will ensure maximum visibility.

The Importance of Google

Google, which supplies secondary results to Yahoo!, is the 800-lb. gorilla of search engines. During the past 12-18 months, the majority of well-known search engines suffered a decline in popularity. Not Google. Its usage has skyrocketed.

How did Google do it? Google concentrates on providing users with a simple interface, producing relevant results quickly, and regularly indexing a large proportion of the Internet (currently more than 3 billion documents).

The resulting word of mouth has allowed Google to quietly achieve more than 20% market share in the U.S. (Jupiter Media Metrix, October 2001). And that’s not even accounting for “Yahoo! Powered by Google.” Not bad when you consider Google’s success is based on a “build it and they will come” marketing strategy.

Stephan M. Spencer is the Founder & President of Netconcepts, a full-service interactive agency specializing in search engine marketing and ecommerce.

This article first appeared on Catalog Age in June 2002.