Ever typed your name into Google
to see what results it returns? Of course you have. And if you own your own Web site, odds are you've nipped on over to Google or Yahoo and typed in a few keywords to see where your bread-and-butter stands in the rankings, too. And like most people, you probably looked at the 10 results on the first page and muttered to yourself, "So where am I?" Welcome to the club. You've just experienced the first disappointment of hanging your shingle on the Web: Even if you build it, search engines might not come.
Despite technological advances, the current top search sites aren't clairvoyant.
The world of search engines is a tangled web of linguistic analysis, abstruse cataloging techniques, and statistical probability--all of which ends with some bozo who can't spell, sitting in front of a browser wondering why there are no Web sites about a band called Fish. Despite technological advances, the current top search sites aren't clairvoyant. Sure, you could hope their Web crawlers find their way to your site, but that could take a while. (Their movement is described as crawling for a reason.) Unless you have an unusually large reserve of patience, it's best to announce your presence to search sites. But even then, they won't automatically assign you one of the top slots in your category just because you deserve it. So before you submit your pages to the Googles of the world, make sure that they're search-engine friendly. Here's a quick checklist for doing just that.
Let's go searching
The first step in getting noticed on the Web via search engines is to put yourself in the shoes of potential visitors to your site. What would people who are looking for you online type into a search engine? Your business name or your own name are clear choices, but you can ignore them for now. Instead, go further than that into the subject or theme of your site. Anyone searching for a hobby site on baseball cards, for example, would start with the words baseball and cards, but serious collectors would probably include trademarks such as Topps. Select at least three keywords that describe your site and type them into at least three search sites to see if your site is listed among the search results.
As a firm believer in meritocracy, I don't like pay-for-placement strategies.
Over the past six years, the popularity of various search sites has risen and waned. The once-huge AltaVista, Lycos, and Excite are being eclipsed by newer kids on the block, and, no doubt, this trend will continue. But in terms of general popularity and overall size, for now, be sure to include Google, MSN, and Yahoo in your list of list of places to scope out.
Size up the competition
By performing a few keyword searches at top search sites, you'll get an idea of who's getting the results you want. Make a list of those sites and visit them. Carefully look at what these sites have that yours doesn't. Specifically, look at how their pages use the keywords you searched for. Are they in the page's title? How are they mentioned in the first few paragraphs?
When you've got a feel for what a few other sites are doing right, go back to your own site and think about reworking the pages. We're not suggesting that you copy anything from another site, that would be unethical, but you can learn from the people at the top about how to use keywords effectively.
Never metatag I didn't like
Some of the key elements in a Web page, in terms of how they rank in a search engine, aren't necessarily in the body of the text. The title tag is often important. Check out the page titles of other sites: Do they describe the page using keywords? If so, open your own pages and edit the text between <title> and </title> to something more descriptive.
One set of tags you needn't worry about too much are the meta names. In the late 1990s, two meta name tags <META NAME="keywords" and <META NAME="description") were the ne plus ultra of optimizing your search results. Put the right words there, and you'd be topping the charts at AltaVista and others in no time. Nowadays, improvements in search engine algorithms have rendered the meta name tags much less useful. Only a couple of search sites pay attention to them. Look at the source code of the pages that top your search list and scope out what they're doing with meta names. Adapt them (don't copy them) for your own site if you wish, but don't knock yourself out over it.
If the search terms fit, you must submit
Once you've fine-tuned your site to the specs you want, you can then tell the Web search engines about it. So figure out the page you'd like the search engines to start at (it may not be your home page), and go to Google's and Yahoo's site submission pages. Type in the URL and a description. Then wait. And wait some more. It could take up to two months to get results, and even then, who knows what those results will be. The search sites make no promises, unless, of course, you wave some cash at them.
The pay-to-play approach gets a cautious thumbs-up from independent search experts such as SearchEngineWatch. If your business depends on getting good results at search sites, it's worth a couple of C notes to get it. Google's AdWords lets you buy placement in the Sponsored Links bar at the right side of the page--if you believe that people actually look at that bar. For pay-for-placement on MSN, Yahoo, and AllTheWeb, you need to sign up at Overture and open your wallet. As a firm believer in meritocracy, I don't like pay-for-placement strategies. But like anything you pay for, it does create a contract between you and the search site, which gives you some consumer rights.
Other ways and means
If none of these tricks works for you, there's another possibility: Perhaps search sites aren't the best way to get word out about your Web site. Have you ever considered guerilla marketing techniques such as sticking the URL in your e-mail signature? Or mentioning it in your chat room profile or on your discussion room signature? Discreetly and politely requesting reciprocal links from other Web sites in your field? Heck, even putting up a sign on the street or making bumper stickers or business cards will get the word out if it's handled properly.
Weirdly enough, techniques that don't directly target search engines can eventually help increase your rankings there. One metric that search engines use is the number of other sites that link to pages on your site. As that number increases with the buzz about your site, the rising tide will float your boat a little higher.
Matt Lake was the founding editor of Search.com back in '95. Does that mean he can search his way out of a paper bag? Tell him what you think in the TalkBack below.