Since the first comic book inspired search engine appeared in 1990, the art of structuring a Web site so that it might be ranked highly in search results has been anything but funny for those attempting what we now call search engine optimization (SEO). Simply put, SEO applies to search sites which use automated crawlers (robots, spiders) that scan the Web for relevant information and rank said content against search queries.
The Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) defines the term SEO as the act of altering a Web site so that it does well in the organic, crawler-based listings of search engines. In the past, SEO has also been used as a term for any type of search engine marketing activity, though now the term search engine marketing (SEM) itself has taken over for this.
According to a recent iMedia feature, data from Nielsen//NetRatings indicates that nearly 40 percent of Americans are searching the Web at high frequency, in part due to the choices search can offer a user. Choice, as opposed to bookmarking or simply entering a URL, is yet another reason for an online brand to pay close attention to search -- whether it be pay-for-placement or organic results.
Here are some pragmatic basics for optimizing and organizing results possibilities.
What is in a Name?
At the elemental level, selecting a domain name may seem to be an arbitrary decision based on brand name, but often this process is not as easy as it would seem. Squatters often hijack misspelled URLs and redirect them to a competing channel or worse, to “naughty” content areas. While there are many legal precedents against squatting, many firms are outsourcing the enormous and constantly demanding activity to a third party like Cyveillance, which offers to police the Web for squatting violators, among other things.
Beyond brand identity, the most important aspect of selecting a domain is relevancy for directories and the dozens (understatement) of search engine spiders reaching out to your site.
The Key to Words
Keywords are the foundation for any search-marketing program. In paid search your keywords are the golden goose. However, rising costs of keywords may preclude your ability to effectively position against them in the pay-for-placement environment. Above all, focusing on relevant content within each page is paramount to developing a successful keyword list.
While it may seem a bit goose before the egg, analyzing keyword referrals to your site via an internal log or analytics package will provide invaluable information relating to user behavior on search sites in the “how searchers find your site” category. Comprehensive analysis of this information, combined with data captured about users -- when they opt to provide you with more details about themselves when visiting -- can not only help with descriptive messaging, but also help with optimizing the source code or meta architecture of pages on your site.
The Meta Game
Search results will vary. A lot. Running a positioning report on Tuesday may indicate great positioning for your favorite URLs and keyword combinations. Friday, this report could look quite different. Last week, I referenced the “Google dance” which, in a nutshell refers to the ever-changing ranking system by which Google crawls and indexes sites. For Google positioning fanatics, this leads to much frustration and proverbial dog-kicking.
Writing about the Google Dance also leads to Google rants by SEM providers on search chat boards all over the Web. Since publishing a reference to said dance item in last week’s column, I have gotten quite a few communications complaining the Google Dance is merely a means to subvert the efforts of optimizers. In response I can only ask, “Why on earth would the people at Google want to do that?” Apparently, they don’t.
According to a spokesperson for the search giant, “Google frequently changes its algorithms to improve the overall quality and accuracy of its search results. This is why it is common to see movement in the ranking of sites on Google search results pages. It is important that each new improvement creates better quality search results for users so we go to great lengths to test all of the algorithms.”
In any case, there are essentially five types of meta “tags” which fall within the “head” section of important pages on your site. Dance or no dance, the content of these areas can affect your rankings and paying the appropriate respect to them is critical.
- Image: Image tags or “ALT” tags contain viewable information on pictures within a site. Sometimes simply naming an image with a relevant popular keyword can help rankings.
- Title: A title should be written with no more than a dozen words. Search sites often use this as the entry point for users in search results. As the old saying goes, “Be good, be brief, be brief.”
- Descriptor: The description tag is your short statement to convince users to come to your site. Odds are, this tag will appear in the actual result. A good description tag is also short, but not as short as the title. Keep it under 200 characters or two dozen words.
- Header: Header tags are also called heading tags. They reside on the top of every page viewed. This little piece of information is captured by bookmark tools and should be a succinct description of page content and possibly brand information.
- Keyword: The keyword tag area is the source of much tragic irony in SEM. A couple of golden rules here. Never use competitors’ names. Always use relevant keywords with which searchers query your site. Steer clear of using generic, ego-driven terms like the size of your, uh, square footage in the instance of a lodging offering. No one has ever searched for a “1,200 square foot room.” This is also not a time for tag logorrhea -- keep it under 750 characters.
To Link or Not To Link
Link. Definitely link. But be cautious and focus on basic links, which are not considered dynamic. Links are responsible for another pop-culture term relating to Google, the now famous “the president is a miserable failure” Google Bomb. Simply put, Google ranks pages according to the number of pages linked to other pages.
Don’t go crazy with links in the hopes of increasing rankings -- and for heaven’s sake don’t Google Bomb. The former (also known as “link farming,” often attributed to unethical affiliates) can get you spanked with a bad ranking, and the latter simply falls outside the confines of basic human decency.
Site mapping is also a good way to formulate a good set of links. A worthy site map will also help those impatient, ADD-suffering searchaholics (like myself) find content in a pinch.
Writing for Crawlers?
No. Write for people. Once again, make sure that your writing style dovetails with how people use the Web. As noted in the meta information above, best practices for writing include using popular keywords, but should not be gratuitously used or ego-driven. Crawlers tend to like the first words of paragraphs and ones close to the top of the page, but never sacrifice your user’s experience for word use.
“Don’t Be Stupid, Ya Moron”
For all of the shock jock’s faults, the above quote from Howard Stern’s father in Stern’s movie, “Private Parts,” always comes to mind when I hear about common mistakes made by search marketers who should know better. In addition to the worst practices I have already pointed out, here are a couple of common pitfalls to avoid.
Forgetting to address the robot protocol (robots.txt) on your site can lead to disaster. Simply including this will provide the crawler with a green light to enter. If you don’t have it, a search site may not crawl or index your site. For many reasons, you may not want a robot to crawl your site. The new Yahoo! Slurp help page offers advice on how to do this. Restricting a robot is often referred to as a “gentleman’s agreement” since not every robot owner respects the guideline, but in lieu of password preventive measures, this protocol offers the best protection from robots.
Site not found. Aside from pop-ups, (loved a recent pop-ad for pop-up blocking software) a 404 result for searchers could be the single most annoying part of the Web experience and it can negatively affect your rankings. It’s called site maintenance folks, do it.
While there are one or two instances where this is allowed, generally speaking the practice known as “cloaking” is a really neat way to make sure your site will be harder to find than the Titanic. Cloaking involves getting the search engine to record content that does not really appear on the site. Similarly, doorway pages are another tactic that might be allowed for an inclusion program, but this is commonly known as the practice of trying to trick a search engine and visitor with a doorway to another site. Doorways will also sink your listings.
These two practices, and firms who have a penchant for using them, often give search marketing a bad name.
Are You In or Outsourced?
Optimization has long been thought of as a task for specialized firms as an outsourced activity due to the complex nature of the process. However, I have noticed an interesting trend lately in talking with big brands. Large firms are committing both budget and intangible assets to developing an internal strategy for search. One senior manager articulated two key reasons for doing so: “One, I am tired of being hornswoggled by bottom-feeder tricks, and two, this thing [SEO] is such a moving target it makes sense to train our group internally to accomplish what we had previously asked a vendor to do for us.”
Sounds like yet another message for search engine firms -- clean up your image or suffer the consequences.
Keeping Up With It All -- A Shameless Plug
There are volumes of text on search engine marketing out there. Keeping up with the changes is a nightmare of biblical proportions. You can stay abreast by attending trade shows (iMedia Summits, Ad:Tech, Search Engine Strategies -- more on these next week) reaching out to industry resources like the IAB, or taking a class on SEM like the one that will be available shortly from iMedia Learning. The iMedia Learning initiative will also have an eight-city road show. Having participated, and in some cases having helped organize these events, I can honestly say each represents an excellent way to help make certain your SEM initiatives are leading edge.
About the author: iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Kevin believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing.
Meet Kevin Ryan at Search Engine Strategies on March 2, 2004.
For help in choosing a Search partner, see the iMedia Search Engine Connection.