There's an art to optimizing your website for search engines -- it's in how you write your content, for search engine optimization that won't go out of style.

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Copywriting and Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Optimizing your website for search engines and Web directories is a bit of an art —
    The art of organizing and skillfully writing your content.

(For my Web copywriting, see About Me: Web Work)

There are many services eager to optimize your site for search engines and directories — some costing a few bucks, some a whole lot of money.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

Also called "Search Engine Marketing" (which includes paid advertising), SEO or SEM is the process of making your pages attractive to search-sites, easy to catalog, easy for people to find, click-through inducing, and rewarding to searchers. Notice I said nothing about "keywords" or "ranking highly". That's just part of the "easy to find" part. At its fullest, SEO is a multi-step, ongoing process that encompasses everything from your site's look and the form of its code, to what you say on every page and in all your site descriptions. At its simplest, SEO is a range of things you can add or modify in a relatively short time. Or I can do it for you.
    Learn how here, and send for my detailed Optimization Checklist.
Both price ranges are valid. And in both, you'll find plenty of opportunities to waste your money.

So first, ask these questions:

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Do people use search engines to find or learn about what you offer? (There's a way to research this.)

If zillions of other sites compete with you, do you have a specialty, a geographic location, or something else unique that many people look for?

If both answers are "yes," the prospects for Search Engine Marketing look hopeful, and your site is a candidate for at least "organic" SEO.

The basic "natural" process is something you can do yourself, with a bit of reading, sometimes in a day or two. On the other hand, search engine marketing can get very sophisticated. It takes place on a constantly evolving landscape. (In fact, parts of this page are probably already out of date, since I don't update it as regularly as I update myself. Send for my free Optimization Checklist.) You'll need to pay ongoing attention if you want to evaluate every marketing opportunity, keep abreast of changes in the search engine environment, and constantly monitor your results.

The good news is this: Whether you take a basic approach or sophisticated, ultimately the results are often the same – because the vast majority of your site's traffic comes from the top 5-10 search engines and Internet directories. And whoever submits your URL to those search sites, and whatever subtleties each of those sites look for, there is one constant: your content. These days, page content is where most of the optimization work needs to be done.

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Let's get at some details...

What I know about search engines

Submitting to search engines without submitting to fate
After reading hundreds of pages of advice (good, fair and conflicting), experimenting over the years, optimizing sites and observing results, using site-submitting software, and working with web developers and SEO firms, I've drawn these conclusions:
  • Don't believe everything you read. Some of the Web's information on the subject is very knowledgeable, but most of it is secondary reporting. Writers occasionally contradict each other. Much is also out of date -- or soon will be (including parts of this page!). But a handful of sites can be relied on to be authoritative. Two of the best are and
  • Don't go crazy over it. Keeping up-to-the-minute with all the search engines and directories is easily a full-time job. It's also a waste of time unless you're in that business or your site is large enough to dedicate an employee to the issue. For the rest of us, the experts (and I) advise that you work carefully to please Yahoo and Google, find a "common-ground solution" for the other major search sites, and don't obsess over becoming ranked number one. You can also submit to the smaller specialized directories in your field, but it probably won't pay to spend much time on them. Submit to the list over time, learn from results as you do, check your listings from periodically, and resubmit as necessary.
  • No one can work miracles for you. If you are in a field shared by thousands of other sites on the Web, you may never be able to be in the top 10 sites based on your most typical keyword. Some services and software will assure you of a high listing if you choose another keyword or phrase (depending on your business, market and words, that strategy may make some sense, or it may be absurd). If your field is super-crowded, then develop a niche. And remember that search engines aren't the only affordable way to promote your site, especially now that some search sites no longer list you for free.
  • Plan and test. Several major search sites have followed Yahoo's lead in charging a fee just to consider your site (noncommercial sites are still free). Now Yahoo charges annually just for retaining you. These are still bargains as advertising expenditures go, and thanks to these policies at least now the entry log jam is free. But for small marketers, the cost of entry is hardly small change. Now more than ever, do things right the first time.
        (By the way, Yahoo isn't quite the referring force it used to be. Google outstrips it in many logs. Few people use the Yahoo directory
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    (as opposed to spidered) listings anymore. And with Yahoo's spidered data used for sites not in the Yahoo directory, you might even prefer to have your robust spidered description appear, rather than one in Yahoo's skimpy non-promotional style! But Google and other search engines place a lot of importance on the number of heavyweight sites linked to you. If you're not in Yahoo, you look that much smaller in their eyes. Again – act incrementally, after observing your situation.)
        Paid placement (e.g., GoTo/Overture) is another concept providing new opportunities. And it's another reason to work your budget carefully. An amazing number of marketers jump into this game without comparing options and having a plan for measuring results. Now is the time to begin, but you should plan your expenditures, and know how you will monitor them (there are tools and services to help with both, including me).
       And whatever you do online, linking your efforts with other types of promotion can multiply the effects of search engine marketing.
  • Use someone or something you trust. Team with someone who you believe will do a conscientious job for you, and who will be able to follow-up. Whether you submit using a service, fully automatic software, "computer aided" software, or do it all manually in your spare time, the submitting process is basically the same. Your choice of method may affect the cost, the time you'll spend, and the control you'll have. None of that will necessarily correspond to your ranking results.
Optimization and submittal is a process, not a step. Because search engines and directories build their catalogs at different rates, modify their methods, change their standards, increase prices, drop sites accidentally (sometimes reinstating them just as mysteriously), and add competitive sites all the time, your top priority is to choose a method and partner you can continue with over the long haul.

What techniques will improve your placement? Click on.

Trick the engines, not surfers

Tricks aren't tricky if they're honest
There are a whole bunch of techniques you can use. Search engines want you to use some of them. But some techniques will get you penalized or even bounced. If your optimization techniques are relevant to your site's content, you're on the right path. Plan your site for people. Just try to please the search engine robots and directory editors, while you're at it.

Ultimately, the most important technique is to optimize key pages (you might even want to make some key pages), and keep optimization in mind throughout your site.

What's okay and what's not? Here are some examples.

  • NO: Hiding words on the page. This trick (for example, listing keywords in the same color as the background) has been discredited for so long, I almost shouldn't bother mentioning it. But every so often someone still argues that it works. Maybe a minor instance will scrape though, but don't chance it. Assume that if the human visitor doesn't see what the search engine editor or robot sees, sooner or later your site will be penalized.
  • YES: Meta tags. These are non-printing commands that you include your HTML code. They used to be the means of search engine optimization, but they've been so misused that now most search engines barely pay attention to them. Nevertheless, be sure to include them, including the <title> tag (which technically isn't a meta tag) and the description tag, which many search engines will use as the description in your listing. Opinions vary as to what is optimal meta tag content (long vs. short descriptions, how often words can be repeated, capitalization, whether to include words that are in your text, or not in your text, etc.). In any case, you'd better have some effective content on your page, too. Because now that's what search engine spiders and editors look at.
  • MAYBE: Bridge pages. Bridge pages are alternative entry points. Also known as splash, doorway, or gateway pages, these were another big search engine optimization tool at one time. They are still useful for measuring and mapping traffic, and sometimes are legitimate for greeting visitors or optimization. But done badly they can make it look like you're spamming the search engines (for example, if they have no particular content and all lead to the same single page). They can also diffuse your site's overall "theme," thus lowering your ranking for it. (The good news is that if a robot is technically unable to tour your site for a legitimate reason, search engine editors are more tolerant of bridge pages that compensate.)
  • DEPENDS: Server stuff. There are some fancy things you can do at the server level to play tricks on visiting search engines. Some are legitimate workarounds. Others are subterfuge. If you have the budget and computing resources to play this ongoing game of search engine relations or cat-and-mouse, you don't need me to tell you how to do it. Some of the caveats I've mentioned above will apply.

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What do you need me for? Well...

Writing makes the difference

The write way to optimize your site
If everyone in your field uses the same keywords, and uses similar meta tags, pays the fees and all that, the one thing that's different about your site is its architecture and its text (okay, its graphics and layout may also impress an editor somewhat). In both aspects -- site planning and content -- your content writer plays a major role.

Let's break it out:

Finally, don't do Yahoo until you've got this down. At least not until you've read the next section.

What to do next?

You've spruced up your site inside and out. You've written a range of compelling descriptions for search engines to use. Now how do you invite them to the party?

Remember . . . except maybe for a couple directories specific to your industry, the only search engines and directories that really matter are the handful of major ones. For many of them, all you do is provide your site's home page address. In fact, some may use links from other sites to discover your site without your help (a couple even factor the number of referring links into your rating).

Search engines send a robot (or "spider"), and what they
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see is what you get. Directories send humans to look at your site. You pretty much have to trust to their judgment, which might be better than a robot's. After all, humans (so far) are less easily confused, and can see more easily through some types of subterfuge. But humans can also be bored, rushed or upset at the moment they come by your place.

That includes Yahoo's editor. Even with the introduction of their paid "Express Submission" option (and for commercial sites, the unpaid option is kaput, whatever says), once Yahoo has made a judgment, getting them to reconsider can be almost impossible (there are ways to approach them, but don't bank on that).

So, make life easy for all these reviewers. Be ready for prime time. Delete or fill out any pages that are still "under construction." Point the way and show the editors (and your other visitors) what they need to know about you and your site as soon as they arrive.

How to invite them?

You can spend thousands of dollars working with a company specializing in this area. Even thousands per month. As I've said, it's an ongoing process, and for a major commerce site, these services can be worth it.

Or, for comparative peanuts you can use software or one of several online facilities that submit your home page or a bridge page to the major search engines. Sometimes they also submit to hundreds or even thousands of lists and directories (not that you'll ever get anything but spam from them). Fill out a master form, select some parameters, and click. Some services may even be using some of this software.

Do you need either? Only if it helps you optimize your site, or you've optimized first. And even then (as they should tell you), a high ranking by search engines cannot be guaranteed -- search engine methods are proprietary, differ, and constantly change.

It's that "changing" part that can be a problem. Whether you use a service or program, or are planning to do it yourself, ask first:

  • If the program or service gives you advice on optimization, is it current?
  • Is the program regularly updated to add new engines and directories, and delete dead ones?
  • How long will the service last? Maintaining a strong listing in search engines is an ongoing process. Will you get occasional reports, at least for the major engines? Also, getting listed doesn't always work the first time. Sometimes sites just mysteriously disappear from the list. You may have to resubmit. But resubmitting unnecessarily or too frequently can be hurt you.
  • How are listing and ranking reports produced? An unannounced change in search sites' policies can make an automated reporting tool out-of-date overnight. Also, some search engines may penalize for excessive automated ranking checks (which, after all, eat into the engine's capacity and skew its usage statistics). Automated checking should be accurate and responsible, and a reputable vendor should at least spot-check manually to verify the data.
  • Some sites aren't search-engine friendly. Pages that are database-driven, for example. Your software or service should have a viable strategy for resolving or compensating for this issue, and you should understand what it is.
  • Beware of any service or software that guarantees you top-placement results. That's beyond their control. But build in incentives for effectiveness, and verify that services are being performed. Know in advance what techniques the software or service will use, so you're confident that they are appropriate to your interests and needs.

As I've said probably too many times now, search sites are constantly changing and growing. So are the tools and providers available to you, as is your competitive environment. Your site will grow, too, and its longevity will become another positive ranking factor.

Meanwhile, your growing knowledge on this subject will also help you improve your search engine results.

And remember that search engines are just part of a site-marketing mix. Adding mail, e-mail, online relationships, advertising, public relations and other traditional marketing communications techniques, you should be able to improve your results still more. Good luck!

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