Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Optimizing your website for search engines and Web directories
is a bit of an art
art of organizing and skillfully writing your content.
This page is from the archives ...
(Meanwhile, if have a any question, contact me.)
Much of it is out-of-date. But much is still relevant. Enjoy!
(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
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 (In fact, parts of this page are probably already out of date, since I don't update it as regularly as I update myself.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
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 fateAfter 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 SearchEngineWatch.com and SelfPromotion.com.
- 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-groundsolution" 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).
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
Already know these SEO basics? Get startednow send for my free Optimization Checklist.
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.
What techniques will improve your placement? Click on.
Trick the engines, not surfers
Tricks aren't tricky if they're honestThere 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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Writing makes the difference
The write way to optimize your siteIf 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:
- Site design. While good graphic design is important, here I mean "design" in the planning sense. Your first priority is to make the site easy for people to navigate. But it should also be easy for search engine robots to tour, and some of them aren't too hot at it. Complicated page relationships and gimmicks can confuse them. Also, they don't see the visual context, and most don't travel very deep. If your development team lacks a formal Information Architect, remember that experienced copywriters are also trained to sort this stuff out. Whoever does it, they should also have marketing smarts, so that your site leads each visitor as surely as possible to making the sale.
- Overall content. After years of evaluating sites page-by-page, search engines now tend to look at a site's overall topical focus. It still pays to optimize certain pages for certain keywords and visitors, but just having a great home page may not be enough to make your site seem content-rich. Lead straight to the sale, and don't add fluff. But make your site count.
- Links to your site. These, too, are now a major factor in how your site ranks. But links from sites that nobody visits are virtually worthless. You want links from major players and other sites that are relevant to yours. In many cases, this will take some intelligent e-mailing to those sites' editors. Also provide a description tailored to their needs and style. After all, if you're going to be listed there, you might as well do your best to make their visitors yours.
- Dressing up your hallways. A hallway page leads to all the key pages of your site, "flattening" your geography for robots by providing access from one simple page. The hallway page might do double duty as your site map, but not necessarily. In any case, you want it robust and easy for robots to follow, while not confusing or boring for the human visitors who happen by. Giving the page a dual function takes a little creativity. You want it to reflect intelligently on you.
- Embedding keywords. Again, your site is for real
people, not for search engines. Write for people. But if skillful,
knowledgeable writing can embed keywords sensibly throughout the
text, so much the better. Do it well. Search engines downplay simple
word lists. Some look at whether the text is too long or (geez!)
too short. They may weight words higher when evenly distributed,
and penalize for words that appear too much -- all based, rightly
or wrongly, on statistical expectations known only to them. That's
all the more reason to make your writing natural.
In addition, you should be working keyword-rich copy into some important nooks and crannies. For example, HTML standards now require "alt" text that pops up when you place the cursor over an image. Use it. The text's official purpose is to describe the image for people who can't see it, but at the same time, it can reinforce a key selling point, add a little fun or flair, and often include a keyword. There are also other standard nooks. And crannies you can build yourself, so consider them early.
- Give your bridge pages real content. (A popular
optimization program still features this technique, so pardon if
I go on a bit.)
Above, I said that a bridge page is also known as a splash page. Not exactly. A splash page is about "image" (your market image, I mean, not necessarily a huge, slow-loading, self-serving graphic image that many surfers dislike). A bridge page may also present your image, but its real job is to count visitor arriving from a certain source, or to show search engines content focused on a certain topic. For example, if your site sells gift items, you could have a bridge page about "Gifts," another one about "Weddings," and one about "Christmas," etc. Nothing wrong with that, especially if your each leads logically to a different page of your site.
There would be something wrong if your bridge pages had nothing to do with your site (say, they were about the world's top 10 keywords). All it takes is a few surfers to complain to the search engine for your site to be investigated by an editor.
So, what if you want to attract gift buyers who were thinking about flowers, and you don't carry them? It would be tempting to create a page for "flowers," except a crude attempt could get you penalized or ignored (not to mention offending potential customers). That's why some search engines ignore pages that don't have a significant amount of text. Or that consist solely of lists. Or that send visitors to another page automatically. Or pages that are linked only to pages in another domain.
How do you satisfy search engines and surfers alike? No guarantees, but as I hope you've noticed, the answer can lie in giving your bridge pages worthwhile content. Craft things to establish the topical focus while still moving visitors efficiently to a sale. This approach actually takes advantage of the Web's special nature
--netizens who find information of value (not just a sales pitch) feel more rewarded, and can reward you more handsomely, too.
(Note: There's another downside now that search engines place so much value on traffic and Internet links
--bridge pages can sap these numbers from your "real" pages.)
- Site description. A high ranking
is garbage unless your listing's description triggers click-throughs.
That's tricky, because you don't have total control. Even if you
write a fascinating description, they may chop it off after X-number of words!
Search engines often use the Description tag that should be in your code, while directories start with descriptions you submit.
Some directories want just the facts, others let you be more promotional. Some
want only a few words, others accept hundreds.
This is a job for your copywriter! Make your site- and page-descriptions benefit-oriented
...and assure the call-to-action remains when truncated. Give each directory a description suited to its style, content and length standards, so it survives well, with or without editing. And craft a different, intriguing Description tag for each of your pages, weaving in keywords suited to the page topic.
- Improve your site's conversion rate. This won't do beans for your search engine position, but if you work on selling more of your visitors, that effort may be even more effective than overdoing the SEO stuff, with a better ROI.
What to do next?
You've spruced up your site inside and out. You've written a range
compelling descriptions for search engines to use. Now how do
you invite them to the party?
Search engines send a robot (or "spider"), and what they
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 Yahoo.com 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.
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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