When consumers use the Internet to learn more about something they’re interested in, they typically start at a search engine like Google or a directory like Yahoo! Your goal is for the consumer to see a link to your Web site before they see one for your competitor. There are two broad methods for achieving visibility. The first is to purchase ad space from the search engine or directory service, which is explained in our article "How to Run Paid Ads on Search Engines and Directories." The second method involves optimizing your Web site so that it appears near the top of search engines and directory listings, which we discuss in the remainder of this article.
Search engines and directories are two very different animals. A search engine uses an automated piece of software called a robot or spider to find Web sites and index their information; the search engine then uses a proprietary algorithm to rank those Web sites. Optimizing your Web site for search engines is a complex, imprecise procedure. First of all, each search engine uses its own algorithm for ranking Web sites. Secondly, search engine companies don’t reveal how these algorithms work because they don’t want anyone gaming the system (most search engine companies change their algorithms on a regular basis as further insurance against cheating). Popular search engines include Google and MSN.
A directory, on the other hand, is built by human-beings who visit Web sites, assess their content, and decide how each site should fit into the directory’s structure. Popular directories include Yahoo! and The Open Directory Project (ODP) at dmoz.org.
A third category, hybrid sites, combine results from search engines and directories. Some of these sites also mix in paid ads that appear as search results. Popular hybrid sites include Yahoo! and AOL.
The Optimization Process
Even if you already have your Web site up-and-running, wait until you have optimized it before registering with directories and search engines. Because the criteria that determines a high-ranking Web site is different for each search engine and directory, and because the criteria changes frequently, Web site optimization is not a precise science. However, over the years the principles described in our 10-step plan have proven to help businesses improve their rankings.
Step 1: Assess the Competition
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but when it comes to optimizing your Web site, a certain amount of imitation can also make good business sense. Visit all the key search engines and directories and use them as your customers would. Enter search words; navigate directories; make a note of the businesses that are well-placed in your categories, and then visit their Web sites. Look at the words they use to describe their business; examine their HTML code and create a list of the keywords and META tags they use.
Step 2: Create Your Keyword List
A keyword list contains the most important words that describe your business. Building a good keyword list is vital for good search engine placement but will have little effect on your placement in directories. When building your list, think of the words that customers use when looking for your business, products, or services. Consider including any applicable keywords that your successful competitors are using.
Step 3: Create META Tags
HTML includes a set of META tags that are used to describe the contents of each page on your Web site. META tags are one of the things that search engines look at when categorizing and ranking your Web site, so proper use of META tags is important to optimizing your ranking. The three most important META tags are TITLE, DESCRIPTION, and KEYWORD.
The TITLE tag identifies the contents of the Web page; the TITLE should be accurate and unique for each page of your site and should incorporate one or two of your most relevant keywords.
The DESCRIPTION tag contains a lengthier description of the contents of your Web page; some search engines display the contents of this tag with a customer’s search results (other search engines use an HTML remarks line, if it is present). Each page’s DESCRIPTION should be unique and include relevant keywords.
The KEYWORD tag is a list of your keywords and phrases, each separated by a comma. Do not use the same word more than twice–some search engines consider this spamming and will lower your sites ranking accordingly.
For more information on the use of META tags, visit www.keywordperformance.com/seo.cfm.
Step 4: Build Great Content
No matter what other techniques you use to improve your Web site’s ranking, they will be ineffective in the long run if you don’t have great content. The content of your Web site should be unique, high-quality, and relevant to your products and services. This is especially true for obtaining a good ranking in directories, because human-beings–not algorithms–are assessing your Web site.
Be sure to use your keywords in the headings and text of your site’s homepage. This is especially important for a good ranking in search engines.
Your content should also be fresh and frequently updated. This is important in determining your initial ranking in directories, and it is vital to your continued ranking in search engines because they spider the same sites repeatedly, and updated content helps you establish credibility.
Ensure that each page of your Web site is unique. If you reuse the same text from page to page, search engines may interpret this as an attempt to artificially improve your ranking, which will result in lowering your ranking.
Step 5: Link to Other Quality Sites
You have spent a lot of time and effort to bring customers to your site, and in general, you want to keep them there as long as possible. However, no one business can be all things to all people, so you can provide a real service to your customers by giving them links to quality Web sites that contain relevant content they are interested in. By providing these links, you can also increase your ranking in both directories and search engines.
When you link to another Web site, make sure that site loads in a separate browser window; this makes it easier for your customers to return to your site.
Step 6: Encourage Other Sites to Link to You
Encouraging other Web sites to link to your site accomplishes several things. Most importantly, it can be a major source of new customers. Also, search engines will give you a better ranking if other sites provide links to you. Some search engines also take into account how popular the sites are that link to you; for instance, a link from CNN.com would be more valuable than a link from someone’s personal Web page.
Many Web sites will be more willing to link to you if you offer a reciprocal link to them.
Step 7: Register Your Site with Directories
At this point you have a complete Web site and are ready to advertise it to the world. Your next step is to submit your site to all the directories, such as Yahoo! and ODP. Registering your site begins the review and ranking process, which may take a matter of days, weeks, or months, depending on the directory. Once you register your site with a directory, visit that directory often to ensure your site is categorized correctly.
When determining your ranking, many search engines will check to see if your site is listed in directories. The more directories your site is listed in, the higher your ranking, so be sure to complete this step before proceeding to the next.
Step 8: Register Your Site with Search Engines
Now it’s time to register your site with the search engines. As with directories, simply registering your site does not mean it will be ranked and available in the search engine. Check with the engine often to ensure your site is listed properly. Search engines constantly revisit the same Web sites to make sure they are still active and to update their ranking, but when you make major changes or upgrades to your site, you should re-register it with the search engines. This will help ensure that you are quickly rewarded for your work.
Step 9: Review Your Web Server Log
Your Web server keeps a log of information that is invaluable for refining your Web site content and shaping your marketing and advertising efforts. For instance, your log file contains information about what search engines or directories your customers are coming from and what search words they used to find you. By keeping successful keywords and replacing unsuccessful ones, you will build your customer base and search engine ranking.
Web server logs can contain hundreds-of-thousands of lines of information, to make the best use of them, you will need specialized software. Some Web hosting companies, make this software available (Verio provides an excellent software package, called Urchin, to its customers for free).
Step 10: Repeat This List Frequently
Building a successful site is a recursive process. As in all aspects of business, you should periodically assess your competition and adjust your efforts accordingly. Adjust your META tags. Rework your keywords. It is especially important to frequently update the content on your site, not only because it improves your ranking in search engines, but because your Internet customers expect it.
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